Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Bit Players in an Eternal Drama

When Jacob returns to Canaan from sojourning in Paddan-aram, along with his wives, family, servants and flocks, he finds himself anticipating the inevitable confrontation with his brother Esau. The same Esau whom Jacob had swindled, and from whom he had fled in fear more than twenty years before. Esau who, it is reported, has four hundred men with him. That doesn’t bode well. The writer of Genesis tells us “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”

A reasonable reaction, all things considered.

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?

So Jacob took a number of different precautions as his scouts confirmed the two parties — his own and Esau’s — were drawing closer and closer together. For safety’s sake, he divided his family into two camps. He also sent gifts ahead of him, and called earnestly upon God in prayer. We are treated to a full chapter of Jacob’s preparations and concerns. If we were reading a novel, this would be the writer’s way of building suspense. In Genesis there is little of that, for reasons I will explain shortly.

These accounts are historical. They are true. But they are still told as stories with beginnings, middles and ends, and with many of the less relevant days, months and years omitted so the reader can see the big picture for what it is and draw from it more easily the moral lessons which the characters themselves may or may not have perceived. The Bible is series of related, self-contained stories telling a larger tale across time. But it is not a soap opera, with the same exhausted characters circling one another in endless permutations and combinations. Nor is Genesis “anything can happen” time, like some lame George R.R. Martin sword and sorcery novel where a decapitation is as likely as a coronation for the protagonist.

No, in Genesis real events have an actual moral point.

Not Whether But How

This being the case, the attentive reader of the scriptures can hardly get caught up with Jacob in the emotions of the moment. Oh, we can understand his trepidation, certainly, but we can’t really enter into it with him, even if we have not read ahead and don’t know how this part of the story ends. We know full well this is not going to be the really cool unexpected plot twist when Esau stabs his brother, seizes back his birthright and becomes the ancestor of Messiah.

Why not? Well, the reader has been introduced to a God who can speak a universe into being, who can keep Noah and his family safe through a civilization-ending deluge, who can preserve Abraham and Isaac through all kinds of misadventures and near-endings, and who even insists on rescuing righteous Lot from the wicked city of Sodom before destroying it. Lots of bad things happen in Genesis, but the one thing that is consistently true is that God keeps his promises and preserves those who are part of his plan notwithstanding their best efforts to mess things up. As readers, we know where this story can go and where it can’t. There is a prophecy in play here that declares “The older shall serve the younger.” And we know the word of God cannot fail. There is no suspense about whether God’s word will come to pass. The only suspense is in exactly how God’s word will come to pass.

The View from Inside the Narrative

Jacob, however, does not share our confidence. He cannot really see this building Genesis narrative that is so obvious to us. He is too engrossed in living it. He sees the part of the tale where he maneuvered to get the blessing intended for his brother and ended up having to run for his life. Not what he had in mind exactly. Perhaps he replays the scene where he expected to marry Rachel and got stuck with Leah, which was not at all according to his plan. (Jacob may not appreciate the irony that the unloved Leah’s children currently outnumber Rachel’s 7-1, but we readers are quite conscious of it. Some of us are more than a little amused.) From inside the story, it all looks a bit random at times, though even someone very far inside a narrative-in-progress can hardly miss the fact that “with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”

That part is obvious. The rest, not so much. From Jacob’s perspective, his story could still take a very bad turn. The reader respectfully disagrees with him. We may even wonder why he’s getting so worked up. Has the man no faith? Does he not pay attention to his own history and that of his family?

But Jacob is not the only one who ever suffered from a lack of perspective. Our lives don’t feel much like stories either, do they? Oh, we sometimes try to weave them into coherent narratives, but if we are honest, for the most part things do not fit together quite so neatly as they do in the accounts we read in scripture and elsewhere. Patching the apparently random events of our lives into a tale worth telling takes major work and often leaves you wondering if you haven’t been a little too creative in your reinterpretation of events. Try reciting them out loud. They no longer sound like your life; they sound like some novice Hollywood producer pitching a bad new TV miniseries.

