Sunday, August 13, 2018
Scripture: Genesis 27:1-29
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Sibling Rivalry
Ah…sibling rivalry. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Where there are siblings, there is rivalry.

I have two brothers. I’m the middle one, so growing up I always had a sibling at home to compete with. My parents’ house had a large backyard that was fenced in and a basketball hoop out front. No matter if it was the middle of summer or the dead of winter, you would find us playing some sort of game outside, competing with each other. Constantly. I even have some scars to prove it.

Over time we accumulated a pool table, ping pong table, foosball table, and a wrestling mat in the basement. The mat was there for any time we would start getting physical with each other. My mom would say, “Go downstairs and use the wrestling mat!” I swear we didn’t fight that much, but given that my parents thought it wise to buy a wrestling mat, maybe my memory isn’t so good.

Stories of sibling rivalries are found on the first few pages of the Bible, and they are plentiful even today. To help get us warmed up for Jacob and Esau today I curated a few sibling rivalry stories for you.

Here’s one. “When I was about five years old, I got my boots stuck in deep mud and couldn’t move. After unsuccessfully attempting to pull me out, my sister walked home to get help. I waited in the rain for an hour and no one came, so I pulled my feet out of the boots and walked home barefoot. When I got home I found my sister watching TV. She had apparently forgotten about me.”

Here’s another. I have two brothers who are 10 years older than me. For months they taught me this version of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, R, F, K… Kindergarten did not start well for me.

Here’s one that takes the mischievousness up a notch. “My little brother put peanut butter in my ears while we were sleeping in a fishing boat offshore with no powerful water stream to remove it. I got him back with a squirt gun filled with cayenne pepper and water right in the face though.”[1] Makes me wonder about a family that keeps cayenne pepper and squirt guns on a fishing boat…

Finally, and perhaps most emotionally painful, here’s one more. “Like most kids, I used to tease my little sister. I would tell her she was not related to me and was, in fact, the milkman’s daughter. One day I hatched a plan: I told my mom I wanted to learn how to write a signature and asked her to write hers on a folded piece of paper. I walked away with a sly grin, and stuck the piece of paper on my sister’s bedroom door. On the other side of the paper, I had written a note that said: “Dear Lucy, I have been keeping this a secret but have to tell you that you are the milkman’s daughter, signed …” Needless to say, Lucy cried her eyes out, and then I got caught and seriously in trouble![2]

Jacob and Esau
Which brings me to our story of Jacob and Esau. You will recall from our Abraham and Sarah stories over the past two weeks that the child of promise, Isaac, has finally come, opening the way for God to fulfill the covenant promise God made with Abraham. We’ve jumped over most of the Isaac story, including Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac on an altar before God intervenes, and now we’ve jumped to the next generation. Isaac and his wife Rebekah, like Isaac’s parents, are struggling with infertility. When Rebekah finally conceives, she has twins – Esau and Jacob. Esau is born first, coming out strikingly red and hairy – so much so that his name sound like the word for “hairy” in Hebrew. Jacob comes out second, grasping his brother’s heel. His name means “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants.” Later his name changes from Jacob to Israel, meaning “wrestling” or “struggling with God.” From birth Jacob is a schemer and a fighter.  This birth story sets the stage for all that is to come. From the get go these two have been rivals.

As these brothers grow up, Esau is impetuous and rash, and Jacob is willing to capitalize however he can. Once Esau was so hungry from a day in the fields that he sold his birthright to Jacob for some stew. Esau told Jacob, “I am about to die of hunger; of what use to me is my birthright?” The logic may have worked for the moment, but Esau’s long-range planning certainly was suspect.

Years pass and Esau marries into a foreign family, and neither Isaac nor Rebekah like Esau’s family. There is deep-seated resentment for Esau, while Jacob has retained his mother’s favor through the years.

This sets the scene for today’s text. Years have passed. Esau is out of favor with Rebekah particularly. Isaac is old and enfeebled; he’s blind and hard of hearing; he knows his time is short. It’s time to pass along his blessing to his firstborn, Esau, to carry on the family name and property. Yet Rebekah and Jacob have different plans.

Siblings often have a love-hate relationship, and Esau and Jacob are no exception to this. Their rivalry has gone on for their entire lives, and as the blessing of one generation to the next is passed, their rivalry comes to a head, aided by their mother’s meddling.

Haven’t we seen this brokenness in our own lives and relationships? I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that each of us has experienced a breakdown in a relationship with a family member or with a friend. It’s a terrible feeling, and when it happens, it truly is hard to know what to do. In Jacob’s case, he and Rebekah bring what is to come on their own heads. This is no simple misunderstanding; it’s a scheme that may have worked in the short-term – Jacob does get the blessing, after all – but the after effects make the gains seem totally not worth it.

After stealing the blessing, what happens? Well, Isaac doesn’t live much longer, so he’s looking at his own family on his deathbed and thinking, “Is this really what God is up to in making a great nation out of my family? I mean, c’mon. I have two sons. One married in a manner I didn’t like. The other is sharp but a double-dealer. He’s not even married and bearing children yet, so I’m not even sure this whole covenant promise is actually going to work out. Maybe God got it wrong in choosing us…” And so Isaac dies not seeing his legacy fulfilled and never meeting any of Jacob’s children.

And Esau? He enraged – and rightfully so. His brother has taken what was rightfully his. His parents have treated him badly his whole life and now that he’s saying goodbye to his father, he finds out he’s been cheated out of everything in the family will. Like his ancestor Cain, he has murder in his heart, and this rage will take decades to subside. The brother he shared a womb with is now completely estranged from him.

And Jacob? Well, his story is fascinating and difficult. Frederick Buechner describes it well. “The Book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook. What’s more, you get the feeling that whoever wrote up his seamy adventures got a real kick out of them.

“Twice he cheated his lame-brained brother Esau out of what was coming to him. At least once he took advantage of his old father, Isaac’s, blindness and played him for a sucker. He out-did his double-crossing father-in-law, Laban, by conning him out of most of his livestock, and later on, when Laban was looking the other way, by sneaking off with not only both the man’s daughters but just about everything else that wasn’t nailed down including his household gods. Jacob was never satisfied….

(After stealing his father’s blessing Jacob runs off into the wilderness and has a dream about a ladder connecting heaven and earth.) “He dreamed that there was a ladder reaching up to heaven at that there were angels moving up and down it with golden sandals and rainbow-colored wings and that standing somewhere above it was God himself. And the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected but something altogether different. God told him that the land he was lying on was to belong to him and his descendants and that someday his descendants would become a great nation and a blessing to all the other nations on earth.

“It wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave him, in other words, but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of those things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular….

“Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are but because of who he is.”[3]

The Lesson
And there’s the lesson for us. God doesn’t love people because of who they are but because of who he is. Clearly Jacob is not worthy to inherit the promise God gave to his grandfather Abraham. Clearly his life is a mess of some beautiful things and some horrible choices.

But isn’t that the case for all of us? Each of us has our merits. Each of us has our faults. Each of us stumbles into some good things, and each of us makes gigantic messes of things too. Yet God loves us. Yet God calls us to be a part of this work. Yet God makes something beautiful out of the messes we make. This is grace, and the more we learn to live as a people loved by God, the more we learn to accept our life and ministry with gratitude and joy. If God uses Jacob and even is called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” throughout the Old Testament, then surely God is open to working through you.

What is more, since it’s not about who you are, where you were born, your talents, your faults, or anything else, God is just waiting for you to be open to serve. I’ve long been convinced that the Lord honors openness and willingness far more than talent and position. In Jacob’s world, the first-born should have gotten everything, but time and again, it’s not the one who should get everything who does. The greatest king in Israel’s history, David, is the youngest in the family, the one his own father doesn’t even think is capable of the job.

This is not just a story about Jacob’s gain, however. There’s a lot more to tell. Decades pass. Jacob has run off to his family’s ancestral lands to find a wife – another fascinating story that we don’t have enough Sundays to cover this time. His life calms down a bit, but he eventually heads back towards where he knows Esau now lives. As he approaches the land, he sees Esau coming with hordes of his people, and Jacob is convinced that his end is coming, that Esau will finally get his revenge on his brother, just as Cain did to Abel.

But grace enters the story again. The years have worked out Esau’s anger. When he meets his brother, he forgives him and reconciles with him. It’s a happy ending to this story of sibling rivalry. It takes a lifetime, but there is reconciliation.

Esau, though he’d lost his shirt, had settled down in the hill country, raised a large if comparatively undistinguished family, and died in peace. “Thus it seems hard to know which of the two brothers came out ahead in the end.”[4] Like Hagar and Ishmael, we don’t often think that things turned out pretty well for Esau, but they did, which is grace too.

Today, if you find yourself with a broken relationship, I urge you not to wait a lifetime for reconciliation. Seek God and find out of there is a way to restore harmony in that relationship. God makes a way where there often seems to be no way. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Today, if you find yourself wondering why you seem to always end up with the short end of the stick, seek God and see what God is trying to do with you as you are, not as you wish you could be.

Today, if you see yourself a bit like Jacob, doing whatever you can to get everything you can by whatever means necessary, relax. Seek to let God use you and direct your steps. God can and will work through your messes, but isn’t it better not to make the mess in the first place?

Friends, we are great at making messes, and God’s love is so great that our messes don’t get in the way of God’s love in the world. If God can work through a scoundrel like Jacob, surely God can work through us.

[1] https://www.littlethings.com/sibling-horror-stories/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/aug/25/sibling-rivalry-getting-own-back

[3] Buechener, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures, 63-65.

[4] Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures, 35-36.