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Yes, the lad grew up to be a "heel." You remember those stories from your Sunday School lessons. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance. He duped his father Isaac on his deathbed. Esau was ready to kill him, but Jacob approached the problem "spatially" - he got out of that space. He ran for the hills...literally. He headed north toward his Uncle Laban in Haran.
Something strange happens now. As Jacob paused on his journey, and with no one hot on his tail, he made camp for the night. His escape had been too hasty to prepare a bedroll, so he just curled up on the ground with a smooth stone for a pillow. Tossing, turning, unable to sleep because of a guilty conscience? Not at all. Like a baby he slept, and dreamed the kind of dream that one would have thought would be reserved for a saint - a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending. And standing above it all, the God of all creation saying not, "How dare you???" but, "I am going to bless you." Land. Descendants. "Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."(1)
Wow! I guess we should not be surprised by Jacob's response. He took that stone which he had used for a pillow, propped it up and poured oil on it and called it BETHEL ("God's House"), the least expensive sanctuary in the history of religion. Then he says piously,
"If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."(2)How about THAT, folks? A whole tenth! If God will do all the work, Jacob will only keep 90 percent for himself. What a guy!
Jacob finally arrives at Uncle Laban's where his next adventure would begin. Love. He falls in love with cousin Rachel (which, in those days, was OK). Laban says Rachel will cost seven years hard work; Jacob says all right. At the end of seven years, the wedding...but under the veil, Rachel's older sister Leah. Horrors. The trickster had been tricked. It would take seven more years of labor for our hero to get Rachel. But Jacob is a person who proves the old adage that you do not want to wrestle with a pig - both of you get dirty and the pig likes it. Jacob proceeded to outdo his double-crossing uncle by conning him out of most of his livestock and finally sneaking off with, not only both of Laban's daughters, but just about everything else in those tents that was not nailed down, even the household gods. Our boy, Jacob!
By this time, twenty years had passed, and Jacob was ready to head back to the family homestead. He loaded kith and kin and took off...without bothering to tell Laban goodbye, of course. Laban chased after, there was a confrontation, finally peace - with each one glaring at the other through squinting, angry eyes, they offered this mutual warning that has been misused ever since as a Sunday School benediction: "The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another."(3) Benediction? Not at all. This was a threat. Misbehave? May God gethcha! (Remember that the next time you stand in a circle holding hands as you prepare to leave the class.)
The journey continues. Jacob is about to be reunited with Esau. What would big brother's reaction be? Jacob decides to find out. He sends a messenger: "Hey everybody, I'm HO-ome." Word comes back that Esau is coming out to meet him, along with 400 of his closest friends. Sounds like bloody revenge is coming. Jacob decides to oil the machinery - gifts...bribes. Goats, sheep, camels, cattle, donkeys. Will they make any difference? Jacob is scared. He divides his entourage into two groups, figuring if Esau attacks one, at least the other has a chance for escape. He prays (the longest single prayer in the book of Genesis, by the way...and no wonder): he reminds God of past promises - "You did say, God, that you would do me good, make my offspring as the dust of the earth, the sand of the sea - you remember that, right, God? Right, God???" Finally, he sends his family away across the river.
Now, nightfall. Where years ago, encamped under the stars, he slept like a baby and dreamed beautiful dreams, this night would be different. The scriptural account is very sparse; it says only, "Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him till daybreak." Who is it? An apparition? A phantom? Some pagan river god guarding the ford of the Jabbok? An angel? God? Scholars are all over the lot with their answers.
Was this wrestling match merely symbolic? In the daytime we may be too busy to dwell on the past, but at night our mental struggles can increase; the wrestling might be with the pillow, but it is very real. Have you ever struggled with your conscience at night? Suffered over guilt? Been panicked by fears of the day ahead? Jacob had LOTS of reasons to agonize. In the morning he would be meeting one of them face-to-face.
On and on the struggle continued through the night. Hour after hour they grappled and grabbed. Jacob is wounded in the fray. Depending on which version of scripture you have, you learn that the injury is to the hip socket or the hollow of the thigh or some location below the belt which are only Biblical euphemisms for a place no man ever wants to get hit. No wonder Jacob limped. But he hangs on.
And on and on and on. Now the sun begins to rise. Jacob's antagonist says, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
Who is this nocturnal nemesis wanting to escape before dawn? Whoever it is, Jacob is impressed enough to presume someone or something beyond the ordinary. He responds, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
The man asks, "What is your name?"
"Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
The name again. Through all succeeding generations, when Hebrew children ask parents and grandparents, "Where did our nation Israel get its name," the response is, "Let me tell you a story...it began with a struggle."
Now it is Jacob's turn to ask the name, but no name is given, just a blessing. The unidentified adversary disappears. And the new day dawns.
