Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon - God of the House (Jacob's Story/Our Story - Part 3)

Today is the last week of our three-week series called “Jacob’s Story/Our Story.” Two weeks ago, we saw Jacob’s Ladder, the original Stairway to Heaven at Bethel. Last week, we viewed a strange wrestling match at Peniel. Today, we go back to Bethel. Please have your Bibles open to Genesis 35 as we study and worship together. Unlike the events we have examined over the last two weeks, which are famous and the subject of song and story, today’s scripture is not nearly so popular. I have never taught a Sunday School lesson on it. It is not included in the three-year lectionary cycle, so there are many churches across the world that have never heard a sermon on it. I nonetheless find it at least as important as the first two passages to understand the full Jacob narrative. As I have said each week, these three stories are key to the rest of the Old Testament, and in many ways, to the history of the world.
I want you to think about the Bethels of your life – places where and times when God has spoken to you. You remember some of them fondly, for you fellowshipped with God there. Some of them, maybe, you do not remember with affection, for perhaps you turned your back, did not listen to God, did not let Him in. Memories of God are not always tender when we have heard but have not heeded, when we have not taken advantage of what God offers.
God is the God of Second Chances. Even when we miss it the first time, God invites us back to Bethel.

Jacob’s story, Israel’s story, is our story. Pay attention.
Glorify the Lord with me.  Let us exalt His name together!
(Audio begins here.)

Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone. So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them. Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother. - Genesis 35:1-7

This is the Word of the Lord for the people of Christ. Thanks be to God!
Back to Bethel, now called El Bethel.  Living where we live, with the restaurants around us and the language of many our neighbors, it is tempting to think of El Bethel like we would “El Chico” or “El Fenix.” Don’t do that. This is not Spanish. Remember, Beth means “house” and El means “God.” So, in our scripture for today, when Jacob renames Bethel El Bethel, he is now naming it after “the God of the House of God.”
Jacob – Israel – is still going through hard times as this Chapter opens. We have not read what happens immediately before in Chapter 34 together. Feel free to do that on your own, but prepare yourself. It is rated R. It is hard reading, and it has very little redeeming value. What we discover there is that Jacob lives in a primitive, dangerous land where his daughter is abused; and we learn that the apples do not fall far from the tree, for Jacob’s sons are dishonest and manipulative, not to mention vile and violent. The upshot of it all is that Jacob and his family have to move, that they have become, in Jacob’s words, “obnoxious” to those around them, and he is afraid of attack because of the trouble his sons have created. [Genesis 34:30]
So that brings us to Chapter 35, but before we focus on our text, let’s look forward. Right after this trip back to Bethel, Jacob loses his nursemaid Deborah and his mother Rebecca to death, and his wife Rachel dies in childbirth of his twelfth son, Benjamin. Jacob’s oldest son Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel and the mother of two of Reuben’s own brothers. We don’t know why, but it may be that Reuben, the son of Leah, is showing disdain for Leah’s rival Rachel. The psychology of all of this is really too messed up for me to try to sort through, but the scripture says that Israel finds out about it.
Then, Isaac dies. Finally, in chapter 36, to top it all off, we learn that Esau has become incredibly rich and has a vast and successful family line.
So, to review, Jacob has swindled and been swindled, lied and been lied to, become so disliked in his home that he has to move his whole family, loses his wife and his parents, has sexual abuse and victimization in his household, and sees his rival older brother win the prize.
Amidst all of that, Jacob has these three encounters with God. He first hears God speak to him at Bethel, but He does not choose to follow. Remember? He builds a pillar, not an altar. He does not worship God but instead delivers God an ultimatum, a list of demands. He is fascinated with the place, naming it Bethel, “the House of God,” but then goes on for twenty years without giving God another thought.
Then, on the way back to face Esau, he meets God again in the wrestling match, and this time he knows it is God. He receives a blessing, but God has to fight him even to get him to accept that. God renames him, and Jacob begins a slow process of transformation, but he does not use his new name very often, and he walks with a limp because of his resistance to God.
Now, on the heels of the rape of Jacob’s daughter and yet another family crisis, God tells him to go back to Bethel.
What a fascinating command. God does not come to Jacob where he is; this time, he tells Jacob to hit the road. God does not direct Jacob to Peniel, the place where he had struggled with God face to face and actually grasped the blessing of God. No, God sends him to the place of his failure, to the location of his great missed opportunity, to Bethel.
Why? I think because Bethel was the place where Jacob had first heard God, even if he had chosen not to follow. Bethel was the place of the ladder, the stairway. The dream at Bethel was the first time Jacob had noted the presence of the Lord, even if it meant little to him. God was giving Jacob a second chance to understand the importance of that meeting, some thirty years later.

My favorite experience at the theatre is the musical “Les Misérables,” derived from Victor Hugo’s fabulous novel. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it, but I will see it again and again. If you have not seen it, you must. If you have not seen it, I am going to spoil one plot point for you, but this will not ruin the experience. Just go see it.
