Pastor Sherry’s Message for August 2, 2020
Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-31; Ps 17:1-7
Can you remember how you felt when you knew you had to face some pretty unpleasant event? I can think of two such events when I was a kid and even one as an adult. When I was going into the 7th grade, my dad was transferred to Hawaii. This was in the late 50’s when the islands were still a territory, not yet a state. So we had to endure a series of painful immunizations. I dreaded the days we had to present ourselves for those shots. The anticipation was far worse than the actual event. In another example, my brother and I had misbehaved badly for our mother. When our abusive stepdad went out to sea, we both felt like the clamps had come off and I am sure we manipulated our mother something fierce. One particular time, she threatened, “Just you want ‘til you dad comes home!” She marked the days on the calendar. We got more and more distressed as the weeks sped away and the date of his return loomed before us. I am sure my brother and I were the only ones on the dock, as the ship came in, who were not celebrating its return. He did beat us, rather severely. I was only about 9-10, but I remember recognizing that my mother was a weak disciplinarian who never should have left the job to another. Interestingly, she never seemed to be able to figure out why we didn’t love him better or have happier memories of our childhood.
As an adult, I had stood up as the lone dissenter in a vote for a new pastor. The rest of the committee got very angry with me as we decided everything by unanimous vote; they perceived that I was holding up the process. We eventually decided the matter by drawing lots—an old Biblical tradition—and the guy I felt so strongly about won the job unanimously! Later the new pastor (who thought I was the lone holdout against him) told me I had to be reconciled with each of the other 11. I did so, and believe me, I approached each individual appointment with anxiety. The whole experience was an exercise in humility.
This is essentially the situation the patriarch Jacob faces in today’s OT Lesson, Genesis 32:22-31. He is returning to the Promised Land after 20 years of exile.
Recall that he was named “Jacob” (which meant heel grabber, deceiver) as the younger of a set of twins. He later manipulated his slower, less cerebral brother, Esau, out of his birthright: The lion’s share of their father’s property & livestock; but also the Covenantal relationship with God. This is bad enough, but—with his mother’s complicity—he tricks/deceives his blind father into giving him his blessing! His mother, Rebekah, should have known better. God had told her that the older twin would serve the younger. She should have remembered and waited on God to see how He meant to work this out. Instead, the wily Jacob and his mother demonstrate no respect for Isaac, no love for Esau, and no faith in God. Jacob gets the blessing, fraudulently, but he earns the murderous rage and hatred of his only sibling. This forces him to flee the country—never to see his mother again.
As our passage from last week indicated, Jacob is taken to the Spiritual Woodshed by his mother’s brother, Uncle Laban (Let us all hope we never encounter an Uncle Laban in our lifetime): Jacob agrees to work 7 years for the lovely Rachel, only to be given the less attractive, older sister, Leah, on his wedding night. The deceiver is deceived! Uncle Laban justifies his trickery with the custom that older daughters must marry before younger ones. Once Jacob recovers from his shock and anger, he agrees to work another 7 years for his true love. The two “sister wives”compete over who can give Jacob the most sons. The ladies add two more “sister wives” to fuel the race. Leah, the less valued wife, ends up with 6 sons and a daughter of her own, and two sons by a surrogate. The favorite wife, Rachel, struggles with infertility, but has two surrogate sons and, finally, two sons of her own (dying as she gives birth to #2 after Jacob has settled in back home).
Once Jacob’s term of 14 years is up, he is forced to indenture himself to Laban for another 6 years, so as to amass sufficient resources to support 4 wives & 12 children. Meanwhile, the jealousies, resentments, envy and animosity of the “sister wives” and their children continue to fester. Laban keeps changing the terms of his contract with Jacob (10 times!), trying to cheat him. We are talking a highly dysfunctional family here. By the time of today’s lesson, Jacob has been out of the “Promised land” for 20 years. Jacob, the “Trickster,” has been repeatedly tricked by an even cannier trickster. I picture him as exhausted, harried, and burnt-out.
Now Jacob knows God has called him to return home, but what about the vengeful Esau? When Jacob had last encountered his brother, Esau had been intent on killing him. So Jacob has finally escaped one enemy—Uncle Laban—only to face another, Esau. Just prior to today’s passage (Gen 32:9-12), Jacob prays a powerful prayer to God: (1) He acknowledges how God has blessed him; (2) He reminds God that it is He who has called him home; and (3)He asks God to save him from his brother’s wrath. He then sends his wives & family across the Jabbok (Wadi Zarqa, 20 mi. west of the Jordan). Alone, he is suddenly grabbed by God! He struggled all his life to prevail, no doubt thinking, “I can determine my destiny.” 1st, he had contended with Esau; 2nd, with Uncle Laban. Now, he wrestles all night with the pre-incarnate Christ–Hosea 12:4-5 reports, He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought His favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is His name.
Now, finally Jacob realizes, God holds my destiny. Actually, God is wrestling with one hand tied behind His back. But Jacob won’t quit. Jesus wants to go so He won’t be recognized. Jacob has surrendered his will to God but he won’t let go of Him. Jacob has become a perseverer. Graciously, Jesus will not overrule Jacob’s will, so instead He puts his hip out of joint. Jacob wisely asks for a blessing from the Divine Logos. Jesus, who knows everything, asks him a rhetorical question, What is your name? The Lord then changes his name from Jacob (Deceiver) to Israel (He who contends with God and men and overcomes).
By changing his name, Jesus is indicating that Jacob’s character has been purified. Jesus is also letting Jacob know that his future successes will result (Zechariah 4:6), ”Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.
Israel wants Jesus’ name but the LORD will not reveal it to him. We cannot overcome or control God; instead, we yield and hold on! This is both a spiritual victory for Israel and a demonstration of human frailty in the face of God. God will superintend the reconciliation with his brother. As my prayer partner likes to say, God rules and overrules the hearts of men and women. The apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, …He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. God had begun a good work in Jacob.
The spiritual woodshed was intended to transform him, mold and shape the deceptiveness out of him through adversity. In wrestling with him, Jesus was saying—without words—your brother, Esau, will not overcome or kill you. You do not need to fear him, because I and the angel armies are with you.
Among the many lessons of Jacob/Israel wrestling with God are these:
- God accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. He doesn’t overrule our will, but He will discipline us. Until we are transformed by this discipline, often the things we most want are what elude us.
- Nevertheless, He will persist with us, giving us enough lessons to bring us
- When we finally do surrender to Him, He then blesses us. Jacob/Israel re-entered the Land with 11 sons and 1 daughter, lots of servants, huge numbers of sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and camels—enough excess to offer reparations to Esau—or at least “to sweeten” their first meeting.
- I tell the clients I work with at Honey Lake Clinic, “If you want God to heal you, you have to set aside your ideas of how you will be healed and let God be God.” That is true for all of us. Not my will but yours be done, Oh Lord! When we are dealing with God, our proper attitude needs to be one of surrender; surrender, but hold on!
©2020 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams