Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Path of Reconciliation (Genesis 32-33)


The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of the porcupine’s dilemma. He said that when it is cold, a group of porcupines might huddle together for warmth. But, the closer they get to one another, they begin to prick one another with their quills, forcing them to separate from one another. Schopenhauer compared this to an experience in human relationships. He said, “the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature.”[1]

Perhaps you have experienced this phenomenon. We desire to have intimate friendships and deeply meaningful personal relationships with others, but we often get hurt and we hurt others. We simultaneously push others away and are pushed away by them with our mutual prickliness. Christians are not immune to this. In fact, it may be suggested that we are especially prone to it because we have both an existential need and a biblical obligation to draw near to one another in Christian fellowship. And, on the plane of Christian fellowship, our emotions are raw and vulnerable, and we are all still “works in progress” at varying points on the journey of sanctification. Even in the church, we find ourselves mutually sticking each other with the pricks of our imperfections. So, whether in the church or in the world, if we are to ever have meaningful human relationships – if we are really going to obey the command of God to love our neighbors as ourselves – we must become experts at reconciliation. And thankfully the Word of God is not silent on this subject.

In our last study, we observed the tension between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. They were born in a struggle, and grew up at odds with each other. Parental favoritism, spiritual blindness, dishonesty and deception ripped away at the fabric of family life. We left off with Esau vowing to kill Jacob, and Jacob fleeing the Promised Land to save his own life. As Jacob departed, God met with him, and assured him of His divine presence and protection, and promised that He would bring Jacob back to the Promised Land. In the intervening chapters, Jacob met and fell in love with Rachel, but was deceived by her father Laban – a taste of his own medicine. As a result of that deception, Jacob was duped into marrying the wrong girl – Rachel’s elder sister Leah. He ended up taking both of them as wives, and fathered 11 sons and a daughter. He became prosperous, and the Lord prompted him to return to the Promised Land. He and his family and entourage snuck away in the dark of night, and Laban chased after them all. When Laban finally caught Jacob, the two made an uneasy agreement before the Lord. They said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other.” This was not so much a prayer of mutual blessing, but a warning, as though to say, “You better not cross me again, because God is watching you!” They set up boundaries that neither was to cross again in order to harm the other (Gen 31:44-55). Jacob had put his conflicts with Laban behind him and was prepared to go back to the Promised Land as the Lord had prompted him. As he entered into the boundaries of the Land, the angels of God met him, as a reminder that God had kept all of the promises He had made to Jacob. And this is where our text begins.

You notice that immediately after Jacob was encountered by these angels his thoughts turned to Esau, his brother. The last time his feet had touched this soil, he was fleeing for his life from Esau’s murderous threats. Twenty years later, Jacob now finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Because of his agreement with Laban, he cannot turn back. If he is to obey the Lord, he must go forward. But going forward means crossing paths with the brother he deceived, who was intent on killing him. So Jacob has to discover the path of reconciliation with Esau if he is going to survive and fulfill God’s purposes for him and for the world through him.

Like Jacob, we often find ourselves between the rock and the hard place, with the only way forward being the path of reconciliation. Our human nature shrinks from this, leading us to look for detours or shortcuts, causing us to burn bridges instead of repairing them, or remaining idle and passively waiting for the other person to make the first move. None of these are God-honoring paths. The road less traveled is the one that makes the difference, in the words of Robert Frost. And that less traveled road is the one the Lord calls His people to take – the high road of reconciliation. So how do we do it? Let’s learn from Jacob’s example here in our text.

I. The path of reconciliation requires us to be prayerful and prepared (32:1-20).

Jacob knows that the road ahead will be a difficult one. He knows that he will either encounter Esau while on the way, or else once Esau finds out that he has returned, he will come after him later. Avoidance of the problem is not an option. He does not go into it blindly. He makes careful preparations. He does this by taking initiative and responsibility.

