The Work of Reconciliation: Part I
Genesis 32: 1-12; 22-31
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 6, 2017
Twenty years have passed since Jacob left his home in Canaan and his brother Esau’s fury. Jacob spent those twenty years living with his uncle Laban in Haran. Jacob now had a large family with twelve children (11 sons and 1 daughter). The sons and grandsons would later become the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob settled a conflict with Laban so that he could make his way back to Canaan (Genesis 31: 43-55). The Lord had promised Jacob that he would indeed return to the land of Canaan and his father Isaac’s house in peace (Genesis 28: 15, 20-21).
This is where we enter today's story from Genesis 32: 1-12 and 22-31:
Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ So he called that place Mahanaim.
Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, ‘Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.” ’
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.’
And Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good”, I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.” ’
But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The time had come for Jacob to begin the work of reconciliation with his brother Esau. Jacob, who had been such a trickster and deceiver within his family, was taking the next steps quite seriously. His choice words of calling Esau his master and referring to himself as Esau’s servant imply Jacob was willing to reverse the blessing he stole from Esau.
Nevertheless, the struggle was real for Jacob. The anticipation of meeting Esau along with a company of four hundred men weighed heavily upon him. I can imagine Jacob feared the worst-case scenario resulting even as he hoped for the best.
What do we do when a situation presses us? We pray. And Jacob prayed to God.
Jacob affirmed that God was the One to initiate this plan towards reconciliation. As he prayed, Jacob’s posture began to take the shape of humility. Jacob confessed the conflict with Esau had not only caused family division. It also left Jacob’s heart divided to find a solution that protected those his loved ones and livelihood. Jacob prayed for God to deliver him from this conflict and his greatest fears in confronting it.
Before God could work through the conflict between the brothers, God chose another starting point; God began with some internal work with Jacob. The internal work of reconciliation is always the heart of the matter and it is usually the hardest part.
As night fell and Jacob was alone by the stream God wrestled with Jacob. It was through the long hours of the night that Jacob’s vulnerability and limits were exposed. The grappling match was the physical, emotional, and spiritual work between God and Jacob. You see, God was stripping away all that obstructed Jacob from becoming who God desired him to be; attitudes, decisions, and hurts that impaired relationships.
Rob Bell connects Jacob’s struggle with our own struggle to find reconciliation, saying:
“You and I have pasts, families we have come from, things we have done, mistakes we have made. And where we have been and what we have done has shaped us into who we are today.
We have to embrace our story – our history. We don’t have to be proud of it. But we must claim it because it is ours. Only when we can claim our own history for what it is – the good, the bad, and everything in between – can we begin to” know who we [are not and who we] are in God’s eyes… “This is the hard work of the soul to discover our true selves.”
The thought of coming face to face with our old wounds and conflicts can bring a lot of stress and anxiety. The quick fix is to cut off that part of our lives or even sever ties with that person we are in conflict with.
It is a tempting solution. But the spiritual reality is that cutting off our conflicts also cuts off the opportunity for God to be at work in our broken pieces.
The heart of the gospel is reconciliation. That word ‘reconciliation’ means that parties divided by conflict come together through a meaningful exchange to end the hostility between them. Henri Nouwen states a hidden truth about our divisions: “all divisions are tragic reflections of our separation from God.”
When we think of reconciliation we want to immediately jump to repairing the separation between the parties divided: the husband and wife who suffer a breach of trust, the friendship that was split by differences of opinion, groups within the community who are divided by walls of hostility.
For years I have thought about reconciliation beginning with naming the conflict, allowing each party to share their perspective and then make the move to bring the two back together in mutual understanding. And this is certainly part of the hard work of reconciliation. But Jacob’s story in Genesis is teaching me something new.
Reconciliation is best viewed in the shape of the cross. The horizontal part of the cross tells the story of the way God’s grace impacts and mends our relationships with others. This will be the focus of next week’s sermon as Jacob comes face to face with Esau.
But in order for us to be free to name the conflict and begin restoring our broken relationships with others, God must first have a meaningful exchange within us. This is what God was doing in Jacob’s life.
This part of reconciliation is the vertical part of the cross. It tells the story of the way God’s grace begins the internal work to repair our separation from God. Just as God wrestled with Jacob, God’s grace grapples with our past so that we unbecome everything we thought we were to find our true selves.
The power of God’s grace is revealed in Jesus Christ, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
It is through this costly grace that Jesus Christ fully struggled with the weight of our sin and its nature to estrange us from God and one another. It is the cross that reconciles us to God. And this costly grace continues to strip away what is dead in our hearts so that we might be changed.
It is by the power of God’s grace that we come to better understand ourselves, to claim the past which has shaped us, and to grow in the wisdom that God is not done with us.
God helps us to unbecome the label of brokenness that has defined our identity; we hear that little voice inside our hearts naming us: deceiver, prideful, resentful, workaholic, guilty, shamed, weak, addict, not enough, unloved …and our list of labels goes on.
When we feel secure in God’s love, it flows out to truly love our sisters and brothers. Our highest calling is to love God and neighbor as we have already been loved.
The first step of being reconciled with others is to be reconciled with God. This internal work is the hard work of the soul. It takes time, a posture of humility, a commitment to hold on with intentionality, and the openness to be changed. Just know that even as we are holding on to God, the love of God will never ever let us go.
Henri Nouwen states: “Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliation goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.”
Our lives are in need of finding the gift of God’s grace to bring the peace which is missing in our hearts, homes, and wider world.
May Jacob’s story give us pause to consider God’s wisdom for reconciliation.
What does God need for you to unbecome to discover who you are in God’s eyes?
What is God trying to strip away in your life in order for you to take the next step towards reconciliation?
In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.