Saturday, November 13, 2021

“Selling Our Birthright” - September 19, 2021

Text: Genesis 25:19-34


Last Sunday, as we kicked off the fall, we began with the very beginning – with creation.  From there, the Biblical story moves quickly – the drama of the first sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, humanity trying to become like gods and build a tower to heaven, the great flood and Noah’s family and the animals in the ark, to the reality that violence can never stop violence, and so God commits to another path and offers the rainbow as a sign of that promise.

And then we meet Abraham and Sarah, who trusted God and left their home for a new land that God would show them.  God promises to make their descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky, but it seemed a little iffy - Sarah and Abraham were childless and in their 90s!

But God’s promise was trustworthy.  Our scripture this morning is the story of Abraham and Sarah’s grandchildren, Jacob and Esau.

Like their grandmother Sarah, their mother Rebekah was unable to bear children.  Isaac prays to God, who answers his prayer, and beyond the usual childbearing age, Rebekah is found to be expecting.  Rebekah has not been through a pregnancy before, but it seems to her that something is not quite right.  This is something more than a baby kicking.  She asks the Lord about this, and God speaks directly to her, saying “Two nations are in your womb, the children born to you shall be divided, and the older will serve the younger.”

True to God’s word, Rebekah gives birth to twin boys.  Now these days, most couples have baby names picked out long before the child is born.  Even if they haven’t decided for sure, they have thought about it and have the options narrowed down.  Of course, with our modern medicine we can know, if we want, if the child is a boy or girl.  We can have all kinds of plans made.  

You may have caught the story in the news a couple of weeks ago.  There was a gender reveal party in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Upon learning the news of his child’s gender, the expectant father shot his pistol in the air in the backyard in celebration.  A neighbor, hearing gunfire, called 911 and the gender reveal party resulted in 3 schools being placed on lockdown.  That was relatively minor compared to the California couple who shot off fireworks at their gender reveal party and caused a massive fire that burned 22,000 acres.

With Isaac and Rebekah, the fireworks came after the birth.  They did not have names picked out in advance but used descriptive names, chosen in the moment.  These were clearly not identical twins.  The first child was red and hairy, and so he was named Esau – which means “Hairy.”  Then the second boy was born, grabbing at Esau’s heels.  He was named Jacob, which literally means “Heel-grabber.” It proves to be a fitting name.

You have probably known of instances where one child is favored over another.  Sometimes siblings joke about which one is mom and dad’s favorite, and sometimes it isn’t so funny.  The Bible makes no bones about the fact that Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, and Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau.

Esau was a hunter, an outdoors-type.  He was tough and rugged, and Isaac loved him.  Jacob was a quieter sort.  Rather than hunting, he liked to hang out around the tents.  His mother loved him.

The sibling rivalry that began before these brothers were even born continued and intensified, and the parents stoked the fires of this rivalry.  Esau was physically strong and he was the first born.  He enjoyed all the rights that came from being the eldest son.  But Jacob was clever and ambitious and a schemer.

Once Jacob was cooking a stew.  Esau came in from the fields, and he was famished.  Maybe you have felt like that before.  You haven’t eaten for quite a while, you have been working hard, you feel weak, almost overcome with hunger.  “I’d give almost anything for a nice, juicy steak about right now,” you say.

Esau felt that way, except that he literally meant it – he really would give almost anything for a good meal.  Jacob says to him, “Sure, you can have some stew – but first, you need to sign over your inheritance.”

This seems like a profoundly bad deal.  Can you imagine ordering a delivery pizza and instead of being told, “That will be $18.99 plus tax,” you are told that it will cost you your inheritance?

Amazingly, Esau agrees to this.  He says, “I am so hungry I am going to die, and then what good will my birthright be?”

We will come back to Esau’s choice in a minute, but first, what about Jacob’s offer?  What kind of brother would ask for his sibling’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, a “mess of pottage” as the King James renders it?

In that culture, there was a strong social imperative for hospitality.  If hungry strangers showed up at your door, you would offer them a meal.  It is what you were supposed to do.  But here, Jacob’s own brother was hungry, and he was asking for Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew.  It sounds awful to us, and would have sounded even more awful to the first readers of this story.

In his almost blind ambition, it seems that Jacob will stoop to anything.  But if he comes off looking bad in this exchange, what about Esau?  The price that Jacob asks is amazing; what is even more amazing is that Esau is willing to pay it.