Anyway, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, is very much a Jacob figure. Early in the story, he steals a sack full of silver from a bishop, but the bishop forgives the transgression and allows Valjean to go free, giving him not only the silver in the bag but also two precious candlesticks – loot that Valjean had not stolen initially – to take with him as a sign the bishop has “bought [his] soul for God.” Many who have read the novel or seen the musical many times think back on this almost-sacramental act by the bishop as the turning point in Valjean’s life, but in truth, it is not. He course has not yet shifted. He has not been converted. He accepts the gift of the candlesticks in relief, because it means that the arresting officers of the gendarme let him go. Valjean has no understanding at that moment of the significance of the forgiveness offered by the bishop. Like Jacob at Bethel the first time, Valjean knows something worth remembering has happened, but he does not connect it to his eternal destiny, and he marches on to the life he intended anyway, breaking parole and hiding from the authorities. It is not until many years later that Valjean starts to put it all together. In the meantime, he misses the opportunity to save the innocent Fantine, finding her only when it is too late. His watershed actually comes when he has the chance for security and an end to his running, but taking it would require allowing an innocent man, who happens to resemble Valjean enough to fool the police, to go to jail in his place. Valjean must face what he will become, and he sings the remarkable “Who Am I?”
He thinks that man is me, he knew him at a glance. The stranger he has found, this man could be my chance. Why should I save his hide? Why should I right this wrong, when I have come so far, and struggled for so long? If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned. Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery, pretend I do not see his agony? This innocent who bears my face, who goes to judgment in my place … Must I lie? How can I ever face my fellow men? How can I ever face myself again? My soul belongs to God I know, I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.  Who am I? [Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, “Who Am I” from Les Misérables, 1985] 
And so, Valjean comes clean, like Jacob declares his name and understands what it means, allows the innocent to go free, and finally arrives at the place where the bishop had hoped and prayed he would be all those years before. He recognizes what God has done, and he begins to act the part.
In the stage production, whenever you see Valjean at home from that point forward, you can always find the silver candlesticks somewhere on the set. The better the director, the more prominent they are. No matter how much Valjean has to move, to run from police inspector Javert, to settle and then resettle, the bishop’s candlesticks are always at the forefront for Valjean, and the audience, to see. They are the reminder of the sacrifice made and the time when Valjean first was presented with the idea that the presence of God is never far away, that grace is freely available.
The candlesticks are Valjean’s Bethel.

We all have our Bethels. We Christians have at least one marker in our walk, a place and time in our journey that has signified the very presence of God to us. When we are in trouble, we need to find that marker, to look at our candlesticks. We often need to go back to Bethel.
I do not remember the first time God spoke to me. Knowing my parents, you understand that. The presence of Jesus and the grace of God have always surrounded me. Mom says I asked her to explain the Trinity to me when I was three. So, I do not remember the first time I heard God speak. But I have some Bethels, some places etched in my memory where I know very clearly God spoke to me. One is at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, Tennessee, where I went on a school trip in the fifth grade. One is a rustic campground called Wolverine Wilderness outside Skidway Lake, Michigan. Another is a Holiday Inn on Pensacola Beach.
But for me, my most important Bethels are apt not to be physical locations. I tend not to go back to places as much as I reread books, or re-sing songs, or look at photos, or remember specific times with particular people. I have more candlesticks than I do places.
I do not think that God calls Jacob back to Bethel – the house of God – because there is anything magical about the place. Rather, there was something that happened there that Jacob needs to re-experience, so he can get it right this time. Remember, here is where he had said, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” but ironically, it turns out he delivers that poetic line with very little understanding. God knows that Jacob needs a second chance to recognize what he missed the first time.
And guess what? Jacob gets it right. This time, he renames the place El Bethel – God of the House of God. Look at verse 7. Now Jacob’s fascination is not with the location but instead is with the reality of God. He calls it El Bethel because he realizes that it was here that God first revealed Himself, way back when Jacob was fleeing his brother. Israel finally gets it; he comprehends the importance of focus on the person rather than the place, on the relationship rather than the ritual, on the God of the House rather than the House of God.
Going back to Bethel brings out some critical things in Jacob. First, he tells the family to get rid of their idols. He does not have the Ten Commandments yet, but Jacob senses something is wrong here. They are heading to the house of God, and they don’t need these substitutes. He knows where the real God is.
Second, He tells them that he is going to build an altar. Remember, last time he had just set up a pillar, a historical monument. Genesis is clear when people are building altars, and Jacob did not do that at Bethel before. This time, his intent is clear – he is going to Bethel to worship the God of that place.
Third, Jacob remembers. Look at verse 3. He calls God the one “who answered me in my day of distress.” [Genesis 35:3] This is remarkable, coming from a man who has shown no hint of being fazed by either Bethel or Peniel until now. We all remember. You may have hidden your past understanding of God far away. You may be so ashamed of your rejection of Him, of your running away or just ignoring Him, of the way you have lived your life since… that you have tried hard to put that memory in a deep, dark box far in the back attic of your sensibility; but it is there. You may not consciously even be able to call it to mind, but when you finally recognize God again, the familiar melody of the song of the Father will come back to you.
