My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Keeping Up With Esau
Readings: Genesis 33:1-17. AC 4353.3, 4377
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
“Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant. I will lead on slowly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure, until I come to my lord in Seir.” (Genesis 33:14)
Did you ever wonder why, in the story of Jacob reuniting with Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel? Or why Esau isn't mad at Jacob? Or why Esau initially refuses Jacob's gift, but then accepts it? Or especially, why Jacob says he will follow Esau back to Seir, but then he snubs him and doesn't follow him? What does that mean? In this sermon we will examine those questions.
Like this story, sometimes it can feel like our spiritual journey through life is also really confusing and really difficult. For example, we might struggle with yelling at our children. “I really want to change, but in that moment when my kid has destroyed yet another wedding dish, I fall right back into yelling at them again. Why is it so hard to change, even when I want to change?” Or we might struggle with perfectionism: “I know that being a perfectionist is ruining my relationships with people. But in that moment, I still want to spend one more hour doing research, or making that project better than it is now. I know it’s not healthy, but I can’t help how I feel. How can I change that feeling?”
The Jacob and Esau story—like our own story—is about the difficulty of moving from trying to do what’s right to loving to do what’s right. And the only one that can accomplish this change is the Lord. Swedenborg’s book: Secrets of Heaven (AC 4337-4387) can help us to understand more about our own confusing and difficult spiritual journey, and how it is represented in the journey of Jacob.
But first let’s get a bit of recap: In this story we hear about Jacob and Esau meeting again. The last time they were together, Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from Esau; essentially stealing his entire inheritance. As you can imagine this makes Esau very angry. Jacob then travels to Haran in Padan-Aram under the cover story that he needs to find a wife, but in reality he needs to get away from Esau who has promised to kill him as soon as their father Isaac has died. Jacob then falls in love with Rachel, is forced to marry Leah, has 11 sons and one daughter, becomes very wealthy working for Laban his father-in-law and uncle, then decides to sneak away from Laban and return to the Land of Canaan with all of his family and flocks. He is still on the east side of the Jordan when he wrestles with the Angel of God. This is what happens right before Jacob meets Esau again.
Then Jacob’s messengers tell him that Esau is coming with 400 men. You can imagine that Jacob would be really scared. This is why he sends a present of over 500 animals ahead to try to appease Esau. But Esau keeps coming. So he lines up his family with the least important in front, and the most important (Rachel and her children) in back, and he prepares for the attack. Then as Esau approaches, Jacob bows himself to the ground seven times. And then... Esau hugs and kisses him? I don’t think that’s what Jacob was expecting.
So then Esau says “hey, who are these?” and Jacob says “this is my family.” And then Esau says, “what’s up with all the animals you sent to me?” and Jacob says, “that was a present for you.” and Esau says, “thanks, but I really don’t need them, I have plenty of my own.” and Jacob says, “no really, I insist.” and Esau says, “OK.”
So then Esau says, “let’s travel together” and Jacob says, “I can’t keep up with you. You go on ahead, and I’ll catch up.” So Esau goes back to Seir on the East side of the Jordan, but Jacob doesn’t catch up with him. Instead, he goes across the Jordan into the Land of Canaan.
Let’s begin by looking at what these characters represent in our lives. In this particular story, Esau represents the Lord. Specifically he represents the feeling of the Lord’s goodness and love in our natural minds (AC 4336, 4340). He represents: actually loving to do what’s right, rather than struggling to do what’s right. We get that feeling only from the Lord. Jacob even calls Esau: ‘my lord,’ and calls himself: ‘your servant.‘
Why does Esau represent the Lord? You might remember that Esau was the older brother; he was born first. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and pretends to be the firstborn. Goodness (Esau) is always the firstborn, the most important member of the family, even when it looks like we need to learn truths (Jacob) first.
In Secrets of Heaven it says that Jacob comes to represents the ‘good of truth’ (AC 4336-4337) in this part of the story. The ‘good of truth’ means the good that comes out of doing what’s right. The ‘good of truth’ is like the loving feelings that we can have towards people because we have practiced doing what’s right, and going through the motions of love to the neighbor. Before Jacob was the ‘good of truth’ he simply represented ‘truth.’ Truth in action. The mechanics of loving the neighbor. This is like treating someone with courtesy and politeness because we know it’s the right thing to do, even if we don’t actually feel like being polite to them. At first Jacob represented those times in our lives when we are ‘faking it till we make it.‘ But by the end of this story Jacob represents ‘making it,’ when we actually feel loving towards people, rather than simply acting loving.
Sometimes it can feel like simply doing the right thing is the end of the story. After all, Jacob is heading back to the Promised Land. Isn’t that all? “Look at how many wives, children and flocks I have. I’m doing good things for people. Isn’t that the life of heaven?” No. The final piece is that we need to actually feel loving towards people. But this isn’t something we can just change. This is something that the Lord changes in us. And this story describes how He does that.
