Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
They Are Us
Genesis 25: 19-34
This morning, we concentrate on the part of the Genesis story in which Jacob cons Esau out of his birthright. The story’s setting – a culture in which the firstborn’s son right to the family name, lands, and wealth was, as our Declaration of independence says “inalienable” – may seem foreign. Lead us to ask how God expects to speak to us through such distant tales. But, human beings still refuse to equate the word “right” with “gift.” And we still trust ourselves, more than God, not only to decide what we most need, but also to secure it. In that sense, nothing has changed. Jacob and Esau are us. Let us pray.
Gracious Giver of all that we have and are, you who formed us in the womb, and knew us completely before we were even conscious of ourselves, much less you. Teach us gratitude for the gifts we have learned to call “rights”. That, taking our rightful place as creatures joyfully dependent upon you, we might learn to live the abundant life you would give us in your son Jesus Christ, trusting your gracious hand to show us to what we need, and to teach us to receive it humbly, with thanksgiving. Amen.
Here is what happened. Jacob was the quiet one. “Rough and ready” was not his way. Unlike his brother Esau, he preferred to cook game rather than kill it. So, he spent a lot of time in the tents with the women. None of this meant he did not know how to identify what he wanted and go after it. His bag of tricks simply consisted of more than just “frontal assault.” It had to. He was the little brother; destined by cultural rules to play second fiddle to Esau.
Once, after spending an afternoon cooking a stew, Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming in from the field. His fraternal twin was hungry enough to eat a horse. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff you are cooking, I’m starved’….
Jacob thought a moment. He’d been trying to out- finagle his brother since Esau had had the audacity to be born first. Now was the time to take over that cozy, coveted spot as favorite son. ‘First sell me your birthright.’
Esau looked at him, annoyed. ‘Can’t you see I am about to die of hunger; of what use is a birthright to me in this state?’ Jacob would not let him consider the exchange lightly. ‘Swear to me first.’ So Esau, impatient and ready to eat swore to him, and probably at him, selling his birthright to Jacob. For some bread and lentil stew, Esau despised his birthright.
Makes us wonder what was wrong with Esau! Jacob drove a very hard bargain. “Tell you what. I’ll share my lunch in exchange for our whole inheritance.” Was Esau that hungry? Or, was he so sure of himself and his position in the world, he thought he could afford to play fast and loose with the gifts he had? At the very least, we know he wasn’t into “deferred gratification.” He wanted what he wanted right now.
A story like that could set us thinking. How often do we neglect really important things to indulge a passing desire? Take our place in the world for granted? Esau really wanted that stew. That was his immediate desire. Who cared about some big final inheritance? What could matter less in the face of his stomach’s rumblings?
Esau chose to forget that in that culture, birthright was everything. It was his link to the long past. It was his tie to the distant future. It was the very meaning of his humanity. He said, “of what use is the birthright if I die?” Now, more than likely, Esau was not about to die. But, even if he had been, couldn’t the question be reversed? Couldn’t he have asked, what is the use of living if, in doing so, I give up my reason for living? [The idea for the framing question of this sermon was inspired by a similar question in a sermon by Rev. Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, 1999.]
Couldn’t he have figured out before making a rash decision with long term implications what his whole kingdom was really worth? He could have, yes. But he did not. We’re all like Esau—at least part of the time. We can become so attracted to finite, transitory things. That is, we become so focused on ourselves, on satisfying the hunger in our bellies, on justifying the anger eating at our hearts, on winning the love and approval of particular human beings. We become so focused on ourselves that we forget to consider the reason for being Himself. When we do that, we despise our birthright.
And, what is our birthright? The one great birthright we have as human beings comes to us as a gift from God. And, that birthright consists of the opportunity to be in relationship with Him. Being in relationship with God, according to the Bible, is the one thing that makes us human. Being in relationship with God, and through God, with other human beings, makes us who we are. It is also what links our transitory lives on earth to forever. Being in relationship with God is the one thing that gives human life meaning and purpose. This idea does not come from some personal philosophy of life, invented on the fly. It arises from the wisdom of thousands of generations. It is, that is, a belief central to the Biblical witness.
The Bible’s witness to what makes human life meaningful, or perhaps better said, WHO makes human life meaningful, was beautifully and succinctly expressed in the first line of the Westminster Shorter Catechism by the fathers and mothers of our Reformed tradition. It is part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA, and was penned in 1647. The expression of human purpose comes in the form of a question: What is the chief end of humanity? To glorify God, and to love God forever. [Westminster Shorter Catechesim. The Book of Confessions. Office of the Presbyterian Church USA: 2002, p. 175] That’s it. Everything we are to be and do in order to ground our lives in the big picture, in the truth, in order to transcend the narrow finitude of “me”, is contained within it.
A couple of additional comments on the Biblical understanding of this one, all encompassing, human birthright. First, there is no way to draw a distinction between gifts from God and human “rights.” Notice, going back to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was careful to place the very idea of “right” in the context of the human relationship to God. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” [The Declaration of Independence] Jefferson understood that rights are not to be used to assert ourselves against other human beings, to our advantage and their detriment. They were, instead, to be gratefully received and protected by a community that understood itself to live, joyfully dependent, on a God who was real as it was. Claiming natural rights, rights divinely ascribed, therefore, was done to enhance the community’s ability to live under God with one another. They were never intended to be used for personal one-upmanship, or to deny others their God given rights. By that definition, there is no right to take another’s life in self-defense.
Which, of course, brings us back to Jacob. Brings us back to him because, yes, Esau fails to consider his ultimate inheritance, what his life is for. But so, ultimately, does Jacob. Jacob does, at least, know there is blessing out there. Greater good than the immediate satisfaction of his base desires. He knows about blessing, all right. He sees Esau’s privileged status as eldest son and wants that, badly. Jacob’s mistake is his understanding that blessing is something he must grab for himself, rather than something faith will teach him to receive from God. His mistake is ours as well, isn’t it? Our stubborn, rebellious insistence that blessing equals “success” according to the world’s standards? That blessing has to do with winning rather than loving? Our belief that blessing is something we manage to win or achieve rather than something we receive from God in communion with Him and other human beings?
Neither brother in our story this morning is worthy of God’s favor. Neither brother freely cedes the first fiddle, in the final analysis, to God. Each prefers to play it himself. One is more separate from God than the other. One is a bigger sinner than the other. We might see ourselves reflected in either one, but the reflection either way is not particularly kind. That’s the bad news.
The good news? God gave his only son to save just that kind. God gave his only son, Jesus Christ, to save people driven by desires for things other than deep and meaningful relationship with God and other people. God gave his only son to save people like Jacob and Esau. God gave his only son to save people just like us.
To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.