Notice in verse 3, after meeting with the angels of the Lord, Jacob takes the initiative to send messengers to Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He does not wait to be found by Esau, and he does not leave anything to chance. He sends his messengers to the place where Esau lives. And notice how Jacob takes responsibility. The message he sends says, “Thus says your servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants. And I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.” He takes responsibility for his past actions by treating him with humility and honor. There is humility in the character of his message. Though, by God’s sovereign choice, Jacob is rightly the “lord” of this relationship and Esau the “servant,” Jacob humbly puts himself in the lower position. He is saying in effect, “In the past, I have stolen from you; in the future, I long to serve you.” And then he honors his brother in the content of his message. He is seeking Esau’s favor instead of the fury that he rightly deserves. When he speaks of all the possessions he has amassed, he is not trying to brag about his wealth to his brother. He is saying that he has the means to compensate his brother for the wrongs that he has done to him. In verses 13-16, he separates from his possessions a collection of 550 animals as a gift to his brother. Several times, he speaks of “finding favor” or “appeasing” His brother with the present. He calls it a “present” in verses 13 and 18. But notice how he changes the word in verse 33:11 to “gift” in our English versions. The Hebrew literally reads blessing here. That’s an important word. Remember that their entire conflict has been a struggle over the blessing that Jacob stole from his brother. He sends this gift back to Esau as a way of saying, “Though I cannot undo what God has done, or cause God to change His sovereign decree, I can compensate you for the wrongs I have done to you, and in some small way be a blessing to you.” He takes initiative and responsibility. He treats his brother with humility and honor. Thus, he is doing all that he can to make the careful preparations on the horizontal level as one man to another to make restitution for the sins of his past.

But the horizontal preparation is not all that is required in advance of this meeting. He makes careful preparations, but he has no way of knowing how the message will be received by Esau. Therefore, there must be vertical preparations with God. Careful preparations are essential, but more essential are the prayerful preparations that must take place within Jacob in advance of the encounter with Esau.

The initial response that Jacob received from his messengers was disconcerting. Verse 6 tells us that the messengers indeed found Esau, “and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” That’s a lot of people – in fact, it is the number of men which would comprise a standard militia! And this causes Jacob to be “greatly afraid and distressed.” He had carefully prepared to not be received well, hence the gift sent. But now he must be prayerfully prepared!

Verse 9 begins the longest prayer in the book of Genesis, and in it, Jacob demonstrates the transformation that God has been working in his soul to this point. Notice his confession in verse 10: “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant.” He knows that he is nothing apart from the grace of God – nothing but a liar and a cheat. He confesses that, acknowledging that there is nothing good within him, but that all that he has comes from God’s goodness to him. Then notice his petition. “Deliver me!” In the Hebrew, it is equivalent to saying, “Save me!” He prays for God’s protection from his brother, saying, “for I fear him, that he will come and attack.” But notice, most importantly the basis of his prayer. He is praying according to God’s own word. In verse 9, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you.’” Jacob is recounting before the Lord that this journey back to his homeland was God’s idea. He is saying, “O Lord, I am doing exactly what you told me to do!” And then in verse 12, again, he says, “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.’” He is taking God up on His word here, as if to say, “You are the One who made these promises to me, so You must be the One to keep them! If Esau kills me, Your promise will not come to pass! But You are God, and Your word must stand!” So Jacob demonstrates that his confidence in approaching his brother is not rooted in his own plans and strategies, but in God and in His Word, upon whom he casts himself in prayerful preparation for what is to come.

Here we see the first step on the path of reconciliation. When we have wronged another, we must be prayerful and prepared. We must make the careful preparations of taking the initiative and responsibility to approach the other person with humility and honor, offering to make our wrongs right. But we must also make prayerful preparations, confessing our sin before the Lord and entrusting ourselves to Him to bring about the outcomes that He desires in the situation.

Now, secondly, we see …

II. The path of reconciliation requires us to be broken and blessed (32:21-32).

As a part of Jacob’s preparations to encounter Esau, fearing the worst, he divided up his family and entourage into multiple camps in order to minimize the casualties to his loved ones. He sent them on ahead, undoubtedly hoping that they would miss crossing paths with Esau, who was on his way to meet Jacob. Jacob stayed behind, alone, preparing for a battle. But the battle in which he suddenly found himself was not the one he had been anticipating. In 32:24, we read that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” It is only in hindsight, after the battle had ended, that Jacob was able to recognize the One with whom he had been wrestling. Verse 30 says that he named the place Peniel, which means, “The Face of God,” saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” As God would later say to Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” (Ex 33:20). But Jacob had, because God graciously condescended to him in order to break him and to bless him.

The Lord allowed Jacob to fight hard against Him. He is gracious and patient with us, and allows us to do our best in battle with Him. Though He could lay us low with but the speaking of a word, He restrains His power that we might learn more of our own limitations and dependence upon Him. And since Jacob was not giving up, the Lord took the battle to a higher level. He touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh, so that his thigh was dislocated. But Jacob still did not give up the struggle. The Lord was prepared to let the battle end, but Jacob was not. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He has to be thinking, “If I let you go, you might kill me!” Though Jacob did not yet know that his Opponent was the Lord, he recognized that he was no match for Him. So he pleaded for mercy. Hosea provides commentary on this event in Hosea 12:4, saying that Jacob “wept and sought His favor.” It had been the Lord’s desire to bless Jacob since before he was born. Jacob had thought at one time that the blessing of God could only be his by hook and by crook, not knowing that God’s blessing had been promised to him in the womb. And so in order to bring Jacob back to the place of blessing, God asked him an important question: “What is your name?”

