A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (July 13) - "The Esau Principle"

     When I was in the 1st or 2nd grade my parents gave me this really cool looking spaceship complete with action figures and light-up screens for my birthday. This spaceship could fold up like a little briefcase so that I could take it to school and play with it during recess.
     I had this spaceship for only about two weeks when I noticed that a buddy of mine had a spinning top that I had always wanted.  I think they were called wizards back then.  And I really wanted his spinning wizard top.
     And this buddy of mine, knowing that I had the coolest toy in the entire school, and knowing that I really liked his wizard top, offered a trade straight up.  “I’ll give you the wizard top if you give me your spaceship.”
     Not knowing the long-term ramifications of this toy exchange, I said, “Sure.”  And so I made the trade.  After one day of this trade, I knew that I had made a really dumb mistake because I ended up really missing that spaceship.  And when my parents found out what I had done, I really knew that I had made a really dumb mistake. 
     As you can tell, I’m still not over it.  I miss that spaceship!
     Sometimes, we make bad exchanges as we go through life, don’t we? 
     Our scripture reading from the Book of Genesis is about a different kind of exchange that happened a long time ago between two brothers, Jacob and Esau.  An exchange in which one of the brothers, Esau, lived to regret it.
     Last Sunday, we focused on the story of Isaac and Rebekeh.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, marries Rebekeh, and Rebekeh becomes pregnant with twins.  Our hopes are raised as we come to this story of Rebekeh’s pregnancy because we see God’s promise made to Abraham being fulfilled - the promise that God made back in Genesis chapter 12, that God would make of Abraham a great nation.
     Our scripture reading this morning says that the first twin which was born had all of this red hair which is why mom and dad named him, “Harry” or actually, the Hebrew word is “Esau.”   And just a few seconds after Harry is born, out pops Jacob which means “Heel Grabber” because he had been gripping Harry’s heel during the delivery as if he was trying to be the firstborn.
     And so we have the birth of these twins, “Jacob” and “Esau.” 
     We are told that Esau became a skillful hunter and that Jacob was more of a homebody.  And one day, Jacob was cooking one of his specialty dishes called “Red Stuff.”  At least this is what my bible translation calls this dish.
     Have you ever brought a “red stuff” casserole to a carry-in-dinner?  The NIV translation calls it red stew.  The King James Version calls it red pottage. 

