Sermon for Sunday, February 24, 2013

Genesis 25:19-34 & 33:1-11

(Also referencing Genesis 25:19-34, 27, 30:25-43, 31, 32, & 33)

“Tricky Mercy & Clever Grace” part of our Lenten Theme: “Forgiveness: A Season Of Release”ForgivnessSeriesLogo

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To listen to the Podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  130224SermonPodcast

To view the video of this sermon, click HERE:

So, we continue our journey looking at forgiveness and how it is, and is not, modeled by our forbearers of the faith in scripture.  Last week I boldly proclaimed the Prodigal Son/Forgiving Father/Resentful Brother scripture in Luke Chapter 15 as the preeminent story of forgiveness.  Today, we shall delve farther back into the ancient biblical history out of which Jesus and all those who heard his parable would have been thoroughly immersed.  Today, we look at the Jacob and Esau narrative.

Let me begin with a few disclaimers.  The first, and most obvious to me, is that this story is more of a saga than an incident.  In modern terms it deserves more of a mini-series than a single episode, and my one sermon can only offer a glimpse into one small facet of a weighty and captivating drama.  I could take only small bits of the relevant scripture text to read in worship today, but there is so much more!  This is a preacher’s way of saying, “Please take time this week to read the whole story and ponder it in your prayers and conversations!”

My second disclaimer will begin my sermon.  I, at first, wanted to apologize for having another story about families, even sibling rivalries, with which to start this, our Season of Release.  My initial reaction was to either drop it entirely or rearrange the stories out of chronological order so that no one could accuse me of focusing too much on the family unit as a place in need of forgiveness.  But as I studied the Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau story more deeply, I came to realize that, in fact, it is both more than a story of sibling rivalry and family dysfunction while at the same time is very much about the fundamental and core conflicts, tensions, and broken places needing forgiveness in our lives that begin in the family!

Like most of our families, the dysfunction we see in one generation usually can be traced back multiple generations.  Esau and Jacob are no different.  Like our newsletter proclaims, Jacob and Esau are not the only ones to put the “fun” in dysfunctional!  You will remember that their father, Isaac, was the “beloved” son finally born to Abraham and Sara, whilst another son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, were left to die in the desert by Abraham.  And this is the very same family where father Abraham, under the auspices of God’s Divine Decree, almost murdered his own son as a sacrifice to God before a ram was miraculously provided in his stead.  Plus, there is a preponderance of women, once considered barren and now too old for childbearing, who give birth to children with a special emphasis placed on them by God and family.

It is here that Family Systems Theory would have a field day.  Family Systems Theory, used in psychology, sociology, and even in pastoral care training, reminds us that, particularly when it comes to family, “no one is an island unto herself or himself.”  This is to say, we are all in an intricately connected web, and the closest people to us in that web of life, our biological and adoptive families, have the most effect on us.  What has happened in one generation, whether shared openly or held in secret, can change in some way what is yet to happen.  This theory insists that unless these events and circumstances are dealt with in some healthy and honest way, they are destined to define the family in unhealthy and, perhaps, even twisted ways.

Pastor and writer Russell Rathbun reminds us that the ancient rabbis believed that one of these incidents, the Akedah, or the “binding of Isaac,” where Abraham was to kill his son as a sacrifice to God, casts a particularly long and somber shadow on every part of the narrative that comes after it.  In fact, in the storyline the death of Sarah comes immediately after it.  Rathbun writes, “because (of the Akedah), that her son had been fated for slaughter, and had been all-but-slaughtered – (Sara) gave up the ghost and died.” (1)

Our quest to release things must begin with a long, hard, and loving look at our families.  Even recognizing that family is defined in so many different ways we must start there.  Even recognizing that there are many levels and amounts of dysfunction in our families, we must start there.  Like a plant that yearns to stretch for the sky, unless we dig our roots deep and wide, unless we know well the soil in which we are planted, we will always be at risk of toppling over, or failing to get the nourishment we need.  Forgiveness needs to begin with releasing and being released from the anger, pain, hurt, misunderstandings, and binding of our family history.

The Birth of Jacob and Esau, at the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum. Contemporary

The Birth of Jacob and Esau, at the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum. Contemporary

Now, back to Esau and Jacob.  Scripture is so matter of fact about the reality that there lives were destined to be filled with both blessing and conflict.  Isaac prayed that his so-called barren wife would have a child, and she did!  But before they could  celebrate, God informed Rebekah that the two “nations” in her womb would always be divided.  The first to come forth from her womb, Esau, would become his father’s favorite, as was the tradition for the eldest son to be.  The second, found gripping the heel of the first, was Jacob, and he was destined to be his mother’s favorite child.  Parental “favorites” almost always foretell family conflict and innumerable wounds that will require copious forgiveness and more therapy than we can afford!

