The Elephant in the Room

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When we are experiencing fear and doubt we can turn to God in prayer.

Genesis(78) (Part of the Origins(76) series)
by Marc Webb(54) on November 27, 2022 (Sunday Morning(274))

Bible Study(2), Prayer(15), Trust(11)

The Elephant in the Room

The following comes from an announcement for a series of sermons on hamlinechurch.org. In every home, in every life, there exist certain problems, certain realities that we don’t want to acknowledge. We think that if we ignore them for long enough they will go away on their own or no one will notice. ​​ We all struggle with how to deal with the Elephant in the Room. Often times we feel that we have to keep these elephants secret and tell everyone that we’re fine. ​​ If we have to act like something we are not – it’s problematic. Chances are the very thing you don’t want to talk about is probably the very thing that is nudging you out of a relationship with important people in your life, or with God. There are certain elephants that exist in our lives that need to be brought into the light of God’s love and God’s community of believers: the church.

One of these elephants is loneliness. We live in a culture that celebrates individualism and self-reliance, and yet we humans are an exquisitely social species, thriving in good company and suffering in isolation. We have more technology than ever to help us stay connected, yet somehow the devices fail us: and the elephant in the room is that we feel increasingly alone. God meant for us to be in community. We need each other. It is important that we talk about the elephant in the room and offer people ways to overcome loneliness and enter into genuine, authentic and life giving relationships. Another elephant is addiction. Addiction comes in many forms – overeating, social media, pornography, alcohol, television, tobacco, drugs and more. However, addiction is often birthed from one source: pain. Despite our best efforts to hide the elephant, eventually the side effects of addiction spill over into other aspects of our lives and can end up hurting the people we love most. Addictions can hold us back from the fullness of life that God intends for each one of us. We can open the door to recovery (both for those addicted and their loved ones) by sharing our experiences, strengths, and hopes with one another. We can become willing to accept God’s grace in solving our lives’ problems and healing our hearts.

This morning we are going to be talking about the “elephant in the room” for Jacob. This elephant is a person: his brother, Esau. Twenty years before, Jacob stole Esau’s blessing from their father and when Esau found out he vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob’s mother, Rachel, convinced Isaac to send him away to his uncle Laban’s family in order to put some distance between the two brothers and for Jacob to find a wife. We can only wonder how much time Jacob spent thinking about the “elephant in the room” while he away. He certainly had other things to worry about as he and Laban schemed back and forth most of the time. But now that he was at peace with Laban and on his way back to Canaan, the “elephant in the room” rears its ugly head. And we will see that it causes Jacob to prepare, to panic, to pray, to plot and to placate. The elephant in the room causes Jacob to be in great fear and distress which causes him not to completely trust God to protect him.

Even though God has provided for and protected him the past twenty years and just recently rescued him from harm by Laban’s hand, he is still fearful and full of doubt. But we also see Jacob making great strides in his spiritual maturity as he prepares to reconcile with Esau and prays to God for deliverance based on the promises God has made to him. For every step backwards he takes, he takes two steps forward. His prayer is a model for us when our enemies are closing in and we are doubtful, fearful and desperate to be delivered from their hand. That brings us to our big idea this morning which is When we are experiencing fear and doubt we can turn to God in prayer. And we can pray with confidence for deliverance from our enemies because of God’s promises to us.

Let’s pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we invite your Holy Spirit to join us this morning as we open your Word. We pray for your guidance and for your pricking of our hearts where needed, as we learn your truths from your Word. Thank you for the freedom and the opportunity to open your Word in this place as a body of believers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

There are three points this morning. The first is Preparation and Panic found in Genesis 32:1-8. This is what God’s word says, “Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’” When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”

The first half of verse one takes us back to the last verse of chapter 31. After kissing his grandchildren and daughters goodbye, Laban leaves and returns home. Jacob now also goes on his way continuing his journey to Canaan. As he goes on his way, Jacob has an encounter with angels of God. This reminds us of when Jacob first left Canaan to escape his brother’s wrath. If you remember Jacob dreamt of a stairway to Heaven with angels ascending and descending it. God spoke to him and promised to provide for and protect him and bring him back to the Promised Land. Jacob promised that if God kept his promises to him then he would be Jacob’s God. Jacob named the place Bethel and was encouraged as he left his homeland for Haran. This second angelic encounter is a parallel event to Bethel in that it also will encourage Jacob as he now returns home. The two angelic encounters, one as he left Canaan and the other as he returned, suggest that the angels of God accompanied Jacob during his time outside the Promised Land. Although he was outside the land of promise, he was not outside the hand of promise.

