(A sermon based on Genesis 33:1-17 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on Sunday, October 23, 2011)
We live in hope of reaching the ideal and our ideal for our homes is that they will be oases of peace and security and well-being. We hold that same ideal for our church homes. The truth is, though, that we don’t reach the ideal at home and we don’t achieve the ideal at church, either.
We shouldn’t be terribly surprised by that, given that the New Testament, which tells us about the lives of some of the earliest churches, reveals that most of those churches were racked by problems ranging from disputes over theology to controversies over personalities. Not much has changed. On the other hand, you would think that in 2000 years we would have made more progress toward the ideal than we have. Oh well.
Today we’re going to think about trouble in the church by looking at some of the trouble that occurred in the family of Isaac, particularly as those troubles involved Isaac and Rebekah’s sons Esau and Jacob.
The truth is, of course, that the family of Isaac did not constitute a church; they did, however, constitute the people of God and so the parallels are, I believe, legitimate.
So--why does trouble come to our church home?
First, trouble comes from the quest for power and prestige. Jacob was born seeking power and prestige; he and Esau were twins and we’re told that when Esau was born first his brother Jacob was holding onto his heel. In the first post-birth encounter between the brothers about which we’re told, Jacob took advantage of an opening to claim the birthright—the right to the greater inheritance and to the primary place in the family tree—that by birth order belonged to Esau.
Sometimes trouble comes in the church because of the quest for power and prestige. Now, the church needs leaders but we get into trouble when our leadership standards and styles are dictated by utilitarianism (what works) or by egotism (what works to my advantage). Our leadership standards and styles are to be dictated by the words and by the life of our Lord Jesus who said to his disciples who were jockeying for position, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Second, sometimes trouble comes from machination and manipulation. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s weakness in taking his birthright; Rebekah and Jacob took advantage of Isaac’s multiple weaknesses in stealing Esau’s blessing. In the first situation, it seems that Jacob acted on impulse but in the second situation there was much preplanning and preparatory plotting. The bottom line is that Jacob manipulated Esau and Isaac to his own advantage in order to get what he wanted.
In all situations Christians should treat people like people and not like objects to be manipulated and maneuvered for our own benefit. That is part of the point behind Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount—not only are we not to take physical advantage of someone but we are also to be growing in heart and spirit so that we don’t even think of or see someone as an object to be used. We get into trouble in the church when we work behind the scenes to manipulate people and situations for what we believe to be our own benefit.
Third, trouble comes from the misuse of personal strengths. Esau was “a skillful hunter, a man of the field” while Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents” (25:27). We get the idea from the stories about them that Esau was characterized by impulsiveness and a strong awareness of his physical needs while Jacob was characterized by cleverness and shrewdness. But Esau fell prey to his impulsiveness and his appetites while Jacob fell prey to his cleverness and shrewdness. As a friend of mine says, “Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.”
We all have strengths but those strengths can become weaknesses if we let ourselves misuse them. You might, for example, have the gift of gab; you might be a very good talker and that is a gift that can be used for the good of the kingdom—but it is also a gift that can be used to hurt people or to manipulate situations or to stir up things behind the scenes. We all have spiritual gifts that come to us by the grace of God but we can let them become weaknesses. You might, for example, have the spiritual gift of wisdom but it can become a weakness if you let yourself think that you always know better than anyone else.
Fourth, trouble comes from the willingness to settle for the quick and the expedient. Esau had the birthright in his possession; it was his to hold onto. One day when Esau came in from the field he was famished and Jacob was cooking some stew; when Esau asked for some of it Jacob offered to trade him a bowl for his birthright. It is obvious that Jacob had his eyes on the long term while Esau had his stomach set on the short term and they both got what they wanted. Esau traded his future for a bowl of stew.
We get in trouble in the church when we settle for the quick and the expedient rather than doing our ministry in ways that will best contribute to the long-term health of the church and to the long-term good of God’s kingdom. There are things we could do that would guarantee that we would have a house full of folks next Sunday; we could give away a car or we could have an entertainer in the pulpit or we could stir up a controversy—but at what price would we have our big crowd and what cost to our presentation of Jesus would we have a big Sunday? We do things in a more healthy way when we do the daily work of worship, of prayer, of Bible study, and of ministry—all by the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit—that bear effective and appropriate witness to the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself up for us and for everyone else.
Fifth, trouble comes from the playing of favorites. Rebekah preferred Jacob while Isaac preferred Esau; it takes little imagination to know that such favoritism in a family will wreak havoc in the home.
It is in some ways natural that we will develop closer relationships with some than with others in the church; we all gravitate toward those with similar interests and similar backgrounds and similar mindsets. We need to make an inward commitment, though, to view absolutely everyone as being as important and vital as anyone else and we need to let that inward commitment lead to outward actions. Sit somewhere else next Sunday and speak to different people; come to Wednesday night supper and fellowship around the tables; invite someone you know well and someone you don’t to your home for a meal or for dessert and share your lives with one another. We avoid trouble and build health when we build broader and deeper relationships.
Sixth, last, and hardest—trouble comes from the purposes of God. We err if we don’t remember that somehow, while Jacob and Esau’s choices mattered—and while our choices matter—we have to contend with the purposes of God that can and do bring their own trouble. When Rebekah was pregnant with the twin boys she was having a difficult time and when she prayed about it the Lord told her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (25:23). So—even though Jacob stole what belonged to Esau somehow it was all working within the larger purposes of God.
This much I know—there is trouble that is worth having in the church. Trouble that comes from selfishness or from small-mindedness or from greed or from thin skin or from fear or from pride is not worth having—although we’re going to have it anyway. But trouble that comes from trying to do things God’s way—that’s trouble worth having. And what is God’s way? “The elder will serve the younger.” Or, as Mary the mother of Jesus sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Or, as the Apostle Paul put it, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). God, you see, is very interested in reversals; God is very interested in elevating the week over the strong and the foolish over the wise and the poor over the rich; God is very interested in turning the world upside down—all of which we can participate in, as much trouble as it will bring us, if we will do things in God’s way as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Most of our trouble, though, has been and is with each other. What do we do with it? Well, after many, many years, Esau and Jacob reconciled. When Esau welcomed his brother, Jacob said, among other things, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (33:10). We need to remember that we see the face of God in each other’s faces, that we love God by loving each other. That’s the ideal toward which we are to be growing.
That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it just right or find complete reconciliation. After all, after their big reconciliation scene and despite all their noble words, Jacob and Esau ended up living far away from each other, living the lives that God had given them to live.
Still…let us, by the grace of God, try.
There’s trouble here, but it’s still home. There’s trouble here, but let’s try not to let it be our trouble. There’s trouble here, but let’s live through it and in it. There’s trouble here, but let’s pray and live so that it will be God’s kind of trouble.