The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Small is what big is made of (a sermon)

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Birth of Jacob and Esau []In one artist’s sculpture, Jacob and Esau burst upon the world.

Remember the story?  They’re born as twins, Esau first.  When Jacob follows, his hand on his brother’s heel.  It’s predicted that “the older will serve the younger,” which was odd in an order-of-birth culture.  Esau should get the privileges.  And the hand on the heel, we said, was representative of something like sneakiness.

Years later, they’re young men, Esau-the-hunter comes in starving, and Jacob-the-chef extorts the family birthright out of him in exchange for food.

Then Jacob gave him some of the soup (Valloton)

Then Jacob gave him some of the soup (Valloton)

Later, Esau is furious, and threatens murder – and remember, he’s a tough guy. So, scheming Jacob’s scheming mother Rebecca told his father Isaac that it was time for Jacob to go find a wife, and that back in Haran, where they came from, her brother’s place would be a good place to start. Isaac says “Sure,” and Jacob runs for his life.

On the way, he sacks out on the bare ground, meets God in a dream, and is terrified. Esau was a threat – but God, uh-oh! To Jacob’s astonishment, God comes not with judgment, but with a promise – a renewing of the promise that he’d made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. In the morning, Jacob is amazed at his good fortune, and worships there.

As he approaches Haran, he meets and promptly falls in love with Rachel, his cousin. He moves into Uncle Laban’s home – yes, he’d like to have a wife, but of course, he can’t really go home anyway, thanks to the trick he pulled on his brother. But now, Jacob’s inherited sneakiness is going to come back on him through his mother’s family – and on some others, too.

Genesis 29:15-28

15Laban said, “Just because you’re my nephew, you shouldn’t work for me for nothing. [Nice guy, this Laban. Or so he would have Jacob think] Tell me what you want to be paid. What’s a fair wage?”

16Now Laban had two daughters; Leah was the older and Rachel the younger. 17Leah had nice eyes [we have little idea what that phrase really means], but Rachel was stunningly beautiful. 18And it was Rachel that Jacob loved.

So Jacob answered, “I will work for you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

19“It is far better,” said Laban, “that I give her to you than marry her to some outsider. Yes. Stay here with me.”

20So Jacob worked seven years for Rachel. But it only seemed like a few days, he loved her so much. [Awww.]

21Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife; I’ve completed what we agreed I’d do. I’m ready to consummate my marriage.” 22Laban invited everyone around and threw a big feast. 23At evening, though, he got his daughter Leah and brought her to the marriage bed, and Jacob slept with her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her maid.)

25Morning came: There was Leah in the marriage bed!

Jacob confronted Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work all this time for the hand of Rachel? Why did you cheat me?”

26“We don’t do it that way in our country,” said Laban. “We don’t marry off the younger daughter before the older. 27Enjoy your week of honeymoon, and then we’ll give you the other one also. But it will cost you another seven years of work.”  [“No problem,” Laban soothes.  “A week of sex, you’ll have what you want, then stay around and work a while.”  Of course Jacob couldn’t go home anyway.  So…]

28Jacob agreed. When he’d completed the honeymoon week, Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.

Whew.  We’re not Kansas anymore!  And patriarchy is cruel.

Jacob Reproaches Laban (Hendryck Terbrugghen, 1628, Web Gallery of Art)

Jacob Reproaches Laban (Hendryck Terbrugghen, 1628, Web Gallery of Art)

Here’s the sad thing to me: sure, Laban cheated Jacob – but I think of poor Leah – Look how this 17th century artist masters the feelings of it – click on it to see it in larger size.  What’s Laban look like?  “Enjoy your honeymoon,” he says, “then we’ll work something out.” Who cares.

And Jacob? Outraged that people would cheat people! Never mind how it was he came to be there in the first place.

And here’s poor Leah, hastily covered up, unwanted, unloved.

In the background – suppose this is Laban’s wife? Why do you think she looks so worn?  Not hard to guess, is it?

And so begins a sad tale of an unloved wife who has many children, and a loved wife who has none for a long time.

But God has a plan. Jacob’s getting in the middle of a lot of hurt. Relationships have been a long way down on his priority list, and when relationships don’t matter, oneself and others get hurt. Life gets ugly.

“God loves us just like we are,” someone said, “but he loves us too much to leave us that way.” And next week, you’ll see God love Jacob too much to leave him that way.

