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Please pray with me. Father, we thank you for the gospel, which is the power of God, and we pray now that as the gospel is preached from the old lights in the book of Genesis, some of the power of God might be made known in our midst for the changing of hearts and for the coming home of the prodigal, we pray in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.
I am very happy to be with you here this morning on Reformation Sunday. If you were at the Rector’s Forum, you know that I will have very little to say about the Reformation from the pulpit, because the reformers would not want us preaching about reformers to honor their memory. They would want us preaching the gospel of Jesus from the pages of Scripture in a language–a language, understandeth by the people. And so that is what we will be doing this morning in Genesis chapter 27, as you continue your series through the patriarchs.
Sigmund Freud- he said that he could not imagine a greater need of a child than the love of his father. He went on to say that it’s the lack of love from the father or the heavy-handed kind of love that is at the root of a lot of mental and emotional problems that are faced by modern people. If you read into such things you may have come across James Hersog, who more recently has coined the term that’s very evocative, “father hunger”, to describe this kind of problem that Freud noticed comes from a heavy-handed love, or not being loved sufficiently by a father. Margo Dename has done research into the father hunger of young women, and has linked it to low self-esteem, eating disorders and chronic depression. More than ever before, there is science to back up what good poets and authors have always known, which is that the world is hungry for the love of their fathers.
But even before the poet, it’s the Bible that lets us know there is a father hunger in this world. Long before Freud about the great need of the Father’s love, long before Demane and Hersog spoke to the pain of the Father hunger, the pages of Scripture, especially the pages in this book of Genesis, chronicle and detail the pain and alienation between children and their fathers, going back from one generation to the next, one to the next, all the way back to the very first father, and very first son, all the way back to the man whose only father was God Almighty. The Book of Genesis chronicles alienation, Father, hunger, pains, disorientation and depression. Now, scripture has two things to say on this issue.
First, something you already know: A great deal of the pain and dysfunction and turmoil present in the world–in the ancient world and in the modern world–occurs when young men and young women fail to receive the love from the fathers that they need, and they can fail to receive it for two reasons.
They can fail to receive it because it was never given. And I am around young men and young women who are driven to a demanding place, a hard place where hard people go and hard people only survive, the Military College of South Carolina. Not all of them, but many of them are there to prove to their fathers they are worth loving, and I want to tell them something they will not believe right now. If you have not received it at 18, a ring will not change it at 22.
But I’m also around a lot of young men and young women who have experienced the pain of the father hunger because what they had hoped to receive from their fathers was simply too much to ask for. You may have had a magnificent, marvelous father but your father is not God. And because your father is not God, he does not have the resources to satisfy the hunger in your heart and that is the second thing that Scripture teaches us.
The Lord Will Take Me In
Scripture teaches us the solution to this problem of global, universal, unending father hunger is not for us to make better fathers, although that would be nice. The solution to the never ending father hunger is to realize we have a perfect Heavenly Father: Only one father who can satisfy the deep longing and pain and the human heart. He’s God Almighty.
Surely this is what the psalmist is getting to the heart of when he says “Though my mother and father forsake me…” You’ve seen it happen. You may have done it. It may have been done to you. But what does the psalmist say in 27:10? “The Lord will take me in.” He will take me in. And so into these deep needs and emotional longings we wade today.
I’ll be in Genesis chapter 27. It’s a long reading, and I typically choose long readings when I guest preach because I write the sermon while they’re going through the reading. We don’t have time to go through the whole thing- you may wish to follow along its Genesis chapter 27. And let’s begin here with verse one.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me, and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love, and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.”
What a wonderful portrait of the very best of what fathers and sons can have in store for each other. Here’s a man at the end of his life, and he has one ambition. One thing he wants to accomplish in the few days, or maybe even hours that he has left on this earth: he wants to bless his son. Those of you who have biological children, those of you who have spiritual children, may God give you such ambitions in the last days of your life, to bless your children, to do your best to pour what love you have left into their souls. May God give you such a laser focus that he gave to Isaac to bless his son, Esau.
The Best Of Intentions
And those of you with fathers, biological or spiritual, may God give you such ambition to bless them in return, because that’s what Esau does. I’m going to bless my father with the time he has left by giving him things I know he loves, things we have bonded over. I will bless my father. It is a wonderful picture, that little exchange in those first four verses, what a wonderful portrait of the very best intentions fathers can have for their sons and sons can have for their fathers. What a wonderful portrait. But the best of intentions do often go awry.
