May 5, 2016

Rebuilding

Have you ever been in a fight?  I’m not talking about a physically violent altercation.  I’m talking about an emotional or relational or perhaps verbal assault.  Let me be even a bit more specific: have you ever been in a stupid fight?  When I was growing up my sister and I got into a fight over an Easter egg.  I still remember sitting there in the hallway of our old house arguing…loudly…about whether a certain pink Easter egg had been in her basket or mine the previous Sunday morning.  We were both certain of our rightness and neither was willing to cede any ground to the other.  We went back and forth and back and forth.  I tried to take it from her, but she grabbed it away.  Finally, our dad—who had the unfortunate duty of kid-sitting that evening—came up to see what all the ruckus was about.  I quickly set about explaining why I was not only right, but my case was the much more reasonable of the two—I clearly remembered better than her that it had been in my basket on Easter morning.  He listened to all this nonsense for a few more seconds and then offered his solution: he took the egg and smashed it into a million pieces.  Problem solved.  Now we couldn’t argue about the one cent piece of plastic anymore.

I suspect we’ve all been in a situation that runs along those lines.  The kick is, though, we usually don’t realize it until later.  Sometimes much later.  I mean, in the moment that evening, I was utterly convinced of not merely being right in the argument, but of the surpassing importance of having possession of that egg…which was going to go back in the Easter bin with all the other Easter decorations in a few days where it would be forgotten about entirely.  Relationships are tough, though, aren’t they?  It was no doubt a lot of hard work for my sister to be in a relationship with me growing up.  I was picky and bossy and manipulative and a perfectionist and liked getting my way regardless of what she wanted and that was on the good days!  But even if you are in a relationship with someone a whole lot easier to get along with than I was (I’d like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better since then!), relationships are still tough.  And the closer we are to the person the more difficult they become.  As we talked about a few weeks ago, sometimes our spouse can be the hardest person in the world to love.

But while all relationships are tough, some cross the line and get downright hard.  In fact they even go beyond hard to just simply broken.  I’m not going to do it, but I suspect that if I took a survey of just this room there are some folks here…maybe even a lot of folks…who have experienced a broken relationship.  I would even be willing to bet that there are some folks who are still experiencing that painful reality.  That’s not an easy place to be, is it?

Well, this morning we are in the second part of our new series, Beauty from Ashes.  The whole idea for this series is that we all go through times in our lives that are hard.  We all face times when we’ve messed things up, when we’ve played with life’s matches and burned down the house…maybe even the whole neighborhood.  We’ve all been in that place where we are sitting in the ashes of life wondering how we are ever going to manage to get out of them.  The great hope we have in this place—and the focus of the next few weeks—is that we serve the God who takes the ashes of life and makes beautiful things out of them.  He takes the broken things of our lives and makes them whole again.  He takes the ugly places and transforms them into works of art.

Last week we saw all of this through the lens of the plans we make.  We all make plans for our lives, but the truth is that God does too.  What’s more, His plans are better than ours.  God’s plans are always better than our own.  Our best bet is to stay on track with the plans God has for us.  And remember that those are plans for us to always love, never sin, always put the needs and interests of others first, and to be wholly His.  But, even when we don’t, He can still work His great plans if we will walk away from our attempts to do life our own way and get back on board with what He has in mind.  Everything else flows from there.

This morning I want to look at another place in life where we can easily find ourselves sitting in a pile of ashes: relationships.  Specifically, I want to spend the next few minutes talking with you about broken relationships and how we can experience the beauty-making powers of God even there.  The truth is, there are few places in life that feel so broken as having a broken relationship, especially when it is an important one.  When we are sitting in the ashes of a once-beautiful relationship—or even a once-pretty-good relationship—it is hard to imagine ourselves ever again seeing the beauty.  And yet, we serve the God who specializes in bringing beauty from ashes.  He can do this in and for us if we will commit ourselves to one simple attitude.

We can actually find this attitude put rather clearly on display for us in the life of one of the guys who played a pretty important role in the history of Israel.  In fact, he’s the guy from whom the whole nation got its name.  Abraham’s grandson Jacob, renamed Israel by God Himself—a name which means, “one who wrestles with God,” which was an entirely appropriate name for a number of reasons—knew a thing or two about broken relationships and how to find the beauty in them once again.  He knew all this because not only did he experience some broken relationships in his life, but because he was the one who had the most to do with them being broken in the first place!  And the person with whom he had the most broken relationship was his brother, Esau.  Things got so bad in fact that Esau found himself in a place with which perhaps you can relate.  Genesis 27:41 says this: “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’”  Ever been there?  Ever put someone in that position?  The catch here is that Esau wasn’t being facetious.  He actually intended to kill his brother when the opportunity presented itself to him.

This of course begs the rather obvious question: what happened?  That’s quite a story as it turns out.  Let me tell you.  It starts several years and a couple of chapters back in Genesis 25.  Turn there with me now if you would.  Abraham’s son, Isaac, grew and married a woman named Rebekah.  Like her mother-in-law before her, Rebekah was barren.  Isaac pleaded with the Lord for her and she finally became pregnant…with twins.  Not only was she pregnant with twins, but as they grew she felt like they were already fighting with each other inside of her.  Ladies, you can perhaps image just how uncomfortable she was.  Being pregnant with one bouncy kid is bad enough.  Two that were fighting probably had her down for the count on most days.  She finally cried out to God from out of her misery and received this reply in 25:23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided…”  In other words, your sons are going to be at war with each other and their descendants are going to be at war with each other for a long, long time.  But there was also this: God said that the older child would serve the younger child.  That would eventually become important.

The struggle continued even as they were born.  From v. 24: “When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb.  The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.  Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob.”  And I know that kind of thing happens and we shouldn’t read into it, but in this context, from the perspective of hindsight, there was this rivalry, this one-chasing-after-the-other, from day one onward.

The rivalry continued as they grew.  And it was usually Jacob doing the chasing, taking chunks out of their relationship by his constant striving.  But there were two episodes in particular that did the most damage.  The first came when they were young.  Esau came in from hunting one afternoon and was famished.  Jacob, who was more of a homebody and a good cook, had a stew boiling over the fire.  With perhaps more melodrama than honesty Esau exclaimed, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!”  In this passionate request, Jacob, the schemer, saw an opportunity.  He replied, “Nothing’s free in this world.  You’ll need to pay me something for it.  Just because you can’t cook doesn’t mean I’m going to simply give away my hard work.  Sell me your birthright and we’re in business.”  Now, this birthright was something that, in the legal culture of the day, belonged the firstborn son of a family.  When a man passed away, his estate was divided into one more portion than the number of sons he had.  The oldest son got two shares of the estate, and everybody else got one.  With just two sons, Esau was set to receive twice the land and livestock and servants from Isaac as Jacob was.  Isaac was pretty fabulously wealthy so that added up to quite a payday.  Well, Esau was very hungry, but he wasn’t very bright.  He didn’t have much foresight either.  He responded with even more melodrama than before: “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”  But Jacob had named the price and wasn’t budging.  So, Esau swore his birthright over to Jacob and ate until he was satisfied.  Inheritance issues among family members are often a rocky affair under normal circumstances.  When one sibling has taken advantage of another to take what should have belonged to the first things get even worse.

The next episode came several years later and only served to add fuel to the fire.  Isaac had a turn for the worse with his health.  He and Rebekah decided that it was time to speak his blessing over their children in case he should die suddenly (as it turned out he would live for another forty years).  Now, this blessing was almost as important as the birthright was.  A father traditionally spoke a word of blessing over his sons when he was near the end of his life.  While this blessing sometimes carried with it the promise of further financial rewards than the birthright did, it was much more than that.  They believed these words were a sort of prophecy over the children that would play out over the course of their lives.  They ascribed a great deal of power to them.  The firstborn son got the first and biggest blessing.  Other sons received blessings as well, but nothing like the firstborn did.