He says, “I am so hungry I could die – and then what would my birthright mean to me?”  Someday, his birthright might mean something – but in the meantime, it wasn’t going to put food on the table.  Life was short.  Esau was concerned about right now, not some possible day in the future.  And so, he agrees to it.  Jacob makes his brother swear to the deal, and the passage ends with these words: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

Looking at Esau’s action, we would have to conclude that he was short-sighted.  Irresponsible.  And to be honest, he doesn’t come across as the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But there is more here.  This says something about the power of hunger.  There are those who will sell their birthright, give up their future, for a bowl of stew, a mess of pottage.  

We have seen it happen way too many times.  Folks will throw away their future, tear apart their family, for what they crave in that moment.  Addictions can do that.  There are those who have such a hunger for power that they will sell their soul – set aside their values, hurt other people, do whatever it takes – in exchange for the chance at grabbing hold of power.

There was a teenage girl in Texas who wanted to be a cheerleader.  She was afraid she would not make the squad, and this goal just consumed her.  And not only her, but her mother.  In their world, it would mean status for both.  If one girl was out of the picture, they felt like she would surely make the squad.  And so the mother came up with a plan to hire a hit man to kill the mother of this potential rival, believing that in the wake of her mother’s death, this girl would not try out for the cheerleading squad.  I am not making this up; this is a true story.

Granted, that’s a pretty extreme case.  But it says something about the hunger for status, for power, for wealth, for gratification – it can be an almost irresistible force.

Esau had to choose between immediate gratification and a deferred blessing.  On paper, it doesn’t look like much of a choice.  But he was hungry and the stew was right there.  It looked good.  It smelled fantastic.  And he could have it right now.

When our daughter Zoe was a lot younger, our family went to Ft. William Historical Park near Thunder Bay, Ontario – it is a kind of historical re-enactment park.  It came time for lunch, and we went to the restaurant they had on the grounds.  Susan and I opted for the beef stew.  Zoe ordered a sandwich or wrap or something.  The food came and Zoe looked longingly at our stew.  It looked good and it smelled good, and when we let her try it, she was mad at herself for not ordering it.  It was delicious – I mean, it really was fantastic stew.  This had to be close to 20 years ago, but if you ask Zoe today, she is likely to say that her greatest regret in life is not ordering the stew when we were in Canada.

OK, I’m sure she probably has bigger regrets, but that is her standard answer.  That stew was really good, but still, it was just a bowl of stew.  

What was the birthright?  For Esau and Jacob, it meant that the oldest son would receive a double portion, twice the inheritance of the other sons.  But it wouldn’t matter until Isaac died.  Esau couldn’t see it.  He didn’t know when that would be and it couldn’t be quantified exactly.  

Poor Esau.  Poor, dumb boy.  We would never make a choice like that, would we?

Let me tell you about Bill.  Bill went to visit the doctor.  He is a middle-aged, overweight, highly stressed male.  He smokes and he drinks, sometimes to excess.  When he went for his annual physical, his slim, tee-totaling, smoke-free young doctor let him have it.  Unless Bill cut down on his drinking, gave up smoking, cut down on calories and learned to relax, he was headed for a heart attack.  His doctor said he was a “cardiac arrest waiting to happen.”

Finished with his lecture, the doctor challenged Bill.  “Now, what are you going to do about this?”  Bill didn’t have to think about it.  He looked the doctor right in the eye and said, “I’m going to find an out of shape doctor who smokes!”

We have been told, over and over, of the dangers of climate change.  We see a warming planet and more serious weather events happening all the time, massive hurricanes, constant wildfires, 500 year floods, rising sea levels.  But it is so hard to make changes in our long term interest.  It is easier to just think about right now.  It is not that hard to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

As followers of Jesus, we are not immune to this in a spiritual sense.  In the pursuit of cultural cachet or access to power, we can be tempted to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

What would you say is our birthright – our heritage as Christians?  What are the values of Jesus, those things that matter most that we need to take care to hold onto?  And how can we be tempted to set them aside?

I’ll let you think about that for yourself.  For me, one of the things that came to mind is found in Galatians where Paul says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  These are worth holding onto.  These are worth valuing.  And it is easy for us to leave things like kindness and patience and self-control behind in our pursuit of who knows what.  And Christians are losing, if we have not already lost, a reputation as people of grace and compassion and love.       

Esau’s choice seems hard to imagine – careless, irresponsible, short-sighted.  But it’s not just Esau.  Thankfully, even when we fall short, God offers us all grace and works through flawed people like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and you and me.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

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