One of the themes running through the readings and the psalm this morning is the sovereignty of God: God is the supreme ruler of the universe which he has created. This idea, and what follows from it, take quite a lot of thinking about. Probably we don’t think about it very often, we have so many other things on our minds. We bustle about our lives, thinking we are in charge of quite a lot: the care of our families, the well-being of our communities, including our church community, the responsibilities of our jobs, the health of our planet, the peace of the nations. We are indeed responsible for all these things and more, but where does our primary responsibility lie? What comes first? We are responsible first and foremost to our creator God, the ruler who is sovereign above and beyond ourselves. So how does this work out in our readings?
The author of Psalm 119 captures the joy and gratitude he feels towards God as his arbiter and ruler. He says “Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path” (105). He is glad to know that God’s word, God’s law, is there to show him what he should do, to see which way to go. He recognises that God is there when he finds himself in difficulties and can be turned to for safety: “I am deeply troubled; preserve my life.”(107). Then in v. 109 the psalmist accepts that he must take responsibility for what he does, but he will decide his actions according to God’s law: “My life is always in my hand, yet I do not forget your law” (109). And then he rejoices that God’s laws are permanent and sovereign. He says they are the joy of his heart. (111). Is that true for us? Is our heart truly filled with joy as we accept God’s word as our law and think and act according to his commandments: when we honour and love him first, when we love our neighbour as ourselves? Well, possibly not because, being human, we can find such things difficult. Our psalmist says “I have applied my heart to fulfil your statutes for ever and to the end” (112). That sounds as though he may not always have succeeded, but it is certainly what he always aimed for.
Turning to our reading from the Old Testament, we may well wonder where God’s sovereignty can be seen in the story of Jacob and Esau. If we are looking for a moral tale to help guide our own actions, it is a fairly unpromising one. A few weeks ago we were thinking about Abraham becoming the great patriarch of the nation of Israel into which the Messiah was to be born, as God had promised. It was part of God’s plan for the salvation of humankind from the fall of Adam and Eve. For a while things seemed to hang in the balance because Abraham had no son to succeed him. Then, in spite of all the odds, Isaac is born and so he has an heir to succeed him. But then disaster seems to loom. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and heir. But this was a test of Abraham’s faith, and the future of the people of Israel, from whom the Messiah was to come, seemed safe again.
Then, at the beginning of our reading this morning, God’s plan seems again in jeopardy. Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob are at loggerheads and have been almost before they were born. Esau is the first born twin and is automatically heir to a double portion of his father’s property and to his blessing. He doesn’t seem to have been the kind of person who pondered very often on what God asked of him. And the same can probably be said of Jacob. One day, Esau came back from a hunting expedition, ravenously hungry. Jacob was at home, cooking a stew. Esau asked for some of it and, spotting an opportunity, Jacob said he could have it in return for his birthright and his father’s blessing as the elder son. And Esau agreed and gave away his birthright for a good dinner. Jacob was content with what he had gained at Esau’s expense. Where is God in such a story? Is the plan for the salvation of the world to be undone by two rather unlovely young men? But because God is sovereign, his will cannot be gainsaid. He works with this unpromising situation. Isaac, before he dies, is tricked by his wife Rachel and Jacob into giving Jacob his blessing, thinking he is blessing Esau. So Jacob comes to stand in line with Abraham and Isaac as the inheritor of God’s covenant and ready to pass it on in his turn. From this time on, Jacob seems to become more aware of God. He has the dream of the ladder going up to heaven, the meeting place between God and man. And then he encounters God one night by the river, and wrestles with him. After that experience of meeting God face to face, Jacob is a changed man. He is reconciled with his brother Esau, who was preparing to do battle with him and Esau receives him with great generosity of spirit. The dangerous feud between the brothers is averted, the story moves on to the story of Jacob’s sons and his favourite, Joseph, and continues to the story of Easter.
This complex narrative is held together by the thread of God’s unswerving faithfulness to his people, from Abraham onwards and his sovereign power to fulfil his promise of salvation made first to Abraham and subsequently to us as the spiritual descendants of Abraham. It is well worth looking for God’s presence in our lives, how, through us, God achieves his purposes and how, even in the most unpromising of situations and with the most unlikely of people God’s rule is, ultimately, supreme and his purposes for us are accomplished. If we had time this morning we could follow this theme through in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Gospel reading. But we’ll have to leave it for another day, and put the kettle on instead!