But there is something else; fourth, Jacob is obedient. God calls him to Bethel, and he complies. He goes where God tells him to go. The changes that began embryonically … ever so painfully … slowly … years earlier … before he moved to Shechem … have finally started bearing fruit, and Jacob feels the need to obey the Lord. If for no other reason, he recognizes that his other choices are not working out so well. He might as well give obedience a try. He hears the command, he embraces his second chance, and he goes back to Bethel.
While it is cliché, let me pause for a moment to note that we serve the God of second chances.
·       Peter denies Christ, and the next time he sees Jesus, there is no judgment. Soon comes the command to “feed my sheep.” [John 21:15-17] Peter goes on to preach the Pentecost sermon and become the first leader of the church.
·     Paul, when he was Saul, persecuted the church with such furor that some call him a first-century religious terrorist. He meets Jesus on the Damascus Road and goes on to found multiple churches and write thirteen books of the New Testament, bearing more influence on the world than anyone short of Jesus Himself.
·       Moses kills an Egyptian and hides across the desert, and God brings him back to lead the Exodus.
·        Cain is a murderer, and God sends him to the land of Nod with a mark of protection.
·        David is not finished after the Bathsheba affair.
·     In the parable of the two sons that Kelly read for us, Jesus commends the one who obeys his father at the end in spite of having earlier said, “no,” who gets it right the second time. [Matthew 21:28-32]
·        The people of Israel are not abandoned after they build a golden calf and the tablets of the Ten Commandments are smashed.
·     Jonah is the poster child for the second chance. As Chapter 1 of his book opens, God tells him to go preach in Nineveh. [Jonah 1:2] Jonah refuses, and we have the story of the great fish. Then, Chapter 3 comes along, and what do we find there? “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’” [Jonah 3:1-2] 
So, back to our story … what is the God of Second Chances up to while Jacob is finally obeying, answering this call to Bethel? Remember, Chapter 34 ends with Jacob fleeing from his own version of the gendarme, his own big fish, running for his life, justifiably afraid that his neighbors are getting ready to attack. Why is he able to make it back to Bethel safely? Look at verse 5 in our text. Jehovah has literally put the fear of God in those who would come after Jacob. There is a bubble of protection around Israel and his family as he answers God’s call. The text says that “the terror of God” fell “so that no one pursued them.” How remarkable. When God calls, He does not only ask us to obey, but He also lays the groundwork so that our obedience, our Second Chance, is possible. I am reminded of the great east wind that will hold back the walls of the Red Sea so that God’s people can pass through on their way to the promised land.
So, we find our way to verse 7, where Jacob builds his altar and recognizes the God of Bethel.
Why does this matter? As I have said, Jacob’s problems do not end. He is about to lose his wife, have his son sleep with his concubine, bury his father, and see Esau grow rich and powerful. This second chance does not end all of Jacob’s problems by a long shot.
The next time we see Israel, he is showing favoritism to his son Joseph, giving him the coat of many colors. Of course, Jacob comes by parental partiality naturally, having been preferred by his mother over Esau, who was favored by their father.
If we fast forward to chapter 46, we find God calling Jacob once again, telling him to go to Egypt to see Joseph. The verses read this way:
And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied. “I am God, the God of your father,” He said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you…. [Genesis 46:4-6]
Israel, having survived his youthful errors, has become comfortable. But life throws him a curveball, and Israel has to leave home, Canaan, the territory God has given to his grandfather Abraham. There is famine in the land, and the only food is in Egypt. Israel is by now old, and he knows that once he leaves, he likely will not see home again. But as at Bethel, and as at Peniel, and as at Bethel again, God has a promise for Jacob, for Israel. Yes, he is to go to Egypt, but the promise is that God will go with him.
We know, because we know our history and what follows in the Old Testament, that Israel’s stay will turn into over 400 years of slavery for his family and descendants. This famine will have consequences that last for generations.
Curveballs can have unpleasant, unexpected results. We find ourselves alone, strangers in a strange land.
God does not solve all of those problems. He does not prevent the famine, and He does not immediately end the slavery.
He does not prevent every disease or bankruptcy or drunk driver that comes our way either. Yet again, Israel’s story is our story. 
What God does promise is His presence. The Psalmist calls God an “ever-present help in trouble.” [Psalm 46:1] When the apostles are caught in the wind and waves and are paralyzed with fear, Jesus appears to them, but He does not immediately calm the storm. What He does is assure them of His presence: “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14:27] And we learn – although I believe we knew it already in our gut – that His presence is enough.
While we read great stories in Genesis – Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Eve and the serpent, the flood, the covenant, Melchizadek, and so on – there are really only three true heroes in Genesis. They are Noah, Abraham, and, especially, Joseph. Joseph shines most brightly, refusing the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, showing a preternatural sensitivity to God as he interprets dreams, surviving prison and rising to second in command of the entire nation, and then saving not only Egypt but the surrounding peoples from the famine. And, of course, included in those saved by Joseph are his own family members, who come to Egypt and find food.
Somehow in all of his troubles, Jacob parents Joseph. And he does this largely by himself, since Joseph’s mother Rachel has died in the childbirth of his younger brother. Whatever happens to Jacob, we see the blessing of God upon him in the fruit of his son Joseph. That is significant. The bloodline of Abraham, passing through Isaac and Jacob to Joseph, is the line of the patriarchs. Israel is the father of the hero, and that is no small thing. So much of God’s work with Jacob pays off in Joseph.
