A sermon on Genesis 33:1-20 preached August 7, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL (c) Christina Berry
1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, "Who are these with you?" Jacob said, "The children whom God has graciously given your servant." 6 Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8 Esau said, "What do you mean by all this company that I met?" Jacob answered, "To find favor with my lord." 9 But Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." 10 Jacob said, "No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. 11 Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want." So he urged him, and he took it. 12 Then Esau said, "Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you." 13 But Jacob said to him, "My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir." 15 So Esau said, "Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me." But he said, "Why should my lord be so kind to me?" 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the place is called Succoth. 18 Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram; and he camped before the city. 19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem's father, he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
When dawn broke that morning, Jacob was afraid. He was weary, and hurting, and afraid. He’d wrestled all night with some kind of messenger from God, wrestled and prevailed, and come away with a limp, and with a new name, Israel.
It was time to face up – face his fears, face the facts, face his brother. When you know you’ve cheated someone, it’s not easy to look them in the eye. When you know you’ve been cruel or careless with someone, it’s not easy to let them look you in the eye.
When you are afraid of what someone might do, it’s not easy to come hobbling into their presence, obviously unable to run if they decide to attack you. Jacob was not only afraid for himself, he was afraid for his family, especially his wife Rachel and her son Joseph. He had lots of children, and another wife, but it was Rachel and Joseph that he loved the most.
Having had experience in taking from others what they most loved, having had practice in stealing the best of another’s life, Jacob worried that it might now happen to him. Every time he thought about Esau he was flooded with feelings: feelings of shame and sorrow, the loss of a brother’s love, but also a sense of triumph, of having won that unspoken competition between brothers.
It’s a contest that has its start the moment we are born, whether there is open antagonism or not – who will win the blessing? who will receive the birthright? is there enough to go around? does mother love ME? does father love ME? who does mother love best?
Jacob had undoubtedly won the fight. But the last word he’d heard from his brother was that Esau planned to kill him. Well, no time to waste worrying. He’d find out soon enough what his brother’s answer would be. As the first rays of sun broke across the gray horizon, Jacob saw Esau coming, with hundreds of men behind him. In fear for the lives of his children, Jacob assembled them, with his beloved Rachel and Joseph at the rear. He himself, his stomach churning, went out ahead of them, bowing humbly, his head down like a whipped dog, refusing to meet his brother’s eyes.
Esau came toward him in a rush, his arms out, and Jacob steeled himself for the blow of fist or spear or sword. But the blows did not fall. Instead, the arms of his brother encircled him, and Esau fell on his neck and kissed him, and wept. The tears leapt to Jacob’s eyes, even as his emotions swirled within him.
Night after sleepless night Jacob had played scenes of reunion in his head – picturing himself brashly justifying his actions to his angry brother, imagining himself bravely fighting back his brother’s violent blows, fearing himself cowardly enough to turn and run.
But he had never imagined this, never expected this, never thought he would receive forgiveness, never dreamed of reconciliation. He had come with gifts to offer, he had come in humility, he had felt shame and fear.
Such a far cry from their last meeting, when he had come to take gifts that were not his, when he had come in arrogance, when he had felt pride, and contempt. It could not be anything but the work of God. He did not deserve this.
All of his life, he had known that God was with him; and now he thought of all the ways he had exploited and misused his family. How could God, El –Roi, the one who sees – still bless him and protect him? This God had promised to bless him and keep him, and Jacob had gladly accepted Elohim’s protection.
This God had promised that he would prosper, and Jacob had richly enjoyed his wealth and prosperity. Through it all, he had cheated and connived, manipulated and lied, stormed and stomped and demanded. As Jacob walked alongside his brother, he thought of all that had led to this day:
His grandfather Abraham, called to leave his home and follow this unknown God, called to trust a promise of something that could not be.
His grandmother Sarah, who laughed at God, then became the mother of a great nation.
His father Isaac, the boy named laughter, whose very existence was an impossibility and a miracle, the gentle patriarch and loving father.
His mother Rebekah, who loved her husband, and loved her sons, but loved him more than his brother.
His brother Esau, strong and simple, cheated by him, by Jacob, out of both birthright and blessing, yet still prosperous.
At Shechem, he built an altar to El Shaddai, the all-sufficient God, built a pillar of stones to the God who gave him the name of Israel. He piled the stones high, so that all would know: El-elohe-Israel: God alone is the God of Israel.
Jacob had contended with God, and he thought he had prevailed. But he had not prevailed, not with his pride and ego, not with his treachery and lies, not with trickery or deceit. God had prevailed, with grace, with mercy, with love, with the enfolding arms of a brother, the hot tears of a brother’s mercy, and the soft brush of a brother’s lips in a kiss of pardon.
It would be a story that Jacob would tell again and again, a story that would be passed on, and handed down, and passed on, until it reached us here at this table.
We are a storied people, people who stumble around in confusing darkness seeking a story that will illuminate our lives and light our way. We are a people of stories, stories that wind around through the desert, concealing malicious motives from us and springing surprising sincerity on us, pausing at simple heaps of stones, cairns of tribute, altars to God.
The stones of those altars become our stories. They pave a path for us: a path toward truth, and meaning. It is rarely a path of precision, more frequently a winding, meandering road that leads us to a community, a people, a cross, a table. We come from north and south and east and west, we come from situations of status, and from corners of humility, from celebrations of triumph and from the ashes of loss.
We come here, like Jacob, each with our own story, not deserving of welcome, but expecting punishment. We are met here by the God who lives in all the stories of our lives, the God who sees us, knows us, and is all-sufficient to bless us.
We are met here by Jesus Christ, who sets this table, and welcomes us with the embrace of a loving brother, who opens his arms in forgiveness and grace. We are filled at this table with the Spirit of the God of Israel, who provides for us no matter who we are or what we have done.
As you come to this table, you may ask yourself, as Jacob asked, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” Here, in this bread and this cup, you will know the answer, the only answer that could be: forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.