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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Signs of Blessing

For thousands of years, people have looked to the stars during troubled times.


From ancient Mesopotamia to the dawn of the internet, astrology has been a source of reassurance and guidance.


Astrology’s staying power into our own time has frankly stunned the world’s academic community. The notion that it’s possible to make meaningful statements about a person’s character and future life based on the alignment of the sun, moon, and planets (moving against the backdrop of 12 zodiacal constellations) at the time of their birth has been dismissed with a single word: hogwash.


Nevertheless, true believers abound.


The words astronomy and astrology, at first glance, seem to be close cousins. But they are light years apart (pun intended).


Astronomy (from the Greek words for “star” and “law”) is the scientific discipline of discerning the nature of the cosmos. Astrology (from the Greek words for “star” and “word”) is the pseudoscientific art of discerning the “story” or “message” of the universe, and how that celestial narrative might impact our present lives.


Over the centuries, a number of celebrated astronomers (notably Johannes Kepler, 1571-1630) have also been astrologers, living in the hope that rigorous research could demonstrate the efficacy of horoscopes. But the claims of astrology, whenever evaluated by reliable scientific tests, have inevitably been debunked.  


That hasn’t prevented a surge of astrological enthusiasm in recent years.


According to a 2017 Pew Research poll, 30% of Americans believe that their existence, to some degree, has been predetermined by the day they were born. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more than half the population dabbles in horoscopes, whether by curiously perusing those little books in the grocery store checkout line or downloading one of the thousands of available astrological apps.


There are now zodiac-themed cookbooks, candles, clothing lines, and tech devices. Parents can read astrological “starter books” to their preschoolers. According to University of Nevada professor Katherine Walker, “You can have an entirely celestial-inflected décor or style based on your sign”.


For many people, it’s all just silly. “Hey baby, are you a Gemini?” – arguably the most cringeworthy pick-up line ever. For others, it’s all about superstition – a bit like repeatedly playing the same numbers in the lottery, because one day, surely, they will hit the mark.  


Others find astrology to be inspiring, as embodied by “The Age of Aquarius” (the opening number in the 1968 musical Hair) which promised the arrival of a new world characterized by “harmony and understanding” – a world that remains dishearteningly far off.


Walker asserts that the uncertainties generated by the COVID pandemic kick-started a widespread renewal of interest in astrology, especially among younger generations.


Anxious people continue to look to the stars for hope. They wonder if the relative positions of Venus and Mars signal compatibility with a new romantic partner. Should they make a major purchase, start that new business, or just stay safely at home until the signs are more favorable?


When it comes to astrology, the Bible doesn’t mince words. The prophet Isaiah condemns astrologers, “those stargazers who make predictions month by month,” as guilty of spiritual malpractice (Isaiah 47:13-15).


The apostle James insists that guidance comes from God alone. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). We are not to seek reassurance from comets, rainbows, and Jupiter.


Throughout history both Christian theologians and pagan philosophers have pointed to a simple bit of empirical evidence that astrology is not all it’s cracked up to be.


We’re talking about twins or other multiple births. Since children born at the same time in the same place should have precisely the same celestial destiny, how are we to account for the fact that they often follow different paths? Identical twins, in particular, may enjoy the same flavors of ice cream and score within a few points of each other on their SATs. But that doesn’t negate the fact that they are still free to choose dramatically different values.


The most famous twins in the Bible are a case in point.


In Genesis 25, the spotlight shines on the labor and delivery room where Rebekah and Isaac are becoming parents of two little boys who will be Abraham's grandchildren. In verse 25 we read, "The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.” Verse 27 tells us more:

“The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country.” Apparently Esau loves to ride ATV’s on the weekend. His pickup is tuned to the local country music station. He knows the names of all the defensive linemen on his favorite football team, and he has some serious body hair. 


Jacob, on the other hand, is a born grabber. Literally. Verse 26 tells us, “After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob [Ya'akov in Hebrew].” 

Ya’akov means “he who follows close behind but wants to jump out in front.” At heart, he is a hustler or con artist. Verse 27 tells us that Jacob is a “quiet man, staying among the tents.” He plays the viola. He subscribes to Fortune. He enjoys trying new recipes, and the only hunting he does is at Crate & Barrel for new cheesecake pans.


These two boys, born just minutes apart, are vastly different in character and ambition. 

In that culture, the two greatest gifts that parents could bestow on their children both fall to Esau. He stands to receive both the birthright and the blessing. The birthright means that the oldest son gets twice as much inheritance as anyone else. Because there are just two boys, Esau will be given two-thirds of the estate. 


Esau, however, is not the brightest light in the chandelier. One day, when his stomach is bigger than the part of his brain reserved for strategic planning, he gives his birthright away to his little brother. He trades it for some bread and a bowl of lentil stew. In the raw language of verse 34, “He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.” 


Two-thirds of the inheritance may seem like a major coup to us, but that’s only because we’re Westerners. For Jacob and Esau, the birthright means far less than the blessing. 

The blessing is the almost mystical word of approval spoken by the father while he places his hands on his son toward the end of his own life. These words are considered binding. Esau, by virtue of the biological quirk that his reddish, hairy little body got the pole position in its orientation toward the birth canal, is going to hear that blessing. 

This isn’t going to happen because he is particularly noble or brave or spiritual or intelligent. It’s simply because he was first. And he takes it all for granted.


And Jacob can’t stand it. He has been born without hope of receiving the blessing. It’s all going to go to his undeserving sibling. At some point, perhaps early on, it occurs to him that if anything good is going to happen in his life, he’s going to have to make it happen. 

So he will live out his name.  He’ll be a grabber.

Ultimately he and his mother hatch a plot to steal the blessing. They deceive blind old Isaac. They cut Esau out of the picture. It's a deeply painful episode - something that may remind you of a dark chapter in your own family's story.  

The saddest part is that it never had to happen. From the beginning of this soap opera, the reader knows something that Jacob doesn't know: God had long ago determined to bless him. 

Even before the twins were born, God had declared that his biggest plans and his deepest dreams were going to be played out through Jacob. This is not a matter of the zodiac. This doesn’t come down to what is written in the stars. Yes, Esau will be blessed, too – but that will happen in a decidedly different way.


Jacob, sadly, spends virtually his entire life trying to earn, deserve, or steal what God is willing to give to him for free. Consequently, there will be broken relationships in his wake wherever he goes.


What Jacob has to learn is that God insists on simply giving us the best things in life. There’s not a verse anywhere in the Bible that implies that God is impressed with how hard people try. As author and pastor Craig Barnes puts it, “If we insist on hunting down God’s sacred gifts, we prevent ourselves from enjoying them.”

What does it mean to be blessed by God?

Barnes suggests, “To be blessed is to discover that God cherishes us more deeply than we do ourselves. This love is so strange and overwhelming that it transforms our lives.” 

It will take Jacob most of his life to understand that.

One of the reasons his story is found in Scripture is that maybe, just maybe, it will inspire us not to wait so long to trust God. Or to seek hope and reassurance from sources that can never actually bless us, like the constellations Pisces, Cancer, or Capricorn.


Not one of us is “star-crossed,” blindly destined to follow a pre-set course.


The incredible news is that, with our eyes wide open, we’re in the hands of the living God who yearns to bless us every new day.

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