As he reflects on the events of the night, Jacob becomes more and more confident. The more he thinks about it, the more he becomes convinced that his encounter was with the divine. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
Was it actually God? Is that the way God comes to us? I would rather understand it this way - there are times when we DO wrestle with God, not because God has mugged us like some thief in an alley, but because WE chose to pick the fight. Yes, it was a losing battle from the beginning, but sometimes we do it anyway. Could it have been that way with Jacob? Entirely possible. Note this for the record: God WAS there that night. During that terrifying night, Jacob DID see the face of God, for God was with Jacob during the struggle, just as God is with you and me during ours.
An interesting lesson, don't you think? While Jacob wrestled all that long night, he did not know with what he was struggling, he only knew that he would not let go until some good came of it. Do we miss great blessings because we give up too soon? I think of Thomas Edison and the remark someone once made on the huge number of failures the inventor had encountered in his search for a new storage battery - 50,000 attempts before he achieved results. "Results?" said Edison. "Why I have gotten a lot of results. I know 50,000 things that won't work."(4) What blessings we would have missed if Thomas Edison had given up.
A cyberfriend notes a comic strip set in a lawyer's office. A couple has come saying they want a divorce. The lawyer looks at them and says, "I'm not sure you are giving your marriage a fair chance." You see, they are still in their wedding clothes!(5)
Is there value in the struggle, even if we are struggling with God? Unquestionably. The classic illustration is the struggle that a butterfly goes through in breaking free from the cocoon. It is difficult to watch, because the temptation is to want to help this poor, squirming creature. But keep your hands off anyway. You see, it is the STRUGGLE that allows the butterfly opportunity to build enough strength to finally be able to fly.
Are there struggles for you right now? Business struggles, family struggles, money struggles, faith struggles, personal struggles? Do not give up. The survival of our rascally hero Jacob may offer some consolation and encouragement. Hang in long enough, and a blessing awaits at the end.
Remember those wonderful words of the Apostle Paul in the 8th chapter of Romans:(6) "All things all things work together for good for those who love God"...even the struggles. Then he asks rhetorically, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The answer is NOBODY. Not some river demon, not some double-crossed uncle, not even a potentially murderous brother whom you cheated years ago. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" he asks. "Trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" or any other struggle? None. Nothing. Nada.
"Trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword." For Paul, these were nothing exceptional, just day-to-day existence. We have a different set of day-to-day struggles: house payments, cavities, arthritis, leaky roofs, crab grass, traffic jams, tax audits, lawsuits, sleepless nights, noisy neighbors, flat tires. Life may suffer no crushing blow but simply drags on from one day to the next with no apparent meaning, no aspiration, no adventure, no joy. Then add to the list the big things that DO shake us to the roots: failing marriages, rebellious children, abusive parents, dying loved ones, cancer, bankruptcy, alcoholism, drug dependency, unemployment, terrorists. Paul's word is that not one of those, not the little things or the big things or even ALL those things put together can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(7)
That is good news. The good news to Christian families who have faced tragedy in the form of deranged gunmen, plane crashes, or car wrecks is that nothing, even those awful events, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The good news to Christians suffering around the country is that weather-related emergencies - flood, drought, forest fires - cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Christians in Baghdad, the good news is that bloodshed and war cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. To you and me living comfortably in Western Pennsylvania but sometimes faced with moments of quiet desperation, the good news is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, there are moments when we feel like the little girl sitting on her bunk at summer camp and crying her eyes out. The counselor asked if she were homesick. "No," she whimpered, "I'm HERE-sick." We know what she means. Sometimes it seems like SUCH a struggle. The message of Jacob is DO NOT GIVE UP, because a blessing may await at the end.
By the way, the story of Jacob's reunion with brother Esau has a wonderful end. Jacob limps off to meet his sibling who greets him, not with hate, but a hug. He does not kill him, he kisses him. Then Esau asks why all the gifts with which he had been flooded. Jacob answered, "To find favor in your eyes, my lord." In other words, to butter him up. Esau said thanks, but no thanks - he had gracious plenty already. Jacob said, "No, please! If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the FACE OF GOD, now that you have received me favorably."(8) How true, how true! In a unique way, Esau was a visible demonstration of the grace and mercy of our loving God.
Struggling with God. In the end we realize that God was not struggling AGAINST us, God was struggling WITH us, just as with Jacob, and will continue to struggle with us no matter what. Remember Paul's words: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
1. Genesis 28:14-15
2. Genesis 28:20-22
3. Genesis 31:49
4. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1985), p. 183
5. Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1999 08 01," #6, 7/27/99
6. 28-39 passim
7. H. Michael Brewer, "Preaching on the Lessons," Church Management - The Clergy Journal, Oct., 1990, p. 23
8. Genesis 33:10