Sunday, October 30, 2016

Face Of God

How I study the Bible is that I read through one Old Testament book, one book of the New Testament and cycle through the Psalms. Currently I'm reading through the book of Genesis. It's an odd book to read from Creation all the way through the death of Joseph. Now I have either read through or heard the stories from the book of Genesis my whole life. They are overly familiar to the point that I falsely believe that I know everything this book contains, that there is nothing new to learn, that I have either mined everything that book has to offer or heard it ad naseum in sermons and teachings from childhood on. Then, as God so often likes to do, He reminds me that I am far from grasping even the slightest bit of scripture fully.

This morning, I was reading the chapter on Jacob's returning to the land where his brother Esau lives. Despite the many years he has been away, Jacob is terrified of his older brother, whose birthright he has stolen through trickery. The night before he will meet Esau, Jacob is alone and finds himself wrestling a man until the dawn. This story is one that I have read and reread and heard and reheard over and over and over. The man touches Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. He renames Jacob "Israel." When Jacob asks the man his name, the man answers with a blessing. Jacob names the place of this encounter Peniel, which means "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." We've all read this and heard this story. But where I found myself this morning was in a place that was at once overly familiar and completely anew. It wasn't this scene of Jacob wrestling the Lord, but in Jacob facing Esau again for the fist time after many years.

Never, in all of my readings or hearings, have I picked up on this line, which is how Jacob greets his brother, "No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand.For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me."


Think about that. Jacob has just come from an encounter with seeing the very face of God and yet, as he addresses his older brother, he uses the phrase, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me."

Was this merely hyperbole during a moment of reconciliation? Was it mere diplomacy on the trickster Jacob's part to try and mollify a brother he is mortally afraid of?

Certainly the description of Esau being a ruddy and hairy man with rough skin is not one we would naturally apply as one that is like seeing "the face of God."

The Midrash, which is the ancient commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, speaks of this encounter in this way:

Jacob mentions God's name to Esau in order to intimidate and frighten him. It then mentions a parable in which a man is invited by his friend to dine with him. When the man arrives at his friend's house, the host has planned to murder him. The man then says, "This dish is delicious. It tastes like one I had in the royal palace." Upon hearing this, the host was afraid, "So he knows the king . . ." The host decides not to go through with his murderous plot. Jacob was doing likewise. By saying to Esau, "For to see thy face is like seeing the face of God," Esau will then rethink his plan to harm Jacob, "Since the Holy One brought him to such honor, I stand no chance against him."

Was this really Jacob's way of warning his brother, "If you harm me, then you will have to answer to God"?

The text doesn't ready that way. 

Yes, Jacob is fearful. But, like the father of the prodigal son, Esau has run to meet Jacob and, just like the father in that parable, embraces him and "fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept."  It is in those lines that I grasp that Jacob understood that the reception he received was not the one he deserved. When Jacob expected wrath, he instead, received grace. Esau extended to him, in that moment: love, mercy and compassion. He welcomed his brother back just as the father does his prodigal son. 

When Jacob tells his brother, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me," is being quite literal. This once harsh and angry man, is now one who is filled with gentleness, kindness, and familial love. He does not view Jacob as the enemy but as a beloved brother.  He keeps reminding Jacob, "I don't want your flocks and your gifts. I am just filled with joy that you have returned to me." (Reminds me of that verse in Matthew 9:13, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice").

How much is this another biblical portrait of the grace of God?

As I thought about this beautiful passage, I began to think about the people in my own life. How many of them would say to me, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God"?

To those who have wronged me, do I offer them the hand of forgiveness and mercy? Do I offer unconditional love, total humility, acceptance and even joy? He, without condition, forgave the wickedness and sins that his younger brother had committed against him. Jacob stole his birthright. This meant that the younger brother had stolen all of the privileges, advantages and paternal inheritance that was rightfully his in that time and culture. How many of us would be willing to do so if someone had taken our portion right out from under us? Most of us are unwilling to at even the most minor of slights or hurt feelings. Yet if  Esau, who did not know Christ can, what is my excuse?

If we, as Christians did, how big an impact would that make on the culture around us?  Would others not see the face of God in us when we do?

Certainly I cannot help but think of the lines in Les Miserables when Victor Hugo wrote. "To love another person is to see the face of God." I want to love like that. I want to love as Esau did his brother Jacob.  Reading this story in Genesis has made me realize how deeply I want others to see the face of God in my face through my actions and by, ultimately, what is in my heart.

May we all be "the face of God" to a hurting and broken world. This is my prayer.

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