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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Not Trading Down - How to Avoid Losing Your Birthright

(This sermon on Parahsat Toldot considers Esau as a horrific warning to all of us not to barter away what is most precious).

One of the saddest transactions in all of the Bible is found in today’s sedra. Here we see poor, stupid Esau bartering away the blessing of God for a two-bit plate of stew. Poor Esau. What a fool.

We would be fools ourselves were we to simply see this as a story about how the Jews and Arabs became enemies, or simply a story about sibling rivalry, or dysfunctional family dynamics, nor even just a story about how the blessing of Abraham was transmitted down through Jacob instead of Esau. No, this story is much more than that. This is a story about us. It presents a perfect warning to us against our own tendency to barter away the blessing of God for more immediate, and often, sensual satisfactions.

We saw this kind of sad scenario played out before our eyes this past week in the sad saga of Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Under a heading, "Lawmaker’s Career Ends in Disgrace," we read this about him.

For months, a longtime Republican congressman denied taking millions of dollars in bribes. On Monday, Randy "Duke" Cunningham admitted it was all true. [When they say longtime, what they mean is eight terms!].

He resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to graft and now faces a long prison term.

To a biography that notes he was the first fighter ace of the Vietnam War, the top instructor at the Top Gun school, and the recipient of two Silver Stars and 15 air medals, the California congressman must now add admitted felon as well.

"The truth is, I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions and most importantly, the trust of my friends and my family," a tearful Cunningham told reporters in San Diego.

Cunningham is sixty-five years old. This man has forfeited his superb and stellar birthright for a couple of nice homes, a nice car, and a bundle of perks. He probably envisioned spending his sunset years with his wife and family, living in luxury, basking in the glowing admiration of a public well aware of his decades of public service. Now he will likely spend all the rest of his days in disgrace and in the barren and brutal life of being a prisoner in the California correctional system. What a tragedy. And I am sure, Randy Cunningham has scolded himself a hundred times for being such a complete fool. He traded everything for nothing.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I would guess that many of you, and certainly some of you, will face occasions in your life when you are tempted to trade everything you know about God for some sort of short-term satisfaction. I know I have faced this, and the onslaught can be withering, like trying to maintain your footing in spiritual hurricane winds. The current account is one of three or four I know in Scripture that portray the very same dynamics, and which all serve as potent warnings to keep us from being hoodwinked out of our God-given blessing. Accounts like these call us to preparation, vigilance and faithfulness despite the onslaught that is sure to come sooner or later. This onslaught is what the Letter to the Ephesians calls, "the evil day." And all of us will face an evil day, or many such evil days sooner or later.

Even Yeshua experienced such an onslaught when he was tempted in the wilderness. This happened directly after he received his Father’s validation for His ministry, at the Jordan River and before commencing his ministry to Israel. It was directly after his immersion in the Jordan that he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the Evil One. And so will it be for us. If you are seeking to make headway for the Kingdom of God, you can be sure that at pivotal times your resolve, your character, your faith in your God and in your calling will be severely challenged.

The story of Esau bartering away his birthright is tragic. And if we would avoid facing a similar catastrophe in our own lives, we will all need to take its message to heart. This means we will not only need to understand its lessons: we will also need to be vigilant and faithful to install safeguards in our lives lest we be caught unawares.

What, then are these lessons? How can we avoid being cheated out of our birthright as children of God and His servants?
First, we must clearly know what are our own weaknesses. Torah demonstrates that Esau took after his father Isaac. We read in verse 28 that Issac loved his son Esau "because game was in his mouth," meaning that Isaac loved Esau because he loved the taste of the game Esau trapped or hunted and which his father then got to eat. Isaac is here described in terms of his appetites. This is what characterized him at this time in his life. Esau proves to be the same way—a man of appetites who takes after his father. It may help you to think deeply about your parents and grandparents. What were their weaknesses? And who do you take after in your areas of weakness? What negative traits characterize you? Do you have a constant need for approval? Is it an insistence on being right all the time? Is it a hot temper or a tendency to treat other’s coldly? Is it flirtatiousness or other forms of playing with sensual fire? What characterizes you? Esau took after his father Isaac and was characterized by sensual hungers. The question you must ask and answer for yourself is this one: What are your moral and spiritual areas of vulnerability and weakness?

Answering this question is not as simple as it seems. Many of us have deeply entrenched habits of self-justification, self-deceit and denial. We say that like a glass of wine once in a while: our friends know that we inevitably get tanked when wine is served with dinner. We say that we appreciate members of the opposite sex: our friends know us to be flirtatious, indiscreet and potentially adulterous. We consider ourselves to be sensitive: but everyone else knows that we dominate our social landscape with our touchiness. We are zealous for the truth: others know that we manipulate people or wear them down into agreeing with us. So, let’s do the hard work of knowing and owning up to our own weaknesses. Otherwise, we may well get blindsided when temptation waylays us. We may find ourselves exchanging the things of God for our pet sins.
The second question is one of timing. We must all know at what times we are most vulnerable to our pet temptations. In this case, Torah reminds us that Esau is exhausted. For some of us, that is a dangerous time-a time when our judgment is impaired, and our resolve low. If you are a person who is apt to make bad moral choices when you are exhausted, you need to know that about yourself and protect yourself. You need to avoid getting exhausted, and take measures to keep yourself from being tempted when you are tired. Others are most susceptible when they are depressed, or angry, or lonely. For example, someone who has had a problem getting high as an escape and addiction, whether it be booze, grass or something else, may know that he or she is most tempted when they are bored, or scared, or depressed.

