Sermon Text: Genesis 33:1-17
I know that many of you, like me, watch the show House. Best season finale ever! Dr. House is this brilliant, cynical, at times cruel person. An injury and chronic pain have helped to make him bitter and angry. He has spent years constantly pushing away his friends who love and care for him. On last week’s episode he at long last removes this seemingly bullet-proof exterior, makes himself vulnerable, and confesses to Dr. Cuddy that he is the “most screwed up man alive.” He lists many of the ways that he’s hurt people. He asks if she believes that he can fix himself. The hope is that he will finally open his heart to other people so that he can find healing, love, and happiness.
If House were a real person, I would tell him that he can’t fix himself—on his own, at least—but God can and will, if he lets him. I would tell him that God has been working through his years of pain and struggle to bring healing. And by taking this first step of confessing his sins and confronting the truth about himself he’s on the path toward finding God!
This is finally the path that Jacob is on. When we last saw Jacob and his brother, Esau, two weeks ago, Jacob had taken advantage of Esau to gain his birthright, his brother’s share of their father Isaac’s estate and, even worse, cheated Esau out of his father’s blessing. Esau was so angry at his brother that he vowed to murder him, and Jacob fled in fear for his life.
Jacob runs away—far away—to his Uncle Laban, where he works, becomes a husband and father, and accumulates a large family of his own. Laban, as it turns out, is a great match for Jacob. Laban is at least as big a double-dealer and manipulator as Jacob. But after 20 years, through a series of crazy twists and turns, Jacob finally gains the upper hand, wins his independence from Laban, and becomes prosperous. That’s all well and good… The only problem is that in order for God’s promised blessing to materialize, Jacob still needs to go home—to the Promised Land. And going home means doing the one thing that Jacob’s been avoiding for 20 years: owning up to his sin, facing this big problem that he left back at home, and facing his big brother who—Jacob remembers too well—vowed to take murderous revenge on him for cheating him out of birthright and blessing. In spite of Jacob’s fears, God says go home.
Like a great Hitchcock movie, the suspense builds and builds. Among other things, Jacob sends word to Esau by messengers that he’s returning home and that he wants to give him a portion of his wealth “in order that I might find favor in your sight.” In other words, Jacob hopes to appease his brother with these gifts. But the messengers come back to Jacob and say, “Your brother is on his way to meet you, and, um… oh by the way, he’s got 400 of his closest friends with him. What do you suppose that means?” Jacob is really afraid now.
Even in today’s scripture, when he sees his brother off in the distance and Jacob is completely exposed, completely vulnerable, it isn’t clear what’s going to happen. For all his wealth, Jacob, unlike Esau, doesn’t have an army. But what happens is surely one of the most poignant scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation in all of literature. They hug and kiss and weep. Jacob says to Esau, “[F]or truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He sees God in the gracious and forgiving face of his brother.
I’m reminded of the what the author of 1 John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”1 We experience God through loving one another. We know this from Jesus, who teaches us that loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is related to loving our neighbor as ourselves; who teaches us to pray that God would forgive our sins “even as” we forgive the sins of others; who tells us in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that when we love and serve the “least among us,” we are really loving and serving Christ himself.
Want to find Jesus? Go out and love and serve other people. You know this! Those of you who’ve gone to Honduras or Paraguay have found Jesus there, haven’t you? The youth and adult volunteers who’ve gone downtown to love and serve the homeless through Seven Bridges have found Jesus there. People who are loving and serving in this community are finding Jesus right here! That’s the way it works. And if we feel far away from God in our spiritual lives it could be because we’re not getting close enough to people who need our love and care.
So… What happened here between Jacob and Esau. I want to look at it first from Esau’s perspective.
One answer might be, “Well, at some point over these past 20 years Esau forgave Jacob,” but that’s not quite right. I want to make an important point about forgiveness. From the Bible’s point of view, forgiveness is a transaction between two people. Forgiveness begins with the wrongdoer acknowledging the wrong that he’s done. Without that first part, there can’t be forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a matter of being a doormat, and saying, “It’s O.K. what happened. I’m fine.” No, forgiveness first takes seriously the wrong.
Some Christians struggle with guilt because they don’t feel as if they can forgive the person who hurt them, but I wonder if the person who hurt them has owned up to the sin? That’s got to happen first.
Forgiveness couldn’t happen for Esau until he met Jacob in today’s scripture. We can interpret Jacob’s actions here—his offer to meet his brother, his bowing seven times, his language (calling him “lord,” for instance), and his offer of these gifts as signs of his contrition. Esau understands it this way. And there is forgiveness. But not until this meeting takes place.
