This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So reads the first line of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel, Anna Karenina. I suspect there are a lot of people here who know something about the unique heartaches of an unhappy family.
Today we look through the window of the Bible into a very unhappy family—unhappy in its own way, yet also in ways that almost everyone can relate to. Last week we saw how Jacob was tricked by Laban, his uncle, into marrying two sisters—Rachel, whom he loved, and Leah, whom he didn't. In today's text the rivalry and subsequent hatred between these two sisters plays out before us. This is the sordid stuff you see unfold on The Jerry Springer Show—"Today: Battling Brides and Babies." The drama is set up by two statements: Genesis 29:30 says, "Jacob … loved Rachel more than Leah," and Genesis 29:31 says, "When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren." One wife loved, but childless; the other bearing sons, but unloved.
God: able to bless despite the mess
Notice the words Leah uses in Genesis 29:32-34 to describe her life: misery, unloved, unattached. She had three sons: Reuben ("Surely my husband will love me now"), Simeon ("The Lord heard that I am not loved"), and Levi ("Now at last my husband will become attached to me"). But not even the three sons could win Jacob's love. Babies, but no affection. No concern. No interest. No sharing. She was always on the outside. But then a remarkable change comes with the fourth son, Judah. Verse 35: "[Leah] said, 'This time I will praise the Lord.'" That's the highpoint of this story.
The scene then shifts to the beautiful, self-absorbed Rachel. I'll warn you: she is not easy to like. When you read Genesis 30:1-2, you probably get a strange case of déjàvu. We've seen this before in the Book of Genesis. Jacob's grandmother, Sarah, had been childless for many years and so had Jacob's mother, Rebekah. Sarah took matters into her own hands, telling her husband, Abraham, to sleep with her servant. Sarah would then call that baby her own. But it all turned out terribly, resulting in huge family strife that still divides the Middle East today. There is also Jacob's own mother, Rebekah, who was childless for 20 years. But the Bible says Isaac prayed and she became pregnant. With the story of Rachel, we hold our breath to see which way this childless wife will go. As we read verses 4-8, we can let out a collective groan. Rachel chooses the path of Sarah.
Too often in life people don't give God the credit he deserves. In this case Rachel gives God credit for something I doubt he did. In verse 6, Rachel says, "God has vindicated me." That is legal language. She means, "I took my sister to God's court, and he ruled in my favor. I think I'll name my son 'God ruled in my favor.'" When her surrogate mother, Bilhah, has a second son, Rachel names him "Struggle," because, as she so graciously puts it, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won." At this point we feel like pointing out the score: "But Rachel, your sister has four boys without a surrogate, and you have two who don't even look like you!" Knowing Rachel, though, that might be risky!
The ball is back in Leah's court, and in verses 9-12, Leah gives her maidservant to Jacob, and she soon has another son. The score is 6-2.
A strange turn of events begins in verse 14: While Leah's firstborn son, Reuben, is out in the fields, he discovers some mandrakes, a strange plant from the tomato family. The roots of a mandrake look a bit like a little man, and it has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac or an aid to fertility. In verse 14, when Rachel hears news of the discovery, she asks Leah for some of the mandrakes. She is convinced they might help her get pregnant. You can hear Leah's anger and hurt in her reply in verse 15: "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband?"
Now a really bizarre bargain unfolds. Apparently Jacob is not sleeping with Leah at all anymore, so Rachel trades Jacob to Leah for the mandrakes. She says: Look, I'll hire Jacob out to you for a week for those mandrakes, which I hope will ultimately make me pregnant. Deal or no deal?
The very lonely Leah likes the sound of the deal, so she accepts. How does this little scheme work out? Not too well. Rachel doesn't get pregnant and Leah does! In verses 17-21, God once again gets credit for something he probably didn't do—this time from Leah. She says, "God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband." A better translation is "God has paid me my wages for giving my servant to Jacob." Immediately we see her heartache again in verse 20: "This time my husband will treat me with honor."
Back to Rachel. Ten sons have been born at this point. That's ten boys roughhousing around the camp and not one of them is really hers. But notice what happens in verses 22-24:
Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." She named him Joseph, and said, "May the LORD add to me another son."
Just like that, Rachel finally has her son. She names him Joseph, which means, roughly, "May I Have Another?" Rachel would eventually have one more son when she returned to Canaan with Jacob. She had told Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die," and that's exactly what happened. While giving birth to Benjamin, Rachel died, and she never got to raise the son for which she'd fought so hard.
Here's the part of this story that none of us have probably been thinking about this whole time: this is actually a story of how God blessed Jacob. God had promised Jacob the blessing of a great family, which would ultimately be beyond counting. This is how God fulfilled that promise. This is the story of a great blessing in disguise. The mess in this family wasn't God's fault. The misery of this family was due to deception and jealousy, heartache and scheming. But the wonder in this—a true gospel wonder—is that God was able to bless in spite of the mess.
Sometimes the life God has promised is obscured by our heartaches.
God had long promised to bless Jacob's life, but as the years passed, Jacob must have wondered if God had forgotten his promises. He's not alone. His story is a familiar story because it's our story. I wonder: how will we respond when the God-blessed life is not the life we've dreamed of having?
