Somebody once asked Winston Churchill what most prepared him to risk political suicide by speaking out against Hitler during the years of appeasement in the mid-1930s, then to lead Great Britain against Nazi Germany. Churchill said it was the time he had to repeat a grade in elementary school.
“You mean you failed a year in grade school?” he asked.
“I never failed anything in my life. I was given a second opportunity to get it right.”1
Jacob had a lot in common with Winston Churchill – He wouldn’t admit to failure in anything. For Jacob, it was all about coming out on top – all about winning. And Jacob usually found a way to get what he wanted. But God was about to give him a second chance to get it right.
Jacob is on his way home after being gone for twenty years. He left the house of Laban under the cover of darkness with his two wives, two maidservants, eleven sons, one daughter, sheep, goats, and a partridge in a pear tree. He leaves without telling his father-in-law what he is doing. Circumstances and God have told him it was time to go home. While he was in Haran for 20 years, Jacob had become very wealthy. He had fled his parents and brother in Beersheba with nothing, but he comes home a successful man. But going home meant he must face his brother, Esau.
As they draw closer, Jacob sends messengers ahead to his brother to say, “Good news, Esau! Your loving brother, Jacob, is coming home. Hope you’re well. Sure looking forward to seeing you again. Missed you a lot! Let’s play some golf!”
The messengers returned to Jacob with news, “Your brother is coming out to see you – along with 400 men!!”
Talk about holding a grudge. It’s been 20 years but Esau has not forgotten. The world does not forgive easily. Jacob is scared to death. 400 men! “All I have are wives and kids, and goats.”
Calvin Miller writes, “Sometimes we must deal with our past before we can hope to have any future. Just like the Rio separates Texas from Mexico, the past and the future are separated by a tiny little stream called the Jabbok. The Jabbok is a place of honesty.”2
Jacob has spent a good portion of his life getting what Jacob wants, even if it means lying, cheating, and deceiving. But now he is facing something utterly beyond his power — a vengeful brother and 400 men. He cannot lie or deceive his way out of this. As they say in Texas – he is scared spitless! What does he do? He prays. This is the first real prayer we have seen from Jacob.
“O God of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, You said to me, ‘Go back to your family and country. I will make you prosper.’ I am unworthy of all kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant.” Jacob acknowledges it is God’s hand that has been with him. It is all about God’s grace and kindness! “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, Esau. For You said, ‘I will bless you and make your descendents like the sand of the sea.’ Those were Your words, not mine!”
Jacob sends his family and all his possessions across the River Jabbok (It is interesting to note that in Hebrew the names Jacob and Jabbok and the word “wrestle” all come from the same root word.). He is left all alone – just as he was when he originally left his home. In the middle of the night he is suddenly aware of a presence. He looks up and sees an outline of a man in his camp. “What do you want?” No response.
Before he knows what to do next, Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match with this man that lasts the whole night. Jacob is 90 years old at this time, a tough dude. If you have ever done any wrestling, you know after five minutes you are exhausted. These two wrestle ‘til daybreak. Jacob tries every move he knows – the airplane spin, the diamond cutter, the full nelson, the half nelson, the Bohemian nutcracker – all to no avail. His opponent is too strong, but he gives a valiant fight. As the first hint of the dawn greets the horizon, the man reaches down and touches the socket of Jacob’s hip, and it is wrenched. He falls down in pain, but he will not let go of his grip. The man says, “Let me go for it is daybreak.”
Jacob says, “I will not unless You bless me.” Jacob had a grip on this man like the grip he had on Esau’s heel and on Esau’s blessing. But this time it is a grip not of deception, but of desperation for Jacob had discovered this is no ordinary man he wrestles. “I need You. I need Your help – Your blessing – Your assurance. My life is in Your hands.”
The man asks, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” meaning one who supplants.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, which means one who wrestles with God – God’s fighter. For you have struggled with God and have overcome.”
