The Second Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2017
“When It Looks Like God is Against You”
And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip. Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.
The Book of Genesis introduces us to the great patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These heroes of the faith didn’t always behave heroically. They were flawed men. Abraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister and in so doing put her into a very compromising position. Isaac did the same thing. Jacob and his mother conspired to deceive Isaac to give the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. It worked. But it made Esau angry enough to want to kill Jacob. The families of the patriarchs were what we would nowadays refer to as dysfunctional.
A little review is in order. Jacob and Esau were twins. Esau was the older. As the firstborn he enjoyed the legal benefits of primogeniture. He would inherit the lion’s share of the family’s wealth and he would be the head of the family for the next generation. But before they were born God said that the older would serve the younger.
God called Abraham, not with a legal contract, but by his grace. Grace trumps law. Abraham’s son Ishmael was born before his son Isaac, but Isaac was the heir. He was born by God’s promise. God is not bound by legalistic considerations. He elects whom he wills and his election is always completely gracious. It is undeserved. We do not look to Jacob to see in him any reason that God chose him instead of Esau. God is gracious to whom he chooses to be gracious.
This was something Jacob had to learn the hard way. Jacob’s name tells his story. Jacob means literally, heal-holder, a conniving trickster, a sneaky kind of a guy, a man who tries to supplant another. And he did. Jacob was smarter than Esau. He outsmarted him on more than one occasion. God promised that Jacob, not Esau, would get the blessing. But neither Jacob nor his mother trusted God to take care of it. They tricked the blind and aging Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob. He thought he was giving it to Esau. Jacob deceived his own father. Esau was deprived of what was legally his right. He hated Jacob for what he did and vowed to kill him.
At his mother’s urging, Jacob ran away to where her brother, Laban, and his family lived. Laban gave Jacob a taste of his own medicine, tricking Jacob out of what he worked for. He worked seven years for Rachel, whom he loved, and Laban gave him Leah, instead. He also tried to rip him off of his livestock. But God was with Jacob, blessing him with many children, and making him wealthy. After years had passed, God told Jacob to go home. He began the journey homeward where he would see his brother again after years of absence. What if Esau held a grudge? What would Jacob do? He had entrusted himself to God’s care, but would God protect him from the vengeance of his brother?
You know the proverb: The guilty flees when no man pursues. When you do someone wrong, you suspect him of wanting to get revenge. Getting even is pretty much built into our fallen, sinful condition. So Jacob was worried. Was Esau still bent on killing him? Jacob sent his family and his belonging across the river and was left alone with his doubts and fears.
But he wasn’t alone. Here we read of one of the strangest events recorded in the Bible. Moses says that Jacob wrestled with a man until the breaking of the day. This man is given no name. He refuses to identify himself. He acts as if he is Jacob’s opponent in battle, but, in the end, he blesses him. But even in blessing him, he injures him. Who can this mysterious man be?
It’s bad enough when we face enemies among our friends and neighbors. Having enemies within your own family is worse. But when God is your enemy, you are so alone, so very alone. You are helpless and without hope. You cannot let God become your enemy. But you cannot alter his will. You cannot override his decisions. He’s God and you’re not. We are so very weak and he is so very strong. When God is your enemy, you don’t have a prayer.
Jacob fought. The woman from Canaan fought. You will bless me! You will give me something – a word, a promise, something on which my faith can rest – because without faith I am lost. I will wrestle you and grab onto you for dear life, refusing to let you go until you bless me.
“I came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. You’re not elect. You’re not chosen. You have no claim on me, no right to what I have.” The woman doesn’t argue with God’s doctrine. Only a fool would do that! She doesn’t deny the doctrine of election. Anyone who denies election denies that God is God and can choose to be gracious to whom he will. This is a denial of grace altogether. No, the struggling conscience, the doubting faith, the soul that despairs of God’s mercy dare not remake God into our fickle image. That would leave us with no God at all; only a useless idol. We must take God as God reveals himself and when he won’t reveal himself, when he won’t show his face, when he won’t give his name, we seek his face in his Son. We hold onto the blessing he speaks to us in his word. We hold on and we don’t let go. We don’t give up on God and his church. When his promises appear to be lies, we don’t toss them away, but hold onto them for dear life. We hold God accountable to keep his word.
That’s what Jacob did. That’s what the woman from Canaan did. When he appears to say no, faith won’t take no for an answer; it grabs hold of his gracious promise and won’t let go.
The gods of the nations are idols. Muhammad’s god won’t bind himself to his word. You are forbidden to know where you stand with him. He may save you or he may damn you but one thing is for sure: he is not going to tell you! The gods of the nations are powerless. They are created in the minds of men. They cannot keep a promise.
But our God keeps his promises. Even when it appears he has forgotten, even when his words seem to push you away from him, when his will appears to be contrary to your best interests, when you are excluded and do not belong, his promise to you stands.
Jacob struggled with God and saw him face to face. His name was changed to Israel. Instead of relying on trickery and his own cleverness, he struggled with God until God gave him the blessing. It was always God’s intention to do just that, even as the Lord Jesus never intended to deny the Canaanite woman’s pleas for her daughter.
Grace doesn’t always appear to be grace. It seems as if God’s being a bully. We cannot see beyond our immediate need and we can see clearly that it isn’t being met. When we suffer losses and when our prayers go unanswered we put God on trial and judge him in our hearts for his failure. We forget that our perspective isn’t the one that matters. God’s is. We seek out his perspective in his word.
God doesn’t think like we do. We see his chastening hand as punishment. What else could it be? That’s what it looks like. That’s what it feels like. Or maybe it means that God isn’t really in charge.
Jacob prevailed. The man with whom he wrestled all night was God himself, who had assumed the form of a man. God is almighty. Man cannot defeat God. Man must submit to God; God does not submit to man. But when God gives his word, he binds himself to it. God bound himself to the promises he had given to Jacob. God promised Jacob he would be with him, that he would protect him, defend him, and bring him back to his home safely. He said he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. God had promised.
When Jacob ran away from Esau and rested at Bethel, God showed Jacob in a dream his inheritance in heaven. He saw a ladder extending from earth to heaven. It signified the birth of Jacob’s Savior who would be true God as well as true man, from his own seed, and this Savior would reconcile earth to heaven by taking away the sin of the world.
Jacob was a Christian. It was Christ with whom he wrestled all night. He needed the forgiveness of sins. He needed peace with God. Otherwise, he could not face his brother. God’s promise to him of the forgiveness of his sins and reconciliation with God is what his faith latched onto. This was Jacob’s weapon in his struggle with God. Call it faith. Call it God’s word. It amounts to the same thing because God’s word establishes the faith that clings to it and holds onto it and presents it to God as his obligation. The Canaanite woman held Jesus to his own words, though they appeared to be against her, she claimed the status of a dog and thereby secured from him the promise.
Jacob won. God let him win. Remember that. When a small Christian, a weak and doubting Christian, a frightened Christian, comes to God to ask him for what he has promised, and keeps on asking, and won’t stop, God cannot deny him. God won’t deny what faith asks, not when faith holds onto what God has promised.
God is never our enemy. He only appears to be. When he does, we come to him and lay claim to our baptism. It was you who baptized me! You gave me your name! You joined your name to mine when you washed away my sins. How can you possibly be my enemy? How can you be against me? You cannot. You must be on my side. God lets faith win. Jacob prevailed. The woman from Canaan prevailed. The God who called us to faith will see to it that faith prevails every time.
Rolf D. Preus