We are continuing our summer worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters. God is a God of relationships, and the Bible is like a love story between God and his children. God gives humanity the tools to mature, but we usually resist. Both we as humanity and as individuals have to experience the same problems over and over and over again before we learn.
Last week Lynn talked to us about the very poignant encounter Peter had with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. This week we are going to look at a Face-to-Face meeting that happened way back in Genesis with a man named Jacob.
He was Abraham’s grandson and the father of the Twelve Tribes that became Israel. He and his brother Esau were fraternal twins. His mother, Rebekah, liked him best, but she still named him Jacob, which means liar or deceiver. Can you imagine your mother naming you “liar” when you were born? Sadly, in his younger days, he lived up to his name. He tricked his brother. He lied to his blind father to receive his brother’s blessing. This wasn’t some mere. “I bless you my son.” It was basically a vision of what the father saw the future held in store for his children. Thinking it was Esau, Isaac says to his son:
May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” (Gen 27: 28-29)
When Esau arrived soon after, both become aware of what Jacob has done, but the one blessing has already been given. At this time there were no “do overs.” This is the conversation between Isaac and Esau:
33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob [deceiver]? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud. 39 His father Isaac answered him, “Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. 40 You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” 41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”
His brother was so hurt and angry that he planned to murder Jacob, so he ran back to his mother’s homeland and stayed with his Uncle Laman.
Trickery must have run in the family, and here Jacob met his match. While it was Jacob’s desire to marry Laman’s younger daughter Rachel, Laman tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leigh first. All of this for the low cost of fourteen years of labor. After a little more trickery on both men’s parts, God tells Jacob that it’s time to return home, but now he has more that the clothes on his back like he did when he left. Now, he has a large family and a lot of wealth.
He’s on the bank of the river Jabboc. He is returning to the land promised to Abraham and Isaac, and in fact Jacob as well. He has sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau. The messengers return saying the Esau is coming to meet them with four hundred men! Maybe Esau is still mad and is coming for revenge.
Jacob sends gifts ahead. He sends his whole family to the other side of the river, and spends the night alone.
Genesis 32:22-30 NIV
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
So, we have Jacob, acting in his most authentic Jacob way. He is manipulating and using others for his benefit. When he hears the Esau is coming with 400 men, he thinks they are coming to kill him. He decides to send gifts of livestock to Esau to trying to make him less angry. He puts his wives and children on the Esau side of the bank, but he stays behind.
But has that left him defenseless? As soon as everyone is gone, he is attacked. Or is he attacked? As a twin, and in his adventures he has rarely been alone, alone with his thoughts, alone to contemplate all the things he’s done, and how it has led to this moment. And, this adversary wrestles with him. Wrestling with Jacob? This is a man who has been wrestling from the time before he was born. He wrestled with his brother Esau in the womb. He figuratively continued to wrestle with him mentally all through the time they were growing up. He wrestled with his Uncle Laman. Now, he effectively had four wives and eleven children so far. Don’t tell me that didn’t require a fair amount of mental wrestling to keep the peace!
A little side note: Occasionally, people say, “Hey, in the Bible there were plenty of men with more than one wife. We get these stories in the OT, and they are referred to in the NT. Why do we say one spouse at a time now?” Well, Jacob’s story is a prime example of why. There are men who do it, but it is always a problem. It’s never pointed to as a good example, but we are given plenty of reasons to avoid it.
So, Jacob continues to wrestle with this unknown man. There is one thing that we know about Jacob. He is tenacious. He does not give up. He holds on and does not let go. They wrestle the whole night. It is a draw. To end the conflict the man strikes Jacob on the hip. The NIV said “touched,” but “struck” is probably more accurate. After all in wrestling you are constantly touching some part of your opponent’s body. This was singular. This was to be painful enough to get Jacob to let go, but he does not. Instead, he says the most extraordinary thing, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26c). We learn in later verses that the unknown man is God, but Jacob must have already known to pray this extraordinary prayer. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” That we all could pray this prayer when we are struggling through something with God!
Another thing that is interesting to note is that God is truly in the struggle with Jacob. He is not toying with Jacob, playing games with him, as someone who would just decide that the struggle was over and he was victorious. As God, he has the ability to do this, but he decides not to. This difficulty, this struggle is a relationship building experience for both of them. In the end Jacob gets what he has asked for, what he has demanded, a blessing.
Why does he get it? I think that Jacob’s new name really gets to the heart of things, Israel, One who struggles with God. The nation of people who are his direct descendants are also known by this name, Israel, People who struggle with God.
In Jacob’s, Israel’s, Divine Encounter, he receives a new name, a new identity, but he is not instantly transformed into a perfect person. You can see some improvement as he tells his family to worship the One God alone and get rid of all of their idols and purify themselves (cf. Gen 32:2-5). However, he still ends up lying to his brother about going to visit him. He plays favorites among his wives and children causing a VERY dysfunctional family, as we learn when his son Joseph is sold as a slave to work in Egypt. That was only after they were persuaded by one of the brothers not to murder him. So, God is obviously still working on Jacob/Israel. They are both still engaged in the struggle.
Some people pretend that strong vibrant faith is one that has no doubts, always knows what to do, always does the right thing. The ones that have doubts are not really believers. I have not found that to be the case at all. The people that I’ve met who appear that way have never felt that way about their own faith. They are engaged in the daily, relationship building, struggle with God. It certainly is not a “one and done” kind of thing. It’s not something that you check off a list. And it certainly is not a one way relationship.
The peace that passes all understanding that Paul refers to in Philippians 4:7 is the knowledge that God is in the struggle with you. Part of being faithful is God’s pursuit of you throughout your life and your pursuit of God. Are you looking at a goal of complete knowledge and understanding of God? A vibrant faith is one that knows it does not have all the answers. Obtaining answers brings on new questions, but we don’t give up. We hang on to God. Through the process, we grow and become stronger.
Many of you will be familiar with the platitude of “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Anyone that thinks or says that needs to be reading their Bible a lot more because that is not what it says. What it does says is this in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor 1:8-9)
Today’s culture idolizes winners, a person who has defeated another: sports teams, the person who got the promotion, one had a financial windfall, racing, card games, miniature golf. Oh, when I was a child, I would try and try to get that little ball through the windmill or other obstacle. What was the big deal? I wanted to WIN! I would try so hard, and the score would be abysmal. It made me want to throw my golf putter into a tree with such furry that it would remain stuck there forever. (I was a passionate little girl.) What was the big deal? It was a game of miniature golf?! It didn’t matter if it was Monopoly or a card game. I would get so frustrated, until … I realized that my obsession with winning was pointless. It didn’t make me better or even win. It made me worse, and I never had fun with it.
But, our culture continues to idolize the winners. They seem to have mastered their doubts and their shortcomings. However, wins can be a deception. Sometimes all we can do is hang on because life is not simply a game.
In our lives we struggle with real difficulties. We feel the grief of loss. We have feelings of helplessness as we watch loved ones with their problems. We are heartbroken when we see the suffering of a child. We suffer with medical issues and problems in our relationships. These are not things that we can simply defeat. The struggle will leave a mark. Here Jacob is our example. Refuse to let go of God until you have received your blessing, a blessing that helps you to grow, transforms you, and deepens your relationship with God. Just as God fights for us, sometimes we must use our questions and doubts to wrestle with God and refuse to let go. Receive that blessing that will allow you to continue your journey with God.
Fight for that blessing. When you do that, you will know that you have had a Divine Encounter.