Odd Man Out
Odd Man Out
Some wedding requests pose a dilemma for pastors. Most of us will not officiate at a wedding between a believer and an unbeliever, believing it violates Scripture. But should we perform a wedding for two unbelievers? I will do that, but there is always a point early in the premarital counseling where I tell the couple that something will be missing from their ceremony. "I cannot give you God's blessing," I tell them. That always gets their attention! I go on to explain that their guests will probably not notice anything is missing and that I won't do anything to draw attention to it, but when I pronounce them husband and wife, I will not add the phrase, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." It means there will be no benediction, for a benediction is God's blessing.
Because this catches many off guard, I offer the reason: I can't give them God's blessing because they haven't positioned themselves to receive it. God's blessing is for those who love and serve him through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is always interesting to see the response when I say that. A few couples seem a bit offended, but more often than not, I get no response. Maybe they're just being polite or keeping their feelings to themselves, but as long as I'll do the wedding and not embarrass them, they don't seem to care. In fact, I often get the sense they don't even understand what the big deal is. They'd be far more upset if I didn't allow photographers!
Do you think having God's blessing is a big deal? I can't imagine there's anyone who wouldn't want God's blessing if it was offered, but how significant would it be to you if someone told you it was out of your grasp?
As we have studied the life of Jacob, we have seen that central to our story of this Old Testament patriarch is the issue of God's blessing. In our last sermon, we looked at four scoundrels in one family who were all out to get God's blessing by any means possible. Father Isaac and son Esau tried to outwit mother Rebekah and twin son Jacob. In the end, just as God had promised, Jacob received the blessing, even though his father, Isaac, thought he was giving it to his favorite son, Esau. We return to that story today in our passage, just as Esau and his father Isaac figure out that they've been conned by Rebekah and Jacob.
Even though this story describes things that seem very foreign to us, we are going to see two timeless truths: (1) there is nothing in life so valuable as God's blessing, and (2) with God's blessing at stake, do not be godless like Esau.
There is nothing in life as valuable as God's blessing.
God's blessing dominates this story. This blessing was first given first to Abraham, passed on to Isaac, and now it is passed on to Jacob. As God had promised, soon this blessing will bless all the world. It's easy to see, then, that this blessing was a sacred trust. It was a holy seed, tiny but full of world-blessing promise.
Scripture tells us that God's blessing was a package of several lavish promises:
- A ruling/royal line - "rule over your brothers"
- Preeminence among the nations - "May nations serve you"
- Vast population - "descendants like the dust of the earth"
- A Promised Land to call home
- God's presence and protection - "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go"
These were the promises that shaped the significance of Jacob's descendants, the people of Israel. This was their God-given heritage, and in all these aspects of their blessing, God's goal was ultimately to bless the whole world. But ultimately, the people of Israel failed. The Old Testament tells us that generations of sin and rebellion against God finally brought about a national collapse when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC. Israel lost her king, her land, and her national respect, and she was taken into captivity. Even God himself left the temple. It looked as though the blessing of God upon Israel was lost—and if it was lost to Israel, it was lost to the whole world! But from the ashes of this lost blessing came Jesus the Messiah, descended from David and Judah and Jacob. He fulfilled the promise of preeminence by being King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He fulfilled the promise of a vast population by becoming the Second Adam, father of a race of people who never die. He guarantees the Promised Land, because he will gather God's people together and they will reign over all the earth. He fulfilled God's promise of presence and protection by coming himself among us and then by sending his Holy Spirit to be within us.
Through Jesus Christ, who singlehandedly carries the blessing responsibility of Israel, all the world is blessed, just as God promised Abraham. And this is what was ultimately at stake in the story of Jacob and Esau. This is what is at stake today when people consider Jesus Christ. As Christians we have decided that we would rather have Jesus and all the blessings we have in him, than to live for the present. We're willing to be out of place in this world so we can be at home in a home that will last forever. We have decided that there is nothing in life as valuable as God's blessing. C. S. Lewis captured the idea so memorably in The Weight of Glory:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desire, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
With God's blessing at stake, do not be godless like Esau.