Maybe you recall the last time this question was asked of Jacob? In 27:18, as Jacob brought in a savory dish to his father, Isaac asked him, “Who are you, my son?” And you recall Jacob’s answer: “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Again, Isaac asked him, “Are you really my son Esau?” (27:24). And again Jacob said, “I am.” What’s the old saying, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Jacob had come pretty close to doing just that. But God can never be fooled. And when He asks Jacob’s name this time, He gets an honest answer: “Jacob” (v27). His name meant, “one who grasps the heel,” and it was a way of describing a cheater. Uttering it was a confession, as if to say, “Lord, you of all people know what I am. I am a cheater and nothing more.” At last he was a broken man.

It was only as God broke Jacob that He could bless Jacob. He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” No longer is anyone to refer to Jacob in accordance with his past. There has been a transformation. He is no longer “the cheater,” he is now the “wrestler with God,” and his new, divinely given name is representative of his new, divinely transformed nature. God had broken him, and God had blessed him. And lest Jacob ever forget that, he walked away from the encounter with a limp that stayed with him the rest of his life.

Jacob was not prepared to face Esau until he’d been broken and blessed. God had to break him of his self-reliance, and bring him to the point of surrender. Jacob had to confess his past and let go of it, that he might be transformed by God for His purposes in the future. He would not strut into Esau’s presence, but he would limp toward him, mindful that the Lord alone could carry him through the attempt at reconciliation.

I wonder, have you been broken by the Lord? Has He broken you in repentance of your sins? Have you acknowledged before Him your true nature, that He may impart to you a new nature, as He did for Jacob? Have you been broken of your self-reliance, and come to the place where you desperately cling to God and cry out for His mercy? Have you been wrestling with Him, thinking that you might eventually overpower Him, only to find that He is not letting go of you, and will not let you win? Jacob prevailed in his battle with the Lord by surrendering to Him. We typically think of surrender as a defeat, and it almost always is – unless we are surrendering to the Lord. It is the only way to victory with Him! There are a lot of us who walk with a spiritual limp, but it is a badge of honor – a continual reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God and not our own strengths and abilities. We’ve been broken, but in that brokenness we have been blessed. We hobble along in God’s power, mindful of who we once were, and how He has transformed us. Having found peace with Him, we are ready to make peace with others.

III. The path of reconciliation requires us to be winsome and wise (33:1-20).

With the news that Esau was coming with a militia of 400 men, and with a conscience convicting him of his wrongdoing before they parted ways, Jacob was convinced that there was going to be trouble. Had God not crippled him at Peniel, Jacob might have either run away from the opportunity for reconciliation, or else undermined it by barging in ready to fight. With those options taken away due to his plaguing limp, Jacob had no other option but to face his brother in the most gracious demeanor possible. In addition to the gifts that he had sent in advance, Chapter 33 tells us that he came before bowing down to the ground, seeking to “find favor” in Esau’s sight (33:3, 8).

Thankfully, the Lord had gone ahead of Jacob and prepared the heart of Esau for the encounter. This is what Jacob had prayed for, and God answered in a big way. Esau didn’t come at Jacob with clenched fists but with open arms. In 33:3 we find that he “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.” The wording reminds us of how the loving father received back his prodigal son in Luke 15:20: “he ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

Jacob and Esau have a warmhearted reunion and reconciliation here. Jacob came in with winsome humility, and Esau came in with a forgiving spirit in answer to Jacob’s prayer. When Esau inquired about Jacob’s entourage, Jacob gave God credit for his prosperity and he pressed upon Esau to receive the gift (the “blessing”) that he was offering him as restitution. Against his initial protests, Esau finally received the gift as a means of burying the hatchet. All was well with the brothers, perhaps for the first time in their lives. But then it got weird.

