A story of conflict, struggle, deep need, and transformative blessing. Preached at the Church of Good Shepherd, Taylor August 2, 2020.
The past few weeks we at the Church of the Good Shepherd have been contemplating Jesus’s parables in Matthew 14, and though we have been reading Jacob’s story we haven’t been paying much attention to it. Today we meet him in the midst of a wrestling match, but it might be useful to consider who Jacob the wrestler is.
Jacob is born into this strife, this grasping with his brother for approval and status. He comes out holding on to Esau’s heel and Rebecca(their mother) has this vision- this vision that show us something of how God sees each of us. She prayed and asked God “why is their so much turmoil in my body?” and God said because there are two nations at war inside you, he does not just see Jacob and Esau he sees the nation of Israel to this day and the nation of Edom until its fall. Jacob’s name means “he who grasps at the heel” it also means “usurper”.
Their whole struggle happens upon the backdrop of the promise God made to Abraham that he was going to make him the father of nations and that his descendants would be a blessing to all people, and they would be God’s people and God would be their God. Abraham was to be the father of more than one nation though. Esau was the first born by seconds and had the ancient rite of primogeniture to rule over Jacob.
Esau was a big hairy man who liked hunting and one day he came in from hunting and had not caught anything. Jacob was a mama’s boy who stayed near the tents and when Esau arrived Jacob was cooking a pot of red lentil stew. “Give me a bowl of that red stuff or I will surely die” Esau declared. Jacob grasping at the status of his brother said “sell me your birthright and I will give you a bowl of stew” but Esau did not value or respect his birthright and so he sold it for just a bowl of stew-it’s a bad deal for him all around, and Jacob the grasper usurped him.
Later on in their lives when Isaac their father was old and dying, Isaac told Esau to go catch some venison, make a stew, and come into to receive the blessing. As soon as Esau goes out to hunt Rebecca activates to fulfill the vision she saw when she was pregnant. She dresses Jacob up in a hairy goat skin so that he feels like Esau, prepares a stew and has Jacob go into his father claiming to be Esau. He willfully deceives his father and steals from Esau the blessing of the first born. He grasps and usurps his Father proclaiming his worth and his future.
Jacob isn’t a good guy. He is a sinner as all of us are sinners. He is desperately trying to fill a need within himself. First he tries to get it with status. Now he tries to fill this need by doing anything, anything to hear his father say: I approve of you, I see you, I bless you and your future.
This is the last time Jacob sees his Father before he dies. The last time he sees his mother. He tears his family apart and leaves running in fear that his brother Esau will kill him for the audacity of usurping him not once but twice. He runs and he runs and he runs desperately until exhausted he lies down and takes a stone for a pillow. Exhausted he falls into a deep sleep and he sees this vision of angels ascending and descending a stairway into heaven. He has this first encounter with God and waking up he does what Jacob does: he grasps. He tries to strike a deal with God, tries to buy him off, he says that if you will see me through this flight from my brother alive I will give you a tenth of everything I have. Then he sets up that stone as a pillar, a symbol of the great vision he saw, and he continues running.
He arrives at the home of his relative Laban and stays with him and encounters something else that he thinks might satisfy his deepest need. He encounters this beautiful graceful woman named Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and he wants her to be his wife. And so he strikes a deal with Laban, I will work for you for seven years and you will give me your daughter in marriage. Laban agrees to this deal. It turns out it was very useful having Jacob around and Laban profited greatly from the work he did for him. So when the time came to marry Jacob off to Rachel he pulled a trick on Jacob, he deceived the deceiver, at the feast he got Jacob drunk and instead of marrying him off to Rachel he married him off to her sister who was blind and not so graceful and lovely. I wonder if Jacob made the connection between this and what he had done to his father. Struggling persistently though Jacob stayed another seven years and married Rachel. He stayed another six years further and Laban gets wealthy. There is another struggle about the livestock Jacob is going to take with him and Jacob gets the better of Laban in that struggle too. Then after twenty long years away Jacob and his wives and his children and his livestock return to the land he grew up in.
On the way Jacob gets news that his brother is coming to meet him so he sends his family and servants and livestock ahead of him and has this time on his own to process this. The last word’s he heard from Esau was that if he ever saw Jacob again, he would kill him, and now he is pursuing him. Maybe he thought about all of their struggles in their youth, the terrible things he had done to Esau, the deal he had made with God to preserve his life. And in this sleepless night we are told a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
Charles Spurgeon about this passage says that it is interesting that Jacob doesn’t wrestle with the man, for in that case Jacob would want something out of the man. The man wrestles with Jacob, the man wants to get something out of Jacob. And so they struggle, and they struggle, and they struggle all night, that’s who Jacob is a struggler, a grasper, a usurper without rest. But when the light shines on the world the man touches Jacob’s hip. One simple pat and break’s Jacob’s hip socket. Jacob is powerless before this man and will walk with a limp the rest of his life.
You need to let go of the struggle Jacob. The dawn is here. Stop grasping me.
I can’t stop struggling with you God. I tried to be victorious in getting status over my brother. I tried to be victorious in getting my father’s blessing. I tried to be victorious in finding the love of a beautiful and graceful woman. I tried to be victorious in the growing of a great heard of livestock. I can not let go. Can you bless me God?
What a dangerous thing this was to ask of this man, if he truly was God, for to see God’s face meant certain death. But Jacob is so desperate in his need he risks his life and struggles and pleads.
“What is your name? God asks Jacob. “My name is Jacob. My name is usurper. My name is grasper.”
“No” says God. “You shall not be called Jacob, usurper, grasper. That is not who you are. This is who you are because I say so: Israel, he who struggles with God, and in that struggle is your victory.
“Who are you, what is your name?” Jacob pleads to know God.
“Why do you need to know” God asks, and then he is blesses him. The Lord almighty blesses the humbled man, the limping man, the usurper who has broken family after family, the grasper with men he makes into a struggler with God and gives him victory.
And Jacob walks off, to meet his family, his wives, his children, his brother and he returns to them with a limp and with a blessing. This is the father of the people of God, this is the nation we are grafted into as Christians, a people who walk with a limp, a people desperate for fulfillment, a people who cling to this dangerous, powerful God. That is who we are, those who receive in the arms of this mighty God-man a blessing, a struggle, and a new name.