The first story that was read today was of Esau “selling” his birthright for a pot of stew.  On the surface this is a simple and, by contemporary standards, silly story.  First of all, who cares about “birthrights,” especially looking at it from a culture where you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and everyone should be judged by their own merits, not the place in the family order in which you happen to fall.  Again, this would be another throwaway point I would pass quickly by, except for the fact that talking about birth order after last week’s sermon stirred up more conversation than I expected.  Whether or not we have formal rules today about what the firstborn deserves or doesn’t deserve, we know that there are expectations.  In Esau’s time, the expectations came with what we would call legal responsibilities of being next of kin, heir apparent, and having power of attorney all rolled into one!  In our day, the expectations are mixed, at best, and contradictory at worst.  Listening last week to perspectives on oldest verses youngest verses middle children left me knowing that birth order means something, even if it means something entirely different to every person in the family!

What will come of this “birthright?”  Well, the story that we did not take time to read today is the stunning deception of the old and blind Isaac by Jacob, gladly aided and abetted by his mother and Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, so that the birthright would be conferred upon the younger son at the expense of the older son.  Such a dramatic tale could only be dreamt of by a Shakespeare or a Spielberg!

The second reason this story might seem silly is that the birthright was traded for a pot of stew, or pottage, as the older texts say.  Now, I won’t get into the intricate biblical studies that show that there is a masterful, though complex, word play going on here between Esau’s name, the fact that his hair and the stew are both the color red, and that his lineage is seen as the resulting in the peoples of Edom, a nation next to Israel very much in competition with Israel (think “Palestinian/Israeli” tensions today).  What I do think makes this story more fascinating, and relevant to us, is to understand the need for the basic fundamentals of life (food, shelter, clothing, meaningful work, love, appreciation) are viewed very differently by different people.  What may be an essential part of life to one person might be an extravagance to another.  We pshaw at the thought of giving away your inheritance for a pot of stew.  Perhaps that pot of stew represented something much, much more important to Esau: his way of life, his unique manner of being in the world, his identity!

Turning back now to our theme of forgiveness, I want to offer some wisdom that comes from the Esau and Jacob story.  Four key learnings that will help us to forgive and be forgiven:

1.      Even though most of what is named as God’s actions in this story are never ever given a motive, nonetheless the individuals clearly believed that God was always working for good in their lives.  We could spend our entire existence bemoaning the fact that God “dealt us a bad hand,” so to speak, and thus waste away our entire lives, or we could trust in the larger plan that life is good and then work to make the best of what life gives us.  People who have a core belief that life is good and that God is ultimately working out good for all have an easier time forgiving others and being forgiven.

2.      Clearly in this story the presumed way of life – by human standards – is in no way the manner in which God understands life.  The world says a woman is barren?  Bing!  She’s pregnant!  The world says your older brother gets everything in the end?  Bing! The younger brother has the birthright!  The world says the strongest one always wins the prize?  Bing!  The quiet crafty one comes out on top!  Isaiah 55 says it so well: “God’s thoughts are not your thoughts and God’s ways are not your ways.”  Thanks be to God that this is true!  Just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s bad!  Forgiveness comes more easily to those who aren’t wooed into thinking that just because the world/society/my family/everybody says it’s so makes it so!  NOT!

3.      Likewise, the end of the story, which was read today, reminds us that even in the worst of circumstances, when you’ve betrayed your brother time and time again in big and small ways, there can be forgiveness!  The resolution that we longed for last week between the prodigal and his older brother actually came true in the story of Jacob and Esau.  Esau was blessed by God, even if it wasn’t in the proscribed manner that culture and family had assumed!  Professor Esther Menn celebrates, “Like Jacob, Esau becomes the ancestor of a multitude (Gen. 36).  Like Jacob, Esau is blessed with abundance to meet his family’s needs (Gen. 33:9-11).  In their reunion, Jacob recognizes the face of God in the face of his brother, Esau, because of the positive reception that he receives (Gen. 33:10).  The brothers’ reconciliation continues as they bury their father, Isaac, together (Gen. 35:29).  Ultimately this story of sibling rivalry ends with reconciliation and blessing.” (2)   We must remember there is no hurt too great, no grievance too deep, no offense too terrible that forgiveness cannot be offered – and received.  It can.

4.      And finally, we should find amazing assurance, abundant grace, and enormous hope in the fact that this swindler, charlatan, self-serving Jacob, who in no way, shape or form deserves God’s favor, in fact, has God’s greatest blessings.  This should give us confidence when we feel the farthest away from God, when we feel that we have hurt everyone who was ever dear to us, failed our family and forsaken our friends.  We can look to Jacob, trickster extraordinaire and clever fool, to see the very face of God, whose tricky mercy and clever grace outdo even our wildest wiles and wins our hearts in the end. (3)

Now THAT’S a story about forgiveness!

May it be so.  Amen.

(1)        The Dysfunctional Family of God, by Russell Rathbun, July 3, 2011found online at:

(2)        Commentary on Alternate First Reading” by Esther M. Menn, Professor of Old Testament and Director of Advanced Studies at Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, IL, found online at:

(3)        Reference “Commentary on Alternate First Reading” Juliana Claassens, Associate Professor of Old Testament, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa found online at: