A disclaimer: if you’ll be at White Bank for worship on Sunday morning, June 30, stop reading! Otherwise, you may be bored… or more bored than normal!
My Biblical namesake was a real peach. “Jacob” is the translation of the Hebrew for “he who holds the heel” or “usurper.” Neither one is truly complimentary… but they’re pretty fierce! It’s funny how that whole name thing carries weight. In his book the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell highlights how important a little thing like a name can be. He says if you grow up named Princess, you have certain obvious expectations about yourself, and if you grow up with the name like Bullwinkle, you have certain ideas about yourself. Of course, that doesn’t take into account all of those things like nature and nurture, but you get the idea. And in the case of Isaac’s son Jacob in Genesis 25 and following, it seems to do the trick. We’re going to explore the life and times of the trickster named Jacob, especially two encounters he has with God.
It’s important to see that before Jacob is even born, his mother Rebekah has trouble. She has two firebrand twins wrestling in her stomach, but the voice of God speaks to her in Genesis 25, with a message of comfort… and trouble. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” So out pops Esau and then there’s Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel. Jacob becomes a stay-at-home guy while Esau goes hunting, but it says that his mother loved Jacob more.
You know how it goes when one child is loved more than the other. Some of you were the favorite, and some of you were… the other. But before too long, Esau comes home from hunting hungry, worn out from his occupation, to find that Jacob has dinner brewing over the fire. We don’t know if Jacob was lying in wait for Esau or if it was a matter of circumstance, but Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. For a bowl of soup, it says that he gave up his guarantee of inheritance!
I’ve done some foolish things, but really, that’s pretty bad.
Years later, in Genesis 27, the old, blind father Isaac calls Esau into his tent to give his final blessing because he’s dying. But Isaac tells Esau to go hunting for him; Rebekah overhears and helps her favorite, Jacob, dress in disguise and trick his father. When Isaac asks how he returned with cooked meat so fast, he tells his father that “The Lord your God gave me success.” We can see already that Jacob is one who is quick with an answer, and his desire to get ahead (or not get caught) means that he’ll even use God to get himself out of trouble! Of course, when Esau finds out, the friction causes Rebekah to send Jacob away to her brother Laban, where Isaac tells him to find a wife (a cousin).
And then Jacob meets God for the first time, in Genesis 28:10. I don’t know where you were when you met God for the first time. Maybe it was soon after you were born, or maybe you feel like you’ve come to White Bank and you’re experiencing God for the first time. For Jacob, he meets God while he’s on the run, fleeing his family to an unknown future. Jacob falls asleep on a rock pillow (seriously, how tired must he have been??) and he dreams of a stairway to heaven (queue: Led Zeppelin) with angels climbing and descending the stairway. And God speaks to Jacob in this dream and says, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob wakes up with the sudden realization that he didn’t leave a place and leave the God of his father and his grandfather, of Abraham and Isaac, behind, but that God was with him. Up until that point, people had believed for generations that if you were in Colonial Heights, you worshipped one god, and if you were in Petersburg, you worshipped another. But here Jacob has experienced a God who is over everything, even Jacob’s future.
So Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” But in Genesis 29-30, it’s almost like Jacob forgets the vow or he at least doesn’t realize the importance of what he’s done. Which means that Jacob is in fact a lot like you and me: he doesn’t always understand what God really wants from him or know exactly how to respond. He doesn’t exactly know what it means to make “God my God” as he promised.
In the interlude, Jacob meets Rachel at a well and he works for his uncle Laban to win her as his wife. She’s the younger wife, so Laban tricks Jacob by sending in Leah (the older) on his wedding night. So he works 7 years for one and 7 years for the other. Between Rachel, Leah, and their maidservants, Jacob had 12 sons but they created more drama which we’ll get to next week. After his final son was born, Jacob asked Laban’s permission to go home, but Laban says he knows God has blessed Laban because of Jacob. Jacob asked for every speckled or spotted sheep of Laban’s, and then he received all of the livestock he could handle. Jacob is up to his old trickster tricks, getting by on a little luck and some Windex.
And then, because just when you get comfortable, God seems to tell you something that will challenge you and make you uncomfortable, to remind you that your life and “THE PLAN” are God’s and not yours, God tells Jacob that it’s time to return home, so they flee from Laban who pursues them. When they finally confront each other, Jacob says “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”
Jacob is still claiming “divine right,” but he hasn’t really embraced God yet. He’s one of those people using God for what he wants rather than searching out what God wants. But in Genesis 32 it is time for Esau and Jacob to meet again.
The night before, Jacob sends his family and livestock ahead, prays to God. This is Jacob in the foxhole, the person praying desperately, under fire, for some miracle to work out where he doesn’t end up beaten or left for dead when his brother finally catches ahold of him. It’s the kind of prayer I usually prayed when I figured my sister was going to report what I’d done to my mom or dad; realistically, it still works that way with her! Genesis 32:9-12 Then Jacob prayed, “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.’”
Jacob just prayed the sinner’s prayer! He just repented of his bad attitude, of the way he’d “played” other people, and he cried out for God’s grace and mercy. He finally admitted that he had done things wrong, and he called on the promises of God to sustain him in the midst of his fear. But just because we repent, it doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences.
In Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob is fully awake this time and all by himself, about to cross back over the river into the land of his ancestors, and he wrestles a man ALL NIGHT LONG. It says that the man, either God or a representative of God, could not or would not overpower Jacob until he cheated—until he touched Jacob’s hip so that it wrenched. God/the angel did to Jacob what he had been doing for so long; he used the powers he had that were above and beyond where the lines had been drawn to achieve the outcome he wanted. But Jacob refused to let go. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So the man says, “you are no longer Jacob but Israel, or he who prevails with God, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
It’s almost anti-climactic that Jacob and Esau meet and that their interaction is so much more peaceful than Jacob could’ve imagined. It’s almost besides the point that for the rest of the Old and New Testament, that Yahweh God would be the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. That God claimed Jacob in a dream on the way over the river, and Jacob claimed God on the way back.
Because Jacob wrestled with God, and he won. (Well, maybe he didn’t win, but he wrestled God to a tie!) Because Jacob dreamed a dream and refused to let go of it even when it was against his nature to hold onto it. Because the matter of nature versus nurture played out in a way that God valued Jacob both for who he was before he knew God and who he was after he knew God. Because God knew Jacob and loved him both before and after the river.
As we gather together today, I ask you, what river is it that you need to cross? What wrestling match with God lies before you? Do you know that God has loved you along but that God has a dream for your life that he wants you to know and understand, and that God patiently waits for you to catch up to that dream?
Today, I am the pastor of Blandford United Methodist Church, and for the first time, the pastor of the Stand Church, too. I’ve had a dream God has put on my heart to plant a church, to reach out to those who did not find a home in traditional church, to bridge the gap between meeting God for the first time and being accepted into church as a member of family. I’ve seen it work with Blandford and I’m watching it develop with the Stand. I don’t want us to make the mistake Jacob made, to not dream big enough—to think that God’s dream is just for a “little bit” here or there—to fail to see that God wants to use the church as a blessing for everyone. I want to dream big, to wrestle with God.
I don’t know how you got here, or even why you came, but for the next few hours, we get to celebrate as the varied, diverse forms of God’s church here in the world. We get to wrestle with each other, to wrestle with our natures and our nurture, to bask in the recognition that whoever you are, you are loved by God, and that God wants to know you right now. You are loved. God knows your name, and he wants you to be part of his family. God will give you a new name, a new dream, and a calling that will last your whole life.
Thanks be to God who meets us where we are but refuses to leave us there. Amen.