     The Hebrew is obscure but my guess is that it looked like and tasted a lot like Skyline Chili.
     I don’t know what exactly this dish was but it must have been really good because it ended up costing Esau his future inheritance.
     Esau comes in from his hunting trip and he is starving.  And he smells this skyline chili and he is ready to give up just about anything to have a plate of this red stuff. 
     Now here we have some suspense.  Esau is the firstborn of the twins and as firstborn, he has the birthright.  The family inheritance is his.  And Jacob, knowing that his brother is starving, makes Esau a deal. 
     A straight up trade – A delicious serving of Jacob’s famous skyline chili for Esau’s birthright and the family inheritance.
     This is why you should never buy groceries when you’re hungry.   We will put things in that cart that we know won’t help our diet or our budget, but when you’re really hungry, the temptation can be too great to overcome.
     And Esau makes the worst decision of his life in his moment of hunger – he makes a straight up trade.  The family inheritance for some red stew.  Now, even if that stew was the best tasting stew in the known world at that time, it still wasn’t worth blowing the family farm over it.
     As I think about this story of Jacob and Esau, I think of the bad trades that we sometimes make in our faith.  What looks to be a great trade at the time, ends up being something that actually moves us away in our relationship with Christ.
     This morning, I want to look at the Esau Principle.  The Esau Principle is the principle that says to never make a trade that will lead to a negative impact on your relationship with Jesus Christ.
     I want to quickly cover some potential bad trades that are pretty common to all of us in our day to day living.
     The first bad trade – Trading Christ Centered Decision Making for Self Centered Decision Making.  The Bible gives Jesus the title “Lord” and for good reason because Jesus truly is the Lord of all creation. 
     When we call Jesus our Lord, we are saying that I’m giving Jesus ultimate control of my life.  It means that for every single decision in my life, I am going to invite the Lord Jesus to show me the direction I should go.
     Can there be anything more counter-cultural than this?  We live in a world that says, “Do what you want to do.”  “If it feels right, do it.”  We pride ourselves in being independent and free thinkers.  But a Christian looks at thinks very differently.   A Christian is answerable to the Lord Jesus.
     It’s the whole WWJD concept.  What would Jesus do? 
     And sometimes what Jesus wants us to do can go against our preferences.  The disciples of Jesus were reacting naturally when they looked across the field at 5,000 people in the middle of nowhere with dinner time fast approaching and there was no skyline chili restaurant in sight.
     “Lord, the obvious thing to do is to send them home now so that they will be able to get something to eat.”
     But Jesus has a different thought in mind.  “You give them something to eat” Jesus tells them.  And the disciples, still thinking that they need to give the omniscient, all knowing Son of God some vital information say to him, “We only have five loaves and two fish.”
     And Jesus says, “That’ll do.”  And Jesus proceeds to perform a miracle by feeding over 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fish.
     As followers of Jesus, it can be so easy to trade Christ centered decision making for self centered decision making.  Let’s go with what we think makes sense.  But that’s not always how Jesus works.
     The best way to not make this bad trade and to abide by the Esau Principle is to always remember that title we put in front of Jesus’ name – "Lord."  It’s not “Mr. Jesus.”  It’s the "Lord Jesus."  By calling Jesus “Lord” we surrender what we think should be done with what He wants to be done.
     In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  This prayer reminds us to not trade Christ centered decision making for Self centered decision making.
     Let’s look at another potential bad trade.  Trading Christian Community for Solo Christianity. 
     We live in a culture which is trading in Christian Community for Solo Christianity.  People don’t see the need for the church if they can pray just as easily in their home.  Or maybe they see the hypocrisy of the church and they say, “I don’t need to be part of a church that gossips about each other or where the people hurt one another, sometimes even maliciously.  I’ll just live the Christian faith on my own.”
     And yet, the Bible reminds us again and again, that our faith is not meant to be lived in isolation.  Hebrews 10:25 is probably the kingpin verse for this bad trade.  “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
     When we get out of the habit of meeting together as the church for worship, fellowship, study, and service, we end up falling short of the biblical model of Christian community.  The Esau principle reminds us that even with all of the shortcomings of the church, this is a trade that we don’t want to make.
     One day, I caught up with a pastor and I asked him to share something good that was going on at his church.  And by the way, he’s not United Methodist.  That’s important to know as I share this with you.  He paused for a few seconds and then his eyes started to light up.  And he proceeded to tell me about a new small group ministry for men that had just started attending his church.
     And he said, “It’s been so great to see people in the church growing in their faith through this small group ministry.”  And then he said, “We are using the John Wesley model (and he gave me this big smile knowing that I’m United Methodist.) “We are using the Wesley model of having members of the church participate in small groups to receive encouragement and strength through the other members of the church.”
     He said how people in these small groups are really opening up and sharing about their struggles  and how the members of the small groups are giving each other support and encouragement in dealing with these issues that all of us deal with on a day to day basis. 
     You can’t have this kind of spiritual growth without Christian Community.  Solo Christianity will take you only so far.
     The Esau principle reminds us to not trade Christian Community for Solo Christianity.  Solo Christianity can easily turn into “no Christianity.”
     Let me offer one more bad trade.  Trading our Christian faith for a life without Christ.  That’s the ultimate bad trade, isn’t it?  I run into people all of the time who say that they started out in the church as a child, maybe they were baptized, their parents took them, but over the years and into adulthood, they just kind of fell away from the faith.
     And it’s not like they don’t believe in God, but they are not attending any church, they’re not reading the bible, they’re not active in a prayer life, and they’re not using their God given gifts to serve others.
     Most of the time, they do not even realize that they made the trade.  They just gradually fell away from their faith.
     Jesus told a parable that explains how easy it can be for people to make this bad trade.  In this parable, he talks about a farmer who scatters seed with the hopes that all of the seed will eventually grow into beautiful and productive plants. 
     Some of the seeds fell on the hard path and before the seeds could take root, birds came along and snatched up those seeds.  Other seed fell on rocky ground and this produced some plants but because there wasn’t enough soil, the sun scorched them and they didn’t make it.
     Other seeds fell among thorns and those thorns ended up choking those plants.
     But then Jesus went onto say that some seed did fall on good soil and it brought forth incredible and unbelievable amounts of grain.
     The point of the parable is that seeds need to be planted in the right soil in order to grow and flourish.
     And whenever we make bad trades as Esau did in our Genesis reading, we can end up cutting ourselves off from God’s promises.
      Maybe you have heard the story of the farmer who was getting tired of farming and so he contacted a realtor to help him sell his property. And the realtor asked the farmer to describe his farm so that he would be able to put a description of the farm in the newspaper. 
     And the farmer thought a moment and he said, “Well, I have 100 beautiful acres with a fenced in meadow, a freshly painted barn with plenty of storage.  A meandering stream runs through the green meadow and there’s even a couple of acres of wooded land."
     The realtor thanked the farmer for the information and he said, this will appear in tomorrow’s newspaper and hopefully this will catch a prospective buyer’s eye.
     Around the middle of the morning the next day, the realtor receives a phone call and it’s this farmer.  And the farmer says, “I changed my mind.  I don’t want to sell my farm.”  And the realtor said, “What caused you to change your mind?” 
     And the farmer said, “I read the description of the farm that was in the newspaper and I decided that this is just the kind of farm that I’ve always wanted to have!  I just didn’t realize until now, that this is the farm I’ve always wanted.”
     Isn’t it true that we often forget to appreciate what we have already been given by God?  Sometimes, all it takes is for us to step back and to appreciate what God has already given us. 
     I think of a dear friend of mine who is in his mid 80’s. He has leukemia and has to have a blood transfusion every other week. It’s a struggle for him to attend church but he does every week.
     Even though, I don’t get to see him very often, his faith continues to be strong. This past spring, when we met for lunch, he offered a prayer before our meal. As he prayed for my family, my ministry, and for me, I was reminded of just how much I have missed his prayers. Even in his failing health, he continues to inspire so many people, including me.
     Here’s a man who has lived out his faith the right way.  He hasn’t made trades which would lead to a compromise of his faith. He has remained faithful to the Esau principle which is to never make a trade that will have a negative impact on your relationship with Jesus Christ.

     My friend is a living example that if you want to stay strong in your faith, stay rooted in the good soil and don’t give away the farm.

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