Still, God’s chosen are not called the people of Joseph. Nor are they the people of Abraham or the people of Noah. They are known – still to this day – as the people of Israel. Why is that?
I think it is because God speaks to Jacob in a dream, showing him a stairway that connects heaven to earth. I think it is because God comes to Jacob and changes his name to Israel, wrestling with him as long as it takes for Jacob to figure out He is God, until Jacob will take hold and demand a blessing, until Jacob’s walk is changed. I think it is because Jacob comes back to Bethel, returns to the place where it all began, finally accepts God’s offer to obey, to get rid of his substitute gods, to build an altar and worship, to remember who God is and what He has promised.
I think it is because Jacob’s story is our story. The people are the people of Israel because they are us. Don’t get too caught up in the modern Middle Eastern democracy called “Israel” – that is a political entity that has only existed since 1948. Paul explains it this way:
For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel…. [I]t is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. [Romans 9:6-8] 
When the Bible speaks of the people of Israel, it means the people of God’s promise, that line that goes back to this swindling, wandering, lying, faulty man who meets God, then meets Him again and struggles, then finally hears Him and obeys. The Bible is speaking of this one who is us. You are tired of hearing me say it, but it is true: Jacob’s story is our story.
So what difference does it make? Why have we spent three weeks on this man? Why is his story our story?
Because God seeks us. God comes to us in the middle of our desert, when we are running, whether we think we are fleeing those we have done us wrong or we perceive we are on our way to new adventure. Either way, God comes to us. And we often ignore Him, no matter what He does to get our attention.
So, the God of Second Chances comes again. He grabs us, wrestles with us and touches us and changes us forever. Sometimes, that is enough for us. We understand that we have a new name, and we, like Abraham, exercise faith that is credited to us as righteousness. But sometimes it is not enough. We limp away, destined for still more years of turmoil and heartache. So the God of Second Chances strikes again.  By now, of course, we ought to be calling Him the God of Eleventh Chances or Sixteenth Chances. He is the God of Another Chance so long as we have breath. Even the thief on the cross was given further opportunity. This idea of second chances is another way of saying that church word – forgiveness. God forgives. God’s forgiveness is such that our continued failures are continually forgiven. God separates us from our sin as far as the east is from the west. And in Israel, we see the example of one who finally hears the call and listens, who heeds the call, who gets rid of the junk and hightails it, finally, to the house of God.
The second chance is not left just to us, of course. When we say that God is the God of Second Chances, we do not mean that God forgives our sin and then leaves us alone, crosses His holy fingers, and hopes we do better next time. He is the God of “go your way and sin no more,” but He is more than that. His righteousness is imputed to us. The Holy Spirit, the Helper, comes to us. We have the power of God at our disposal. The second chance is not just the chance to mess up again; it is the opportunity for those of us who bear His new name to call on the Lord.
Getting it right the second time is not what saves us. Jacob already has his new name. I am glad that Jacob gets it right, finally, and I believe he does so because God never lets him go, because ever since the wrestling match, his new walk, limping though it may be, inevitably leads him back to Bethel.
From Israel, we learn not to settle for setting up a pillar but in fact to build an altar. From Israel we learn to remember, to hearken back to that time when God first called our name. From Israel we learn to honor not the place but the person, not the House of God but the God of the House.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
If these three weeks have been nothing more than an interesting study of a fascinating Old Testament character, then we have not gotten everything from these lessons that we should have. Jacob’s story is our story. The reason we have spent this time is not just to study Jacob; it has been to understand how God deals with us.
At the end of Hugo’s novel, Jean Valjean is dying. He says, “I bequeath to [Cosette] the two candlesticks which stand on the chimney-place. They are of silver, but to me they are gold, they are diamonds.”

Is God calling you back to Bethel?
God seeks us when we are unworthy. God seeks us when we ignore Him. God seeks us again and again. God tries to get our attention. God struggles with us until we finally realize who He is, and then He touches us, and we are changed forever.
And then God calls us again. We have the opportunity to obey, to worship, and to remember our candlesticks, our experience, our God.
God of the House is dealing with each of us, right now. Respond at the altar or where you are.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon - When God Doesn't Win (Jacob's Story/Our Story - Part 2)

CALL TO WORSHIP - Today is the second week of our three-week series called “Jacob’s Story/Our Story.” Last week, we were at Bethel. Today, we go to Peniel, looking at Genesis 32. Have your Bible open. We will look at the whole chapter before we focus on the last eleven verses. Next week, we will go back to Bethel. These three stories, before Jacob’s sons become the forerunners of the 12 tribes, are key to the rest of the Old Testament, and in many ways, to the history of the world.
A couple of notes about the service. First, our responsive reading today is taken from the King James Version of scripture. There is no agenda here. I generally preach from the New International Version because of its user-friendly language, and I will do that today. But our responsive reading comes from two poetic passages that I learned – and I expect most of you learned – from the King James, and I just feel that the familiar language will aid us in worship. Second, after our offertory, instead of the Doxology or the Gloria Patri, we are going to sing a stanza of a familiar hymn. I just wanted you to notice so that you will not be caught off guard.
