The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (NRSV)
****************** Everyone knows Jacob for two things- Jacobs Ladder and Jacob Wrestling with God.
And you all know the story: A man (or something) appears to Jacob- and he wrestles this guy all night like a WWF match under the stars,. And when the man (or something) sees that he can’t win, he dislocates Jacob’s hip, and says, “Let me go, it’s almost morning.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, not until you bless me.”
And this is a great illustration of perseverance; of sticking with it. It speaks to the way we all occasionally wrestle with things- ourselves, others, God. We envision this as a long night spent praying… pleading with God for healing, or resolution, or our children, or a job... and in our pleading we are crying... wringing our hands. Perhaps you have spent the night wrestling with a decision or a dilemma… you can pretty much fill in the blank with your own situation.
But what led up to Jacob's divine wrestling match? When we last saw Jacob, (See, Speckled Past/Spotless Future) he was getting away from his father in law, Laban. He was following what he believed to be God’s direction to go home to the land of his father. It was time for him to live out his destiny in line with the covenant that had been first given to his grandfather Abraham, then handed down to this father Isaac, and now to him. (Well, that is, right after he tricked his older brother out of his birthright and stole the blessing from his father… then it was handed down to him… but I digress...)
Jacob, possibly because he knew he had burned some bridges, and in order to give the folks at home a heads up, sent messengers ahead of him to meet his brother Esau. And he told the messengers, "Tell my master Esau this, 'A message from your servant Jacob: I've been staying with Laban and couldn't get away until now. I've acquired cattle and donkeys and sheep; also men and women servants. I'm telling you all this, my master, hoping for your approval.'"(The Message)
This was very smart on Jacob’s part; even if he is still looking to provide for his own security. But the messengers return to Jacob, saying, “We saw your brother Esau alright, and he is coming to meet you, but four hundred men are with him.”
Jacob was scared to death. So in a strategic move, he divided the people who were with him; as well as the flocks and herds and camels, into two groups, and sent them to opposite camp sites. His thinking was, “If Esau comes to the one camp and destroys it, then the camp that is left will be able to get away.” (The Message)
And now we come to what I believe to be the turning point in Jacob’s life. Maybe you will remember that Jacob didn’t have a strong history of believing in God- remember he had once (when speaking to his father, Isaac) referred to God as “Your God.” Add to that, all the encounters he has had with God up to this point have either been dreams or visions- we have nothing in the text that says Jacob has ever talked with God face to face…
But now, Jacob, maybe in a foxhole of sorts, (where they say even atheists learn to pray)… Jacob, our self serving, self persevering, self sustaining patriarch-to-be, for the first time in his life, admits that he needs help… and he turns to God in prayer. And folks, this is no ordinary prayer.
He prays, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, 'Go back to your parents' homeland and I'll treat you well.' I don't deserve all the love and loyalty you've shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I'm afraid he'll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, 'I will treat you well; I'll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.'” (The Message)
Doesn’t this prayer sound a lot like a psalm? Sometimes it seems there is almost an arrogance on the part of some Psalmists- when they demands things of God. But what we find again and again in the Old Testament is this sense of people in prayer who call God on the promises that are rightfully theirs. In times of trouble, they fall back on the very words God had previously spoken- and they have no problem reminding God - “Hey- You said this! Now it’s time to deliver!”
Jacob does a similar thing here He pours out his fears to God. He admits he is not worthy- or better translated, ‘vulnerable’ and also acknowledges that God has stood by him the whole time. But at the same time, calls God on what he knows to be true… “You are the one who told me to go home… You are the one who told me that you would do well for me… You are the one who told me that you would give me so many descendants that I won’t be able to count them…”
How different does that sound from the prayer you and I say when we are afraid? How different from the pleading and the begging and the deal making prayers we pray? Can you picture 'calling God out 'on the promises God has given you? Most of us can’t- and don’t.
We focus more on the “I’m not worthy” part of the prayer- the part that lets God know (and reminds us) how we have failed, or have messed up, or really don’t deserve God’s help. And for most of us, our prayer ends up sounding like this: "But God, even though I know it's a long shot, would you please come down and just perform one little miracle… just one time…. just this time... please?"
But Jacob knew that entering into covenant with God meant that he and God were more like partners- and that God’s part in that covenant said that God would never leave him or forsake him- that God would protect him and provide for him. And if God is the one who made the promises- then it was OK to remind God of those promises… boldly! Jacob is someone who was not afraid to be completely vulnerable and honest with God.