When he sees the angels he calls the area “the camp of God” and names it Mahanaim, which, means “two camps.” Jacob gets positive encouragement in two ways. One, the “angels of God” were soldiers there to protect Jacob’s camp as he reentered the Promised Land. Two, it encourages Jacob to prepare to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob could no longer ignore his conscience and his guilt about what he did to Esau. Where Jacob is going in Canaan is not geographically close to where Esau is living, but spiritually speaking in order to get to where God wanted him to be, he first had to be reconciled to his brother. So with reconciliation in mind, Jacob sends messengers to Esau who was living in the land of Seir, in the country of Edom. Describing Esau this way would remind the first hearers of the three tensions between the two: their birth, the birthright and the blessing. In wanting to reconcile Jacob’s spiritual maturity is taking “two steps” forward.

He also gives the servants very specific instructions about what to say to Esau. They are to call him “my lord” and to refer to Jacob as “his servant.” Jacob may have been pouring on the flattery but this was also the usual language of courtesy. They are to let Esau know that Jacob has been away from the land of Canaan with Laban this whole time. He hasn’t been dodging him but has literally been “out of town” for the past twenty years and this is the first time he has returned to his homeland. The messengers were also to share with Esau the assets Jacob had acquired in Haran. Jacob wants Esau to know he is not back to take anything away from him because he has plenty. He may also have wanted Esau to believe that Jacob was willing to share his “blessings” with him. In Hebrew, the possessions are singular which suggests that he wanted to arouse Esau’s interest without letting him know exactly how much God had blessed him. Lastly, we see Jacob’s motivation for sending this message to him. It was so he may find favor “in Esau’s eyes.” He is appealing to Esau’s generosity and goodwill so that the rift between them can be repaired. Jacob wants him to know that his intentions are peaceable.

Jacob’s plan seems to backfire as the messengers return telling him that they went to Esau and he is now on his way to Jacob with four hundred men. Jacob begins to panic for a couple of reasons. One, the messengers don’t say if Esau spoke to them or not, just that he is on the way. Second, Jacob would have considered the four hundred men an army of sorts coming to wage war with him. In Genesis 14, Abraham took 318 men to attack the five kings in order to rescue Lot. In 1 Samuel, four hundred men was the standard number in a militia and was the number of fighting men that accompanied David as he was running from King Saul. And Jacob would have been reminded of Laban recently chasing him down with his men in the last chapter.

This news puts Jacob “in great fear and distress” as he believes that Esau is coming to make good on the threat to kill him. I am reminded of the Geico commercial: When you are in a scary movie you make bad decisions. It’s what you do. When you are fearful and in distress you don’t think straight and you make bad decisions. It’s what you do. What Jacob does is panics and divides his “camp” into two groups along with the flocks, herds and camels. Jacob thinks that when Esau comes and attacks one of the groups the other group can escape and be saved. He is not thinking straight because of fear, doubt and anxiety. This is seen in a number of ways. One, God sent an angel army to Jacob to encourage him and to protect him. Two, if Esau was intent on killing his family, why did he let Jacob’s messengers go. Three, wouldn’t it be better to have all the available fighting men together to fight as one group? His spiritual maturity takes “one step backwards” as he takes matters into his own hands, again.

