Sermon preached at Burke UMC, 7/30-31/2011
Text: Genesis 29:15-31
It was the morning after her wedding night, and Leah had never felt so alone. She remembered the day seven years ago when her sister told her about the new cousin Jacob who had come into town. She remembered her father’s whisper to her, “This is your chance.” Leah was the eldest. She was the one who was supposed to get married first. But the clock had been ticking and no man had been interested. Her sister got plenty of looks from the local guys. But Leah wasn’t beautiful like her sister Rachel was. She wasn’t ugly, just plain. She didn’t have any strange warts or skin defects. She didn’t eat too much or too little. She tried to smile when she was talking to other people. But somehow her smile always felt too thin to be convincing.
At first Leah had been too scared to talk to her cousin Jacob when he moved in. Her father kept encouraging her, but he didn’t seem interested. He was always looking at Rachel, and when the two of them spoke, there were sparks in the air. Looking back, it was so obvious that Jacob didn’t want to have anything to do with her, but there were moments, moments that Leah had perhaps misread, when Jacob had smiled at her, when he touched her shoulder in an affectionate way, when his eyes seemed to lock with her eyes. She knew that there had been moments when they connected. Somewhere in Jacob’s heart there was a place for her. Or had all those moments been a fantasy?
He hadn’t even said a word to her when he woke up and saw her next to him. She had tried to smile, remembering the way that they both had smiled only hours before when the dark had concealed her plainness, when his kisses had been like the words of a poem that proclaimed her reign as the queen of the universe. She had been smiling a lot the day before, the whole week before, as the elaborate wedding preparations were made, as the feast was prepared in her honor. These events had really happened. The whole community had been there. She had sat in the seat of honor. How could it all evaporate with just one horrified look from the man who she thought had fully accepted her and become one flesh with her? Had Jacob really been that drunk that he could consummate his marriage with a woman he didn’t love?
He hadn’t said a word to her. When he saw that she was the one in the wedding bed, he tore out of the tent and she could hear his voice a hundred yards away screaming at her father, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel!” And she jumped out of bed and scurried to the door to listen to her father say, “Well, just finish the week for this one, and we will give you the other one also in return for serving me another seven years.” This one. Like an ox or a cow. Is that we she was to him? To her father? A burden to be unloaded onto another man through trickery. Why had she ever trusted him? He had told her that Jacob knew all along that she was to be his bride. But it was all a scam he had cooked up to make his plain Jane daughter somebody else’s mouth to feed. And now she had to spend the rest of her life with a man who would never stop hating her for what her father done to both of them.
So how do you finish off the bridal week with a new husband who has so openly rejected you? Modern novelist Margaret Atwood was so horrified by this story that she was inspired to write a book called the Handmaid’s Tale in which the most beautiful, intimate part of human existence becomes a hideous duty performed strictly in the interest of generating an heir, completely stripped of any semblance of love. Jacob performed his duty that week and we know he must have performed it five other times as well because Leah ended up with six sons. But the names she gave to each child reveal that she never felt accepted by her husband.
Her first son she named Reuben, which means “He has seen my misery.” Leah said upon naming him, “Surely my husband will love me now.” Her second son she named Simeon, “He who hears,” since the Lord had heard that she wasn’t loved. Her third son, Levi, means “attached,” since she was sure that at last her husband would be attached to her. Judah means praise; Issachar means reward; and Zebulon means honor, because even after having six sons, she was still waiting to feel her husband’s honor.
Where is God in this story? Look at the passage in your bulletin. Does God talk to Jacob or Laban? Does He give approval to their actions? Did they ask God for His opinion about what to do? Sometimes God goes silent in the Bible. It often happens when the characters in the story aren’t interested in asking God what they should be doing. We’re supposed to notice that. We shouldn’t assume that just because something happens in the Bible, God has given His blessing to it. In this story, God stays real quiet while Laban haggles with Jacob over the fate of his daughters. But then God acts in one of the saddest and most beautiful lines of the Old Testament: When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb.
It breaks my heart to read that line, because I know that there are people in this room who have felt the way that Leah felt. And I know also that there have been times when I have taken my wife for granted and not treated her with the love and honor she deserves. I hope that Leah really knew that God was with her, even in the midst of a really hard life stuck in a marriage with a man who didn’t love her. In addition to gaining the basic dignity of bearing children, which was the only real dignity available to women of that time, I hope that Leah felt in her heart that her heavenly Father loved her. I want to believe that when she bathed her children, when she combed their hair, when she held them at night, each time they smiled and looked into her eyes, she could see the smile of her Creator saying, You are my daughter and you are beautiful.
Leah’s rejection is part of the heritage of Israel that we have inherited through our Messiah Jesus Christ who was born into the tribe of Judah, the fourth son of Leah. The people of Israel carried Leah’s identity with them in their stories and in their imaginations for hundreds of years. And this memory of rejection that haunted their imaginations would be available to the prophet Isaiah when he wrote about the suffering servant who would become Israel’s rejected messiah: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” We don’t know what Jesus actually looked like. Maybe he wasn’t the Fabio that all the Renaissance painters made him out to be. Maybe he was plain, just like his ancestor Leah. In any case, our savior was the ultimate fruit of the unloved womb of Leah. And there is something about rejection that is essential to understanding who Jesus is and who we are as his followers.
There could not have been a stronger message of social rejection than for Jesus to be nailed to a cross on a desert hillside between two thieves. When we choose to make this rejected messiah our Lord, we are choosing rejection; we are choosing to be on the side of people like Leah. Just as the Lord opened Leah’s womb as a result of her rejection, God can use the rejection we have suffered to open our hearts to Him and to each other. I know there are people in this room and in our community outside these walls who have not been loved by people who should have loved them. God is always reaching out to us in love when the people in our lives have failed. But maybe God also wants to use you to share His love with somebody who has been rejected. It could be a neighbor who seems kind of lonely; it could be the woman in the cubicle next to yours; maybe it’s a family member you’ve lost touch with.
This fall, we’re going to be talking a lot about hospitality and how in many ways that is the reason God has put us here: to welcome everyone to learn, celebrate, and share the life-changing love of Jesus Christ. Welcome! It’s a word that Leah never heard. Our goal should be that it would be a word that everyone in our community hears from God. We are called to be a safe place, a sanctuary where those who have not been loved can finally feel at home. We can do so much more than we’ve already done. God has been talking to many of your hearts and I’m excited about what He’s been sharing. Keep listening and keep telling your church family what you hear.