As we said earlier, one of the most dangerous times is on the heels of a victory or breakthrough. For many of us, this is when our guard is most likely to be down, and when our pride is most likely to be way up. Do you know when you are most susceptible to your own particular weaknesses? If you would withstand spiritual onslaughts aimed at leveraging you out of your spiritual inheritance, you will need to be aware and brutally honest with yourself and answer this second question: When are you most susceptible to compromise and temptation?

Third, we must learn to be honest with ourselves about our overtures. Although Esau would come to blame his brother Jacob for skunking him out of the birthright, the fact is, Esau was the one who said "Hey, give me some of that red stuff over there!" We too get ourselves in trouble, even though, when we get into trouble, we inevitably blame others. The Newer Covenant Letter of Ya’akov puts it this way: "No one, when tempted, should say: ‘I am being tempted by God’ [everyone’s favorite target for blame-shifting]: for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved." And this was the way it was for Esau: he was tempted by his own desires, and he himself made the moves that got him into trouble: he made the overtures. And so will it be for us. The third question we need to ask and answer is this one: What fires have you been playing with? What overtures have you been making that if consummated will lead you into spiritual trouble?

Fourth, we need to be aware of the time factor. God never crowds us, and the King of Eternity always has time. By contrast, the Kingdom of Darkness loves to rush us, and as you look at this story, you see Esau in a hurry. If you and I are going to experience the blessing of God in our lives, so that our obituary will read like Abraham’s in last week’s parasha, "Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and HASHEM had blessed Abraham with everything" [24:1], then we, like Abraham, are going to have to learn to wait. God takes His time. But immature people, people driven by their passions, and the Kingdom of Darkness itself, are all in a hurry. Such people cannot wait—they want what they want and they want it now! And when we are in a rush, when we have no tolerance for waiting—especially not for a long wait—then we become easy prey for the blandishments of the Kingdom of Darkness, which stands only too ready to give us what we want, if we will just put God on the back burner. So our fourth question is this: Am I in a hurry all the time? Do I want what I want and want it now? Do I think that waiting for the things I want is for saps? Is there something I want that I should not want, that has become a preoccupation with me, something I am tired of waiting for? If your answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then you just may be a sitting duck for a devilish diversionary tactic. You have become easy to manipulate because of what you want and your impatience to get at it. Be careful! You may just be the kind of gullible fool who will lose your birthright when you least expect it! You will need to learn to be vigilant against your rushiness and impatience, and against your demands to have your wants satisfied immediately.

Finally, we need to recognize that after we have played with fire long enough, after we have been injudicious and failed to watch over our own vulnerability, we will then be softened up for the tragic exchange: to trade our spirituality, our integrity, our self-respect, and our power with God for something more immediate and O, so luscious, something which has so magnetized our souls through our drawing near to it and playing with it, that we are extremely likely to take a fall.

This fall always has the same proposition imbedded within it: We will be offered exactly what we want if only we will simply turn our backs on God. That is all: that is the total price, and many of us are prepared to pay it. That is what Satan offered Yeshua in the wilderness: "I will give you all the kingdoms of the world if you will just fall down and worship me," to which Yeshua rightly answered, "It is written, ‘You shall worship the L-rd your G-d and Him only shall you serve." Yeshua understood that he was being propositioned to exchange God and His blessing for something else. So it was for Adam and Eve in the garden—they were invited to turn their backs on God and His one prohibition for them—to abandon their history with the Holy One for immediate gratification. And they did it. So will it be with us. We too are likely to be tempted to abandon all we have experienced with God, all we know of God, for this one short fling, this one brief moment, this one juicy temptation. And, like Duke Cunningham, and like Esau, we are sure to end up smiting our thigh with tears of frustrated remorse, scolding ourselves for having been fools—exchanging what is incorruptible and priceless for trinkets and pretty soap bubbles.

I am not one of those people who attributes every bump in our spiritual road to Satan. I think the Devil is much too big and much too busy to occupy himself causing indigestion for people like us. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, there is a very extensive and highly developed dark kingdom, which I would term "the spiteful kingdom." The spiritual forces of wickedness in high places despise God and His rule and are utterly corrupted, so that their highest aim is to thwart God’s glory and pleasure. This is where we come in: to the extent that we are dear to God, or are engaged in advancing matters that give Him honor and glory, we can expect to be subjected to countermoves from the spiteful kingdom which hates God’s authority and seeks to deprive Him of the worship and honor he is due. Therefore, to the extent that we are authentically engaged with the Holy One, Blessed be He, we would do well to forearm ourselves so as not to be deceived into forfeiting holy privileges, holy opportunities, and our intimacy with God over some bauble which we find ourselves seemingly powerless to resist.

May God help us all to be watchful and aware, not only of how others might trip us up, but more so how vulnerable we are because of our resident weaknesses, our times of special vulnerability, the little fires we like to get close to without getting burned, and the things we feel we simply must have, and the sooner the better. We need to be careful, lest Scripture’s verdict about Esau be spoken over us: Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God's lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite [Hebrews 12:16, The Message].

May we all be more watchful than was Duke Cunningham, or Esau. And may none of us discover the hard way just what it means to be a fool.