Starts tiny - grows huge

Starts tiny - grows huge

Now the gospel reading. In these parables of Jesus, he says, “God’s kingdom is like.”  And we often read right past it.  You want to know what God’s kingdom is like?  Jesus is going to tell you.

Matthew 13:31-33 31Another story. “God’s kingdom is like a pine nut that a farmer plants. 32It is quite small as seeds go, but in the course of years it grows into a huge pine tree, and eagles build nests in it.”

Monte: So what’s the Kingdom like? Answers, then:

[cue pine nut 2] Starts tiny, grows huge.

In 2002, I struggled with overwhelming depression. A very smart psychiatrist said, “Don’t look for one single cause to your depression.” It was so helpful!

There were things I could do that helped a tiny bit.  “But what’s the use of that?” I thought. “It’s so small it isn’t worth the effort.”  So the elusive big things were too huge to tackle, and the small things seemed too small to be worthwhile. I began to see this parable.

Small things are what is!  Small things are how lasting change is made – in us, in our church, in our culture, in the world.  Huge things only come from lots of small things blended together.  Don’t give up on what you can do!

Slow but thorough

Slow but thorough

33Another story. “God’s kingdom is like yeast that a woman works into the dough for dozens of loaves of barley bread–and waits while the dough rises.”

So what’s the Kingdom like? Answers, then:

slow but thorough. What part of the loaf rises? Every cell affected. God’s not just getting me to do some things differently, he’s changing my every cell, my every thought – very slowly. “God’s mills grind slow but fine.” We wait.

It’s like DNA – in every single cell – how hard is it to change that? But that’s the depth of the change – and the hidden-ness of it – that God is bringing in you and me.

Matthew 13:44-52 (The Message)

44“God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidentally found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic–what a find!-and proceeds to sell everything he owns to raise money and buy that field.


45“Or, God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. 46Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it. […]

What do you learn: Kingdom things: worth more than everything else put together!

51Jesus asked, “Are you starting to get a handle on all this?”

They answered, “Yes.”

52He said, “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

Now, I read the light, you join me on the heavy. Stop and say the juicy ones more than once all together.

Romans 8:26-39


the moment we get tired in the waiting,

God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along.

If we don’t know how or what to pray,

it doesn’t matter.

He does our praying in and for us,

making prayer out of our wordless sighs,

our aching groans.

27He knows us far better than we know ourselves …

and keeps us present before God.

28That’s why we can be so sure

that every detail in our lives of love for God

is worked into something good.

29God knew what he was doing from the very beginning.

He decided from the outset

to shape the lives of those who love him

along the same lines as the life of his Son.

The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.

We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.

30After God made that decision of what his children should be like,

he followed it up by calling people by name.

After he called them by name,

he set them on a solid basis with himself.

And then, after getting them established,

he stayed with them to the end,

gloriously completing what he had begun.

31So, what do you think?

With God on our side like this,

how can we lose?

32If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us,

embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst

by sending his own Son,

is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?

33And who would dare tangle with God

by messing with one of God’s chosen?

34Who would dare even to point a finger?

The One who died for us

–who was raised to life for us!-

is in the presence of God at this very moment

sticking up for us.

35Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge

between us and Christ’s love for us?

There is no way!

Not trouble,

not hard times,

not hatred,

not hunger,

not homelessness,

not bullying threats,

not backstabbing,

not even the worst sins listed in Scripture …

37None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us.

38I’m absolutely convinced that nothing-

-nothing living or dead,

angelic or demonic,

today or tomorrow,

39high or low,

thinkable or unthinkable-

-absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love

because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

[The Message]

Heard an evangelist years ago tell of the Father looking down from heaven. “What about that Asbury?” he says. He didn’t do very well this week. He didn’t manage his time very well, he got hung up on some dumb things. What do you think, have you had enough, shall we let him alone and go on to someone more likely to deliver for us? And the Son holds up his hands: “We’ve got a lot invested in him, Father.”

cue In Heavenly Love Abiding, No. 45


[if time] He Who Began a Good Work


A service order:

Proper A 12 (July 05, August 08)

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

All About You

I Walk By Faith

Lord, I Lift Your Name on High




Old Testament reading: Genesis 29:15-28

Gospel reading: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

New Testament reading: Romans 8:26-39

In Heavenly Love Abiding, No. 45


He Who Began


Hope you can use it!

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