Last weekend I was at the 100th Anniversary of the founding on my home church in Provost, Alberta and I found out something that I did not know before. I discovered that my great grand-father, Erik Johnson, had a passion for sharing the Good News of Jesus and so, in 1929, he started the first Sunday School at the little country church where I grew up, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. And one of the ways that his passion for sharing the Good News carried on through the generations since was that his son and grandson, my great-uncle and cousin, became pastors.
And since I, his great grandson, am also a pastor, that make three generations of pastors came from this ordinary immigrant farmer who served in a country church in the middle of nowhere. And I realized that I have been given a valuable spiritual heritage. And with it comes the awareness that what I do here and now is very important, because I have an opportunity to leave a spiritual heritage for others. And so I have a greater sense of identity, meaning and purpose.
As we continue our look at our Family Photo Album of Faith, our hope here at WGLC is that you would connect with the people in these Old Testament stories and recognize the kinship that you have with them. These are your spiritual great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers and you also have a valuable spiritual heritage through them. And we pray that your spiritual heritage would give you a greater sense of identity, meaning and purpose as well.
Of all of the people in God’s story of rescuing the world, Jacob is the one who troubles me the most. And what bothers me about Jacob is his lack of character. He seems to be the type of person that I would not trust. He was born holding the heel of his older twin brother Esau and so he is given the name Jacob which means “He takes by the heel,” or “He cheats,” and then Jacob proceeds to live out his life living up, or I should say, living down to his name. He tricked Esau into selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. Later Jacob impersonated Esau and stole his blessing from their father Isaac. Fearing that Esau would kill him, Jacob fled hundreds of miles from Canaan to the hometown of his mother, Harran, which is in the southern part of present-day Turkey. There he met his match in deception in his uncle Laban. Laban tricked Jacob by sending his daughter Leah to Jacob on his wedding night when the daughter he wanted to marry, and the one for whom he already worked for Laban for seven years for free, was Rachel. So Laban got another seven years of free labour out of Jacob. But God was with Jacob and he caused Jacob to prosper in spite of the circumstances.
When God called Jacob to go back to Canaan, he left in such a way that he burnt his bridges with Laban. As he grew closer to Canaan, he realized that he would have to face the brother who threatened to kill him several years before. His large flocks provided no protection for Jacob. His large family made him and them even more vulnerable to Esau than he was when he left Canaan alone.
In Genesis, chapter 32, verses 9 to 12, we read what happened next:
9-12 And then Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.'”(Genesis 32:9-12 The Message)
Jacob separated some of his livestock from his flock to make a gift for his brother Esau. Then he moved his flocks and all of his family to the other side of the Jabbok River and then returned to spend the night alone. Alone and afraid, Jacob likely experienced what many have called a “Dark Night of the Soul.” The Bible describes it this way, starting at Genesis, chapter 32, verse 24:
24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip(Genesis 32:24-31 The Message)
With his new identity and his new name, Israel limped towards the dreaded encounter with his brother. He led the way and, as he approached his brother, bowed seven times, honoring his brother. But Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept. (Genesis 33:3-4 The Message)
Prior to their meeting, God had been working in the hearts of both of these two men and the dreaded confrontation never happened. Instead they reconciled.
Israel was different than he was before. He completed his journey to the land of Canaan, settling near Shechem. He bought some land and built an altar. Through the building of that altar, Israel was acknowledging his brokenness and his flawed character and his need for a sacrificial Saviour. Also, up to this point he referred to God as the God of Abraham and Isaac, but he never referred to him as his own God. But now he named this altar “El-Elohe-Israel,” which means “God, the God of Israel.” Now the God of Abraham and Isaac was also the God of Jacob.
Maybe you’ve walked in Jacob’s shoes. Maybe you struggle with a character flaw that keeps getting you into trouble. Or maybe, like Jacob, you’ve been in between two bad situations where the one ahead looks worse than the one you left behind. You are scared and alone and none of your resources are of any help to you.
You could pretend that you are perfect. You could face your challenges on your own. But I encourage you to engage with God instead. Wrestle with him to find that blessing that he has for you in the midst of your struggle. You’ll have to admit to your weaknesses—the things that you would rather keep hidden—because he will ask you who you really are. When you emerge, you will likely walk with a limp, but you will also be wiser, more resilient and have a greater awareness of God’s faithfulness in carrying you through dark times.
And God does that for you because several centuries after Jacob’s wrestling match on the river bank, another person engaged in a contest. But this was not a struggle for growth and grace in the arms of the God of love. This was a fight to the finish with all the forces of evil. Sin, death and the devil were challenged by a single, solitary man who stood in the place of all human beings.
It looked like evil had won. Jesus was beaten and bloody and nailed to a cross. The life was ebbing out of his body. But he had broken the powers of darkness by absorbing all the evil in the world into his broken human body. Jesus’ cry of “It is finished” was a declaration of the devil’s demise. Jesus’ resurrection on the third day that followed was the proof that he had won the prize of life everlasting for all humanity. And Jesus freely gives that prize to you. And the limp is a good thing too. Because God can use people who walk funny.
Have you ever met someone and there was something about them that you didn’t like right from the start? Or maybe there is someone in your family who has one particular characteristic that you find extremely irritating. Psychologists have a theory about why that is. They say that the reason that we react strongly against others is because we see in them something that we don’t like in ourselves. And that’s why I don’t like Jacob. It’s because I am Jacob. The Hebrew form of the name James is Jacob. And I see some of my undesirable characteristics in him.
But I also thank God for Jacob because if God can use a scoundrel like him, then God can also use me. If God can transform a deceiver like Jacob into a God-wrestler like Israel, then God can also transform me. And so Jacob gives me hope. As God said to Paul when he prayed for relief from the “thorn” in his flesh, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9 TNIV)
This past week the eyes of the world were focused on the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile as the 33 miners trapped 2,000 feet below the surface for 69 days were rescued. Here is a video clip of one of the miners being interviewed in the hospital after the rescue.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 17 October 2010.)