Then almost as quickly as his panic sets in, we see him praying. His spiritual maturity, like ours sometimes, is on a roller coaster. Which brings us our second point which is Pray, found in verses 9-12. This is what God’s word says, Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”

We see our big idea played out here as Jacob, who is experiencing fear and doubt, turns to God in prayer. This is his first recorded prayer. He prays with humility reminding God of his covenant, command and promise to him and his family and prays for deliverance from his enemies because of God’s promises to him. His prayer is a model for us as he prays what I call the ACTS prayer. ACTS stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication and we can see each of those in his prayer. First, we see adoration as he prays to the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac. Baldwin says, “By invoking God’s name he was consciously calling to mind what God himself had done in making himself known to his family.” The last time he invoked the name of God it was with a lie as he was in the middle of deceiving his father and stealing the blessing. Invoking God’s name, put his need squarely in the saving purpose of God outlined in the covenant. He also reminded God of his obedience, as he was commanded by God to return to Canaan, and that he promised to prosper him.

Second, we see confession as he admits he is unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness God has shown him. This is his first admission of guilt for his sin, his failures and deceptions. He realizes that even though he is flawed, God has shown him kindness and has been faithful to the covenant promises made to him. Third, we see thanksgiving. When Jacob left Canaan, he only had his staff, but now has become “two camps.” God has prospered him with cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats, and male and female servants. He left with nothing and came back with an abundance all supplied by God and he thanks God for it. Finally, we see supplication. Jacob petitions God for salvation from Esau’s hand. He is afraid Esau is going to attack him, his wives and his sons and daughter. We again see spiritual maturity as he is worried and concerned about more than just himself. Lastly, again Jacob reminds God of his promises to him: that he would prosper him and that Jacob’s descendants would be like the sand of the seashore which can’t be counted. Jacob realizes that if he and his family are killed by Esau then his descendants would not become as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Griffith Thomas says, “Jacob’s spiritual life comes out now after all those years at Haran; and, though there is much to seek, we can see the clear marks of the work of God directing, deepening and purifying his soul.”

Jacob prayed believing that because God was the one who made the promises to him that he was the only one who could fulfill them. But we also see desperation in his prayer. At this moment Jacob’s faith was weak. He has not yet acknowledged that the God of his fathers was his God. He is like the father in Mark 9 whose son was possessed by an impure spirit. There Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” And the father replies, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Jacob had knowledge of God’s ways and character but because he didn’t have that personal relationship with God yet, like his fathers had, he prayed with desperation instead of total confidence. We see this in a couple of ways: One, God commanded Jacob to return, why would he not protect him in his obedience? Two, God cared for him for the past twenty years, why would he stop now? Three, Jacob was part of God’s eternal purposes for the world, would God’s purposes now fail because of the Esau’s anger? While a prayer of desperation is still a prayer, a prayer of total confidence in God’s abilities and will is better. When we are experiencing fear, worry, doubt and unbelief it is as important for us, as it was for Jacob, that we turn to God in prayer and that we pray with confidence because of God’s promises to us. And we can use the same ACTS model that Jacob used which brings us to our first next step which is to Pray with confidence using the model of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

Our third point this morning is Plot and Placate and is found in verses 13-21. This is what God’s word says, “He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’” He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.”

After Jacob prayed he spent the night in the camp. He must have been plotting overnight because when he wakes up he has come up with a plan. He has just prayed to God for deliverance and we can assume that God’s angel army is still in his camp but he doesn’t fully trust God to protect him. Jacob didn’t need to be worried, anxious and upset because God had promised to take care of him. But Jacob takes matters into his own hands coming up with a plan to placate Esau into forgiveness and reconciliation. His plan was to gift or bribe Esau with 550 animals. This gift was larger than towns would have had to pay in tribute to foreign rulers. It would have really set up Esau well to start and maintain his own flock and herd. The gift was made more valuable due to the females and young included which would provide ongoing growth. This may have been an attempt by Jacob to return the blessing to Esau or at least restore the benefits of the blessing without disowning his rightful place in the plans and purposes of God. Jacob may have thought that forgiveness would only come by giving back what was taken. But he seems to be forgetting that his blessing came as a result of God’s sovereignty. Jacob separates the animals into five different herds and put each herd in the care of his servants. He then had the servants go ahead of him leaving space between each herd, effectively staggering them. Jacob also instructed the lead servant to tell Esau when he met him that these animals belong to “your servant, Jacob” and they are a gift from Jacob to “my lord, Esau.” The servant was also to make sure that Esau knew that Jacob was on his way behind them coming to meet his brother. Each servant leading each herd was to say the same thing highlighting the fact that Jacob was coming behind them.

