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Matthew 5:23-24, Genesis 32:6-33:11
During the last sermon series, i said “Worship is the reordering of our lives to center on God.”
We begin the next sermon series “Reorder” focusing exactly on that – what does it mean to reorder our lives? How do we reorder our lives based on the teachings of Jesus?
In our previous sermon series, Commonwealth 2.0, we approached things on a conceptual level. In this sermon series, we want to be more prescriptive – we want to be able to point out concrete ways we can reorder our lives to center on God.
I want to start the series talking about our personal lives, our personal relationships, our personal interactions. I want to talk about reconciliation.
I have always been fascinated with what Jesus taught – and how different it was from what the Church taught. And often, I struggle with being true to this Jesus I have come to know – this Teacher, this friend, this Master – and how things are (what John Dominic Crossan calls the normalcy of civilisation) We often don’t follow Jesus’ teachings – very often because it is inconvenient, it is difficult.
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:23-24 “23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
As I revisited this passage, I found what Jesus is saying here even more radical. What is even more shocking is this – offerings, as practiced by the Jews during Jesus’ time (read Leviticus), are sometimes about seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing (guilt offering), for purification (the sin offering), sometimes about fellowship and communion with God (the peace offering) but always about seeking right relationship with God.
What is Jesus saying here? What could be more important than the religious duty to make offerings to God, and being in right relationship with God?
I don’t think Jesus is saying that being reconciled with your siblings – and here I don’t think Jesus is referring to your biological siblings – is more important than being in right relationship with God. How I interpret this is that you cannot be in right relationship with God without being in right relationship with the people around you.
This is the same reason why Jesus gave two commandments when He was asked which is the greatest commandment – Matthew 22:37-40
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
You cannot love God with all of you, when you do not love your neighbour as yourself. Likewise, you cannot be in right relationship with God, when you are not in right relationship with those around you.
I was reminded of Psalm 51 – one that I had misgivings about in the past. I had to revisit it. It was written after the Prophet Nathan confronts David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then murdered her husband Urial to cover up his sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
It used to trouble me when David says “Against you, you only, have I sinned” but as I revisited this passage, and dug deeper, I realised there could be another reading – that David is saying that all transgression, all sin, regardless who we transgressed against, sin against, is sin against God.
It is the flip side of what Jesus taught – we cannot love God without loving our neighbour. Likewise, when we sin against our neighbour, we sin against God.
Too often, we have substituted reconciliation with the people in our lives by just reconciliation with God. Like David, we ask God for forgiveness – we acknowledge that our sins is always before us. We seek reconciliation with God, but do we seek reconciliation with our siblings who have something against us?
We all have someone who has something against us, we all have broken relationships – and I am not talking only about the romantic ones. The question is do we seek to find reconciliation in our relationships that are broken.
I thought about all the different stories of brokenness and reconciliation in the Bible as I was preparing this sermon – can you think of some?
I thought about the Prodigal Son. I thought about Cain and Abel. I thought about David and Bathsheba (and Uriah) I thought about Jacob and Esau.
The brokenness in the relationship between Jacob and Esau stems from their rivalry as sons – even before they were born, they were struggling in Rebakah’s womb. When Isaac was dying, Jacob and Rebakah tricked Isaac into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob, and Esau wanted to kill his brother. Like Cain, the older brother had something against the younger brother.
Jacob was returning after spending twenty years with his uncle Laban to escape from his brother’s wrath. And even after twenty years he was afraid of what his brother Esau may do to him.
6 And 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.” 7 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, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.” 9 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,’ 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.’”
That evening, Jacob wrestled with God – a passage that is very familiar to us. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” What is the wrestling about? Is it just a physical kind of wrestling? When I read it in the context of what is going on – I think there is much for us to ponder about. Jacob was very concerned with not only his own safety but the safety of his family. He was worried that his brother will exact vengeance on him, and wipe them all out. Few of us, especially here in Singapore, are worried for our lives. But what applies to us, is asking ourselves what is this wrestling with God? Is it just asking for blessings, or is it something more? Could it be having a deep look within ourselves, and the broken relationships we have, and seeking reconciliation? Could it be asking God for strength, for wisdom, for courage – for the blessing to seek that reconciliation – even those people we have wronged terribly? Do we wrestle with our own conscience? Do we wrestle with the consequences of what we have done, and sometimes the consequences of what we have not done? Do we wrestle with God? What kind of blessings are we asking for?
