"BLESSINGS" - Genesis 27&32 Selections

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Texts: Matthew 22:15-22; Genesis 27 & 32 (selections)


            If we play the “word association” game – you know – that game where one word almost automatically leads to another –

            I say “smoke;” you say “fire” – and we’ve had, unfortunately, our share of that this week at the church. And we certainly keep in our prayers the man who was injured in the explosion in our boiler room.

            I say “lock;” you say “key.”

I say “peanut butter;” you say “jelly.”

This is how we think . . . certain words go together.

If I say “SIBILING,” you might say, . . .  “RIVALRY.”

And you might say that especially if you have been in church for my recent sermons on the many siblings in the book of Genesis. We have Cain and Abel – the children of Adam and Eve, and . . . the first murder: Cain killed his brother Abel, which is as bad as “sibling rivalry” can get;   . . . and God is still crying over brothers and sisters killing each other.

Then we had Isaac and Ishmael – half-brothers – sons of Abraham. There was lots of rivalry for Abraham’s blessing and even more rivalry among their different mothers, Sarah and Hagar. But half-brothers are still brothers, and the main message of that relationship – Isaac and Ishmael - calls us to dwell together well with our Muslim and other half-brothers around the world. Anything less would go against what God intends. Isaac and Ishmael co-existed. They respected each other. They did not compete for their father’s affection. We can all learn from this.

Today’s focus is another set of siblings from Genesis, as the epic story of Abraham and Sarah’s family unfolds. It is the sons of Isaac and Rebekah: Jacob and Esau. It is a relationship filled, at least on the surface, with intense SIBLING RIVALRY. But when we look at the full story, there is something far more important, and more powerful.

Genesis 25 launches the story of Jacob and Esau and their sibling rivalry. The sibling rivalry actually begins . . . in their mother’s womb. The twins wrestle for supremacy even before they are born. Then, when they are born, the first baby emerges strong, red, and already with hair . . . not just on his head, but on his body. And then comes the twin, holding onto the first baby’s heel, trying to pull him back so he can be born first.

Isaac and Rebekah name the first baby “Hairy.” That is not “Harry,” as in “Harry Potter.” It is “Hairy” as in, “Wow, that’s a lot of hair on that baby!” In Hebrew, the name is Esau. The second child, they name “Heel Holder.” In Hebrew, it is “Jacob.”

Within a few verses, it says this: “when the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man living in tents. Isaac, the father, loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.”

So they are siblings, but you quickly sense the growing rivalry, because they are different; and it is made worse by parental favoritism. And even as the siblings grow and find their way in life – this unfortunate rivalry continues to dominate them. One day, Esau comes in after a hard day hunting in the fields. He is very hungry – so hungry that he is not thinking straight. Jacob is cooking Lentil Soup. Esau doesn’t know what kind of soup it is but he knows he wants it: “Give me some of that . . . for I am famished.”

Jacob grasps this moment the way he once grasped Esau’s heel. “I’ll trade you this stew for your inheritance.” See, he is grasping here. The inheritance of the firstborn – the bulk of the father’s estate – is something only the father can grant. It is crazy to think that Esau would honor this promise but, hey, this is intense sibling rivalry. Things are said. Stuff gets negotiated.

“What good is an inheritance if I don’t survive the day?” Esau asks.

The deal is made. Esau gives up the birthright. The text makes no effort to justify the behavior of either twin; they both look bad. Esau is impulsive; Jacob is calculating, and both of them just need to grow up (see G. Anderson’s sermon on this passage, shared at our GPS seminar).

Then we get to Genesis 27. Isaac is old and blind. Isaac knows that he is not long for this world. He calls for Esau, his oldest and favorite, and says, “Son, I am not going to live much longer; it’s time to give you your inheritance. But, before I die, could you hunt some fresh game and then fix up a stew the way you know I like it?” . . . . Esau goes off to hunt.

Rebekah, though, is eavesdropping on this conversation. She calls Jacob and tells him to go slaughter two choice baby goats from the herd. Bring them to her and she’ll cook up a savory dish for her husband. Then she says, “Jacob, you can take it to your blind father, pretend to be Esau, and receive the inheritance.” Jacob says, “But Esau is hairy; if Dad touches me, he’ll know.” Yet Rebekah has a plan to dress Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and cover his arms and neck with the skin of the kids she butchered.  Then this – from Genesis 27 -

18So (Jacob) went to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” 19Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” 20But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. 24He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” 25Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. 26Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.28May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. 29Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

30As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. . . .  “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.” 32His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.” 33Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? —yes, and blessed he shall be!” 34When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” . . .   Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 

37Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. . . .

41Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. . . . . . flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, 44and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— 45until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There are so many questions that emerge in this dramatic story:

How could the patriarch, Isaac, be so blind as to not recognize his own son?

How could Isaac be so easily deceived about something so important to him and to God?

How could Rebekah be so devious, deceitful, and scheming against her husband and her other son?