Well, for Esau, Jacob had already “stolen” his birthright.  The blessing was the last chance he had at receiving what, culturally and legally speaking, should have been his as the firstborn.  Thus when Isaac told him to go and make him a tasty dish of wild game at which point he would bless him, Esau hopped right to it.  But as he ran out of the house we discover where Jacob got his scheming personality: his mother.  Rebekah overheard this conversation, remembered the word she had received from the Lord that the older would serve the younger, and prepped Jacob to go in and deceive Isaac—whose eyesight was failing—into blessing him instead of Esau.  The pair succeeded in this plan and Esau responded about like we would have expected him to respond.  In fact, I already read it to you.  From Genesis 27:41 again: “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’”

So, needless to say, this relationship was broken, apparently beyond any means of repairing it.  I mean, when one party is literally ready to kill the other I’d have to say we’re pretty well at an impasse.  Have you ever been there?  Been in that place where, maybe you weren’t willing to actually murder the other person, but you didn’t see any way this was going to get resolved?  The relationship was a pile of ashes and you couldn’t see any way it was ever going to be anything other than that.  That’s where Jacob and Esau were.  So what happened?

Well, when you read to the end of the story in Genesis 33:4 you find this: “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”  Obviously some sort of reconciliation happens.  The once-broken relationship has been restored.  Great news.  But again, what happened?  Well, from a skimming of the previous couple of chapters we learn that a pretty significant amount of time has passed—about 20 years—and it’s tempting to think that’s what did it.  But it wasn’t.  And it doesn’t.  What follows is remarkable scene in chapter 33 is this grace-filled conversation between the brothers in which Jacob makes a peace offering to Esau and Esau marvels at the great wealth Jacob has made for himself during his self-imposed exile.  It seems like the pair have forgiven each other at last and it’s tempting to think this is what did it.   But while the reconciliation that happened could not have happened without the forgiveness, there is something that must precede even that.

We can see it in what comes before this powerful scene of reconciliation.  When Jacob heard that Esau was coming to meet him with a small army he took measures to protect his family and then sent three large gifts of livestock on ahead of his caravan in hopes of softening his brother up.  When Esau was finally within sight Jacob left his family behind him and made his way toward his brother.  The text puts it like this in Genesis 33:3: “He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times until he came near to his brother.”

So what is this?  Jacob had spent his whole life pridefully reaching for what belonged to others as if he were the rightful owner.  He had spent his life cheating others out of their stuff to his own benefit.  He sought to look out for himself in every situation.  But in this moment at least, he set that pride aside and took up an attitude of humility.  Bowing like he did was something that, culturally speaking, was done only to a king or lord.  It was a position not only of respect, but of servitude.  It was a way to say, “I am your servant.  Do with me as you will.”  What’s more, to do it seven times was very significant in that it demonstrated the completeness of the attitude on the part of the penitent.  Notice that Jacob did this not with his family surrounding him which though shielding him would have put them in harm’s way.  He did it with his family a good distance behind him in hopes of protecting them from any potential harm Esau had in mind for them.  He humbled himself before his brother with a willingness to face the consequences of the decisions he had made so many years before.  I submit to you that more than anything else, it was this attitude on his part that paved the way for the forgiveness and reconciliation that followed.  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

Think about why this is for a minute.  What’s the opposite of humility?  Pride.  Dishonesty.  Self-deception.  Can any relationship be restored, no matter how small its rift might be, if any of these attitudes are in place?  No way!  If we have pride in our heart, we will never own the part we have played in creating the break that exists because we’re too good for that.  We’re above such petty affairs.  No restoration is possible that way.  If we are dishonest we will either deny or minimize what we have done.  Yet broken relationships are almost universally a two-party affair.  In this restoration will remain elusive.  And are the fruits of self-deception not obvious?  As long as we are deceiving ourselves—and we are really good at deceiving ourselves—restoring the relationship will be something that is impossible.  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

Now, notice that I am not saying we just feel humility in our hearts.  What I’m talking about goes beyond that.  This attitude of humility must be demonstrated so that others can see it.  That being said, what does it look like to show humility?  It looks like just what Jacob demonstrates for us here.  It looks like making the first move toward restoration.  Okay, but what does that mean?  Well, that depends on the situation.  It may be that you need to reach out with an apology.  You may need to do something to make amends for what you have done.  You may need to put yourself in a place of accountability to someone else.  You may need to reach out with forgiveness.  You may need to be willing to humiliate yourself publicly in order to begin the process of earning trust once again.  Even if your contribution to the break was only 2% you still need to take up an attitude of humility if the relationship is ever going to be restored.  Why even if you are entirely guiltless in the whole ordeal, you are still going to need to show humility if you ever want to see your vision of restoration come to pass if for no other reason than that it takes a lot of humility to forgive.  Exactly what this demonstrated humility in your broken relationship looks like will depend on the exact nature of the break.  The point, though, is that you need to figure out what humility looks like for you in your situation and pursue it with reckless abandon.  Restoration will remain elusive until you do.  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