Let me say something else right up front: I know that you probably don’t like the sermon title. The idea that God does not win – at anything - rubs us wrong.  But I am sticking by my title anyway, and I believe that God has something to say to all of us. I hope you will stay with me.
You may read today’s scripture as a metaphor, as a parable, as a vision, as the personification of an internal psychological battle, or as an actual divine interruption of our human timeline. However you see it, its messages are critical for how we view God and how we live our lives.  From last week’s dream at Bethel, fast forward now to a new place, another stop on a journey seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Jacob wrestles with God. The implication here for our own lives is strong. We start out as "Jacob," the deceiver. We become "Israel," one who struggles with God. We inevitably struggle with God. God blesses us despite our failings, but God does not want us to remain as we were. God meets us on our road and touches us. Struggling with God is not taboo. 
Pastor Charlie Gerrett says,
Today’s passage is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible to me. Though we have seen Jacob grow into a family, today is the true establishment of Israel. It is a story which will continue on in joy, beauty, kingship, amazement, and glory for a people who strive with God. It will also continue on in disobedience, punishment, woe, wrath, consuming anger, and unbelievable carnage for a people who in a different way strive with God. When we hear the name Israel, we are hearing a name which is closer than any other to the mystery of the apple of God’s eye, the joy of His heart, and the focus of His eternal covenant. [Charlie Gerrett,]

Jacob’s story, Israel’s story, is our story. Pay attention.
Glorify the Lord with me.  Let us exalt His name together!
(You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.)
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. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[h] and he was limping because of his hip. - Genesis 32:22-32
This is the Word of the Lord for the people of Christ. Thanks be to God!
Yes, this is the Word of the Lord, but let’s just be frank: this is a weird story. In my preparations, I have read a lot of commentaries and discussed it with a number of students of the Bible whom I trust, and no two of them interpret it the same way. So, I guess that means I am guaranteed to have the vast majority of you disagree with all or part of my interpretation today.
As we dive into this chapter, I want to point out the writer’s use of play on words. We English readers can see that the name of the river, Jabbok, is the name “Jacob” with the second syllable turned around. The reader in the original Hebrew would discover much more. Jacob’s name in Hebrew is pronounced “ya-kov.” The word for wrestle here is “ye-akov.” The writer is having some fun with us. Then, when we add in word for dust, “aqab,” we get a real possibility for pun, for symbolism, for interplay. This writer is crafting something.
While we are being candid about this scripture, let’s admit that this passage is not just unusual; it actually makes us uncomfortable, most especially in verse 25, when Genesis says that this wrestler, who, according to the helpful heading in our Bible, is God, is not winning this wrestling match with Jacob. Your translation says either that He saw that He was not overpowering him, or He “prevailed not,” or He saw that He could not overpower Jacob. We don’t like scripture that says that God cannot do something. That’s why I know my sermon title makes you uneasy.
How can we make sense of this?
One way, of course, would be to ignore verse 25, to say that we have no idea what it means, so let’s just get to the good parts. Or, we can say that we do know what it means, and that it does not mean what it says; that when it says, “When the man saw that He could not overpower him” in verse 25, what it really means is something like He “decided not to overpower him.” We are tempted simply to interpret it away because it is not convenient. It is far more comfortable to think of this wrestling match the way I might have let three-year-old Trey “pin” me when we were gently roughhousing, or the way Freddie might carefully avoid knocking over the whole play kitchen when his granddaughter Jillian invites him for a tea party. It is so much easier to think that the wrestler just lets Jacob win. I understand that temptation, but let me urge you not to do that, at least not yet. For the next twenty minutes or so, let’s explore what it signifies for us if this verse really means what it says, that God “prevailed not” or “could not overpower” Jacob.
Another way to make this easy would be to decide that Jacob’s opponent in this wrestling match is not God, that the editors who put in those section headings were just out to lunch. After all, the Hebrew scripture calls Him “a man.” There are lots of theories out there that this is Esau. Those explanations don’t stand up to scrutiny very well. Jacob will see the real Esau the next morning [Genesis 33:1]; surely, he would notice if it were the same person. A little study tells us that anthropomorphizing God – describing His appearance as that of a man – is nothing unusual for the Yahwist, the writer of Genesis. We have seen it before, when Abraham is visited by three men, one of whom turns out to be God. We will see it again.
A significant interpretation is that Jacob, mentally and physically exhausted and about to meet Esau and finally face up to his past, has a wrestling match with himself, with his conscience, perhaps even with God in an abstract, inside-Jacob’s-brain kind of way. While I respect some who hold that view, it seems to me to be a default, an attempt to put God in a box, to capture the inexplicable in a framework that we can understand. I believe that God does many things that we cannot easily understand, certainly many things that we cannot paint into a simple explanation. I am not ready to relegate a difficult personal encounter with the divine into nothing more than a Freudian explanation of internal turmoil.
Still another reasonable explanation is that this is not so much a physical wrestling match as it is a battle of wills between Jacob and God, perhaps even an extended session of prayer. Thus, what God cannot or does not overcome is not Jacob’s physical wrestling skills but rather his free will. This makes sense to us; still, to get to this interpretation requires reading in to the scripture some things and reading out some others.
Hosea tells us that Jacob struggled with an angel; if you read that in context, the prophet is very clear:
In the womb [Jacob] grasped his brother’s heel, as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame Him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found Him at Bethel and talked with Him there – the Lord God Almighty, the Lord is His name of renown!” [Hosea 12:3-5]

 In Exodus 3, when Moses comes to the burning bush, scripture tells us that “the angel of the Lord” appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. [Exodus 3:2] We do not have to study hard to figure out that it is God Himself speaking to Moses.
Similarly, here, I believe that we know the wrestler is God. That is where almost all modern scholars come down, and it is certainly the Christian scholarship history. Rabbinic scholars have more difficulty with this concept, but then again, God’s appearing as a man creates difficulty in general for Jews. Midrash Professor Rabbi Burton Visotzsky of Jewish Theological Seminary says:
We always refer to Jacob wrestling with the angel. That’s not what the text says. The text says Jacob wrestled with a man. And I think this is something that we have to recognize in Genesis continually. It’s very hard to know when a man is a man, when a man is an angel. And to make it more complicated, it’s hard to know when an angel’s an angel and when an angel is, in fact, God. [Burton L. Visotzky,]

Jacob tells us that this is God, naming the place “Peniel” because, he says, “I saw God face to face.” [Genesis 32:30] The man renames Jacob “Israel,” saying “you have struggled with God and men and have overcome.”
Your preacher for the day agrees with Jacob – and with the editors who put in those headings – and believes that it was a real, physical contest between Jacob and God in human form. Humor me with that premise.
We can be sure that God doesn’t lack the physical strength to eradicate any human being, so why does the wrestler not overcome Jacob?
The answer to that question lies not in the muscle of God but in the nature of God.
God is omnipotent. God has the capacity and the ability and the prerogative to do anything. Make no mistake. The holiness of God cannot tolerate sin. That is why Paul describes us, who have fallen short, as God’s enemies. Does anybody here think that God is not able to destroy His enemies? God’s dominance could end the wresting match in an instant, putting an end to Jacob without breaking a sweat. But instead of crushing us, God commended His love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, reconciling us to Himself. [Romans 5:8-10]
The only way that God cannot do something is if His character does not permit it. This is a matter of the nature of God. When the seemingly irresistible force of God’s power comes up against the immovable object of God’s nature, God’s will wins. His nature is supreme.
For example, Hebrews 6:18 tells us that it is impossible for God to lie. Isaiah 40:28 reads that God cannot grow weary. Isaiah 43:25 reminds us that God cannot remember the sins He has forgiven. James 1:13 tells us that God cannot be tempted by evil. And Jeremiah 31:3 says that God cannot stop loving us. None of these “cannot”s results from a lack of capacity or skill. They result from the nature of God, from the depth of His love.
It is always dangerous to try to compare ourselves to God, to try to illustrate God through a human example, but bear with me. There is no question that I have enough money to buy a gun and I have the physical ability to lift it and aim it and pull the trigger. That said, I know myself, and I can categorically say that I could not shoot any one of you. I am not Jesus, and I have many sins, so do not fear that I am taking this illustration too far; but on this point, shooting you, I know that I simply cannot do that. It is not in me. And then if you put one of my children in front of me, what I cannot do is multiplied by a zillion; it is not a realistic question. The idea that I could shoot one of them is preposterous. I don’t care what my physical abilities and power are; I cannot do it. My nature will not allow it.
 The time God does not win is the time when winning would guarantee our destruction, when winning would eliminate our free will, when winning would mean that God’s beloved child has no opportunity to accept salvation, when winning would keep us from the chance to become what God has planned for us. God can allow us to choose, and if we reject His gift and run away, so be it; you will never hear me preach that the nature and love of God mean that we cannot end up destroying ourselves if we are hell-bent on doing so. But God’s nature will not allow that choice to be taken away from us. How deep the Father’s love for us!
So, now, let’s back up to the beginning of today’s part of our story. After Jacob’s dream at Bethel, he has lived under Uncle Laban’s thumb in Padam Aram with his wives Rachel and Leah for more than twenty years. He has had eleven sons. He finally decides it is time to leave, to return home to his parents, to escape the manipulation of Laban and take his chances with Esau.
Jacob is afraid. Esau is heading toward him with 400 men. Jacob cannot know whether Esau has matured into a man ready to forgive, but Jacob does know that he was in the wrong. Finally, he prays. Look at verse 9:
O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, “Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,” I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, “I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.” [Genesis 32:9-12]

Our story of the wrestling match come on the heels, if you will, of prayer. Jacob has asked God for help, and the wrestler appears before the day is out. We cannot miss that connection.
Jacob has sent everything – even his wives and children - toward Esau except himself. He has nothing and no one with him. These critical moments – at least for the extraordinary ones – must be faced alone.  Think of Elijah and the still small voice, Daniel in the lions’ den, John on Patmos, Jesus in the garden.
