Preaching on Genesis 33

This is a bit of an experiment. I was thinking it would be fun to keep a post for each of the sermons I work on from the initial observations of the Scripture passage up to the sermon. The plan is to update the post through the week. Hopefully, this will create a place for me to share some thoughts about the passage I’m preaching, and get some feedback from others.

We’ve been spending the whole summer at Upper Room in the story of Jacob in Genesis. This is the next to last sermon in that series. The passage is Genesis 33. This is my own translation of the Hebrew:

33And Jacob lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and with him was four hundred men. So he divided the children among Leah and among Rachel and among the two maidservants. 2And he put the maidservants and their children first, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3And he himself passed over in front of them, and bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near to his brother.

4And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept. 5And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and children, and said, “Who are these with you?”

And he replied, “The children whom God graciously provided to your servant.” 6And the maidservants drew near, they and their children, and they bowed down. 7And Leah also drew near with her children and they bowed down. And afterwards Joseph and Rachel drew near and bowed down.

8And he said, “What do you mean by all this company which I meet?

He said, “To find favor in your eyes, my lord.”

9Esau said, “I have enough, my brother. Let that which is yours be yours.”

10Jacob said, “No, please, if now I have found favor in your eyes, take my gift from my hand. For my having seen your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have treated me favorably. 11Please take my blessing which has been brought to you. Because God has provided graciously for me. And because I have enough. So he strongly urged him, and he took.

12And he said, “Let us set out and go, and I will go in front of you.”

13He said to him, “My lord knows that the children are weak, and the flocks and cattle which are nursing are upon me. And if they are driven hard one day, the entire flock will die. 14Please let my lord pass over in front of his servant, and I will journey slowly according to the pace of the cattle which are in front of me, and according to the pace of the children until I come to my Lord in Seir.

15And Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.”

And he said, “Why that? Let me find favor in your eyes, my lord.”

16And Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.

17But Jacob set out for Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his cattle. Therefore he called the name of the place Succoth. 18Then Jacob came to Salem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram, and he encamped in front of the city. 19And he bought a portion of the field, where  he stretched his tent, from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. 20And he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

Some of my initial observations and questions:

– In verse 11, Jacob insists that Esau receive the “blessing” that he offers him. The Hebrew (“baruch”) is the same word used in Genesis 27 when Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing due Esau. Is Jacob here trying to undo that injustice by giving to Esau a portion of that blessing?

– There’s a notable difference in how Jacob and Esau refer to one another. Esau refers to Jacob as brother. Jacob uses the language of a more formal (and less personal) relation. Esau is his “lord,” and he is Esau’s “servant.”

– Esau goes to Seir as plan, but Jacob goes to Succoth. I still haven’t looked at a good map to measure distance, but Seir and Succoth aren’t close to each other, as best I can tell. Why does Jacob not keep his word and go to Seir? He seems to be approaching his brother with fear at the beginning of the chapter; is that fear still present even after their reunion and embrace? Did reconciliation actually happen?

Update: From the Commentaries

The commentaries I looked at actually had very little to add. One thing that Victor Hamilton made a point of that I didn’t notice was the difference in Jacob post-wrestling match with God. In the previous chapter, Jacob sent a delegation ahead, and then sent his family across the Jabbok. Leaving himself in the rear. Now, Jacob is in the front of the caravan – the most vulnerable position should Esau and his men choose to attack.

The church fathers had little to say about this chapter. Cyril of Alexandria does, however, see the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau as a foreshadowing of the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.

When God’s Plans are Not Mine

This past week has been one of my busiest of the year in graduate student ministry. It was new student outreach week, or NSO, as acronym-loving InterVarsity staff like to call it. This was technically my second NSO as an InterVarsity staff worker. Last year, though, I was in the beginning of the planting process and had no students. So, it was just me and some brochures, trying to recruit new grad students to start a new fellowship at CMU. Thankfully, those efforts were successful. So this year, my NSO work involved more than just inviting people to a fellowship that didn’t exist, yet.

With my missional core, we planned a barbecue, a kick-off worship service, and two international student outreaches. We also arranged for some publicity as new students arrived.

Almost nothing went according to plan. A lot of our publicity efforts fell through for various reasons. It rained, a lot, on the day of the barbecue. No new students showed up for the worship service. For one of our international outreaches, only one new international student showed up. Quantitatively, this NSO seems like a disaster. If I would have been told two weeks ago that this is how NSO was going to go down, I would have expected to feel discouraged by now.

Thankfully, though, and even to my surprise, I’m not discouraged. In fact, I actually feel a deep sense of satisfaction. As I look back, I see how God worked in ways that I couldn’t have planned. I think of our international student outreach, where a returning international student met and talked with an American pastor for English conversation, only to discover that he once visited her small hometown in China, and that she once lived in the small town in Ohio where this pastor now lives – only a few streets away from his house. I think of how the small attendance at our worship service enabled us to prayer-walk the campus, and pray in each grad student’s office for their work and witness there. I think of how the rained-out barbecue led to being able to offer lunch to over 20 people the next day, including 6 newcomers to Pittsburgh.

All of this has taught me three encouraging lessons:

First, I think of Jeremiah 29:11, which begins “I know the plans I have for you…” This verse is quoted by a lot of people. It’s almost a cliché. However, I think I still need to be frequently reminded that these are God’s words to me, not my words to God. Much of what God did through our NSO activities couldn’t have happened had things gone according to my plans.

Second, even before NSO started, God had been bringing to my mind the parable of the mustard seed. Everything about this NSO was smaller than I had anticipated and planned for. It all seemed insignificant and tiny. Praise God, because Jesus says that’s how the Kingdom of God starts coming.

The third lesson came on Sunday when I praying the midday prayer office. One of the written prayers had this line: “Grant that those who labor for you may not trust in their own work but in your help…” I realized when I prayed this that much of my planning for NSO was an act of relying on my own efforts. Rather than trusting God to bring our fellowship in contact with new students, I was trying to rely entirely on emails, fliers and postcards. I spent more time in logistics than I did in prayer. I became an event-planner rather than a minister.

Nothing in the past week seems to have gone according to my own plans. Pray that this continues to be the case, and that God brings to completion the good work he started this semester!