You’ve heard the phrase total depravity, often attributed to a man named John Calvin. People misunderstand the phrase total depravity, they think that it means we’re all ax-murderers secretly. But of course, it doesn’t mean that at all. It means that every aspect of the human nature is short-circuited somehow. Even the best aspects are dysfunctional. And here’s the very best of what this man Isaac has, the intention to bless his son, and it’s still dysfunctional because, well, you know why: he only intends to bless one of them.
Fathers Are Finite Creatures
I was reading an article in Parade magazine about the last days of the Great Santini. The real one, not the one in the book. The great local author Pat Conroy, his own father loomed large in The Great Santini and My Losing Season (and he’s also driven to that very hard place not far up the road from here). And he said in his journal that when dad came into contact with the character of the Great Santini, he spent the rest of his life trying to prove to his children he was not the man in those books.
The best of intentions; that laser focus of blessing the children in the days he has left. But dysfunctional: it never quite landed on his sister, Carol did it? It’s in the magazine, I’ll read it to you. “When my father began his quick, slippery descent into death, what I miss most was fixing his lunch. He was now at Kathy’s house in Beaufort, my brothers and sisters drove from all directions to sit six hour shifts at his bedside. We learn that watching a fighter pilot die is not easy. One morning, I arrived for my shift to relieve my sister Carol and heard screaming coming from the house. I raced inside and found Carol screaming at dad in an ancient and piteous voice.”
It’s not simply piteous, it’s ancient. Why is it ancient? Because people have been calling this call out for centuries. “‘Dad, you’ve got to tell me you love me. You’ve got tell me you’re proud of me. You have to do this before you die. Bless me!’ I walked Carol out of the bedroom, sat her down on the sofa in the living room. ‘Carol, that guy, he’s not going deaf. You don’t have to scream at him.'”
Yes, she did. She did. Because he already had the blessing. She didn’t have the blessing. It was her last attempt to take it because it wouldn’t be given. “‘He never told me he loves me or that he’s proud of me. Not once in his whole life.'”
All is not well in Isaac’s home because one child got left out. All is not well in Isaac’s home because one child can say he was never going to bless me. One boy’s a clear favorite of the father. It’s only one boy that they talk about the favorite game. It’s only one boy they talk about the smell– the smell of my son, the smell of the field the Lord has blessed. Those of us who have children that you have loved, you know the smell of them. But only the smell of one child is spoken about in this passage. There’s an anxiety in this house, and the anxiety of this house is that one boy is going to be left out, so he’s going to have to take it for himself because his father would never give it to him and his father only has so much to give. That’s a peculiar thing about this passage. Did you notice? After Jacob steals the blessing, Esau comes back and what does he ask? “Don’t you have another blessing for me?” And what does Isaac say? “No.”
Now, that’s very strange. I don’t fully understand it. But, I do understand that fathers, even the best of them, are finite creatures. Those of you, you know what it may be like to come home from a long day of work, mothers or fathers. You come home from a long day at work, everybody is there lined up and they’re desperate for your attention: a wife, a son, a daughter, and a cat. And the immediate thought that you have is, “I don’t have enough for all of them. I don’t. Not what they want.” And that’s what Isaac is saying, I don’t have enough. And Jacob is saying, I know he doesn’t have enough left over for me, so I’m just going to take it. And that’s what he does. He just–he just takes it.
The Great Lie
You see this is not unique. This is the story of the book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers: why do they hate him? Because all of the father’s love fell on Joseph. Why does Jacob hate Esau? All of the father’s love fell on Esau. Why does Ishmael hate Isaac? Why does Cain hate Abel? Why do Adam and Eve come to trust the devil more than they come to trust their Heavenly Father and become enemies of God? They’re afraid there’s just not enough to go around, and that their father’s aren’t good enough to give them what they want.
It’s the great lie. It’s the great lie at the center of Genesis 3. Go back and read Genesis 3 and notice with what precision the devil goes about a character assassination of God Almighty.
“Did he say that you can’t eat anything?” He’s making God look small and restrictive and greedy. “No, we just can’t eat that one. Or we’ll die.”
“No, no you won’t. That one’s good for wisdom. That one’s good for godliness. That one’s good to make you like God. And he doesn’t want to share any of that with you. If you want it, you’re going to have to take it.”
