December 16, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell
Family – what comes to mind when I say that word? Is it a warm fire, reading books, going camping, hugs, and good feelings? Do you think of those things and say, “I wish?”
For many, many, family does not connote warmth or good feelings at all. Instead, you think of hurt feelings, broken relationships, mistrust, and fear. Christmas may be a time where family is absent by choice, and you feel the weight of that. Or, Christmas may be a time of meeting at someone’s house in spite of the broken relationships.
This is such a huge topic and there is no way to address all the variations and dilemmas raised. But I can point you to this story in Genesis as one example of how God would work through and in a broken family relationship and restore some peace and grace.
What Does God Want You to Do?
Let me start with the question, “What does God want you to do?” This is the pivotal question in this passage in Genesis and it is the one for us as well. And I don’t think there is one answer to that. There is a more cohesive answer to HOW God wants us to do it, and that’s what we’ll focus on. But WHAT…?
In Genesis 32:9, we read what God said to Jacob, “Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you.” That’s what God wanted Jacob to do – to go home. That may be the case for you, it may not. Some of you may need to “return home”; some, in the case of abuse, might need to flee! But even returning, you may be called on to confront, to reconcile, to speak truth, to speak peace. Without sitting down with each one of you, it’s hard to say exactly. But my guess is that you have some idea of what God would have you do. The real problem is in how to do it!
That was certainly the case with Jacob. He didn’t have any trouble understanding God’s instructions. It’s just that he didn’t know how his brother, Esau, would receive him.
Jacob was scared. Basically, he had tricked Esau into selling him the family blessing for a bowl of stew and then fled. Jacob was the one in the wrong and he knew that Esau had every reason in the world to be angry at him – even to desire revenge. Don’t let the fact that you may think the other person is wrong disconnect you from this story. We still must start with the question, “What does God want me to do?”
As far as the HOW, Jacob began with a mistake. He began without God in mind and began making his own plans and contingencies for meeting Esau. Verses 7-8 in chapter 32 describe this:
…Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.”
He goes on, after the first passage we heard, to try to bribe Esau with multiple gifts of livestock.
How like me this is! I understand what God wants me to do, but then I’ll do everything humanly possible to avoid failure, whether that is putting others on the chopping block ahead of me or trying to bribe others good pleasure. I can just imagine the Christmas scenario. I buy my brother an extra big present – really extravagant – hoping he will overlook the thing that came between us last year. Is that really any way to achieve true reconciliation and forgiveness? Is there really a gift sufficient for that?
In the middle of making his own plans, Jacob seems to remember God (though he’ll turn around and continue on with the bribery after this). In Genesis 32:11, he cries out to God in prayer, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children.” Well, ignoring that Jacob seems to even be trying to play on God’s sympathy with the mothers and the children thing (remember, Jacob put them out front), Jacob is doing the right thing here by calling out to God for help. He cries out, “Deliver me!”… “Save me!”… “Help me!”
That’s the right starting place… praying hard for God’s help and trusting in God’s promises. It doesn’t offend God to pray His promises out loud – that is a time-honored tradition in biblical prayers. Listen to Jacob in verse 12:
For you said, “I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.”
Jacob is clinging to the great covenant promise made to his grandfather, Abraham. How will God keep the promise about descendants if Esau wipes out Jacob and his family?
God desires the best for our families as well. God has created the family and spoken His Word so that we might live together in peace and as a shining light to the world. It’s hard to do that if we’ve stopped speaking to someone.
I think the key to HOW to be with family when there is no peace is to pray for God’s will to be done. Ask God for help, not once, but every time. Ask God to glorify Himself through you and your extended family. Are there family members who do not know God? I can’t think of any prayer God would rather hear than for you to pray for their salvation.
Seeing the Face of God
Family conflict is not easily healed. These are, after all, the people closest to you and therefore capable of the most hurt and disappointment. Once that has happened, it is extraordinarily hard to overcome. Certainly bribery, avoidance, or dodging the issues rarely helps, especially in the long run. If God is God at all, He is the one with hope for our broken relationships.
Listen to the end of the story of Jacob’s encounter with Esau. This is not to say that God will magically fix every family conflict in this room today, but it does describe the nature of the healing God brought to Jacob and Esau’s relationship. You heard and can re-read all the details. Esau has not suffered as one might have thought after the taking of the birthright. Being apart from him, Jacob could only imagine how his life had been. Sometimes, we labor under false expectations.
But here’s the key part – it’s in Genesis 33:10.
…I see your face as one sees the face of God…
Through his obedience in coming to face Esau, even if given reluctantly, Jacob listened and obeyed what God wanted him to do.
Through his prayers, even in the midst of trying a few of his own techniques, Jacob sought God’s help and strength.
And coming into the situation, Jacob was able to see God in the middle of it… in his brother’s face.
That’s the key point. God may or may not “solve” the dilemma. The other person may or may not be receptive to God working. But if we obey God and seek God, He will be faithful to show up in a way that is at least visible to you. And that’s a huge thing!
Think about your upcoming holiday. Who will you see? Who may God want you to see? What do you think God wants you to do? Do you need to just show up when you could stay away? Do you need to speak a word of truth? Of peace? Of forgiveness?
Your story may vary from the details of this story, but I believe the heart of this story shows the heart of God, which does not change. If we listen, obey, and follow, God will show up, lead us, and bless us.
May God give us ears to hear as we listen for His direction. Amen.