First Mennonite Church
March 2, 2014
Profile of a Checkered Character in the Hands of a Faithful God: Jacob
Text: Genesis 32:22-32
The same night he (Jacob) got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 32:25 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. 32:26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 32:27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 32:28 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.” 32:29 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. 32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32:32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
When the Hebrew people identify their God, they identify the Divine as the God of their ancestors: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. These three men enjoyed a special relationship with Yahweh. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were recipients of God’s promise of a chosen people that would come through them. This chosen people will in turn become the means by which the nations will receive God’s blessings also.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were and still are highly regarded as men chosen by God to fulfill special purposes in the will of God for the world.
And yet we know from the pages of Scriptures, these men were no different from what we are. One of the amazing beauties about the Bible regarding its characters is that the holy writers never attempt to hide their weaknesses, much less to justify them. In regard to these men, one of them lied to save his skin; another cheated to get things his own way. They experienced doubt, and at times took matters in their own hands. Therefore, the greatness of these men is made clear in the Bible. Their greatness was not based on who they were but on God who called them. This truth proves to be the same from Abraham all the way to you and me. God chooses us, not for who we are but for whom He is and what he can do for us and through us.
In the case of Jacob, the Bible makes little pretense as to who he was. The holy writer presents Jacob very much like a checkered board. Alongside black boxes/squares are the white squares. Along side the positive aspects of Jacob are the negative. Alongside the noble aspects of his intentions are the ambiguous or even dark aspects. But the most astounding aspect about Jacob is that God gets involved and takes hold of his life. And God’s involvement and hold of Jacob are what makes this story so powerful and hope-filled for you and me today.
After Rebecca married Isaac she had trouble with bareness as did Sarah, although Rebecca’s barrenness only went on for 20 years (Genesis 25:20-26).
Isaac prayed to God because of Rebecca’s infertility. And Rebecca gave birth to twins. However, during the pregnancy, Rebecca’s womb was a battle field for the twins. This physical discomfort led her to inquire from the Lord. To her surprise God told her that inside her womb were two nations. And that the younger shall be stronger than the older and that the older shall serve the younger. And the Esau-Jacob saga was just beginning.
Therefore, although God had expressed preference for Jacob, he (Jacob) was impatient to wait for God’s timing to fulfill his promises.
In his desperation, Jacob’s obsession with seeing fulfillment of the blessings led him to take advantage of his family members.
In Genesis 25:29 and following verses, Jacob took advantage of his hungry brother to trade food for birthrights as first born in the family.
Then in Genesis 27, Jacob took advantage of his father’s vision impairment to get his blessing reserved for his older son Esau.
But Jacob was not only opportunistic; he was also a man who knew how to stand on his own. He was determined and calculating; he was a man of decisive action. He abandoned his family when he fled his brother’s anger. He knew where to go when he fled. He committed to work hard and for many years for the woman of his love. But then he began to experience what he had done to others. Laban cheated him by giving him not Rachael but Leah. Laban changed his wages 10 times. Laban sought to dispossess Jacob from his wealth by narrowing his chances of growing his flocks. And later in his life, heartbreak was always close to Jacob as a result of his sons’ actions.
But regardless of what Jacob had done, and regardless of his less than perfect character, his calling from God did not change. Yahweh remained faithful to the words he had spoken to Jacob the day he fled his brother: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).
The passage for this morning tells us what happened the night prior to the day Jacob and Esau were to meet the first time after more than 20 years. Jacob was preparing for the worst. He feared Esau’s anger. The reason they had separated was because of a death threat Esau made against Jacob. Jacob wanted to save his family from the rage of his brother and therefore separated them in groups to allow chances for survival if an attack against them would begin.
But the writer skillfully indicates a more profound truth about the spirit of Jacob when he writes in verse 24: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Jacob was left alone. The 3 Hebrew words (verse 25 in the Hebrew Bible) for this sentence express a daunting and terrifying condition or state of being humans experience when they encounter God. Jacob felt bare, fearful, and contrite.
Have you noticed how people act when they are happy? They seek others to share their joy. They call family; they call friends to tell them the good news they have or the reasons for their joy. When we come together we engage in conversation; we laugh with others. When we are happy we seek company. But when people are afraid, sad, or broken inside, most usually they seek to be alone.
