GENESIS 35:16-21


NOVEMBER 30, 2008

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            Do you recall the old Schlitz beer commercial?  It was marketed as “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.”  That’s some claim, and how would you like to live in a city made famous, made notable by a beer ... not the arts, not the theater, not intellectual endeavors, not some historical event, not some person, but a beer?  Apparently, the vast majority of Milwaukee citizens like the connection, so much so that they named their professional baseball team “the Brewers.”

            I know five things about Milwaukee.  I know Schlitz beer made it famous.  I know Trudy has an aunt there.  I know it borders Lake Michigan.  I know their baseball team is called the Brewers and it’s basketball team the Bucks.  I also know that the television sitcom, “Laverne and Shirley” took place in Milwaukee.  By the way, do you remember where Laverne and Shirley worked in Milwaukee?  That’s right, a brewery!

            Toward the end of next month we are going to celebrate an event that made another city famous.  When we think of Bethlehem, we think of our Savior’s birth.  Bethlehem and Jesus go hand in hand, however, the city of Bethlehem was on the biblical map prior to the birth of Jesus.  Granted, the birth of Jesus overshadows everything else about the city, just as beer overshadows everything else we know about Milwaukee, but other notable events took place in Bethlehem prior to Jesus’ birth.  Of course, the other events that took place in Bethlehem do not come close to rivaling the importance of this one event, but nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting for us to look at other events that took place in this most holy of cities.  Over these next few Sundays we are going to look at five stories that took place in Bethlehem, culminating in the greatest story of all: our Savior’s birth.

            So let’s begin this Advent sermon series by looking at Rachel’s story.  Listen to it.  I’m reading from a the book of the Bible that we have been studying the past few months, the book of Genesis.


            Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor.  When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.”  As her soul was departing her (for she died) she named him Benoni (which means “son of my sorrow.”  Rachel knew she would not survive this birth, and her day of joy has turned into a day of sorrow.);  but his father called him Benjamin (which means either “son of my right hand,” implying that this boy was going to be his favorite son, or “son of the south,” a reference to the fact that Israel, we knew him before as Jacob, and Rachel were traveling south.  The Hebrew is not quite clear, so it could be either ... “son of my right hand,” or “son of the south”).  So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.  Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Elder.


            If you visit Bethlehem today, you can still see Rachel’s tomb.  It’s just on the outskirts of the modern day city of Bethlehem, and to this day Jews frequent this site.  They come to the site to pray.  They come in times of trouble because Rachel had more than her share of it.  Rachel’s life was not an easy one.  It could not have been easy having Laban for a father, Jacob/Israel for a husband and Leah as a sister.  If you have been here for our Genesis series you will remember how Jacob fell head over heals for Rachel, and pledged to work seven years to get her, but on their wedding night, Rachel’s father Laban snuck his older daughter Leah between the sheets, and Jacob had to pledge another seven years of labor to be able to have Rachel.  You know, I have performed a number of weddings in my time, and I’ve met some strange father-in-laws, but I have never encountered anyone like Rachel’s father.  Imagine pulling a “bait and switch” with your own daughters.  Of course, we understand why he did it.  Leah was not the prettiest girl on the block, and fearing he would never find anyone to marry her, Laban pulled a fast one of Jacob on his wedding night. 

            And can you imagine having a sister like Leah?  Can you conceive of someone who wanted to be married so much that she would agree to take advantage of her sister on her wedding night?  Not only that, years later when Rachel could not become pregnant and her sister could, Leah taunted her sister, made fun of Rachel’s misfortune.  Eventually Rachel did become pregnant, two times as a matter of fact, and she bore Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, but Leah always kept the upper hand because she bore Jacob four sons and Rachel only bore two sons.  And having sons was big in those days, just as having sons is big in a place like China today.

            And can you imagine being married to a man like Jacob?  How in the world did he not know he had the wrong woman in the tent?  I’m collecting a list of questions to ask when I get to heaven, and this is one of them.  Honestly, it baffles me, and when we studied this event a few weeks ago, we outlined the possible reasons for not noticing the bait and switch.  We talked about Jacob’s having too much to drink at the reception, or the possibility that Leah wore a veil, or the likelihood that it was really, really dark in the tent, but come on!   If this would have happened to me on my wedding night, I doubt that Trudy would have bought my explanation.  Do any of you husbands think your wives would have believed you if you had said, “I had too much to drink, and she was wearing a veil, and it was really, really dark in the tent.  It could have happened to anyone.”  I doubt few wives would buy that story.

            Unfortunately, Rachel’s life did not get much easier after all this.  How could it with a father, sister and husband like these?  And she dies in Bethlehem naming her son “Benoni” for he was a child of her sorrow.