Jacob is at a crisis point. Once again, as he was at Bethel, he is alone on a journey, a trip marked by his own designs of less than honorable ways to protect himself. He is weary and scared. This time, however, he does not sleep. This time, there is no dream. Scripture tells us that a man appears and wrestles with him all night. When this wrestler does not win, he tells Jacob to release his grip, and Jacob refuses.
Jacob knows it is God, and he is hanging on for all he is worth. He literally will not let go until God blesses him.
I identify with Jacob here. When I have wandered, trusting in my own abilities and cunning and ignoring God, I find myself desperate for a sense of the Father. And when God shows up, I grab on and refuse to let go. God could squash me – I certainly deserve it – but He does not because He cannot. It is not His nature. I am His child. Instead, He asks me to relax, to let go, to trust Him. Like Jacob, I resist, struggling more as I demand that God bless me, forgive me, make me feel better all at once. Like Mary Magdalene in the garden, I want to grab hold, for Him to stay with me. [John 20:11-17] Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, I want to build shelter and plop down right there with Jesus forever. [Matthew 17:4]
God does two things. First, he touches Jacob. Your translation may say something different in verse 25. It may say that He “struck” Jacob. The Hebrew word here is ambiguous – it can mean “touched,” or it can mean something more violent. God cannot overpower Jacob, but that does not mean that God is a patsy. The struggle is real, and Jacob is wounded. 
The second thing He does is to announce that Jacob’s name is changed. But notice what happens. Before the famous re-christening, God asks him to announce his current name. Out loud. He has to admit that he is Jacob, the Heel, the Grasper, the Cheat. Before he receives the blessing, he admits who and what he is. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and remember them no more. [1 John 1:9]
As at Bethel, God delivers no judgment. He responds to Jacob’s confession: “Your name will no longer be ‘Jacob,’ but ‘Israel,’ because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” [Genesis 32:28]
The meaning of Israel creates some dispute among modern scholars. It can mean “God strives” or “God sees,” but the best rendition, and the one that falls most closely with this ancient text, is “he struggles with God.”
Do not jump past that. Think with me for a moment. Under these circumstances, it is easy for us to picture this definition as meaning that he has been in a fight against God, that God is the adversary. But I want you to think for a moment of this name Israel differently. Think of what it means when a soldier says he “fought with” a famous general. When we talk about the American revolution, we would say that Lafayette fought with Washington. They were not enemies – they fought together as commander and good soldier, as general and lieutenant, as leader and disciple. This name Israel – “he struggles with God” -  is an intentional double entendre – we struggle with God, and we struggle with God. Our nature rebels against the word of God, and thus we find ourselves fighting versus God. And, like Lafayette with Washington, we join together to struggle with God, in the words of Paul to “fight the good fight of faith.” [1 Timothy 6:12]
God comes to Jacob, to Israel, in loving-kindness and shows him that he is willing to spend all night if necessary, face to face, until Jacob figures out who He is, until Jacob the Grasper finally grasps God, until Jacob stops bargaining and starts praying, claiming the blessing of God before it is too late.
Jacob needs to put a name on this wrestler, as we all do when we are trying to understand God. You know that the Israelites did not understand how they were fed in the wilderness, so they put a name on it – “manna,” which means “what is it?”  God does not give Jacob His name, for God will not be put in a box: “Why do you ask?” He does not answer, but Jacob already knows, naming the place Peniel, he says, because he has seen God.
This story – not creation, not the flood, not the covenant with Abram, not Isaac and the ram, not Joseph and Pharaoh, but this one, Jacob’s wrestling match with God - is the high point of Genesis.
Why? Because Jacob’s story is our story.
God comes to each of us, seeking us despite our hypocrisy, our wandering, our dishonesty, and our feeble self-reliance, our illusion of self-sufficiency [C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940]. Most of us are not ready for God, and we react defensively, so meeting God is a struggle.
God touches us, and we are forever different.
There are three key changes in Jacob after this struggle with God that are with him the rest of his life. If you are taking notes, this is where you want to write things down:
Number 1: Jacob leaves with a new name: He is hereafter Israel, “he who struggles with God.” He does not always use that name. Unlike others in Genesis who never go back to their old name – Abraham is never again “Abram” – he still often answers to “Jacob.” This is a process. Even now, he bears quite a resemblance to the man we have known for decades. In the next chapter, after Esau welcomes him, Jacob once again lies to Esau, telling him he will meet him at Seir but instead heading off in the other direction to buy land and settle a long way away. Jacob’s transformation is no more instantaneous than ours. We finally are ready to meet God, and we struggle, and He changes our name. Even if we have had a mighty, emotional conversion experience, however, we may not take on our new identity easily or quickly. Still… we carry a new name. God has called us His own. We are forever His. That will never change.
Number 2: He is wounded. Jacob’s hip is injured. The tendon is wrenched. Struggling with God is not easy. Remember the great chapter in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Susan asks, “Is he quite safe?” Mrs. Beaver responds:
“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy. “’Safe?’” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about ‘safe?’ Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.” [C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), New York: Scholastic Edition 1995, p.80]

No, He isn’t safe. When we have run and schemed and grasped, and when we fight with/against Him instead of fighting with/alongside Him, we are likely to get scarred. We all know the truth of “no pain, no gain.” His nature will not allow the wound to be fatal; indeed, His promise of protection goes before us. But we will bear for the rest of our lives the marks of our struggle.
