A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 17, 2018 (Father’s Day)
Genesis 28:10-17 ESV
Jacob was on the run. He and his twin brother Esau had had a stormy relationship over the years. Jacob was his mother’s favorite, whereas Esau was his father’s favorite. There had been sibling rivalry from the beginning, even from their mother’s womb, as the biblical storyteller relates it.
Jacob was a scoundrel; there is no way to deny that. He had taken advantage of his brother at a time when he was vulnerable and weak, and had robbed him of his birthright. Jacob was a liar, pure and simple, having lied to his father and deceived him in order to steal his father’s final blessing which, according to culture, belonged to Esau.
Jacob’s act of stealing Esau’s blessing was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. So Esau had grown to hate Jacob for having stolen his blessing. And Esau said to himself, The time of my father’s death is drawing near; when my father dies, I will kill my brother Jacob. Their mother got wind of Esau’s plan, so she persuaded Jacob to flee from their home and go live with relatives so that his life might be spared. Their mother connived by telling the boys’ father that she did not want Jacob to marry one of the local Hittite women and that he needed to go away and find a wife among their own kin.
So being persuaded by his wife, Isaac sends Jacob away to find a wife from among his mother’s kinsfolk, totally unaware of the deception and Esau’s plan to kill his brother. When Esau learns that his brother has fled, he is not at all happy. Well, such is the back story to today’s reading.
So it is that while Jacob is fleeing, he stops for the night, finds a place on the ground to sleep, has his dream of the ladder reaching up to the heavens, and the angels of God going up and down the ladder. Jacob also seems to have had some type of religious experience, as he felt God had spoken to him of a promise of blessing. When he awoke from his sleep, Jacob felt he had been in the very presence of God. And so he took the stone that had served as his pillow and turned it into an altar. Jacob made a vow to God before the altar and promised that if God was with him and blessed him, he would give one-tenth of all he accumulated as an offering to God.
Okay, so here is the point: Jacob was fleeing in fear from his brother Esau, who had intentions to kill him. In the midst of his journey, Jacob had a profound, life-changing, religious experience. In other words, Jacob found God on the run.
I got to thinking to myself that perhaps that is often the way it is in life; perhaps finding God on the run may be a more common experience than we might have imagined. Being “on the run” can take many forms and fashions, you know. Like Jacob, people can be on the run from danger or life-threatening circumstances. I think of those women and children on the run from abusive and life-threatening domestic violence situations. I think of the Jewish and Polish families who were on the run during the Holocaust. I think of those in the armed forces who find themselves on the run, taking shelter in foxholes or other safe places, escaping enemy fire. Today I think of refugees who are on the run from oppressive, inhumane governments. Such life-threatening circumstances that propel us to be on the run in one fashion or another often serve as catalysts for religious experiences and “finding God.”
But, as hinted, there are other forms of being on the run that open us to the presence of the sacred. There are life-threatening diagnoses and illnesses that can serve as opportunities to be open to the Sacred or “a gateway to heaven,” in a manner of speaking. On a happier note, getting married and having that first baby might also serve as an opening to the Sacred or “gateway to heaven,” as such profound life experiences can have a way of opening our eyes to the Sacred of life around us.
But in order to get the full picture, we need to read further in Genesis and see how the story of Jacob ends. Jacob meets and takes sister-wives from his mother’s relatives; he works for his father-in-law, helping his father-in-law grow more prosperous and becoming prosperous himself in the process. But Jacob the trickster is himself tricked and cheated repeatedly by his father-in-law, and finally to such a degree that it no longer is comfortable for him and his family to live there. So after several years, Jacob feels the need to return to his homeland and to try to make amends with his brother Esau. But he doesn’t know what to expect. He fears that Esau still harbors hatred and revenge in his heart and may still want to kill him. So Jacob sends messengers on ahead to let Esau know he wants to come back home. Jacob plans to send lavish gifts of cattle and other livestock upon Esau as a form of apology and a peace offering. Just hours before the two brothers are to meet, Jacob has a restless night. He has another dream and encounter – a wrestling match – with an “angel of God.”
The next morning, Jacob awakens to see Esau coming towards him, accompanied by four hundred men. Jacob humbly bows to the ground seven times before Esau. And then what follows is one of the most touching scenes in the entire Bible. Instead of killing or seeking revenge on the brother who had repeatedly lied and deceived and taken advantage of him, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). And Jacob said to Esau, “Please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10).
A point not to be missed on this Father’s Day is that Jacob was willing to humble himself, confess the wrongs he had done, and try to make amends. Such is the way with a true father and a true man in general. It takes a real father and it takes a big man to admit it when he has been wrong and to do what he can to make amends. The idea of a macho man who can do no wrong and who never needs to apologize or say “I was wrong” is no longer in vogue, in my way of thinking. Fathers make mistakes too; believe me, I’m speaking from experience! And the father – the man – who is willing to admit and try to correct his mistakes will be all the more admired for it, I think.
And so, on this Father’s Day we learn some lessons from Father Jacob. He was a man who was about as flawed as any man could be. His early life was somewhat of a disaster. In a time of upheaval, he “found God” while on the run. Or to put it in the terminology of self-help groups, he was willing to open his life to the Higher Power. And then as he matured, Jacob sought to set his house in order, confess the wrongs he had committed against his brother, and took steps to try to make amends.
Having an openness to religious experience and a life of faith, being humble enough to admit wrongs, and taking steps to make amends are three attributes worthy of consideration for any father; for any of us, really. May it be so. Amen.