Therefore, the next time you go to a restaurant or a public gathering, look around and seek for the one who is alone. Go over to that person and try to engage him or her in conversation. He or she might be afraid of being there or might be sad.
Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until day break. Some would want to believe that the wrestle Jacob had that night was only an internal one. But the indication that he got a blow on the hip, which caused him to limp indicate a physical struggle. What Jacob experienced that night was no nightmare. His entire being was at struggle and the character with whom he struggled was made clear. It was God. “For I have seen God face to face”, Jacob admitted in the morning. And so the question is, why would God want to wrestle Jacob? Moses also experienced God as an assailant with intentions to kill him (Exodus 4:24-26). Why did God attempt to kill Moses after he had commissioned him to deliver his people? We do not know!
It is difficult to know why God in human form came to wrestle with Jacob. This is because although God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, Jacob did not seem to have responded with a change in behavior. Jacob did not show open indication of repentance for his past. Yet there are two important truths we should not overlook about this encounter. First, it is God who initiates the encounter. As far as Jacob is concerned, he wanted to be left alone. But when he is left alone God comes to him in human terms. The second is that no matter how much Jacob had done to ensure the survival of his family, he needed God to bless him. Jacob cannot produce the blessing. It had to be God, therefore Jacob pleaded to be blessed by God.
When God came, he did not overpower this fear-stricken and exhausted man, but engaged him physically to the point in which Jacob would realize that his life, his very survival depended on the favor and blessing of God. God did not come in the fullness of his glory, which would have overwhelmed Jacob. But God came under the cover of night and in the form of a simple mortal man to engage Jacob.
And if Jacob had wrestled with man and with God and succeeded (v.28), he still needed the favor of God in this critical time of encounter with his once-enemy brother.
And God met and blessed Jacob. No matter how smart he was, no matter how prosperous he had been, the promise of greatness to Jacob was only possible through the blessing and favor of God.
At the center of each and every biblical story of God’s interaction with humans, the grace He bestows on them is not for their glory or selfish benefit. Every Divine-human interaction has the intention to show the greatness of God. Therefore no matter how exalted and honorific the recipients of such favor can become, the glory belongs to God who blesses them.
Today more than ever, we as Christians should be mindful of this truth. Very often unbelievers accuse Christians of being arrogant, self-righteous, and know-it-all types. Many times Christians are tempted to usurp the glory that belongs to God. And we are tempted to tell the world that our success in life is due to our own hard work, which in part can be true. We are tempted to believe that our right standing before man and God is due to our ability to live morally right, not realizing that godly living is only possible because of the grace of God in us. Very often we are tempted to boast that whatever we have become and everything we have is due to our smart and calculated planning of our lives. We are tempted to say that we are saved because we choose rightly; we believe the right way, go to the right church or have the correct Scriptural interpretation.
We know so well what Jesus said about those who thought of themselves as righteous. He had very harsh words for them. He called them hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and blind leading other blind men.
The story of Jacob reveals that regardless of his checkered character, God was not only able to use him, God was willing to use him to fulfill His purposes in history. God blessed Jacob and changed his name. The greatness of Jacob lay not on his abilities to survive or get ahead by his own wits, but on God who took him in His hands.
In the New Testament passage for today Paul reminded his brothers and sisters in the Corinthian church that they had no personal grounds for boasting according to the flesh.
He wrote to them:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Paul called the Corinthian Christians to think, to remember who they were when Christ called them. Not many were wise, powerful, or of high society. But God chose the foolish, the weak and lowly one. Paul told them that they were called be in Christ who had become their wisdom from God, their righteousness, holiness and glorious redemption. Therefore, everything they were and had was in Christ. For that reason, if they wanted to boast of something, they could only boast of Christ their Lord.
God chose Jacob and the lowly Christians in the Corinthian church. God blessed Jacob and made him a great man. Christ called the Corinthians of humble origins to shame the wise and powerful. And today let us remember that God has called us too. God called us not because of our merits, for we have none. God called us out of pure grace. And He wants to use us to become witnesses of his grace. He wants us to be a blessing to others.
Let us remember also, God does not discard us when we fail to reach the mark. That also happened to Jacob, to Paul, to the Corinthian church and to everyone who has attempted to follow Christ. But let us allow ourselves to rest in the hands of God because faithful is the One who has called us. Amen!
 Thom & Joan Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to go to Church Anymore, Group, 2013. pp. 23-24