"What Was Esau Thinking?" (A sermon on forgiveness) - Jeremy Rose

NOTE: At the beginning of the service, people in the congregation were invited to take a 5-pound stone and hold it in their lap or against their chest.

Can you feel the weight of that stone? Even a small rock can start to feel very heavy after a while. Imagine carrying it around for 20 years.

Esau did.

His brother Jacob had cheated him not once, but twice. They were twins, but Esau came out first, so he had all the rights and privileges of the firstborn. That is, until Jacob talked him into handing over those rights in a weak moment. At least Esau had to admit that he did actually agree to give over his birthright – he was hungry and said “Look, I am about to die. What good is a birthright to me?” But the second time, Jacob just cheated him – no excuses. Jacob dressed in his clothes, and put wool on his hands to mimic Esau’s hairy arms, and fooled his blind father. He tricked Isaac into giving Jacob a blessing meant for Esau – “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

When Esau and his father found out, they were both heartbroken. It even says “Isaac trembled violently” and Esau “burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me—me too, my father!” But Isaac couldn’t do it. The best blessing he could come up with was:

“Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”

That’s not much of a blessing. It’s no wonder Esau “held a grudge against Jacob” and vowed to kill him as soon as his father had passed away. Who could blame him for feeling that way?

Jacob knew this too, and ran for his life. He fled to his uncle Laban, who he went to work for. He married Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, and had many children. But eventually Jacob got Laban angry at him too, so he had to run away once more. And now the Lord commanded him to “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives.” To most people, that would sound like a simple request, but to Jacob it may have sounded like a death sentence: "Go back to your relative....who vowed to kill you."

How does Jacob feel about seeing Esau again? Well, it says he was “in great fear and distress.” The last time he saw his brother, Esau made it clear he wanted to kill him. So he concocts a whole elaborate plan: send a messenger to Esau saying he’s coming and hoping to find favor in his eyes. And bring lots and lots of gifts: 220 goats, 220 sheep, 30 camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 30 donkeys (550 animals, not counting the camels’ young). And even split up his family and animals, so that if Esau does decide to go through with his vow, he can’t slaughter all of them. And he prays fiercely. So we know a lot about what Jacob was thinking.

But what was Esau thinking?

That is never spelled out. All we know is he had decided 20 years earlier: “I’m going to kill him.”

And when the messenger comes back from Esau, the news is ominous: “He’s coming to meet you, bringing 400 men with him.” Is that an army? If not, what was it? Jacob didn’t know.

Then the moment arrives: he can see Esau, with 400 men behind him. Jacob puts the plan in action: split up into groups, and he bows down seven times as they got closer. And Jacob is counting on the Lord’s protection, and hoping that all his bribes worked. To put it another way, Jacob is fervently hoping that Esau has forgiven him.

What is going on in Esau’s mind? Has he already forgiven Jacob? If so, when did he do it? Why? Did he do it years earlier? Or were those 400 men actually an army, and his plan was to slaughter all of them, and he changed his mind at the last minute?

Esau has reasons not to forgive Jacob, just as you may have reasons not to forgive people in your life who have “trespassed against you.” It is easy to think of those reasons not to forgive. You can recount the bad behavior, and keep thinking about how awful it was: “Can you believe what they did?”

The first reason not to forgive might be:

1) Justice! They deserve punishment (And if I don’t do it, who will?)

Jacob had done a terrible thing, and he had gotten away with it. His father died soon after, and no one else held him to justice, so Esau may have thought: "It's up to me."

Some religious people like to quote Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord! And then they may wreak terrible punishment on someone, perhaps justifying killing them. It is so satisfying, to be the one who gets to mete out that punishment. Or at the very least, gets to predict the horrible things that God will do to that person. But that phrase actually says vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours. And the very next verse says that the Lord is merciful.

We love revenge stories! Think of Hollywood: for every forgiveness movie, I bet they’ve made ten revenge movies. In fact, the story right after Jacob & Esau’s reconciliation is a revenge story. One of Jacob’s daughters, Dinah, is raped by a man in a neighboring tribe, and her brothers Simeon and Levi kill the entire tribe. When Jacob asks why they did that, they essentially say, “Well, we couldn’t just let them get away with it!”

2) You’ll appear weak

Some people think that if they forgive someone else, it will make them appear weak. It will just open the door for further abuse; they’ll become a doormat that anyone can walk over. I recently saw a documentary called “The Interrupters,” about peacemakers in the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago, trying to interrupt violent incidents before someone is killed. In that movie, they show that most of those killings aren’t actually gang related. They are based on personal infractions; someone insulted my girlfriend, or knocked me over, or disrespected me. "And if I don’t do something about that,"the thinking goes, "I’ll lose whatever status I have in the community. Only the tough survive, and the tough never forgive!"

3) Or it may just be about wanting someone else to acknowledge their hurt feelings. They think, “I have been wounded by what you did, and I want you to know that. And if I just forget about it, you’ll never know.”

Esau may have felt all of those things. Maybe he spent 20 years thinking, “I am justified in being angry! And now Jacob has gone to have a better life than me.”

But he didn’t. Esau forgives Jacob.