And if you want more evidence of this, consider for a minute your relationship with God.  Because of sin, that relationship was burnt all the way to the ground and there was nothing left but ashes.  It was broken to oblivion and any objective observer would have been able to easily see that restoration was little more than a pipe dream.  God would not—indeed, could not—change His standards at all because they came out of the core of who He is.  We could not—indeed, would not—rise to the challenge of meeting those standards because to do so would force us to submit ourselves to a standard other than our own which would have violated the core of the sin that lay at the center of our nature (at least our nature after the fall).  The hang up came in the fact that our sinful natures had us irrevocably committed to the path characterized by everything that is the opposite of humility.  Fortunately, humility is fundamentally a part of God’s nature and so in Christ He gave us the ultimate demonstration of humility.  He not only took the first giant step in granting us forgiveness, He paid the price that we owed in order to make it possible.  Think about the demonstration of humility that was.  He was entirely aware of who He was, who we were, and the fact that we were not going to do anything meaningful (or at least helpful) to solve the problem on our own.  As a result, He took the initiative and got the process started.  He took the most astounding risk of love ever conceived with absolutely no guarantee it would pay off.  He wasn’t guilty at all, but He showed incredible humility so that the relationship could be restored.  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

By the way, did you catch what I said there?  When God took the incredible risk of love to send His Son into the world so that all who believe in Him would not die but have eternal life, He had no guarantees it would pay off.  I mean, sure, on the one hand, He knew how it would turn out because He is the author of history and knows the end from the beginning.  But on the other hand, because He had no plans to force Himself on us (which would have violated His character of love), all He could do was to pursue this wildly radical act of humility and love and trust that it was going to be sufficient to draw many who were formerly dead in their sins to the restored relationship He was offering us.  Incidentally, when we pursue showing humility in our broken relationships, we don’t have any guarantees that it will pay off either.  Like our heavenly Father, we take a risk for the sake of love and trust that our efforts will be enough to capture the heart of the person on the other side of the divide.  The fact is, though, they may not.  Even with our most sincere and intentional and even over-the-top acts of humility restoration is not a surety as much as we would perhaps like it to be.  But, without humility on our part it remains an impossibility.  Showing humility is critical to restoring relationships.

But wait a minute here.  I thought this whole thing was about God’s ability to bring beauty from ashes, not our willingness to swallow our pride in order to make things right with another person.  It is.  But because of God’s incredible commitment to allowing us the freedom to make meaningful, consequential choices (which is an act of love on His part), He won’t force a miraculous change of heart and mind on anybody.  If we are committed to holding onto the pain, the hate, the anger, the fear, the frustration, the pride, the self-deception, and so on that are all fruits of a broken relationship He’s not going to make us give them up.  He’s already given us the example of what to do in Christ.  And if we follow that example He can absolutely do wondrous things with our obedience.  But we’ve got to choose humility first.  We’ve got to decide to give up all those things; to reach for and grab hold of a sense of empathy for the other person; to call to mind all that God has done for us in Christ; to put on humility as a garment and show it off for everyone to see.  If we will do all of that, no it’s not going to make a restoration of the relationship some kind of guarantee because there’s another person involved in this and they may decide not to follow suit—we don’t have any control over that—but we will make it possible.  In fact, given the beauty-from-ashes making abilities of our God, I would say we will make it probable.  But we’ve got to embrace humility in order to get there.  Humility is critical to restoring relationships.  And so whether your disagreement is over a one cent piece of plastic or something entirely more significant than that, if you will follow in the pattern of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” you will put yourself in a place to experience the beauty God can make from even the ashes of a broken relationship.  I pray you will.