Now back to the story: Jacob is scared, because his messengers tell him that Esau is coming with 400 men. Those ‘400 men’—like the ‘40 years’ that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness—represent a state of temptation, or spiritual struggle. Heavenly Secrets says that “temptations come when good starts to play the leading role” (AC 4341). So when we actually start to live a life of love, because we want to do what is right, then evil spirits are going to attack us. For example: we might have worked hard to learn how to be a better parent, or to learn how to not be a perfectionist. This may work for a while, until we find ourselves falling back into our bad habits. “But wait! I’m learning truth. I’m trying to do what’s right. Why isn’t it working? Why is God punishing me?” This is why it says that “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen 32:7) when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men. It’s also why just before this story, Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God. We can get very scared and distressed when it seems like the life of religion that we are trying to live isn’t working. “I’m not feeling any different. I’m not seeing a change yet.” Evil spirits want us to think that the Lord is the enemy, just like Jacob thought Esau was the enemy.
But the problem isn’t the Lord. The problem isn’t Esau. The problem is with us, with our misconceptions of what life is all about. When we live our life based on love—even if at first we are just going through the motions of love—that begins to bring the Lord closer to us. But in the process of letting the Lord into our lives, the Lord’s love and wisdom shine a light on our imperfections and we see them more clearly, and that is painful (AC 4341.2)! We see that we’ve been living life from a sense of merit. We see that we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if we just know enough truth and do enough good things—like Jacob accumulating wives, children, and flocks—then that will earn us a ticket to the Promised Land, a ticket to heaven, a ticket to happiness and peace. But this is not the truth. All goodness, all truth, all true feelings of love come from the Lord alone, and not from thinking that we’ve earned them.
Jacob was a pretty cocky guy. He tricked Esau out of the birthright and the blessing. He tricked Laban out of a lot of his flock. When we begin to live our life based on the truth, we can also get cocky, and think we’ve got our life under control. But thinking that we are in control doesn’t allow true goodness from the Lord to flow into our actions. We need to be humble, and recognize that Jesus is Lord—just like Jacob referred to Esau as ‘lord’—before we can be filled with His goodness (see AC 4347). And so we need to begin a process of bringing humility into our lives. This is represented by Jacob bowing seven times. This is what Secrets of Heaven describes as ‘truth being conjoined to good’ (AC 4345.5). For example, we might spend a day doing really well as a parent. We might be not yelling at our kids, and very intentionally expressing love for them. But if we think that that good behavior is coming from us, then we’ll think that it should earn us some happiness. But if we recognize that all goodness comes from the Lord alone, then we can continue loving our children, no matter how they treat us in return. This is peace. Being humble allows the Lord’s goodness and peace to flow into our lives, no matter what happens (AC 4347.2,3).
So Jacob humbles himself to Esau, and what does Esau do? He runs to him and gives him a big hug and a kiss! The Lord always loves us! He always wants to join with us and bless us with His love. And specifically the Lord wants to join His love with the truths that we have learned and put into action, which you could think of as our good habits. In Secrets of Heaven it says that “action comes first, then the desire for it in the person’s will follows” (AC 4353.3).
So now comes the part of the story where the Lord begins to actually fill us with His goodness; with the feeling of love for other people; the willingness and desire to do good things. This process is described by this strange little back and forth between Jacob and Esau: Jacob offers the gift to Esau, Esau refuses it, Jacob urges him to take it, and Esau accepts it. Now you might think, “If Esau is the Lord, and Jacob is us, then how does ‘Esau accepting a gift from Jacob’ represent the Lord giving us His goodness?” Isn’t that sort of backwards?
This is where we need to talk about affections: Secrets of Heaven says that “the Lord leads everyone through the agency of his [or her] affections” (AC 4364.2). So for example: Jacob was led to acquiring his wives, children and flocks by having an affection for those things, just like we are led to learning truths by having an affection for knowing what’s true. Like wanting to learn parenting skills. But our story doesn’t end with us simply knowing and loving the truth. Our affection needs to be changed into an affection for goodness, kindness and love, and that can only be done by the Lord being present with us. And this passage from Secrets of Heaven describes the mysterious way that the Lord often does this:
"One sometimes refuses an offer when in fact accepting it, to the end that affection may be instilled. That affection is also increased by such a refusal and so advances from the thought of what is good to the desire for it. [A person] is led by the Lord in the spiritual life by means of things that are virtually the same as those by which one leads others in everyday life. In everyday life it is quite normal to refuse an offer so that the one who makes it may do so with affection, thus not simply because he has thought of making it but also because he desires to do so. Should the offer not be accepted the ultimate intention would perish, and therefore that intention incites the one making the offer to think more intently about it and so to make it his heart's desire." (AC 4366)
It’s as if we start by saying, ‘OK Lord, here’s my life. As you can see, I’m trying hard, but it’s not working.’ And then we believe we hear the Lord saying, “I have enough my brother; keep what you have for yourself” (Gen 33:9). Almost as if we think He is saying that He has enough life, or enough people who love Him, and He doesn’t need us. Then something inside of us is taken aback, and we react with “But Lord, wait! What’s wrong with my life? Please show me how it can be better! Please! I really want to learn how to love You better. I really do want to stop hurting the people I love. You’re the only One that can help me!” And then the Lord says, “Now that’s the attitude I was hoping for. I will gladly accept that attitude.” We tend to want what we think we can’t have. The Lord can use this to change our attitude, and then fill us with His goodness.