Why? Let’s make a list to counteract the other list. Esau's reasons to forgive could be:

1)    Esau, as a good Jew, had been instructed by God to forgive. It’s a core element of Jewish law – forgiving others. But the timing doesn’t work. That law was given to Moses, who came later in Genesis. The first use of the word “forgive” doesn’t appear until 17 chapters later in the Bible. Moses gave the law to the “Children of Israel,” and Israel was the name that Jacob was later given. Esau was Israel’s brother, not one of the “children of Israel.”

2)    The gifts worked. Esau sees all those sheep and goats and camel and cows, and says, “Okay, fine – I guess that’s enough.” But that doesn’t fit the story either. Esau doesn’t accept those gifts. In fact, after they reconcile, one of the things Esau asks, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” Jacob replies, “To find favor in your eyes, my lord.” But Esau brushes it off: “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

3)    Jacob said he was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. Except that Jacob never said that. He said he wanted to “find favor,” but there is not one word of apology, no acknowledgement of what he did to Esau, no begging for forgiveness.

So I don’t think it was any of those reasons. But there are two other reasons to forgive that I think could apply to Esau:

4)    Esau didn’t want to be a vengeful person. Maybe he had seen others who lived their life by revenge, and saw what it did to them. Like some of those people in the violent Chicago neighborhoods who look around and say, “This is no way to live.” Or perhaps he had felt the corrosion in his own heart.

Twenty years earlier, his anger turned his heart to stone. It weighed on him like the stone in your lap now. And perhaps he said at some point, “I just don’t want to carry that stone anymore.”

Have you felt that kind of weight? Is there anger in your heart? Something or someone you have decided not to forgive? And have you gotten to the point where you decide, “I just don’t feel like bearing that weight.” Perhaps you read in Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” And you thought: I want that.

After this sermon, during the musical interlude, I invite you to bring your stone up to the altar and drop it. You can place it down slowly, or drop it dramatically. However way you choose to get rid of your stone, feel the lightness of forgiveness after it’s gone.

But when I read this story, I think Esau’s main reason might have been something else. Maybe he did go with those 400 men with the intent to get revenge. Maybe it wasn’t until the moment he saw his brother for the first time in 20 years that he changed his mind. I like to think that what changed his mind at that moment was realizing what he had missed in all those years.

When he vowed to kill Jacob, Esau lost a brother for 20 years. That’s a huge loss. If someone else had taken his brother away, Esau might have realized his grief over that loss sooner. He might have even vowed to do whatever it took to get his brother back. But Esau’s own anger took his brother away, and that anger blinded him to what he had sacrificed. Until the moment he set eyes on his brother again, and it all flooded over him. Listen to the words of the story:

"But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept."

That is how someone reacts to finding a long-lost brother.

Reading further: “Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” Esau has not only missed out on having a brother, he’s missed out on a whole tribe of relatives. The Bible makes it clear that a large family was the greatest treasure – and Esau had missed out on the fun.

You may be wondering why I’ve brought my bass guitar onto the chancel. I bought it in 1986, and named her Selene (the goddess of the moon) after her silvery paint. What I can’t show you is the two bass guitars that were stolen from me in 1986, while I was living in Tucson. I was a full-time musician at the time, and losing them was a bitter blow. One was a fretless bass, and I knew that hardly anyone in the Tucson area played one of those; so I was pretty sure no one ever benefitted from that one. To this day, that theft is the biggest crime I’ve been a victim of. And if I want to, I can still get angry about it. But if I do, it makes me lose sight of what I have now.

Selene is a better instrument than either of the stolen ones, and it has worked perfectly for nearly 30 years. My point is: the more energy I put into feeling angry about the theft of the old bass guitars, or wanting to get revenge on the thief, the less energy I put into appreciating what I have.

Some people don’t just carry around a stone heart, they hold that stone in front of their face at all times. They let it blot out the sun.

Things brings up one more point about forgiveness I wanted to make. You may have noticed in that version of the Lord’s prayer [taken from Matthew 6:9-15] we used in this service that it’s conditional: "If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

In fact, it sounds a little threatening. Don’t we believe that God always forgives our sins? But right there in Matthew it says “your Father will not forgive you.” Would God withhold his love for us until we meet that condition of forgiving others?

Or is that really speaking about the receiving end – our experience of being forgiven by God. Is it that He is constantly sending that forgiveness and love to us, but we cannot receive it until we have forgiven others. Is it saying that we have to become believers in the process of forgiveness before we can really experience what it feels like to receive it? That forgiveness has to pour into a heart of flesh, not a heart of stone. Hearts of stone receive nothing. Hearts that are capable of forgiving others become vessels that receive love.

Think of the sins, the trespasses, others have done to you. Maybe they did it once, maybe it was repeated over and over. Maybe it was something someone didn’t do, instead of something they did. Maybe they asked for forgiveness, maybe they didn’t. Maybe you decided to never let your stone heart soften because of that incident. Maybe you’ve forgiven them already, only to find that the stone crept back into your heart and you need to forgive the same trespass again.

No matter what it was, God wants you to have a light heart. He wants you to see the light and happiness around you. That is why he commands you in Matthew 18 to forgive others not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. It’s a lifelong practice. And think of the joy you will give to those you have forgiven. Perhaps they will say, as Jacob did when Esau turned down his peace offering: “No, please! If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.”  If you forgive others, maybe they too will see the face of God shining through when they look at you.