Jacob wants to know the man’s name, but He wouldn’t tell him. He leaves after giving Jacob a blessing. Jacob calls the place Peniel – meaning “‘face of God,’ because I have seen God face to face and lived.”
Who is this man? Some say it was an angel. Others, including myself, believe it is the one often referred to in the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord, who may well be a pre-incarnate appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ – the Son of God. Jacob leaves Peniel with a limp. He leaves the crossing of Jabbok different from when he arrived. I suspect many of us here have wrestled with God long into the night, though not in a physical sense. We have struggled with Him and found Him to be a tough opponent who will not let us pin Him down – He doesn’t readily submit to what we want!
About thirteen years ago there was something I wanted so deeply, and I earnestly fasted and prayed about it. All circumstances made it appear that my prayer was going to be answered. And then it all came crashing down, and I was bitterly depressed. I wasn’t happy with God – I took Him off my speed dial. He didn’t come through in the way I wanted. I wrestled with God long into the night. But it was because my prayer was not answered that God eventually led us here to this church for the eleven wonderful years He has given us with this beautiful church family.
Eight years ago Lacy became pregnant, which was an enormous shock to both of us. I didn’t say a word for two days, and I didn’t sleep for a month thinking about all the sleep I was going to lose over the next two years. It took a good month and a half before my heart was changed to excitement about the possibility of a new person in our family. But we became very excited! Lacy passed her first trimester, and then on Labor Day weekend (of all times) she had a miscarriage.
We both wrestled long into the night with God on that one. What was the purpose in all of that? Funny thing about God, try as we might, we just can’t pin Him down! Mystery is so much a part of faith. But like Jacob at the Jabbok, we have found that we need Him so desperately. We are in over our heads most of the time. Apart from Him we are absolutely nothing. God is our Everything. Much of life and much of faith is sometimes simply hanging on and refusing to let go.
Jacob came up against an opponent he could not beat – none of his tricks worked. But what I love in this story is that God doesn’t throw him down and pin him, which would be no challenge to God. God allows Himself to be drawn into a draw. He has no ego at stake. His desire is not to beat us up or beat us down. His desire is to raise us up, restoring us all to what we were meant to be – His friends. But we cannot be His friend when we engage life as a constant effort to put ourselves ahead of others – including God.
Wouldn’t a simple pin have sufficed? Yes, if God had simply wanted to win the match. But that’s not what He wanted. He wanted to win the man! By wrestling God to a draw, but having his hip displaced, Jacob had a continual reminder that his self-sufficiency must come to an end. Having it my way must cease. He learned the very lesson Paul learned – that “My grace is sufficient for your every need.” God’s power is made evident through our weakness, not out strength.
When my boys were younger, I loved to wrestle with them. It drove Lacy crazy because we wrestled all over the house. It was a playful wrestling, and sometimes I would pin them. But a lot of times I would just be ready to pin them and then allow them to throw me off and pin me instead. They even learned great victory dances. I wasn’t trying to win the match – I was trying to win the boys – to bond with them in such a way that they would know I loved being with them, that they were valiant and strong. We kept wrestling till they were teenagers. And one day they ganged up on me and dislocated my thumb. I knew then it was time to give up wrestling.
There was another time God wrestled with man, on a place called the Vio Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This time God let man win. He allowed Himself to be pinned – more precisely – nailed down. Man in all his arrogance and self-righteousness and self-sufficiency threw the Son of God to the ground and nailed Him to a cross. And God allowed it. He, who with His little pinky could have wiped out the entire Roman army, allowed Himself to be pinned. Why? God didn’t care about winning the match. He cared about winning the men and women He came to save. The cross is humankind in all its arrogance against a God who supremely shows His heart. It is the cross that dislocates our self-sufficiency and reminds us that we cannot win in life apart from God. There will always be problems greater than us – always Esaus in the world, and God says, “My grace is sufficient for every need you have. Hold on to Me tightly. When you do, I will change your name to one who overcomes.”
1. John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk On Water, Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001) p. 22-23.
2. Calvin Miller, Encounter At Jabbok, Preaching Today Tape 153.