            I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Grand Canyon.  It tells the story of an immigration attorney who took a short cut around a traffic jam.  His bypass took him along streets that got progressively darker and more threatening with each block.  Then the nightmare begins.  His fancy sports car stalls on one of those streets whose inhabitants wear sneakers and carry guns.  He manages to telephone a tow truck, but before the truck arrives five young toughs surround him and threaten him.  The tow truck appears just in time, and its driver, played by Danny Glover, begins to hook up the sports car.  The gang members protest.  They had other plans for the car and its occupant, so the tow truck driver takes the gang leader aside and utters these words ...


            Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this.  Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s s’possed to be.  I’m s’possed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can.  And that dude is s’possed to be able to wait with his car without rippin’ him off.  Everything’s s’possed to be different that what it is here.[1]


            I cannot help but think that as Rachel died near Bethlehem, that she said to herself, “My life wasn’t supposed to be like this.”  Maybe you’ve thought that at one time, and what do we do when life does not turn out the way we wanted it to turn out?  What do we do when life gets messy, and disappointing and sorrowful?  Well, we hold tightly to two truths.

            First, we remember that God comforts, but God is not a god-of-our-comfort.  Let me say that again.  God comforts, but God is not a god-of-our-comfort.

            Listen to these words from Robert Wuthrow, a professor of sociology at Princeton  University.  In his book Sharing the Journey he writes,


            At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God.  Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief end of God is to glorify humankind.  Spirituality no longer is true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth or goodness, but because it helps me get along.  I am the judge of its worth.  If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track.  If it leads me to the wilderness, calling me to face dangers I would rather not deal with at all, then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose.


            That may be why some people have a faith crisis when they lose a spouse or a child or a job.  They may have a faith crisis because the logic has been reversed.  They have come to believe the chief end of God is to glorify humankind, so if things do not turn out well, then God must not care or God must not exist.

            God, however is not the God of our comfort.  God comforts us certainly, but God is not a god-of-our-comfort.  In fact, how can we hold to a belief in a god-of-our-comfort when Jesus uttered, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”?  How can we believe that God is a god of our comfort when the said,  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me?”  Unfortunately, following Christ does not make us comfortable.  Darn it!  If we find ourselves becoming angry with God for the way things have turned out or are turning out, we may have reversed the logic.  We have bought into the notion that the chief end of God is to glorify humankind rather than the chief end of humankind to glorify God.  If we think that all we need to do is follow Christ and everything will be better, well, it may not.  Just ask the twelve disciples.  Most of them met a violent death.  Or just ask Rachel.  God comforted her, but God did not make here comfortable.

            Second, when life is not turning out like we hoped, let us hold on to the rest of the story.  One of the great things about heaven is being to be able to see how God used everything in our lives, big and little, wondrous and painful, to advance the Kingdom of God.

            When Rachel got to heaven she saw how it all worked out.  From her earthly perspective it was sorrow, but from heaven’s perspective, it all made sense.  When she got to heaven she would see how her only two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, would play a big role in saving Israel from a severe famine.  After the first of the year we will see how Joseph was sold into slavery and how Benjamin, the son of Jacob’s right hand, was used as a pawn to lead Jacob and his sons to Egypt to get Benjamin back, and how all this led to their being fed and taken taken of during the severe famine in the land.  And Rachel would also see ow one of her sister’s sons, Judah - not one of her sons, but Leah’s sons - would be the branch on the family tree that would give us King David, and eventually Jesus himself.

            From our perspective it may look like heartbreak and sorrow, but remember the rest of the story.  God works in even the most dysfunctional families, like Rachel’s, and with even the most sinful of people, like us, to accomplish God’s purposes.

            A story is told of a man who washed ashore on an uninhabited island and in the days that followed he painstakingly constructed a hut with the few things he had salvaged from the wreck and from whatever he could find on the island.  That little hut was all he really had.  It kept him sheltered from the harsh elements, and he could, at least, put his meager possessions some place.

            One day after returning from a lengthy search for food, he was terrified to find the hut engulfed in flames.  The loss devastated him and he spent that night asleep on the beach.  The next morning when he woke up he, to his surprise, there was ship anchored off the island and there was a boat rowing toward him.  When the men arrived on the island with him, they said, “We saw your smoke signal and came to rescue you.”

            What he thought was his destruction turned out to be his deliverance.

            And what Rachel thought was her destruction, turned out to be our deliverance.  And what we see as heartache, disappointment, sorrow, destruction will turn out for our deliverance and the deliverance of others.  How can I say such a thing?  I don’t.  God does.  Hold on to the rest of the story.






[1] As quoted by Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God, (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 1995), p.91.