Then we are told the reason why Jacob was giving all these animals to Esau. It was to pacify him in order that Esau would receive him. The Hebrew word for “pacify” literally means “cover his face.” The connotation is to make “atonement” that brings about reconciliation. Mathews says, “The words “gift” (offering), “atonement” and “accepted” implies that Jacob makes peace with God by reconciling with Esau.” Jacob wants to cover Esau’s face so he can’t see Jacob’s shame for what he has done to him and to wipe the anger from Esau’s face. He also is hoping that Esau would receive him which literally means that Esau will “lift up his face” in forgiveness and show him favor. But Jacob seemingly is trying to blind Esau with gifts so he forgets what he has done to him and would not be mad at him anymore. Jacob has the right heart as he wants to be reconciled to his brother, but instead of trusting God to work it out he takes matters into his own hands trying to bribe his brother into forgiveness and reconciliation. Lastly, we are told that the gifts went ahead but Jacob spent the night alone in the camp.

There is an important lesson to be learned in this point. When our faith is overwhelmed by fear we plot, scheme and trust in our own strength. When our faith is stronger than our fears we will live out Psalm 112:6-7 which says, “Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” When we walk in faith we do not need to fear the enemy and we know that the grace of God, not bribery, is the only thing that can take away our guilt. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” We should pray that God will keep us from our own plotting and scheming and help us to be confident in his plans and purposes for us. And that he will protect us from whatever danger, physical or spiritual, befalls us. That brings us to the second next step on the back of your communication card which is to Trust in the Lord and be confident in his plans and purposes for me.

In conclusion I want to speak to spiritual maturity, Jacob’s and ours. We didn’t see a whole lot of spiritual maturity in Jacob in Haran. But bit by bit, as God has brought him back to Canaan, we have seen glimpses of the man that will become Israel and the father of the Jewish nation. Our spiritual growth and maturity is a lot of times a process, a series of ups and downs, taking two steps forward and one step back. And the steps backward can be brought on by fear, worry and anxiety. When those times come we tend to shy away from God’s Word and prayer. But we can overcome them by making it a habit of daily being in God’s Word, daily prayer and memorizing scripture. We mature spiritually when we know that Satan wants to keep us away from God’s Word but then we trust in God’s strength to defend us from fear, worry and anxiety and still continue to grow.

Which brings us to the 2023 Spiritual Life Journal. I wanted to introduce the theme this morning and give us all a challenge for the New Year. Our theme is “More Like Jesus.” We want to be more like Jesus in prayer, in service, in relationships, in fellowship, etc. You are going to hear more about these in the next month but I wanted to challenge us with this today: We want to be more like Jesus in the Word. Jesus knew his scripture and at age twelve was able to discuss it in the synagogue with the adult teachers of the law. In the SLJ, we have the section called Daily Bible Reading, which gives a reading for every day of the year starting on January 1. I want to challenge every one of us to read thru the Bible together in the New Year following this chart. And as we read we can ask ourselves the question: Where do I see Jesus in what I am reading? We would all be on the same page, and as we do this together, I hope it will spark conversations about what we are reading with others and how it is impacting our lives. Doing this as a body of believers, will help us to be more like Jesus, knowing God’s Word and hiding it in our hearts, which will continue us on the road to spiritual maturity. This brings us to our last next step which is to Accept the challenge to read through the Bible in a year together with my church family.

As the praise team comes to lead us in a final song, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, we give you all honor, glory and praise for who you are and what you’ve done for us. Thank you for this time of studying your Word and thank you for your Spirit that helps us to understand and discern the truths in it. Help us to pray with confidence knowing that your promises are true. Help us to trust in you and to be confident in your plans and purposes for us. And as we anticipate and live out our faith in the New Year, help us to accept the challenge to read through your word together, growing together to be more like your son, Jesus. It’s in his name I pray, Amen.