So in that short, seemingly awkward exchange between Esau and Jacob, we are changed. We started off being someone who had an affection for truth for natural reasons: “I just need to learn something that will make me happier.” Now we begin to have an affection for truth for spiritual reasons: “I really want to stop hurting the people I love, and become a better person” (see AC 4368).
But the story doesn’t stop there, because hey, it’s just not that easy. We may now have a genuine desire to change for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the people we love, but we still feel like we get slowed down by our old habits. It’s like we just can’t keep up with the Lord’s goodness all the time. After Esau accepts Jacob’s gift, Esau says, “Let us take our journey; let us go, and I will go before you” (Gen 33:12). The Lord wants us to walk with Him on our spiritual journey. And ideally this would be the end of the story. We would just always walk with the Lord in whatever we do. But Jacob says, “I can’t. I’ve got little kids and baby animals. We won’t be able to keep up with you.” How often do we say this to the Lord?: “I can’t keep up.” It’s really quite simple: if we walk with the Lord, we will be safe, happy, and provided for. The Lord’s yoke is easy. But for some reason it’s hard for us to do this. We tend to forget about the Lord in the details of our daily life. The cares of this world drag us down and slow us down like Jacob’s many children and flocks. If you have children, or you own animals, it may even be actual children and animals that make it feel like you can’t keep up with your spiritual life. But whatever it is, there are things in our lives that make it feel like we can’t maintain the pace of always living and walking in the Lord’s love. We fall back into loving ourself and just wanting happiness and peace for ourselves. We haven’t completely received the Lord’s goodness yet (see AC 4377, 4378).
But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this. The Lord knows that this is our tendency. The Lord knows that we can’t keep up with Him. Esau’s meeting with Jacob represents the joining of good to truth in general in our life; in theory. We get it now; that we need to walk with the Lord. But the joining of good to truth in every single detail of our life takes more time. Each ‘child’ and ‘animal’ moves more slowly in our spiritual journey (AC 4379). We may have come to know and even embrace the concept that loving the Lord and the neighbor are the primary things of the church (just like Jacob embraced Esau). But how we apply that to each and every circumstance in our life may take some time (the flocks and children move slowly). Secrets of Heaven says that: “This is the way in which people who are being regenerated are led by the Lord, for they are endowed with general things having within them those which follow later, which also come forth successively, doing so in an order and sequence beyond description” (AC 4383).
Esau then says, “Let me leave some people with you to help you.” This represents the fact that because of this process we’ve been enlightened by the Lord about ourselves, about the Lord, about the spiritual journey. These truths that we now see are represented by the people Esau wanted to leave with Jacob (AC 4385). Jacob then responds by saying, “What need is there?” Almost as if it’s us saying, “Yeah, I see, I get it now” (see AC 4386).
And then the story ends with what seems to be Jacob snubbing Esau. Esua returns to Seir on the East side of the Jordan. But Jacob doesn’t follow him there like he said he would. Instead he crosses the Jordan into the land of Canaan. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface. But the underlying meaning makes perfect sense. It was through Jacob’s interaction with Esau, through our meeting with the Lord on our spiritual journey, through our renewed desire for His help, that we are able to come into a more heavenly state, a state represented by the Promised Land (see AC 4388, 4394). We now have an affection for goodness, and enlightenment about how our mind works and how the Lord’s kingdom works. Jacob is now a more complete person because of meeting with Esau. He probably felt relief in the reconciliation. He probably no longer feared his brother. These are heavenly states. These states of peace are ones that we can experience on our journey if we meet with the Lord on the way.
So when you are struggling with trying to do what’s right, but not feeling any change, try to remember to meet the Lord on your journey. Embrace Him! Present your life to Him. And then keep walking. It may take a long time for us to learn how to walk with the Lord in every part of our life. And it may take even longer to actually feel loving. We won’t be able to keep up all the time. This is normal. The Lord knows this. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Have patience. Trust in the Lord. It may have taken Jacob a while, but he did eventually make it into the Promised Land. And if we embrace the Lord and try to keep up with the Lord in our life, the Lord promises that we can make it too.