Esau is seemingly hospitable as he invites Jacob to accompany him to Seir, presumably to settle down as a neighbor to him. He offers him an escort to ensure Jacob’s safe passage. But Jacob politely declines the offer of the escort. The two are really trying to outdo each other with kindness and courtesy here in the final verses of Chapter 33. Finally Jacob persuades Esau to go on ahead, and let him “proceed at” his own “leisure,” given his limp and the pace of driving such a large entourage of people and livestock. He says, “Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure … until I come to my lord at Seir.” So in verse 16, Esau returned to Seir. And in verse 17, Jacob journeyed to Succoth and built a house for himself there. He never went to Seir, and he never intended to. What is going on here? Had Jacob backslidden into his old deceptive ways? I used to think that was the case, but then I did something I had neglected to do before – I read the text of the Bible carefully. What I find is that Jacob never told Esau he was coming to Seir. He simply said, I will proceed at my leisure until I come to my lord at Seir. That may never happen. He is basically saying, “Don’t worry about leaving the light on for me.” Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jacob had deceived Esau or done any wrong. Never again is this incident mentioned and nowhere is Jacob condemned by the Lord or anyone else for it. That does not, in itself, mean that he had done a good thing, but neither does it mean that he did a bad thing. When the Bible is silent, we need to be silent. The Bible does not indicate what Jacob’s motives were, what Esau’s reaction was, and neither does it defend or condemn Jacob for this. So we must treat the text as we have it.

One thing I have discovered as I have visited other cultures is the priority of hospitality and the practice of saving face. Notwithstanding any other factor that may be at play here in the hearts and minds of Jacob and Esau, there was a societal obligation for Esau to show hospitality to his brother. His forgiveness would have been deemed superficial and shallow had he not proven his genuineness with an offer of hospitality. And, on the flip side of that, Jacob could not have flatly refused the offer. It would have been like a slap in the face. As winsomely as possible, the two handled the situation with grace and kindness. But in addition to being winsome, Jacob had to be wise. The bottom line was that both of these men knew that their future would have to take them in separate directions. They both knew that they needed boundaries. Esau could forgive the past, and Jacob could earnestly seek the favor of his brother, but this did not mean that the two had to become best buddies or BFFs. Spiritually speaking, they were incompatible. Jacob was being transformed by God into a new man. Esau still didn’t know the first thing about faith. If Jacob ever misstepped in his relationship with his brother, intentionally or accidentally, all of Esau’s murderous rage would instinctively return. With the past covered by forgiveness and reconciliation, both men were free – free from guilt and free from vengeance – to pursue their own path for the future.

As we walk the path of reconciliation, we must do so winsomely. Kindness and courtesy, humility and honesty must characterize all that we do and say. Having prepared carefully and prayerfully, and having sought God’s forgiveness, we can trust Him to work in the heart of the one we have wronged to receive us and forgive us as well. But, there must be wisdom employed as well. We may discover that separate ways are the best way forward, but those divergent paths cannot be pursued until we have dealt with the past in repentance and grace.

Have you wronged someone? Be prayerful and prepared. Take the initiative and take responsibility for your actions. Be humble, and honor the other person as you seek to make wrongs right. Seek God’s forgiveness first, and then the other person’s. But pray fervently that God might be with you and that He might work in the heart of the other person. Let God have His way with you, breaking you that you would limp forward leaning on him, and blessing you with a transformed nature. In your encounter, be respectful and kind – winsome in fact. But as you put the past behind you and look toward the future, exercise prudent wisdom about the boundaries you need to maintain in the restored relationship.

Maybe you are the one who has been wronged. Put yourself in Esau’s shoes. Someone else has done something awful to you – lied to you, cheated you, deceived you, stolen from you, maybe worse. How can you find the grace to forgive them? If you are a follower of Jesus, you immediately have an advantage over Esau here. Esau was not a man of faith, and yet demonstrated great charity in dealing with Jacob. We who are believers in Jesus can do even better than this. We are new creations in Christ, transformed by His forgiving grace. We do not need to merely put the past behind us. We actively put the past under the blood of Jesus. We treat the sins of others in the same way that God has dealt with ours. You see, when we acknowledge that God has worked in Christ to reconcile us to Himself, forgiving us of our sins against Him, there is nothing that anyone else has done or can do to us that we cannot forgive. Nothing anyone does to us is ever as egregious as what we have done to God in our sinful rebellion against Him. And just as God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, He has given us the ministry of reconciliation by which we might reconcile ourselves to others, that we might mediate reconciliation between others, and most importantly reconcile men to God by pointing them to Jesus. What a powerful evidence of the Gospel of Christ we will present to the world when we are found offering the same kind of forgiveness to others which we claim to have received ourselves!

[1] Jon Maner, C. Nathan DeWall, Roy Baumeister, Mark Schaller, “Does Social Exclusion Motivate Interpersonal Reconnection? Resolving the Porcupine Problem.” Online: ~schaller/Maner2007.pdf. Accessed March 23, 2017. 

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