I’m going to begin this morning with a story, a Bible Story. And this one you might have heard before, but I’m going to try a different spin on it. It begins with Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, at the point that Jacob has just spent 20 years working for his Uncle Laban. During this 20 year time, Jacob had been quite industrious, and he had turned a good profit. But Laban’s sons did not see it that way. Instead, they felt that Jacob had been mooching off of Laban. Indeed, even Laban was beginning to wonder. The possibility that Jacob was hard-working and blessed by God would not be considered.
Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; he has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him as favorably as he did before. Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah [his wives and Laban’s daughters] into the field where his flock was, 5and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me as favorably as he did before. But the God of my father [Isaac] has been with me. You know that I have served your father [Laban] with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.
After this Jacob flees in secret with his family and flocks in order not to have to face Laban. Laban realizes Jacob and family have departed and gives chase. He overtakes Jacob and…
Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre. And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish.
Jacob was renowned for his deceit and trickery. Christ Himself had Jacob in mind when he spoke to Nathaniel in John 1:47 saying, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” If you are familiar with Jacob and his story, you know that he is a cocky, smug rascal that had cheated his twin brother Esau out of both his birthright and his firstborn blessing from their father Isaac. When Esau discovered the guile of his younger but craftier twin, he flew into a rage and threatened vengeance, including a vow against Jacob’s life. Jacob literally was forced to run for his life. Twenty years with Laban had since past, and God had nonetheless blessed the crafty scoundrel with two wives, many children, herds of livestock and significant wealth.
But now it was time to return home. Jacob and Laban bid each other farewell after “agreeing to disagree,” but Jacob then had only one direction to go: back home. And that meant right back to his twin brother Esau with all his deadly vengeance. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob was rather stressed about the dawn show-down with his brother, and he found himself in that time of stress drawing nearer to God.
This is a direct example of the old phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When you’re all alone with death staring you in the face, it’s amazing how quickly you find yourself calling to God!
The night before meeting his brother, Jacob had a life-changing encounter:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
How often does God cause His children to go through a major, life-changing event to act as a mid-course correction in order to get a person back upon the “straight and narrow”? I have referred to this as a “whap up-side the head.” God has tried a tap or two on the shoulder, but the wayward, prodigal son ignores them and needs a major “whap up-side the head” get the errant soul’s attention. In Jacob’s case, a night alone to wrestle with God and God’s intentions for his life (instead of Jacob’s self-centered intentions) became the event that brought him back to God.
So Jacob was now Israel, renamed and re-birthed by God. He still had to face Esau, but after having a “whap up-side the head” from God, Jacob had matured significantly from the night of wrestling as well as the recognition that he and he alone was responsible for his own actions. He was renamed as part of the re-birthing process, but now it was morning, and his twin brother Esau was approached with 400 men…
Genesis 33:1, 3, 4, 10
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him.
He himself went on ahead … bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Jacob said, “… truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.”
The self-centered, crafty, smug Jacob had matured to the humble, God-fearing Israel, the Israel whose seed would fulfill the promise God made to Abraham.
Note the difference pre- and post-wrestling. When the going got tough, the old Jacob pulled his old reliable stand-by plan: run. But the new Israel, recently humbled by God, chooses to be subservient and humble. Note what Genesis says here: Jacob bowed himself seven times before Esau. Not once, but seven. The Jewish people regard three a complete number and seven as an almost perfect number. In Old Testament times, it was believed that you must forgive a person three times, and that’s why Peter thought he was being really godly when he asked Christ if he should forgive someone up to seven times.
So Jacob, or Israel now, was alone facing Esau and 400 hundred men, and he bowed seven times before Esau. Jacob didn’t run here: he bowed, seven times. You can get a lot of running done in the time it takes you to bow to the ground seven times! And remember that this bowing is exceptionally submissive. He is giving a vengeful Esau every opportunity to fulfill the 20-year-old vow against Jacob’s life.
But see what happens: Jacob wishes to reconcile with his long-estranged brother, and his brother welcomes him – as a brother!
Well, that’s the Bible story for today; now as Paul Harvey would say; it’s time for the rest of the story…
Please pray with me:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
When I was a youngster of age 4, I remember having a best friend and playmate named Danny. Danny was a year younger than I, and we were almost inseparable in the early childhood world of snow forts and swing-sets, toys and birthday parties.
And as children and even the best of friends tend to do sometimes, a minor “dispute” arose between Danny and me one sunny day. Words were said and a few pushes might have occurred, and next thing I knew, Danny’s mother had him in her lap and on the other side of the room from where my mother held me in a similar configuration.
I don’t know which of us started the fight, but I figure it must have been me since I can’t remember, and if it had been Danny that was at fault, I’m sure that I’d have a much better recollection.
Nonetheless, our mothers realized that we were both denying being at fault, so we were both tasked in our mothers’ respective laps to be the first one to say “I’m sorry.”