How could Jacob, who is the recipient of the blessing, gain God’s favor, when it is all gained through dishonesty, without integrity?

As we read this passage, certainly we identify with Isaac, who trembles violently when he realizes he has been deceived. And we identify with Esau, who cries out to be blessed – “Bless me – me too, my father!” and who, WEEPS so profusely. Our hearts go out to these people in the story much more than to Rebekah and Jacob with their conniving.

Is God’s covenant going to carry on like this? Didn’t God say to Abraham and Sarah that he chose them so that they may instruct their children in the ways of the Lord? Doesn’t God care for what is right and just? How could this scheme be right and just? The suspense is growing; the intrigue is gaining. What is going to happen?

The next few chapters of Genesis remain full of suspense and intrigue also. Jacob, worried that Esau will indeed kill him, flees to his uncle Laban for the next 20 YEARS! But after 20 years, maybe he could go home again. So he heads that way. Then, on his way home, Jacob becomes exceedingly terrified and distressed when he hears that Esau is preparing to meet him with a force of 400 men. Jacob sends emissaries to offer Esau gifts of cattle and sheep. He divides his camp into two so that if one group is killed the other will survive.

And then this – from Genesis 32 (it is night):

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

            This is a memorable story because this is where the covenantal people of God get their name: Israel. And there is more.

Following this night of wrestling and naming, an amazing scene unfolds between Jacob and Esau. While we would fully expect it to be a continuation of the jealousy and scheming that we have seen, while we might predict that it would lead to violence and more killing between sibling rivals, what unfolds remains one of the great stories of the Bible. It is NOT fear that dominates the scene; it is NOT shame and scheming, which we have seen so much of. Here is what happens in that long-awaited meeting of siblings who have been such rivals.

When he sees Esau coming, “Jacob bows down to the ground seven times. Then Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. “ Then, . .  in their conversations, Jacob called Esau “my lord” five times. Twice he calls himself Esau’s servant. Then Jacob insists on offering to Esau boundless possessions, and Esau says, “I have plenty;  . .  let what is yours be yours.” And Jacob responds: “Please, accept these gifts, for truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.”

Let what is your be yours; . . and  . . .  to see your face is like seeing God.

Wait! . . . What was that? Something is finally different between these brothers – Not sibling rivals, but pure BLESSING.

Up to now, this story had been about deceit and dishonesty. It had been about tragedy, with people trying to make things work out a according to their own plans. But after Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, everything is changed. And they had a big celebration.  What are we to make of this?

Jacob, for so long, desired what Esau had – to be the firstborn, to have what was coming to Esau – his birthright and his wealth. He dressed in Esau’s clothes. He took Esau’s blessing. Even when his father asked him who he was, he said “I am Esau, your firstborn.”

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive!

But in wrestling with the angel, the longing to be Esau, and holding on to Esau’s blessing, was converted. It was as if the angel said to Jacob – “for 20 years you have been running in fear; for 20 years you have been grasping for Esau’s heel, struggling to find life and purpose; but you have been lost in confusion and heartache.” In the wrestling with the angel, Jacob realized that he had to let go of Esau so he could hold on to God. He had to let go of his struggle to be Esau, and be himself – with his own blessing from God.

So the next day, he did just that. He gave back to Esau his blessing of wealth and power and he received his life in return. And he discovered the peace that had escaped him.

What do you need to let go of so you can hold on to God?

What can we let go of to know the blessings that are ours, and the peace?

How much energy do we spend longing for something that someone else has? How much energy do we expend seeking what others have? Or seeking to be someone else? This is called mimetic desire – the wish to have what someone else has, the desire to be what someone else is. That was Jacob. And he was nurtured in this by his doting mother Rebekah – which is so very easy for loving mothers to do for their beloved children: contribute to the desire to have what others have, or to be what others are. (see J. Sacks, Not In God’s Name, p. 136f.)

Here is the very promise of the gospel – you are loved for who you are! Go and make the most of it, loving and serving God in the world.

You have been covered with BLESSING. Be empowered by it. Love and serve God in the world.

Jacob had it wrong – as we do – for so long.

Jacob finally got it right after lots of fear, wrestling, and lostness.

God wants us to get it right – you are loved for who you are – just as you are. You have specific gifts that are to be used for God’s work in the world. We do not need to be pulled into wanting what others have; that is the biggest danger; it even leads to competition and violence, as we see so clearly in the story and in life. We are to use what we have for God in the world. We do not need to be somebody different. God uses us for God’s work in the world.

We are all so covered with BLESSING. And we often get so off-track with our deceitful pursuits and fearful plans.

We are SO loved by God. We seek to live from that, giving generously, loving expansively, spreading BLESSING everywhere.

Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s.” That would be our lives, our best gifts, our sincere selves. May it be so! AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, Lord; help our unbelief. Move us toward faith, hope, and love following Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on October 22, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans