Sermon: A Tale of Two Sisters

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see you, our hearts to know you, and our lips to speak your praise. Dig out our ears that might hear your word clearly this morning, and give us the feet we need to walk in it by faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I sat on the porch with a cup of coffee as the comfortable silence drifted between us. The solid wooden chairs creaked every time I moved. I was leaving for the first time and I was unsure. I came to sit and drink and listen because I needed reassurance. I had spent all of my short living within twenty-five minutes of my childhood home. I was leaving, if only for a short time. I sat next to Trygve – my mentor turned friend – as the coffee cooled in my mug and I poured out my fears. Fears of where I was going, fears of what I was leaving behind. The ache of moving on from a place, a time in my life that had meant so much to who I was, a place where I was loved. The fear of moving to a place whose streets I had not walked. My flood abate, the silence drifted as I waited. What would Trygve say to all I had shared?

I will get back to that story, but first I want to tell you a true story, a story from the book that we love. It comes from Genesis 29:31-30:24. This story comes in the middle of the story – the story of God’s redemption of the world. Out of all the people of the world, God called Abraham and promised to be his God and he and his descendants would be his people. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who is the heir to this great promise has fled for his life into a foreign country and taken shelter with his uncle Laban. Through Laban’s trickery, Jacob married not just one, but both of his daughters – the beloved younger daughter Rachel, and the older unloved Leah. It is as this set of marriages begins that we pick up the story in Genesis 29, verse 31.

When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son and she named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked on my affliction, surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son and said, “This time I will praise the LORD,” therefore she named him Judah, then she ceased bearing.

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister and she said to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die.” Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Then she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me and has also heard my voice and given me a son”; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed”; so she named him Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, “Good fortune!” so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “How happy am I! For the women will call me happy”; so she named him Asher.

In the days of the wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, “God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar.  And Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good dowry, now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons”; so she named him Zebulun. Afterwards she bore a daughter and named her Dinah.

Then God remembered Rachel and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach”; and she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

A WORD ABOUT LEAH

Leah’s struggle is to be loved. Jacob always wanted Rachel. He worked seven years for Rachel, but by the tricky hand of Laban, he got Leah instead. On their wedding night, Jacob did not even recognize her. The next morning, her identity is not greeted with joy, but with accusations, What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me? After the minimum amount of time allowed – a week. Jacob marries Rachel, the girl he has always wanted, and Leah is pushed to the side. The honeymoon was over before it started. We are told that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, but the problem is bigger than that. Leah was unloved.

It was not just favoritism, as bad as that is. Jacob did not love Leah as he should have. He did not cry out with Adam, surely this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. While he left his father and mother’s house, Jacob did not cleave to Leah. The first thing we know about their marriage is the Leah is unloved. Even worse, in this unloving marriage, Leah recognizes a form of hatred. She says, Because then LORD has heard that I am hated.

When Jacob does not love Leah as he should, it is pronounced as hatred. We often think it is enough not to burst forth in vile hatred for someone else. We think we are doing well if we simply do not actively and viciously hate someone else. We think as long as the fires of hatred do not flash hot and strike out burning our neighbor, our family, our children, our co-worker, our brother and sister in Christ, that we have done well.

However, there is a slow hatred that comes in the form of loving someone less than we should. This is Jacob with Leah – He loved Rachel more than Leah and so Leah was unloved and so she can say, I am hated.

Leah’s struggle is to be loved. She believes, as many women did then and do now, that if they have a baby, he will begin to love her. It is true that having children can sometimes draw a couple together, though it is not a simple solution to deeper problems. This makes the fact that Jacob remains indifferent to Leah even worse. We can almost hear the aching desire of Leah as she names the children.

The first child is born, Reuben – surely now my husband will love me

Then Simeon is born – the LORD has heard that I am hated

Levi is born – this time my husband will be joined to me

All the way to Zebulun, her last son, where she says – now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.

Yet, in this struggle to be loved, Leah consistently turns toward the LORD. We do not have record of her prayers, but we do see the fruit of her prayers. She says The LORD has look on my affliction, the LORD has heard that I am hated, proclaims that This time I will praise the LORD. She says that it is God who has given her these sons, who has endowed her with a good dowry and blessed her with children. In her affliction, Leah finds her refuge in the LORD and she is not disappointed, even if her children do not turn Jacob’s heart fully to her.

Leah’s struggle was to be loved by Jacob, but Rachel’s struggle is with herself and her sister. The LORD opens Leah’s womb, but Rachel was barren. Rachel joins the long line of women in God’s house who have struggled to bear children, including her mother-in-law Rebekah, Jacob’s grandmother Sarah, and even, for a time, her sister Leah. Rachel aches as month after month, year after year, no child comes. The pain and desperation do terrible things to Rachel. The heartache of her own emptiness transforms into envy of her sister’s fullness. While Rachel is striving and aching for what seems to come so easily to her sister Leah – children – Leah is struggling and aching for what seems to come so easily to Rachel – Jacob’s love. Both sisters are empty and full. Both sisters struggle.

Rachel gives in to envy and then begins to try and take the matter of childbearing into her own hands. She accuses Jacob, demanding he give her children. Jacob responds in anger, stating what both of them should know to be true: Jacob is not God, he cannot open her womb and give her children. Rachel then resorts to the same strategy as Sarah did long ago. Here is my maid, marry her and I can have children through her. Jacob has two sons through Rachel’s maid Bilhah and Rachel proclaims victory over her sister, with mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed. But it is not enough. Once Leah stops bearing, she gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob and two more sons are born.

Rachel’s desperation and competition reaches its peak in an exchange involving mandrakes. In the ancient world, mandrakes were a plant believed to increase fertility and aid in conception. Leah’s son Reuben finds some in the wheat field and brings them to his mother. Leah has ceased having children, so the mandrakes would be a welcome gift. However, Rachel wants them. Leah balks, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel has already taken Jacob’s love, should Leah then give up her best hope for another son, another shot at Jacob finally loving her?

Rachel offers Jacob in place of the mandrakes. She offers her husband in the hopes of a cure to her barrenness, a solution to her empty womb. Perhaps with this deal, both sisters will finally get what they have always wanted.

But God heeds Leah, opens her womb again and she bears two more sons to Jacob – Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. But Rachel remains empty. The mandrakes she traded for her husband have done nothing.

Rachel is at the end. She has tried everything. She has blamed her husband – perhaps it is his fault they cannot have children. She has tried surrogacy, tried fertility treatments, and still she remains childless. That pain is something that some of us may know intimately and should never be trivialized.

Rachel reached the end of herself, the end of all that she could do, the end of her ability to try and make things happen, make it work, do it herself. When Rachel reached the end, when she could do nothing, Then God remembered Rachel and God heeded her and opened her womb. It is at the end of herself that God pours out his love on Rachel.

I cannot promise that this will be the end for every woman in this room who longs for a child and struggles to get pregnant. I cannot promise that if you trust in God enough, or if you don’t try certain fertility treatments, or if you pray hard enough or long enough, that you will finally one day have the child you want. I cannot promise you that on a physical level you life will look the same as Rachel or Leah.

However, I can promise you this: “Blessed are all who trust in the LORD, who walk in his ways and fear his name.” It does not always look like children. God’s grace shows up when Rachel reaches the end of her self. It is there she learns what it means to truly be beloved, to truly trust in God. We often spend so much energy trying to do life on our own, trying to make things work, to get what we want, to fulfill our deepest desires, all without needing to turn to God. It is often only when we have run out of resources, when we realize that nothing we have done or can do will work, that we become open to God doing what only he could do all along. New life in Christ, just like the life in the womb of Rachel, comes not through striving, but by the work of God. It comes not because of our carefully-laid plans, our mandrake life-hacks, or our pursuit of wholeness or holiness. It comes by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. Yet we are only able to receive that gift, that new life, when like Rachel we realize there is nothing we can do and we have nothing to give. It is there, in the pain and the suffering, that we often experience God’s grace anew.

As we close, we should find our way back to Leah. God sees and blesses unloved Leah. Leah was not a part of Jacob’s plan, she did not have a special place in Jacob’s heart, she was not what Jacob wanted. However, it is precisely Leah, in her unloved state, that the LORD sees and chooses to bless. While both women, and all the children they have (including through the maids) are part of the covenant and heirs to the promise, it is especially through unloved, unseen Leah that God’s plan of redemption moves forward.

Without Leah, there would be no Moses and Aaron. From Levi would come the priests, the high priestly family of Aaron, and Moses, whom God would send to lead the people out of bondage in Egypt.

Without Leah, there would be no David. David, born in Bethlehem, of the tribe of Judah, son of Leah. All the kings of Judah come from Leah.

Without Leah, there would be no Jesus. The line from which God himself will enter into history, will take on flesh, comes through unloved Leah. Leah was unloved by Jacob, unloved by the world, but not unloved by God. This is the key. She might have been unseen by Jacob, an afterthought to the point that even after bearing him four children (and two more through her maid), she would be willing to trade a chance at another child for just a night with him. She might have been unseen, unnoticed, unloved by Jacob, but not by God.

I sat on that porch as the silence drifted between us and the coffee cooled. Without looking at me, his eyes elsewhere, he said simply, “There are no insignificant places to God. Every place you go is significant to those who live there and every place you God is significant to God. There will always be some places that are more important in the eyes of the world, but you will never go somewhere that is not incredibly significant to God. Your job is to love God’s Word, love the people, and love the place.”

There are no insignificant places. There are no insignificant people to God either. Unloved Leah was seen and loved by God. God poured out his love on the forgotten and unloved Leah, on the hated and afflicted Leah. She who was unloved by the world was beloved of God. She who was unseen by Jacob, was seen by God. This is good news! You who feel unseen this morning, fearing you are insignificant, worrying no one would even notice if you were gone – God sees you. You who feel unloved this morning, who know the slow hatred of not being loved in the way you should, who wrap yourself in loneliness and distraction – God sees you.

There are no insignificant people to God. Unloved Leah was seen and loved by God. It is through the one who was unseen and unloved that God chose to enter the world as the man Jesus Christ. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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