With the immense value of God's blessing in mind, let's return to our story. The New Testament sums up Esau's life in Hebrews 12:16-17: "godless like Esau." That doesn't mean that Esau didn't believe in God; it means God didn't matter to him. Esau cared nothing for God's best blessings. Esau was only desperate to get Isaac's blessing because he had seen how God had made Isaac rich and influential. There's not much of God in that blessing, though, is there? But Esau didn't want God anyway. He just wanted prosperity, power, and peace.
Esau thought that it was Jacob who kept him from the blessing, but it was really God. The reasons why Esau would not receive God's best blessing are the same reasons why people miss God's blessing today.
First of all, God won't offer his blessing to a godless people who won't face their sin. There is hardly a story in all the Old Testament as wrenching as the one outlined in verses 30-41. Verse 33 tells us that "Isaac trembled violently" when he discovered what had happened. Then, in verse 34, we read that Esau "burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, 'Bless me—me too, my father!'" If this was a scene in a movie, everyone would be dabbing their eyes. But wait a minute—Esau had already sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He had no right to that blessing! Nonetheless, verse 36 tells us that Esau felt he deserved the blessing. He became so incensed that he begins to plot a way to kill Jacob.
Esau thought he was a victim, but his real problem was his own sin. He cried like a baby, but he didn't repent. He didn't repent, because he didn't see himself as a sinner—only a victim. Like the labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, Esau seemed to say, "I may have my faults, but being wrong ain't one of them."
No one can receive the advantages God gives if they won't face their own sin. God has done all the hard work in sending his Son to die for sinners. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul wrote, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst." That's where the blessed life starts. But God won't save sinners who won't repent and turn from their sin.
Secondly, God won't offer his blessing to a godless people who want blessings without wanting God. Esau wanted what he had seen his father get from God—prosperity, power, and peace. But nowhere do we read of Esau praying, building an altar to God, listening to God's word, or even trusting in God. God simply wasn't on his mind. Like Hebrews says, he was "godless."
Blessings are, by definition, gifts. They require a generous giver. Blessings aren't something you have by right. Esau knew the blessing came from God, but he had no interest in getting God in the bargain. He was like a kid who just wants the present and doesn't care at all who sent it. God gives many great blessings to people who do not love him—June mornings and little babies, health and jobs, safety and undeserved kindnesses. But the greater blessing—the holy legacy first promised to Abraham—only comes with a relationship, because it is the relationship with God that makes the blessing so incredibly valuable and wonderful!
As the story continues, Esau continues in his godless ways. In fact, he thinks he can bargain his way into God's blessing. In Genesis 28:6-9, Esau is still looking for an angle to get his blessing back. When he sees Jacob get a proper wife, he thinks to himself, I see! This is all about my being married to two Canaanite women. I can fix that! He then marries his cousin, the daughter of his father's half-brother, Ishmael. But that won't work! No one gets God's blessing through bargaining. God blesses those who learn to love and trust him.
The irony in this story, of course, is that Jacob got the blessing. Jacob had precious little faith in God. But he did have a little faith—faith about the size of a mustard seed. Nonetheless, it was there, and that's what God worked with. This story is not a tribute to Jacob; it is a tribute to the grace of God, who would fix his blessing on someone as slippery and spiritually weak as Jacob. God started where Jacob was, and in the end, Jacob is commended in Hebrews 11 for his faith. At the end of his life, when Jacob blesses his grandsons, he says in Genesis 48:15-16: "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys."
Do you want the God-blessed life? It is a gift God will freely give you, if you turn from your godlessness. Admit your sin, declare that you want God himself as life's best gift, and stop trying to bargain with him. The blessed life is a free gift, which we receive by believing God's promise, made available to us through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Most of us here are Christians, but we see shadows of ourselves in Esau, don't we? Let's renew our desire to know and love the God "who has been our shepherd all our lives to this day, who has delivered us from all harm."
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.