Number 3: Jacob leaves with a new walk. Jacob has a permanent limp. We leave our encounter with God walking differently: either we are walking as servants, seeking the places where we can be God’s eyes and hands in the world; or we walk as nomads, wandering like Cain, alienated and alone. Either way, we cannot strive with God and act the same afterwards. Our walk will always be different.
Believers were first called Christians – “little Christs” – because their new walk justified a new name. [Acts 11:26] The story is told – it’s a preacher story, so I do not know if it is really true – that one day, Alexander the Great was reviewing his troops, when one of his captains brought him to a deserter being held in chains. The supreme commander asked the frightened young man what he was called, and the response was “Alexander.” Taken aback, the Great said, “Son, you change your ways, or you change your name.” God has a new name for you, a name to show that you are blessed, that God delights in you. [Isaiah 62:1-4] How will you walk after you struggle with God?
 “When God does not win” - that idea does not sit well with us.
But let me tell you what else does not sit well with us – the idea that the Son of God can walk to a cross. Willingly. If you sweep aside the familiarity of the story and really analyze Good Friday, it makes no sense to us that God would allow this. The Father had at His disposal more than twelve legions of angels. [Matthew 26:53] That’s 72,000 angels. But Jesus did not call on them. He could not. His love meant that at this ultimate moment of history, Jesus would not win. His nature meant that He died. This is the God who gives up His position when He stoops to us, the Psalmist says. [Psalm 113:5-6] This is the God who gave up his infinity when He became flesh and walked among us, John says. [John 1:14] This is the One who gave Himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice, Paul says. [Ephesians 5:2] Isaiah tells us that as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth [Isaiah 53:7] Of course this God-man cannot overcome Jacob. It is simply not who He is. He has an entirely different holy DNA, one that will accomplish something much greater than slapping down those children who indisputably deserve it. God wrestles with Jacob, and God does not prevail.
What is that DNA?  What is the nature of God?  It is love. Love with a capital L. The reason I am making such a point of this, the reason this is important, is because this story of the wrestler goes directly to what kind of God we worship, who it is we serve. When God chose to take on the form of a servant, the die was cast. Jesus’s constitution, His nature, was pure love. I think it is a mistake to think of God as the all—powerful one who simply makes a choice to save us because He is feeling charitable, as if He has just let us win and let our toys stay standing, as if we are lucky that He got up on the right side of the bed this morning, as if He might have made a different decision if the wind had been blowing differently. Too many live in fear that God might take our membership card away because we have been bad children. That fear breeds timidity that in turn stagnates us and cripples what we can do as disciples.
When I say that this is the nature of God, I do not minimize Jesus’s agony in the garden. Jesus chose to walk the Via Dolorosa, even though His human side desperately wanted that cup to be taken from Him. Jesus’s great act - His great decision - was to allow His divine nature to overcome.
God is not arbitrary. No, we serve a God who is Love, who never fails. Love believes all things, hopes all things, keeps no record of wrongs, is not self-seeking. God is not simply making a choice to be generous and indulgent. God is love. That is His nature. He can do nothing else but bear all things, including our failures. The God who stoops, who puts on flesh, who gives Himself up is the God who endures all things, even loss, for us. He can do no other.
This is the God who cannot overpower Jacob, who does not win. When Jesus prays “Not my will but Thine be done,” it means that He cannot have the cup taken from Him. It means Calvary. He bows, takes up a cross, and saves us all.
I know that some of you are saying, “But Lyn, God really does win. His plan is salvation all along, and through the death of Jesus, God’s plan is fulfilled. And besides that, Jesus overcomes death and is resurrected, so God wins.”
Yes, when we read to the end of the book, God wins. But in the moment, as we wrestle with Him and kick and bite and pull hair and desperately use any trick we can think of to keep from becoming what God wants us to be, He does not end the fight, and He does not end us. He loves us too much. He fights against us even as He fights alongside us. He struggles with us as He struggles with us. But He does not win. We walk away with a new name.
How we walk afterward is up to us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss. The Father turns His face away as wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory.
It was my sin that held Him there until it was accomplished. His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished. [Stuart Townsend, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”]

The wrestler here is God in a human body, and his not overcoming Jacob is entirely consistent with the makeup and choices of Jesus, who, being in very nature God and who, in the wonderful language of the King James, “thought it not robbery to be equal to God,” nonetheless set aside His power and glory and became obedient to death on a cross. Regardless of who this wrestler actually is, he teaches us how God relates to us, for Jacob’s story is our story. The very idea that the Son of God could die, could humble Himself to the Roman kangaroo court of Herod and the pathetic questioning of Pilate and the baseless accusations of Caiaphas and the Jews, makes the fiber of this God-man clear. His love for us is too overwhelming for Him to overpower us.
The struggle is real. God comes to us, shows us face to face who He is, changes our name, and marks us for life. May we emulate Paul, who said at the end, “I have fought the good fight.” [2 Timothy 4:7]