No, what’s more remarkable than the the forgiveness that Esau extends to Jacob is the change that took place in Esau’s life long before this meeting took place. My favorite part of this scene is when Esau asks what was the point of all those gifts that Jacob tried to give him. And Jacob says, “To find favor with my lord.” And Esau, so different from that young man 20 years ago, says, “I have enough, my brother. Keep it for yourself.” I have enough. I’m fine. I don’t need anything from you. Esau has grown as a human being. By God’s grace Esau had moved on. That hurt has healed. He isn’t stuck in the past, brooding over the pain that Jacob inflicted; he has found a way to get on with his life.
Am I saying then, in so many words, that time heals all wounds. No, it may seem like that, but it’s really God. It’s God who heals the wounds. Time itself is a gift that God gives us to enable us to heal. That’s what happened in Esau’s life.
Maybe you feel stuck right now. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting over bruised feelings because of wrongs that have been done to you. The good news is that God doesn’t want to leave you there. God wants to get you unstuck. God wants you move beyond it. Trust that it will happen. But trust also that it takes time. Time is a part of God’s plan for healing.
Don’t beat yourself up that it doesn’t happen all at once. But it can happen. If it happened to Esau, it can happen to you!
Now I want to look at the story from Jacob’s perspective. Think about this: For 20 years, Jacob has been a fugitive from his family, afraid of his brother, afraid to return home. This fear loomed large in his mind. He had it in his head before the meeting in today’s scripture that his brother was still angry and still hurt and still wanting to kill him.
But that wasn’t the case at all. If only he knew what was going on in his brother’s head. If only he knew that his brother had gotten over it. Maybe it took six years… Maybe it took six months. But all this time had passed. Think of what Jacob had missed out on! Years of living free of that stress and anxiety and fear; years of having a healthy relationship with his brother; years of enjoying the company of his parents. It’s very possible that his fear kept him from ever seeing his mother, Rebekah, again before she died. All because the way he perceived reality was not reality.
We are not good at getting inside of people’s heads and knowing what’s really going on. But we judge them. And the way we judge them is not usually the truth. Like Jacob, we tend to suspect the worst about others. A friend of mine, who we’ll call Janet, goes to this church. Janet told me about her sister, who was a couple years younger than she was. For years Janet was jealous of her, especially in school, because she was prettier and more popular than she was—by her own admission, Janet was a nerd and a goofball. She felt like she was always in her sister’s shadow, and she could never measure up. She even felt like her parents favored her sister. Here’s the thing: Janet found out as an adult, only recently, that her sister had lived all these years feeling as if she couldn’t measure up to Janet because she wasn’t as smart and academically successful. Her sister believed that her parents favored Janet!
All these years, their different perceptions of reality drove this wedge between them! If only they knew!
This happens all the time… I never had a brother, but I have a good friend Angelo who feels a little like an older brother. Although I didn’t know him when he was a student, we both graduated from Tech. He got an industrial engineering degree and then went to Emory, where he got a dual law degree and MBA. He went to work as a consultant for, at the time, one of the Big 6 accounting firms—where he’s now a partner. Angelo always seemed very driven to succeed. He was brilliant and ambitious. He seemed very goal-oriented, and he always had a plan for success. When I compared myself to him, professionally and financially, I felt lazy and unambitious—like I couldn’t measure up—like, what did I do wrong over the years. He intimidated me—made me feel small. One night many years ago, we were out having a couple of beers. Angelo told me that he originally majored in electrical engineering, as I did, but he couldn’t keep his grades up. It was too hard. He confessed to me that failing to make the cut, failing to get that degree, was his life’s single biggest regret. He was jealous of me! How is that possible? I was jealous of him!
There was this thing between us, this wedge, that didn’t need to be there… because I didn’t know what was going on is his head; he didn’t know what was going on in mine. We both tried to act like we had it all together. If only we could have made ourselves vulnerable like Jacob in today’s scripture and told each other the truth, healing could have begun. Maybe you have stories like that in your own life? It’s no way to live, of course, but too often we live our lives afraid to be vulnerable—afraid to tell each other the truth.
Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III has a song addressed in part to the woman he recently divorced and also addressed also to himself:
It’s not strange, no mystery
You and I are history
I put up my protective wall
it’s 4 feet thick and 10 feet tall
10 feet tall and 4 feet thick
Granite, concrete, steel and brick
Protection for you, understand
The little boy, the inner man
Do we often put up our protective walls? Maybe the Holy Spirit is telling us through this scripture that, like Jacob, it’s time to tear it down—and maybe like Jacob we’ll find love, mercy, forgiveness, and good will. And maybe like Jacob we’ll find God.
1. 1 John 4:12