A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 25 on Sunday 10 November 2019
Life is like a game of cards. The cards are dealt in a way that we didn’t choose. The colour of our eyes. The shape of our face. Some of us have good cards. Some of us have great cards. You might think that you’ve been dealt a very poor hand. But whatever cards we’ve been dealt, during the game we are confronted by choices. Do we play this card or that card? Do we make a move at all or choose to pass this turn? Some of the choices we make are unimportant and arbitrary. Will I have chocolate ice-cream or strawberry? It’s not a life-changing decision that will seriously impact your future. Unless you are allergic to strawberries. But other choices require wisdom and have long lasting consequences. Do I choose this career or another? Do I live in this town or that town or move to another country completely? The truth is, not every hand we are dealt contains a winning game. But our aim is to do our best. Because the trick in life is not to guess the next card we are dealt but how to play well whatever card comes next.
Our message today is, Don’t be like Esau who played poorly with the cards he was dealt and lost his inheritance. Because you don’t want to lose your inheritance.
Genesis chapter 25 verse 20 says
“Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel.”
Rebekah was Isaac’s first cousin once removed, and in a week or two we’ll meet her brother Laban again. Then in the next verse we learn that
“Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.”
It’s a great reminder that every blessing we have is a gift from God. Every success that we enjoy in life, in family, in work, in business, is not just the result of our own hard work but also flows from the undeserved grace of God. As I am fond of saying, the self-made man is living in a dream world of his own imagining. We are God-made people.
The example of Isaac teaches us in particular that if we do not have what we want, God invites us to pray. And if we receive what we ask for, we should remember to thank him.
For Isaac, of course, a child for Isaac was crucial. God had told Isaac’s father Abraham “I will make of you a great nation.” And if there are two essential ingredients of a great nation they are people and land for them to live in.
In the book of Genesis the most important issue is people. Land is not so important while the number of people is few. And so far the great nation promised by God numbers 4. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Rebekah. Abraham had to wait 25 years for Isaac to be born in his old age. And Isaac had to wait 20 years. God’s people of promise grows in God’s time, by his work alone. And all we can add to his work is prayer. May we be people of prayer.
Rebekah experienced twenty years of wanting to be pregnant closely followed by nine months of wishing she wasn’t. The babies jostled inside her like two race car drivers fighting for pole position. She inquired of the Lord to find out what was wrong, and she received this disturbing reply.
Two nations are in your womb and two peoples from within you will be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.
I mean, how would you feel if France and Germany were fighting World War III inside you?
In Jewish culture the eldest male received a double share of his father’s inheritance as well as management of the family home and farm. But in this prophecy to Rebekah we see that God overlooks the natural right of the firstborn for the sake of the younger. And it is a practice repeated often in the Bible. Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, was overlooked for Isaac. Esau for Jacob. In Jacob’s family, the eldest three were overlooked for Judah. And in Judah’s line, David was anointed king of Israel when his seven older brothers were overlooked.
Now, when we say that Jacob was preferred to Esau, we don’t mean Jacob was saved and Esau went to hell because God didn’t pick him. During his lifetime, Esau enjoyed a much more trouble free life than his brother and became even richer. And after he died, Esau became the ancestor of a nation just as large as Israel. But it was through Jacob’s line that the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the hope of the whole world, was to be born. Through Jacob and not Esau. Proving that God is not chained by our customs of who deserves what, but is free to give his gifts as he sees fit.
And God’s choice of Jacob wasn’t because of anything good he saw in him. Because I have to admit that Jacob is one of my least favourite people from the Bible. Most of the problems in his family in his generation and in the next were Jacob’s fault. He was a greedy, scheming liar. And yet he was chosen to be the vessel of God’s blessing for the world. Not for anything good in him. But by God’s undeserved mercy and grace. God is not afraid to be the one who deals the cards in life. Whatever we have that wasn’t chosen by us is ours because it was chosen by our heavenly Father. We are who we were made to be, not because of any good in us, but because of the good God could do through us.
The twins were born with a red hairy thing coming out first and his younger brother coming so close a second that his hand was grabbing on to his older brother’s heel. Even when his older brother was already in the birth canal, the second was still trying to be first. The elder was called Esau, which means hairy, and the younger was called Jacob, which means grasper. And these names would define the two boys well into adult life. Esau grew up to be a hunter, a mountain of a man, impulsive and passionate, who was never at home if he wasn’t out in the wild. Jacob was quiet, who stayed inside or around the tents. But it is the quiet ones that you have to be on your guard against.
Isaac loved Esau. Not because he was the firstborn, but because of the game he brought home from his hunt. And Rebekah loved Jacob. This favouritism sowed the seed of family conflict for generations to come. It reminds us to be careful with the decisions we make in life, because they have consequences that we cannot predict.
Jacob was cooking some stew when Esau came home starving. “Quick,” said Esau, “let me have some of that red stew. I’m famished.”
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” Taking advantage of his brother’s hunger was unfair, and demanding his birthright, his double share of the inheritance, was worth far more than the value of the meal. Jacob wasn’t selling his stew, he was holding it to ransom. It may not have been a crime, but it was a sin of greed in any book.
And yet the amazing thing is not that Jacob made the demand, but that it worked. “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”
So Esau swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. And the chapter ends, not with a rebuke against Jacob, as we might expect, but with these words, “So Esau despised his birthright.” It is the only thing that explains Esau’s actions. For a man who could have picked up his brother and shaken him senseless until all his teeth rattled loose, for such a man to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew, probably not even half as good as my mum’s casserole, it can only mean that he never wanted his birthright. That he was afraid of the responsibility that came with it and thought himself better off without it. He valued it the same as a bowl of stew, gone in half a minute to satisfy his empty stomach. He truly despised it. Everything Esau gained in life, was a gift from God. But everything he lost, was his own stupid fault. He had been dealt a good hand, and played badly.
And so the message is, Don’t be like Esau. The book of Hebrews says,
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
It warns us about a terrible disease called the Esau syndrome. The Esau syndrome happens when we give up our eternal inheritance for the sake of temporary pleasures. For things that may be good and make us happy like a bowl of stew, but which when compared to the blessings God has in store for us in Jesus are fleeting and much less valuable. It is a poor trade to give up what Jesus gave his life for for anything. Like Esau, we have an inheritance. It is not a double helping of our father’s estate. Nor is it the chance to be the Messiah’s great grandfather. We are not sons of Isaac, but children of God. We have received a share in our heavenly father’s estate. It is an inheritance purchased for us by the blood of Jesus Christ. The forgiveness of sins. The promise of eternal life. The presence of the Holy Spirit. The strength and encouragement of the church. The command to pray. Fellowship with our creator. The power to love in a loveless world. Hope for the light of God when everything else is dark. Through faith in Christ we have received a winning hand dealt to us by God’s great plan. It is not of our doing. We have not saved ourselves, but God has saved us from ourselves. We have been dealt a winning hand. And so we are called to play those cards well. And not to give up our inheritance for a bowl of stew or for any impulse promising a short term gain only for it to deliver an eternal loss. For a moment’s pleasure in sexual immorality. Or carrying through an impulse for violence that ruin’s your life forever. Or abandoning everything that you know is good for what is wrong. Does the book of Hebrews imply that we can lose a salvation that was once given to us by God? It does more than imply it. It clearly warns that we could lose everything if we leave the path of Christ to chase the illusions of sin.
Don’t be like Esau. Don’t despise your heavenly inheritance which is yours not by birth but by the new birth in the Holy Spirit. In Christ you have the winning cards in your hand. Play them well.