Based on Genesis 33
The struggle with right relationship and the age-old question of “why can’t we all just get along” has been a human theme from the beginning – crossing boundaries of time and geography all the way back to the ancient stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The stories in Genesis demonstrate epic, dysfunctional family dynamics. The difficulties we face in human relationships are not unique to us, they occur across cultures and through many generations as well. How are we to deal with human frailty and fallibility and the ways in which fear or desire for power shows up in our relationships?
Jacob and Esau’s story is not unique, but it is complex. Their road to reconciliation is a long time coming. Their rivalry started when they wrestled in the womb with Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel at birth. Later, Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. With Esau vowing to kill his brother, Jacob makes a new life on the run.
Jacob receives a taste of his own medicine, of being tricked and deceived by uncle Laban. After 20 years God tells Jacob to return to the land of his ancestors, the land of Canaan. He has to pass through Edom, the territory of his brother, Esau. Jacob panics. He is not convinced that reconciliation, healing or forgiveness is possible after the wrongs he’s committed against his brother. He imagines Esau is still bitter and resentful, still planning revenge. Has guilt plagued Jacob? Does he feel remorse?
The brothers prepare for their meeting like warriors about to enter into battle. Esau surrounds himself with a 400-man army. Jacob sends men to spy on Esau, and attempts to appease his brother by sending a series of peace offerings. He doesn’t know whether Esau has accepted his gifts of goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls, donkeys or if he is coming to kill him, so Jacob divides his family, so he will not be totally decimated. Jacob is afraid to attempt reconciliation, afraid of being rejected, or even killed, and seeks God’s help and protection. Is it right for a person to expect God to fix a wrong that they inflicted on another – for God to make amends for mistakes he made?
That is when Jacob wrestles through the night with a mysterious partner, emerging with a new name, a new identity, and a blessing: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Jacob had some growing up to do – coming to grips with his own sinfulness and selfishness. On his path to reconciliation with his brother – Jacob is changed. Out of his “dark night of the soul”, Jacob also emerges with a limp. Jacob is not unscathed; he is wounded. He carries that pain into his encounter with Esau, a sign of the complexity of reconciliation, a wounded healer.
We an imagine Esau going through his own 20 years of hardship and change, from his heart-rending cry 20 years earlier when he was deceived: “Bless me too, Father. Did you not save a blessing for me?”
The next morning Jacob sees Esau’s tribe on the horizon coming with his 400 men. He goes ahead of his family, bowing himself to the ground 7x – prostrating himself like a servant – humility/repentance?
Although Esau has been deprived of his birthright, and as the patriarch of an entire nation, he shows spiritual maturity as a leader as he breaks the tension of a 20 year old conflict. Before Jacob has a chance to apologize, explain or asks forgiveness, Esau opens his heart and his arms. Instead of condemning Jacob, Esau runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, kisses him on the neck and they both weep for joy. The conflict ends, not with violence, weapons, a show of force, or litigation. His worst fears do not come to pass. Jacob is struck not by Esau’s sword but by his love. Jacob is met with compassion and love. The conflict ends with an embrace. Jacob refers to Esau as my Lord, but Esau refers to Jacob as my brother. It is a powerful moment of reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness.
Jacob is overcome by his brother’s graciousness and offers another peace offering. “Please accept it because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have everything I need.” Jewish translation: I am complete. I am whole.
In this act of forgiveness and reconciliation, Jacob knows that God is near, God is present. Jacob has encountered God a few times now – at Bethel, when he recognized that “
Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it.”
And just the night before, when he declares,
“I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved”.
In 33:10, after being spared by Esau the fate he deserves, Jacob cries out,
“Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God
with such favor have you received me”.
Rev. Stuart Taylor: “In the Holy God who is hidden and mysterious and who wrestles with us there is something of the estranged brother. In the forgiving brother there is something of the blessing God.”
Walter Brueggemann: What does it mean that we are heirs of Jacob – crippled, blessed, bowed down, forgiven? What does it mean to be like Esau, after betrayal, to become the cup of God’s blessing.
There are times we will be called upon like Esau to offer forgiveness, to become the cup of blessing. And, we may find ourselves in the place of Jacob the one in need of forgiveness. This is the most difficult spiritual work we can do.
What do we do when we we need to make it right with someone else, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it? Jacob certainly had a way of putting it off. Like Jacob, we worry and agonize; we hesitate to send a hand-written apology or text or pick up the phone. Taking the first step is hard, on either side. We want the other person to make the first move. But waiting can cause even more anxiety.
Everywhere we look, we see people in conflict – with other people, with God. Arguing or ashamed or afraid or angry. Are you at odds with someone right now? Are you fleeing or wrestling with God? Is the challenge before you to offer forgiveness to the one who has wronged you like Esau? Or is it the challenge of Jacob to receive the forgiveness of the one you have wronged.
The path to Reconciliation is a long, hard road. It requires honest introspection and reflection, a fair bit of wrestling, comes with sacrifice and risk, even injury; and takes faith and trust that surely God is in this place with us. It doesn’t happen overnight, but hopefully it doesn’t take 20 years either. It requires a willingness to go the extra mile, to bring everything you have and lay your armor down, without any guarantee that genuine reconciliation will occur. We can’t control others, we can only control ourselves. We cannot change the past, but we can refuse to live with bitterness and let go.
We are called to develop habits of speaking and listening that embody forgiveness. We practice forgiveness when we worship together. We practice forgiveness when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us as we have forgiven others. In prayers of confession, we wrestle with our personal transgressions and with our complicity with collective sin of the nation and world, in order to become messengers of reconciliation. We practice being forgiven when we gather at communion.
We are taught in this scripture that when we reconcile, we are able to see “the face of God” and we will be blessed and restored in reconciling love. May we look upon each other and say:
Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God with such favor have you received me.
Our prayer hymn “When Love is Found,” was written by prolific hymnwriter Brian Wren. It is a wedding hymn, but it also works between any relationship that has experienced betrayal…it just required leaving off the 1st & 5th verses and changing one word from “lovers” to “brothers”.
“When love is tried, as loved ones change…When love is torn and trust betrayed, pray strength to love till torments fade, till lovers keep no score of wrong, but hear through pain love’s Easter song.” Let’s join Neva in singing this hymn to a familiar hymn tune with visuals by Tom.
When Love is Found by Brian Wren
2.When love has flowered in trust and care, build both each day,
That love may dare to reach beyond home’s warmth
And light, to serve and strive for truth and right.
3.When love is tried as loved-ones change, hold still to hope,
Though all seems strange, Till ease returns and love grows wise
Through listening ears and opened eyes.
4. When love is torn, and trust betrayed, Pray strength to love till torments fade,
Till brothers keep no score of wrong, But hear through pain love’s Easter song.