What? Say “I’m sorry”? To Danny? No way! I’m 4 years old! Danny’s only 3! I’m a year older, a year wiser! And much bigger! Not to mention, I’m special! I know I’m special because I’m me! Danny is just Danny!
Say, “I’m sorry” to Danny? Yeah! Like that’s gonna happen!
While I was thinking this through in my mature 4-year-old mind, I remember suddenly hearing a sheepish, almost inaudible “I’m sorry” from across the room.
I’m sorry. It was just that quiet.
Danny had apologized.
I thought I had won, and I was ready to claim victory, but to my surprise Danny was received a lot more attention from his two words than I from my silence.
Soon after that, Danny and I were back to riding our tricycles as best buds, and the incident was essentially forgotten.
That was a long time ago, and the one-year-younger-than-I Danny is now forty- --- uh, Danny would be, uh, twenty-eight now. But as little children, Danny and I could reconcile and move on. No grudges. No hurt feelings. No baggage. No vowing of vengeance.
Those things: grudges, hurt feelings, baggage, vengeance; are primarily adult in nature. Adults want revenge, or as it is sometimes called, “closure” from a failed and hurting relationship. Instead of reconciling, one party might want a heated verbal encounter to show egotistical superiority while the other party wants to sneak Jacob-like out the backdoor.
Jacob was a master at anti-confrontation and non-reconciliation. He tricked Esau out of his birthright. With the help of his mother Rebecca, he beguiled his blind father Isaac into giving him Esau’s firstborn blessing. He spent 20 years on the lam trying to out-dupe Uncle Laban, finally escaping while Laban’s back was turned because he simply wished to avoid the encounter with Laban to reconcile their differences.
Is there any Jacob in us?
Do any bosses out there have Jacob-like employees? Do any employees out there have Laban-like bosses? The late Ann Landers and her twin sister “Dear Abby” spent years refusing to speak to one another due to some forgotten reason that they both referred to as petty only after they reconciled. But the lost years of silence apart can never be recovered.
Why? Is it easier to ignore and feel cheated? Is it less resistance to duck under cover and pass undetected? No. Not in the long-term. Time and time again, we find that addressing and reconciling the issue as soon as possible is far and away the best choice.
In his wonderful book, The Road Less Traveled, Dr. M. Scott Peck refers to this as “delaying gratification.” In this age of what’s-in-it-for-me, buy-now-pay-later and “instant gratification,” Dr. Peck places “delaying gratification” as a major hallmark of maturity.
For example, as a boy, I really hated lima beans. But I really loved fried chicken. Being raised in South Carolina, I’m sure you find that surprising. My mother almost always fixed lima beans with fried chicken. After I feasted on fried chicken (the pully-bone and the drumstick being my two favorites), those dreaded lima beans were still on my plate. What a bummer. But I soon found that if I went ahead and ate the limas first (I would have to eat them anyway!), then I could get the limas behind me and enjoy guilt-free fried chicken. I was delaying the gratification of the fried chicken by eating the limas first. You get the hard part over with.
Try as I might, in my high school years, I could never bring myself to do my homework on Friday afternoon so that I could enjoy a weekend homework-free. Friday and Saturday nights were just too full of sporting events and social activities. All too soon, Sunday evening beckoned, and I had to work extra hard to get the homework completed by Sunday bedtime. And every Sunday night I promised that next weekend would be different. And every weekend, nothing changed. I always waited until Sunday evening to begin homework. I just couldn’t delay the gratification and get the homework out of the way on Friday afternoon. I wanted the gratification of not worrying about homework now, so I’ll put it off until tomorrow like Jacob or Scarlet O’Hara (“Fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll worry about that tomorrow, for tomorrow is a whole ‘nother day!” Scarlet tells us as Gone With the Wind draws to a close.)
But in the case of reconciliation, it’s harder to face someone with whom you must reconcile than it is to procrastinate, put it off until tomorrow, and not have to think about it right now. (Or as Jacob, run off in avoidance.) You receive an “instant gratification” because the procrastination choice is more gratifying for today. But if you go ahead and reconcile today, then you get the gratification tomorrow (you delay the gratification).
It wasn’t until Jacob wrestled with God and with his own responsibilities that he stopped trying to run away from his problems and reconcile with brother Esau. Jacob, or Israel, finally forced himself to face Esau and “delay the gratification” and face Esau in a submissive, humble manner.
But we have this example of delaying gratification long before Dr. Peck’s landmark book. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches:
Matthew 5:23-24, 25-26
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Christ knew that it was far better to immediately reconcile instead of pulling a Jacob.
Do opportunities exist in your world where reconciliation is needed? In your family (son or daughter, parent or spouse)? In your neighborhood or with old friends (any walls that might need tearing-down)? At your work (boss, co-worker, employee)? Here at church? I know I can think of a few in my own life. Don’t let them fester. Delay the gratification. Extend an offer of reconciliation now. You’ll sleep better afterward!