Down the Rabbit Trail

I have often said that if you had asked me at any point in my life to project what the next five years might be like, I would have gotten it all wrong every single time. My history is full of spiritual rabbit trails that went nowhere; ridiculous and embarrassing missteps; stops, starts and gaps that seem to have no particular meaning; lessons learned and relearned and then relearned again; expected answers to prayer that turned out not at all as expected; projects commenced with great enthusiasm that petered out inexplicably; exciting twists and turns that could never have been anticipated … you get the idea.

Overall, it has been a great ride. I have no complaints. But it’s a series of events, not a story. At least not from my perspective.

You may find yourself in much the same boat. And perhaps this is to be expected. After all, we are not patriarchs, prophets or kings. Most of us are not Significant People. We may know one or two, but if we are paying much attention to the way our lives unreel before us, our own roles seem to be more like supporting actors. If we show up one day to collect our Oscars, some in the audience will surely say to themselves, “Was he even IN that?”

[Yes, yes, I absolutely was. I died tragically at the beginning of the third act, triggering the protagonist’s interest in forensic medicine. Remember? No? I don’t blame you.]

God has not appeared to me personally, as he did to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I do not battle kings, dig wells and watch cities burn. There was very little drama around the birth of my kids. Sisters do not scrap with each other to get me into bed, or offer me their servants to sire children with. Probably for the best, really.

God is not, to the best of my knowledge, about to make a great nation out of me. Or you, if we’re honest.

The Cautionary Tales

In fact, if I’m not spiritually attentive and obedient, I might end up as the modern-day equivalent of one of the Bible’s cautionary tales. I don’t imagine Ananias or Sapphira got out of bed one morning expecting to be struck dead by end of the day. I doubt Demas expected to have his carnality documented in a letter to Timothy, and that letter preserved for over 1,900 years and read by millions. For that matter, I doubt Judas saw his role in the events leading up to the crucifixion quite the way we read them — at least not until the very end. All these folks played a valuable role in God’s purposes, but regrettably they did not benefit personally from the lessons they taught others.

I’d prefer not to go that route myself, but let’s at least acknowledge that these things do indeed happen to people who claim to be followers of Christ.

And yet Paul tells the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Completing the Work

What are we to make of that statement? Does it mean that every single Philippian convert to whom Paul was writing grew to perfect Christian maturity, that none who professed faith in Christ in the city of Philippi ever apostatized or fell away, that none of their lives were cut short by the judgment of God like Ananias and Sapphira, and that not a single one will appear at the judgment seat of Christ saved as if through fire? If so, Philippi was probably the first and only church in history with that sort of spectacular success rate. I’ve never been part of a church like that, and I’m sure you haven’t either.

And if not that, then what did Paul mean?

Well, God is working, and his purposes in the lives of believers will absolutely be accomplished. And just as there was an obvious difference between the inevitable destiny of Jacob and that of, say, one of Laban’s unnamed sons, so there is a notable difference to be observed both in scripture and in the world today between the real children of God and those who just happen to make use of the family name.

Faults and All

Did God complete his work in Samson’s life? You bet he did, major faults and all. Samson might have enjoyed the experience a great deal more if he’d acted more consistently in harmony with God’s revealed will, but then he wouldn’t have been Samson, would he? More to the point where we are concerned, did God complete his work in John Mark’s life? I believe he did, despite the poor start. The important question for each of us to answer in the privacy of our own hearts is “Did God really begin a work here?” If he did, then he will surely bring that work to fruition.

God’s chosen may get off track, act on their own initiative, behave out of character from time to time, miss the point of the lessons God is teaching them and do all the things the patriarchs did and yet still, amazingly, ended up prospering and being blessed by God. At very least he will take his children to the absolute upper limit of what may be accomplished with the material of which we are made. So don’t give up. However many missteps you may have taken, if you are a true child of God, your life will be value-added in some mysterious, divine way. It will accomplish a purpose you cannot yet see and tell the world a story you cannot yet read.

Those who are bit players and character actors may find the bit they played was more important than they ever could have believed. And those who think they have the starring role will discover that we are all bit players in the eternal drama which has Christ at its center and in which God will be all in all.

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