That’s what they do; they take it, because they have come to believe that even God will withhold His goodness. The story of Genesis is that fear and that lie getting passed down one to the next, one to the next, destroying this family and then that one and this one, and that one, all the way up until the day when Boris Sokoloff in 1947, in his psychological study of jealousy, said that jealousy is inbred in human nature. It’s the most basic, all-pervasive emotion which touches man in all of his aspects of every human relationship.
Where are you afraid that what you want is not coming? Where has it led you to jealousy? Where has it led you to take? Where has it led you to deceive? Where has it led you to do what Jacob did because he has to have the blessing? And you see the enormous amount of pain that it causes. Isaac cries out exceedingly. Esau weeps and sobs. And how does the reading end? Esau planned to kill Jacob as soon as his father was dead.
Genuine Love Means The Most When It’s Undeserved
How do we undo this trauma and find peace? There’s a wonderful book by John Steinbeck called “East of Eden”. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it. And it’s very similar to the book of Genesis, intentionally so. Fathers and sons, fathers and sons, and the final pair in the book, a man named Adam, a son named Cal and Aaron, and they repeat the great mistake. Adam favors his son Aaron. Cal sees this and Cal tries to do exactly what Jacob does. He tries to take what he does not think his father will give–only in the book, Cal tries to purchase it.
There’s a great family dinner and Cal has $16,000 that he presents to his father, trying to buy his father’s love. Buy his father’s love. And Adam rejects the gift. He makes nothing of it. It fractures Cal’s heart. Fractures it. And so Cal does what Jacob does–he hates his brother. And Cal plays a trick on his brother Aaron, and the trick is such a bad trick that it leads to Aaron’s death. When Adam finds out that his son Aaron has died, he has a stroke and he’s bedridden and he never gets out of bed. He’s dying. It’s like ripping his heart out at the death of his favorite son.
And then Cal is given laser focus not to receive the blessing, but to confess. So, he goes to his father and he tells his father the trick that killed his brother and his father’s crippled body shakes. And Steinbeck ends it on the most unexpected note: the father stretches out his hand and blesses his son.
What Steinbeck is saying is enormously important. Genuine love can’t be bought, it can only be given, and it means the most when it’s undeserved. And here the blessing that undermines the turmoil of a Steinbeck family is pointing to a truth in the book of Genesis, and it’s the truth of the Christian gospel. The Father’s love can’t be bought or earned. It can only be given and it means the most when you’re at your worst.
Only Given, Never Earned
Jacob did receive a blessing from Isaac this day. You know the story. Maybe his life gets worse, and so does he, from here on out. But his father hunger drives him to the fount of all fathers. He winds up face to face with God, and what does he want? “Bless me.” And he tries to wrestle the blessing out of God, all night. In his striving, he tries to tear a blessing from God’s heart, but a blessing that is purchased is not a blessing. A father’s love can only be given. So God does the most amazing thing–he cripples Jacob on the spot so that the deceiver and the striver and the struggler cannot struggle or strive or deceive; he’s a cripple. At the moment where he can no longer take the blessing for himself, that is the moment where God, His Father, gives it to him.
Here’s my question for you. Is Jacob the only one whom God loves? How do you know? We know that God loves Jacob–He blessed him. How do we know God loves you? I’ll tell you how–For God so loved the world He sent His Son and everyone in this room can look at the crucified Jesus and say, I know, gladly my burden bearing, I know, that the Father loves me because Jesus Christ is the outstretched arm of God the Father to the undeserving. Freely given, never earned, at just the right time while we were still weak. Christ died for the who? The ungodly. That’s why it means the most.
Let’s close with two very quick applications. What must you do with this news, those of you who believe in Jesus? You must tell yourself, and you must tell the world that you live in, that their father hunger is not to be satisfied on this earth. It’s satisfied only as we look to Jesus and learn that we have a God in heaven of infinite blessings and infinite love, and there’s enough for everyone to get exactly what they need. You let them know.
Here’s the second thing: You may be visiting. I don’t know why you’re visiting. You may have a Christian spouse who has brought you here for decades and you have put up with it. God bless you. You may have wandered in for a ghost tour and you came to the wrong place. You may have heard there was coffee and donuts but only learned that you had to sit through a sermon to get to them, but you’re here. Are you restless? Are you in turmoil? Are you longing to hear that you’re loved? Well, I know a man named Jesus and if you look to Him, you will have the fullness of what you seek. He’s the visible sign and the Son. He’s the outstretched arm of the Father. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, strengthen us with the love of the Father revealed in Jesus, and Father, call your prodigals home through Christ our brother, your Son, the blessing of God almighty. We ask this in his name. Amen.