Jacob was already blessed with material things. What kind of blessing was he asking for?
Jacob and Esau Meet
Genesis 33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Does this sound familiar? Does this verse ring a bell for you? Does it remind you of another passage in the Bible? This will remind you of the reconciliation between the father and the prodigal son. This is how the father ran out to meet his son. He ran out and embraced him too.
5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6 Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8 Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favour with my lord.” 9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favour with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favour. 11 Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
This reconciliation, however, isn’t exactly perfect. Because later on, when Esau says I will march alongside you. But Jacob does not trust Esau and Jacob gives the excuse that his wives and children are tired from the journey, and asks Esau to go ahead while they move slowly. He tells Esau that he will meet up with Esau in Seir, but instead of going to Seir where Esau was, Jacob heads to Succoth. There was still distrust, and not a perfect reconciliation. Not perfect, but certainly far from the worst – nobody got killed, certainly not like in the case of our other set of brothers, Cain and Abel. And I wondered – what is going on? One thing i realised is this – reconciliation doesn’t only require us to give gifts to appease the other person. Sometimes we try to skip over the step of asking for forgiveness with the giving of gifts. I buy you dinner, ask you out for drinks, but i never really say sorry. I never really say what is it that I have done that has wronged you and I know that I have wronged you and I want to make amends for it. This is why this is imperfect. It is just like bribery. He is giving gifts to his brother so that his brother does not kill him.
We need to realise that we carry all these things with us. When we have wronged someone, when we have sinned against someone, we carry it with us. Jacob had to wrestle with fear – the fear of the consequences of what he has done to his brother. He had to live with the fear that his brother may come after him after all these years for revenge. The prodigal son knew he had sinned against his father and only deserved to be accepted back as a servant. But the outcome of all these stories show that all the ghosts, all the shadows, all the demons are within us. The outcomes turn out to be a lot more optimistic than we expect. When we wrong someone, we are the ones carrying the consequences. We are the ones who cannot face the other person and look them in the eye. Very often, when we bring up the issue, that incident, the other person has forgotten about it. They may go “oh, i have forgotten about it” or “oh, it doesn’t matter anymore. That was years ago.” What we have done haunts us a lot more than it affects the other person.
Why then don’t we seek forgiveness? Why do we substitute seeking forgiveness from the people we have wronged with seeking forgiveness from God? Why don’t we leave our offerings at the altar and run back to our siblings to reconcile? Because when we do that, that is the transformation that happens within us. That weight that has haunted us, the weight that has held us down, the weight of guilt and shame dissapates.
I was reflecting on the song we sang just now – “I am restless until i find rest in you.” The word restless brought to mind the passage about Cain’s punishment – for the murder of his brother Abel, he was cursed to be a restless wanderer. And i wonder about us – are we restless because we have not made amends, we have not seek forgiveness from the people we have wronged. We can pray very hard to God to find rest, but we are restless because we are carrying so much within us that we are not able to let go.
And then, I noticed something in all the wrongdoing in the Bible. The first one we know of is Adam and Eve, and the second is Cain and Abel. Then we think of the rest in Genesis – Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There are a lot of wrongdoing in the Bible – and I noticed a pattern. Those that are left unresolved, are those that the people who transgressed or sinned blamed someone else. When God asked Adam and Eve what happened, Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. They did not take responsibility, they didn’t hold themselves accountable for their actions, and they did not seek forgiveness. And they were cursed. Then Cain murdered Abel. When he was confronted when God asked Cain “where is your brother?” Cain answered “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He does not even say I have sinned or i have done something wrong – he never admits his mistake. Reflecting on this and the other stories – in the case of Jacob and Esau, Jacob never really apologised for stealing his brother’s blessing. He was still as cunning as before, and still strategising in his head.
Then we look at David – with Psalm 51 that declares how sinful he was, and how repentant he was. What is God trying to tell us through these stories in the Bible? We need to hold ourselves accountable, to make amends, to seek forgiveness for what we have done wrong.
To be in right relationship with God, we must be in right relationship with people in our lives.
I learn this from working with folks who have gone through 12 step programs – yes programs that deal with addictions – and steps 4-10
I want to invite you to think about those people who may have something against you. I want to invite you to think about how you can find ways of making amends.
And in this way, I think, you are reordering your life and centering on God.