Let me tell you a story. We will call it “Jacob cheats”. Over the next five weeks we will encounter various episodes in Jacob’s life: Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob gets married, Jacob wrestles, Jacob loses a son, Jacob regains his brothers. It is a story of love and trust, but also of deceit, family rivalry, difficult marriages, innovative farming techniques and economic planning. It is Eastenders meets the Archers, by way of the Nine O’clock news.
The story starts in a perfect garden. “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) God places the man and woman there to enjoy the garden and to care for it. The man decides that the garden is not perfect, and that he can make some improvements if he acts independently of God. From that act of disobedience comes a cascade of disorder and sin.
God’s response is to find a man of faith, Abraham. It is this principle of faith that underlies our every connection with God. “Abraham believed God and was justified.” God makes three specific promises to him. First, he will have descendants, in whom all the inhabitants of the world will be blessed. Second, he will inherit a land of his own. Third, he and his family will be blessed, and be a blessing to others. This family has been specially selected, both to be blessed and also to carry God’s blessings to the entire world. It is true that condemnation and judgement have come into the world as a result of mankind’s sin, but there is a message of hope that God loves us and wants to gift to us a special position as his children.
These three promises are Abraham’s great legacy, and he bequeaths them to his son Isaac, who in turn passes them on. They should go to his elder son – Esau. But Jacob steps in. The name Jacob means Supplanter, Deceiver, Grabber, Cheat. From before birth Jacob has been wrestling with his brother. Now in childhood, he tricks Esau into signing over to him the Birthright, the rank or position of the first-born. This will have no legal validity, but in a later passage we read of Jacob tricking his aged father Isaac into giving him the blessing (in a passage beloved of Alan Bennett fans).
This episode is referred to in Hebrews 12:16, where we read: “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.” In the words of Paul in Romans 1:25 “ They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised.” He is speaking about the way that we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are talking here about the second commandment: idolatry. This is not just the setting up of statues and worshipping them. Idolatry is when we put anything in the place of God. Jesus comments on this when he talks about the seed of the word being choked by thorns, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth”. We fixate on the things we do not have, and worry about them. We get distracted by pleasures and pastimes that are not evil in themselves but take a higher priority in our lives than loving God and serving him.
Eating stew is not wrong. Nevertheless for Esau to casually abandon the great blessing that God had given him merely to fill his belly, was an indication that he was a stranger to the faith of Abraham.
When reading the Old Testament it is sometimes permissible to see foreshadowings of New Testament themes showing through; these are called “types”. An example would be God saving the children of Israel by the Passover, reminding us of Easter, then bringing them through the Red Sea, reminding us of baptism, giving them manna reminding us of communion, and bringing them to Sinai to receive the Law, reminding us of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
When I read of the two unborn brothers struggling in the womb and the struggle continuing into adult life, my mind is drawn to Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talks about the continuing struggle within every believer. There is a part of us that seeks to follow God’s ways and longs to grow spiritually. There is also a part that seems to be resolutely in rebellion against God, called by Paul “the mind governed by the flesh”.
Each of us who has come to faith in Jesus has been born again, and has been received into our new family where God is our Father and Jesus is our brother. We were before subject to condemnation because of our sinful acts which we committed because of the sin principle within us. Now we have been set free to live Godly lives. We are each, if you like, a Jacob. He was not perfect – far from it in fact. He did learn and his character was changed as he “encountered God and grew in him”. Eventually his name was changed from Jacob, Deceiver, to Israel. But that is a story for another day.
The good news is that God privileged to be as a member of the family, and all the blessings were his. A New Testament parallel would be that he was justified. God had granted him a position of right standing. We are declared righteous and forgiven the instant that we believe in Jesus. “And can it be that I should gain and interest in the Saviour’s blood?” Yes! “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Yes! “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation.” Yes!
But Jacob was not instantly perfect. It took him a while to learn to walk with God. In the same way, Paul says, we are learning to walk with God, led by his Spirit within us. (If we do not have the Spirit of Christ, we do not belong to Christ: we are behaving like Esau, spurning God’s kindness.)
But we are called to be those who admit our sin, trust in Jesus, and receive his Spirit. We are called to be seed falling on good soil, hearing the word, understanding it, producing a good crop. We are called to rejoice in our tribulations, knowing tribulations produce patience, and patience produces character, and character produces hope because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
The New Testament word for this is sanctification. It is the work of his Holy Spirit as we take advantage of all that he has given us. We have his word to read and think about. We have his presence within us to lead and guide us in prayer. We have brothers and sisters to meet with and to share God’s love. We have special events like New Wine, Cathedral Prayer Days or workshops. We have the sacrament of communion to feed us and the sacrament of baptism where we celebrate our immersion in God.
Above all, we have the faith that God gives us, that he finds us as a Jacob but will transform us to be his true Israel. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free.”
1. How do you respond to the idea that something seemingly trivial ( a bowl of stew) can have such significance?
2. Who do you have more sympathy for, Esau or Jacob?
3. How do you react to there being no condemnation at all for the believer?