You and I... we live in an anxiety filled world- we are fed fear for breakfast lunch and dinner, 24/7. We live in a constant state of feeling threatened, in everything from 9/11 and terror attacks, to global warming, to disease, infection, crime, economy… pick your poison…
Yet very rarely, if at all, do we stand toe to toe with God in prayer about any of it. We don’t boldly claim the promises as our own, but instead take a small, helpless 'wringing our hands' type of stand when it comes to our fears, and sadly, our prayers. But I believe it is through this kind of active bold prayer that we are empowered for the struggle that could come next.
Jacob, in his prayer, is giving himself a Pep talk- (no pun intended) He is naming with force and vigor, everything he knows to be true about what God has said is the plan for his life! He is drawing on, and naming those things as his own. He is putting on the armor of God in order to be able to face what lies ahead.
And when he gets up from that prayer- he is ready to face wrestling with anything that comes his way. Why? Because he has confidence that God is a God of his word- he believes!
So Jacob gets up, and regroups- instead of passively waiting for his brother to come to him, he sends out presents for his brother instead. (Maybe he can soften Esau a little before he gets to his camp… ) And he sends out groups of goats, then camels, then sheep, then cows, then donkeys.. and he sends each group out one at a time- with lots of space between each gift…
And the bearers are told only to tell Esau.. “these are a gift from your servant Jacob… he’s on his way…”
And then Jacob settled down for the night…
But as it grew dark, sleep escapes him; his fears began to creep back. Perhaps not for himself, but at the very least, fear for his family. So during the night he got up, took his family and got them safely across the river... (along with all his possessions... ya gotta love this guy!) and then he went back to the other side of the river by himself.
That’s when the man (or something) appears and the wrestling match begins. But now Jacob is equipped to handle it. He has spent time in prayer, has renewed his confidence in God, has done everything in his power to help his situation (moving his family, and sending along presents to soften his brother) and now he is left alone to go hash it out with God.
And during the course of the wrestling match, Jacob remains strong, (and why wouldn’t he be- he has armed himself with the promises of God) He is, in fact so strong that the man (or something) strikes him on his hip and knocks it out of joint and still Jacob won’t let go. (How many of us have been here? When things are dark and the struggle becomes so difficult that we feel like even what little firm ground we did have to stand on gets shaken- when any leverage we had is taken away from us…)
And the man says to Jacob “Let go already- its almost morning!”
But Jacob grabs on even tighter- grits his teeth and says “No- not until you bless me!”
And in that moment, Jacob, at least in my mind, acquires what it takes to be a Patriarch. Because when everything is on the line for him, and seemingly everything is about to be taken from him… he doesn’t let go. He doesn't let go of his boldness; doesn't let go of God’s promises… not until he gets blessed, in other words, not until he gets whatever it is that God intends for him!
And God asks him “What is your name?” And Jacob tells him. But, in responding, Jacob not just saying his name, but stating everything he knows to be true about himself… the name ‘Jacob,’ means, 'grabs at the heel,' 'supplanter,' 'trickster'… Jacob knows full well who he is and where he has come from. Stating his name is an act of confession. And he is at once- free to take on everything God has destined for him to become.
And as an acknowledgment of the new identity to come, God baptizes him with a new name…
"From now on your name is no longer Jacob- but Israel… "
No longer will Jacob be able to call himself "trickster," "manipulator," no longer will Jacob be able to identify himself in a way that is anything other than God-like!
Can you imagine doing that in your own life? If you were unable to identify yourself or talk about yourself in a way that was anything other than God-like?
So many times we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are that are either given to us by our parents, or our peers, or even our actions- we get so caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, or the bad ways we act or think, or the things we have done… that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity- a new name… not through a wrestling match like Jacob, but through the cross of Jesus Christ. Through Christ we leave our “Jacob” identity behind and have been given a new identity in Christ.
So you call yourself '(your name),' and all the things it means to be (your mane), to be identified as (your name)… but through Christ you are named, Holy. You call yourself '(your name)', and all that means to you all that (your name) is or has done or thinks or feels… but through Christ you are named, Righteous. You call yourself (your name), but through Christ you are Faithful.
And I’m not saying that accepting these names or growing into those identities is easy- that’s the wrestling part- the struggle… and most likely by the time you are done, you will end up with a limp…
But learn from Jacob- keep at it through the night… you know what God has promised, and if you don’t come and talk to me about it. You know what God has told you is true- that God has plans for you to give you a hope and a future, to prosper you and not to harm you- boldly claim that God will always be with you, confidently proclaim that God will always forgive you, will always love you, no matter what… believe those promises and my God… don’t let go… "not until you bless me…"