August 13, 2017 10th Sunday in Pentecost
Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28 Romans 10:5–15 Matthew 14:22–33
A few weeks ago we talked about Jacob’s Ladder, and I mentioned that Jacob is not someone who we would call a typical or classical hero.
Now we all know that Jacob had a falling out with his older twin brother Esau, and tricked him out of his birthright, which meant that Esau couldn’t becoming the heir of his father, Isaac. Because Esau was so mad at Jacob he had to flee for his life back to his uncle’s house in Haran, which was located just over the southern boarder of present day Turkey. Jacob married two of his cousins, took two of their handmaids as concubines, and fathered at least 11 of the 13 children that we know of at this point in the story.
After many years Jacob decided that he would head back to his birthplace. So he went to his father-in-law, Laban, and asked for his wages. Of course Laban didn’t want Jacob to go – and you can kind of understand that because then he would have been separated from his two daughters and his grandchildren. Besides Laban admits that because of Jacob’s hard work his flocks have increased and made him a wealthy man, so he doesn’t want to lose such a good worker. So Jacob strikes a bargain and says that he will only claim the spotted and stripped goats and sheep. I think that Laban figured it would take time for Jacob to accumulate enough livestock to equal his wages so he agrees. But then Jacob sets up a sneaky breeding program, which ensures that more stripped and spotted animals are born. So after six years he gains the amount of assets that he needs to leave. As we can see, even though Jacob did mature and become a family man – and there can be no doubt that he loved his wives and children – he was still resorting to trickery to get what he wanted.
So then, after twenty years of living with his uncle’s family, God comes to Jacob and tells him to go back home, and that He will protect Jacob on the way and once he gets there. So Jacob packs up his wives and puts them on camels, and all the goats, sheep, donkeys and oxen that belonged to him, and all the furniture, and all the servants and he heads on back to Canaan to his brother’s house.
As he gets closer to his birthplace Jacob starts to get nervous. He sends messengers on ahead to his brother who return saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob and his family with 400 men. Okay, now Jacob starts to get really nervous, because he thinks that Esau is coming to get his revenge for his birthright. So Jacob sends to Esau an appeasement present: 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. That’s 600 animals in all. Then he packs his wives and kids up along with the rest of his servants and has them cross the river, in the hopes that they will be safe, and he stays on the other side until daybreak.
And then it says that: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Now there are a number of thoughts as to who this “man” is. There have been scholarly, Christian treatise that say that since we start out with the word man and we then move to the word God later in the scripture that the person who Jacob was wrestling with was the son of God, or Jesus.
Wait a minute, you might say. This is the OLD Testament, Jesus doesn’t appear until the New Testament. But remember that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. So why couldn’t this have been Jesus?
Some theories say that the man was actually an angel and that somewhere during the wrestling match God took over. Either way, the point is that Jacob wrestled with God.
Okay, fine, Jacob wrestles with God. But why here and why now? Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he tricked his brother out of his birthright. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when he saw the ladder. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God while he was getting married, working and having kids. Jacob didn’t wrestle with God when pulled the to-his-advantage breeding program on Laban. Jacob was coasting along in life, taking advantage where he could, but now the bill comes due.
I think that Jacob has been hit with the full realization that his actions are going to have consequences, and he doesn’t know what those consequences are. So he is over on that side of the river; dealing with a sleepless night; probably wondering if his brother Esau isn’t going to catch up to his flocks and servants; kill his servants and take his flocks; then catch up to his wives and kids and kill them; and then finally finish it with Jacob.
He is pacing on that side of the river, trying to get up the nerve to go forward. He can’t go back, he burned his bridges with his father-in-law. And besides, God told him to go home. But what if this is the wrong thing to do? What if this isn’t what is right? What if he’s put his servants and his wives and his children in mortal danger? What if this is his punishment for being a no-so-good person? Jacob, like the rest of us in a decision crisis, is drowning in the “What ifs.”
And when you are in that time of struggling and pacing, and wrestling with your decision and yourself, and you question: Is this what I am supposed to do, is this my destiny? Isn’t that wrestling with God?
I was teaching a unit about religion once and we were comparing different methods of prayer between different faiths and cultures, and I said that when you pray there are always three people present: You, God, and the person who you don’t want to be that you drag to God to help you fix. Sometimes we wrestle with all that we don’t like within ourselves; sometimes we wrestle with the consequences of our past actions; sometimes we wrestle with the decision that we have to make now; sometimes we wrestle with the uncertainty and the directions of the future; sometimes we wrestle with the place and the meaning of our faith, and the ethics of that faith in our lives; sometimes we wrestle with what God means to us.
But we need to remember that in all those wrestlings, God is with us.
It is interesting that God doesn’t automatically win in this story. I mean you would think that God, being all powerful, would pull a back flip on Jacob and end the encounter easy-peasy. But He doesn’t. He actually is held down by Jacob, and God injures Jacob trying to get away. That seems so counter-intuitive but then I realized that I hold onto certain ideas about who God should be in my life, or what God should do for me. I hold God down and don’t let myself expand on the idea of God or think about Him differently – I put God in a corner and I don’t let Him come out.
It sometimes takes God giving me a shock to get me to see what He can do for my life. And also what I can do with my life when I let go of all those expectations of how it should work, and just let the work get done that God wants me to do. But that unexpected push from God, which is sometimes painful, changes me. Jacob ended up with a new name and a limp. Usually I end up doing things completely differently than I did before, or seeing things differently than I did before. I don’t come out of these revelations the same way I came in.
One last thing about this encounter. Jacob asks God for a blessing. When I wrestle with our indecisions or uncertainty, I don’t think in that moment that I am in a position to ask for a blessing from God. I just feel too uncertain in those moments, and I don’t feel it’s right to ask God to bless in my life when it seems to be in turmoil. But you know, I think when we are wrestling with something and we are uncertain, that is when we need to ask God for a blessing to get us through the uncertainty and give us a sign or a feeling of assurance that everything will be alright. Maybe if we asked for more blessings in times of uncertainty we would receive more guidance on how to get out of our problems.
We all wrestle at times with our problems and with God. Even if you don’t feel it, God is there with you. Sometimes He’s wrestling against you, for your own good. Sometimes he’s wrestling with you for your good. Just hang in there, get through to the morning, and you’ll be blessed and be ready to cross that river and head on home.