Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2020
Genesis 29:15-28 Commentary
If I am Esau, sitting back home in Beersheba, the injustice of my situation is infuriating. I’ve been deceived and robbed. My life has been forever changed by the slippery ways of my little brother. My birthright is gone; so is my blessing. I’m left here with my blind old father and a mother who loves my younger brother more than me.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. If I could, I’d kill the little thief. But he’s gone, long gone, running off to uncle Laban. He’s gotten away with it. He’s ruined my life and he’s gotten away with it. Indeed, my father even sent him off on good terms, even after the way Jacob deceived him. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe the injustice of it all.
It’s not hard to put ourselves in Esau’s sandals, is it? The world is full of Jacob’s—scoundrels who get away with it. All around us are liars who occupy positions of power, thieves who never get caught, manipulative co-workers who get the promotion even though they didn’t do the hard work, kids who get you into trouble but never get called into the principal’s office themselves, terrorists who kill hundreds and then slink off to enjoy their rewards, parents who abuse their children and no one ever guesses. The world is full of smooth slippery rascals who do wrong and never get what’s coming to them. They get away with it. The injustice of it reeks to high heaven.
Well, this part of the story of the man who wrestled with God assures us that heaven smells the stench, and responds in a way that would make Esau smile, for a long while. Because, you see, at Paddan-Aram, in the home of uncle Laban, Jacob discovers that what goes around comes around. In uncle Laban, Jacob meets himself multiplied, an older, slicker, greedier version of himself. The little deceiver meets the artful dodger, the prince of thieves meets the king, the deceitful weasel of Beersheba is outdone by the wheeler dealer of Haran.
It all began well enough. Jacob is warmly welcomed by Laban, though some scholars suggest that Laban’s hospitality may have been driven by the memory of the lavish gifts he had received years before when Isaac came looking for a wife and found Rebekah. At any rate, Jacob is accepted into the family, falls in love with Rebekah, and begins to work on Laban’s ranch. Laban even wants to pay him.
But as soon as money gets mentioned, the trouble begins. Of course, Jacob doesn’t want wages; he already has prosperity guaranteed by the stolen birthright and blessing. He wants a wife; that’s why he is here. I’ll work seven years for the hand of your younger daughter Rachel, the gorgeous, shapely one.
Well, we all know how the story goes, so I won’t retell it in detail. You probably won’t have to either, unless your church is a bit biblically illiterate. I will highlight how Jacob got back in Haran exactly what he had done in Beersheba, tit for tat. The deceiver gets deceived.
The one who deceived his blind old father, taking advantage of the darkness in which Isaac lived, covering his smooth skin with goat’s skin, is deceived by Laban, who covers weak-eyed Leah with heavy veils so that Jacob doesn’t know it’s her, then slips her into Jacob’s bed in the darkness. The younger son, Jacob, who said, “I am your elder son,” receives the elder Leah as his wife, when he wanted the younger Rachel. The thief who stole the benefits of the first-born son receives the deficits of the first-born daughter.
Jacob’s mother loved him more than Esau, and her lopsided love resulted in conflict between the children of Jacob and Esau that is still being felt all over the Middle East. Jacob loved the younger daughter more, and his unbalanced love resulted in years of tension between the children of Rachel and Leah, leading to the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt. The blessing Jacob cheated Esau out of back in Beersheba guaranteed Jacob prosperity, but here in Haran Laban cheats Jacob out of his prosperity, or at least tries.
There are probably more parallels, more examples of pay back, of justice done exactly. What goes around comes around. Or as Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please the sinful nature will reap destruction.” If he sows to the flesh, he will reap the flesh. If he sows evil, he will reap evil; if he sows deceit, he will reap that; if he sows theft, he will reap that. So says the word of God. It’s a message that would make Esau smile, I’m sure.
How does that strike you? How will your church hear this story? One side of me says, “Praise the Lord!” How wonderful to know that justice will be done in this world of scoundrels and villains! To think that everyone will eventually get what they deserve, exactly and without reservation, is a real comfort—Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, serial killers, multiple rapists, abusers of children, terrorists, your worst enemies and mine. There’s one side of me that thinks this would be a better world, a good and moral and just world, if the law of “what goes around comes around” worked exactly and without exception. One side of me thinks that.