We must remember that behind this story stand the promises God made to Jacob—promises of a great legacy, of a blessed land, of being the root of blessing for the whole world. We possess even greater promises from God than Jacob did! When Jesus saves us, we are richly blessed. We are adopted by God as our Father, and we have his presence within us. God speaks to us in the Bible—truth and wisdom on every page. God speaks to us through Jesus. We have a family in the church. We have the capacity to be good and righteous people. We can think with the mind of Christ. We have help with every problem. We are loved at every turn. Death's sting is gone, and we have the certain hope of everlasting life. Empty lives are fulfilled. We are lame people walking, blind people seeing, criminals released, and the dead raised to life. We are blessed beyond measure!
Sometimes, though, the one great blessing that is missing obscures all else that God has given us. You likely know a Leah—someone desperate for love from a husband or wife, from a dad or mom. They are always striving, always hoping that one more accomplishment, one more effort, will earn the love they so desperately want. Or maybe you know a Rachel—someone who has so much but can never get the one thing they have dreamed of. They live with the disgrace that comes from being unable to do what everyone else seems able to accomplish. They have empty arms and unfulfilled dreams. There's the man who feels the right job is always jerked away; the woman whose every step seems dogged by illness; the man whose father—even on his deathbed—would never say he loved him; the successful woman who wants a child to hold; the parents whose daughter is deep into a lifestyle they fear will keep her from heaven itself; the widow or widower. I think of my own grandfather, his farm lost to bankruptcy, dying of tuberculosis in his early 30s, lying on his deathbed wondering what God was doing.
"God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform."
William Cowper, who lived much of his Christian life under the ponderous cloud of near-suicidal depression, once wrote, "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform." In this story we see three mysterious ways God works his wonders even in this dark story.
The first mysterious way that God works his wonders is to sometimes place a person exactly where they don't want to be, because it happens to be the most advantageous position for his blessing. Take Rachel. Like Sarah and Rebekah before her, Rachel's childlessness was the very place she needed to be. God's blessings are often poured out on those who are at the greatest disadvantage—on those who are most empty. This barrenness is where God's grace works wonders. It feels rotten to be in those positions, of course—to be sick or childless, lonely or disgraced—but it is in our weakness and need that God best displays his grace. Paul learned this lesson through his "thorn in the flesh." Listen again to 2 Corinthians 12:8-10:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Here is a second mysterious way that God works his wonders: he takes his time. The story of Rachel and Leah stretches out over long and frustrating years. God works that way sometimes. His blessings are not always long in coming, but they certainly can be. God won't hurry, and these long waits are never a waste of time. God is always building something special during such times—building character and trust, prying our grip off things of little value, teaching us to look up the staircase to see his presence and hear his voice. Remember Psalm 27:14: "Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord."
Finally, here is the third mysterious way that God works his wonders: he listens to you with compassion, even when he is silent. Verses 17: "God listened to Leah." Verse 22: "Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb." In both cases, there is no record of these two women praying. God simply heard their groans and heartaches. So it is for us, as well. God can be taciturn—reluctant to speak aloud. You pray and pray and pray and nothing. But we have what Leah and Rachel lacked. We have the Bible, where God assures us again and again of his love and attention. Still, we would like for God to be much more talkative—to talk into our hearts and minds when we ply him with our prayers. But rest assured, God is listening to you even when you're not actually praying. He hears your groans and grief. He will respond in his good time.
In his hymn, William Cowper wrote:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
We can do this the hard way or the right way.
When we have to live feeling unloved or empty, disgraced or unfulfilled—when we have to wait for God's time and God's answer—what should we do? First of all, trust that God will bless you richly and wonderfully in his time. Faith, after all, "is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." When Peter wrote to persecuted Christians, he offered these words in 1 Peter 5:10-11: "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen."
Also, find ways to bolster your faith. A good friend of mine who is suffering right now said to me, "I wish trusting wasn't so hard." I get that! To bolster your trust, read the Bible. All the while, ask others to pray for your faith. One of the worst things you can do in tough times is forsake fellowship with believers.
Finally, in your suffering, do not sin. Rachel shot herself in the foot with all her poor responses: blaming her husband, warring with her sister, scheming and complaining. She made her hard situation much harder. There are so many things that are fuzzy when you're hurting, but whatever you do, avoid sin. Sin lets the air out of faith, distancing you from the God you need so badly. It will be hard to avoid sin, because it offers such enticing escapes when we hurt. So, be careful. If you sin, confess your sin, repent, and get back under the umbrella of grace.
Above all else, praise the Lord. I have already mentioned the shining moment in this dark story. It's when Leah has her fourth son: "When she gave birth to a son she said, 'This time I will praise the Lord.'" Leah set her loveless marriage to the side, thanking God for what he had given her. She praised God for the way he was keeping his promises.
We must do the same thing that Leah did. We need to turn to the psalms of praise and sing them aloud. We have to persist at it, because we won't feel like it at first. Praise is truth-telling when all kinds of pain-filled lies are shouting for attention. Praise is medicine. Praise is a ladder to God, even in the wilderness.
Earlier, I briefly mentioned my grandfather—a man I never met. Recently I listened to a taped interview with my aunt. In the interview she shared something that happened when she was five and my dad was seven. Their father had come home from a faraway tuberculosis sanatorium to die. When the doctor came to visit, her father asked him how much longer he had to live. "Two weeks," the doctor said. My aunt said that my grandfather, there in his deathbed, began to sing a hymn.
There is such heartache in this life—such disappointment and disgrace. But there is always our great God, who is trustworthy, compassionate, listening. And always, in his good time, there is a blessing from our great God. So take this cue from Leah: "This time I will praise the Lord."
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.