That side of me would make a good Hindu. At the heart of Hinduism is the doctrine of Karma, according to which everyone gets exactly what their actions deserve. Indeed, human life is all about working out the results of Karma. That’s why Hindus believe in reincarnation, the belief that people don’t just live one life; they are reborn again and again, given new bodies time after time, reincarnated, recycled until their karma is worked out.
The wheel of karma spins, and so in one life you might be a wealthy man, in the next a dog, in the next a poor woman, and in the next a cow. The level of being in which you are reincarnated is determined by what you did in a former life, by what your karma was. There is absolute justice, an unbreakable law of cause and effect operating in life, an unbreakable connection between what you do in one life and what happens to you in the next. Everyone gets exactly what they deserve. The wheel of Karma says that what goes around comes around.
Well, the Bible doesn’t teach that. And though that might disappoint us as long as we are thinking like Esau about Jacob, the Good News of Jesus Christ will make us rejoice when we recognize that we are Jacob. Yes, this story of Jacob assures us that there is justice in this world, that the Jacobs of the world don’t just get away with it, but that’s not all there is to it. Indeed, the Bible has a very different view of human life. It is not a cyclical affair, an endless recycling until we get it right and justice is done, an unbroken circle of cause and effect, the spinning wheel of Karma.
No, according to the Bible, human life is a story with a beginning and an ending and many chapters in between, a line that moves from one point in time and space to another. And that line can be interrupted. The story line of our lives can be broken into by the grace and mercy of a personal God. That God is not only just, but also merciful; he not only punishes sin, but also forgives it; he not only visits our sins back on us and even our descendants, but also laid those sins on the back of his only begotten Son. So, we don’t just get what we deserve; we get much more, and better.
So it is that Jacob, after experiencing the results of his deceit and thievery in his own life, does finally go back home, married with children and much wealth. That chapter entitled “What Goes Around Comes Around” is only one chapter, albeit a long one, in a much longer story that is entitled “The History of Redemption.” It is a story that will lead back to Beersheba, and down to Egypt, and back to the Promised Land, and up a hill called Calvary, and into a heaven filled with the likes of Jacob, who sinned terribly but found forgiveness through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
What goes around comes around—a satisfying truth for the likes of Esau, and a threatening one for the likes of Jacob. Be assured, my friend Esau, that there is justice in the world, because it is ruled by a just Judge. Take comfort in that if you’ve been cheated and deceived and ruined. And take warning from that, O Jacob, if you think you can get away with it. What you sow you will reap.
But that’s not the end of the story, because as Romans 5:20 puts it, where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. So even the Jacobs can rejoice. The world is not ruled by impersonal forces of cause and effect but by a personal God who specializes in the surprise of grace. That’s why you and I can rejoice—the Judge of all is the King of mercy. So even if you are in a Jacob and Esau chapter in your life, and you are Jacob, you can rejoice in glorious hope, for Christ the Judge will come to gather all his saints to their eternal home.
The last line of the piece above comes from that majestic hymn, “Rejoice the Lord is King,” which you might want to use to cement the emotional force of this story. Stanzas 3 and 4 capture the twin poles of our story:
He sits at God’s right hand till all his foes submit,
Bow down at his command and fall beneath his feet.
Lift up your hearts, lift up your voice.
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice.
Rejoice in glorious hope; for Christ the Judge shall come
To gather all his saints to their eternal home.
We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice;
The trump of God shall sound, rejoice.
God’s dealings with Jacob in Paddan-Aram were meant not to punish him, but to change him, to help him become Israel who would bring the Savior into the world. His cheating heart was as hard as the heart of the cheated Esau. Both had to be changed by grace. The much-acclaimed movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” gives a marvelous example of a hard man being changed by grace.
A cynical and angry journalist is given the assignment of doing a brief piece on “Mister Rogers” of the beloved children’s TV show. The journalist has been deeply wounded by his no-good father, so he lives a closed and bitter life. Not surprisingly, he approaches his assignment with a negative attitude toward this ridiculously kind and caring TV figure. What’s his angle? Who is he really? Over the course of several visits, the reporter is softened and healed to the point where he is reconciled to his father before the latter dies.
Before you preach on this story, watch that movie to get in touch with the human dimensions of Jacob and Esau, so that you’ll appreciate the power of divine grace.
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