A Wrestling Match at a Fork in the Road Recording:
A Wrestling Match at a Fork in the Road
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2, 2020
Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 32:22-31
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Jacob had arrived at a fork in the road – both literally and figuratively. The passage tells us that Jacob and his family had crossed a ford of the River Jabbok. The ford was like a gateway or entryway into a new territory. Thus Jacob and his family were moving from the familiar territory of Laban’s home to the unfamiliar territory of Canaan, the home of Jacob’s family. Sensing the significance, Jacob sent his family ahead. Being alone with God is scary. The props we often rely on are knocked from underneath us and we are vulnerable. This is where we find Jacob.
Jacob had become a fugitive from his family after manipulating his brother Esau into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew and deceiving his father (with the help of his mother, Rebekah) to obtain the blessing that was intended for Esau. Knowing his life was in danger, Jacob would flee to live with his mother’s brother, Laban. During the move, he spent the night in Haran where he had a dream in which a ladder extended from heaven to earth with angels climbing up and down the ladder. In this dream, God promised Jacob that he would be blessed.
The Bible tells us that when Jacob arrived at Laban’s home, he saw Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. For Jacob it was love at first sight. Some might dismiss this as puppy love or a mere infatuation.. Billy Graham spoke with authority on the subject when he told of falling in love with a classmate. In time she told him that she truly loved someone else. As you can imagine, he was heartbroken. Upon further reflection, he said: “It may have been puppy love but it was real to the puppy.”
To prove that he was sincere in his love for Rachel, Jacob agreed to Laban’s condition of seven years of servitude (in reality slavery) in exchange for Rachel becoming his wife. However, Jacob was no match for Laban who, at the wedding, switched daughters. That night, Jacob learned that he had married Leah, Rachel’s older sister. When he protested, Laban claimed it was customary for the older daughter to marry first. However, if Jacob was willing to serve another seven years, then he could marry Rachel. Jacob agreed.
Laban prospered because of Jacob’s skillful management. However, God had other plans for Jacob. One day, God told him it was time to go home. Family reunions are often festive occasions with cousins meeting cousins and family lore being exchanged. However, this reunion was fraught with fear as well as excitement. Jacob was excited about seeing his family but also knew he might face death at the hand of Esau. Using his talents as a schemer, Jacob first convinced his wives that leaving their father was in their best interest and then he waited until Laban was working in the fields before he left to avoid a last minute confrontation. When you think about it, the same talents used in scheming are also used in sales. The difference is the schemer is only motivated by self interest whereas the good sales representative is motivated by mutual interest. I believe Jacob was motivated by his interests and those of his family. Besides, he was on a mission from God. When Laban learned of Jacob’s escape, he became angry and pursued Jacob. It is hard to know which was the greatest loss for Laban: his daughters and their familes or his business manager. It was only God’s intervention that spared Jacob from Laban’s wrath.
The trouble with Laban was resolved, yet Jacob still faced the obstacle of Esau. To overcome this obstacle, Jacob sent messengers with gifts in an effort to gain Esau’s favor. It has been pointed out that the pagan approaches God in the same way Jacob approached Esau. By offering a gift, he is offering a bribe that will make room for God whereas the child of God knows that it is God’s gift that makes room for us. One commentator observed that when Jacob sent the gifts, he was also sending a message to Esau – “ I am not sneaking around and I am not here to claim your inheritance.” The messengers returned with word that Esau was coming to meet Jacob. He then sprang into action by planning and praying – two essential elements of a Godly response to a crisis.
At the River Jabbok, we find Jacob exposed in a situation “wholly beyond him” and driven to prayer. When we are vulnerable, God often works to remind us that He is the Lord of our circumstances and will use them to guide us to do His will. While trying to sleep, Jacob was engaged in a life changing wrestling match. When we face momentous change, we often say we are wrestling with the decision. What is occurring is not Jacob wrestling with a decision but rather wrestling with destiny. God always uses wrestling matches to make us into His image. At first Jacob’s opponent is unknown to him. However, as the struggle continues, Jacob realizes he is wrestling with God. The struggle is so intense that neither individual is willing to concede defeat. Jacob’s tenacity is on full display; however, just as he was no match for Laban, he is finding he is no match for God.
After a night of wrestling it is daybreak and God asked Jacob to let him go. Jacob replies that he will not quit until he has been blessed. God then does two things of great significance. First, he changes Jacob’s name. Jacob, the heel grabber, becomes Israel, for you have striven with God. One commentator writes: “…(the) Jacob/Israel shift (is) from an outcast and usurper to the heir of the covenant and the chosen leader of God’s people.” It is not just Jacob’s name that is changed, it is also his mission. The second way in which God blessed Jacob was to touch his hip socket to cause his hip to be dislocated. To carry out his new mission, the battling and groping of a lifetime had to end. Jacob’s struggle in life was not against Esau or Laban but rather himself. In a sense, he had been his own worst enemy. In the end God would purge Jacob of his self-sufficiency. The wrestling match may be have been symbolic but it was no dream as Jacob was left with a limp. He would name the location Peniel (PE – niel) –the face of God. God’s blessings are often painful yet they are always transformational.
Dr. Helen Roseveare, was an English medical missionary who once spoke of being vulnerable before God. Using a tree made of dowel rods to illustrate her message, she said that first God removes the leaves. We are pinched but are not terribly inconvenienced. Then God removes a limb. We are bothered and in pain, but we are able to recover. Then God peels back the bark and we are defenseless from pain and suffering. Jacob’s bark had been peeled. He asked God to bless him and He did – simply not in the way Jacob expected. God blesses us in ways we do not expect.
To fully comprehend the events in Jacob’s life, we need to return to Genesis 25 where we encounter Rebekah experiencing a problematic and prophetic pregnancy. The problem was that she is carrying twin sons who are engaged in sibling rivalry. In desperation, she cried to God for help and understanding. In response God told her that she was carrying two sons who would lead two nations and that the younger son would be served by the older one. In time, Esau would become the father of the nation of Edom and Jacob the father of the nation of Israel; and it would be through Jacob that God would continue to fulfill His promise to Abraham of descendants as numerous as the stars (Genesis 12).
God is sovereign. He has a plan for the world and uses everyone to carry out that plan. He will use everything to promote His will – even the mistakes of His children and the wrath of His enemies. John Stott writes of a time that God used the will of Satan against him.
In 1949, the National Government of China was defeated by the communists. Six hundred and thirty-seven missionaries (with one mission agency) were obliged to leave. It seemed a total disaster. Yet within four years 286 of them had been redeployed in South-East Asia and Japan, while the national Christians in China, even under severe persecution, began to multiply and (as of 1990) total thirty or forty times the number they were when the missionaries left (the exact figures are not known).
Today, God is still finding people and events to advance His kingdom, however, He also continues to find ways to rid us of our self-sufficiency through wrestling matches and pruning. The next time we face a difficult circumstance in life, do not despair. God is at work making us into His image. He is extending His grace in our lives. If you reflect on Jacob’s life, you will see many ways God showed His grace – escape from an angry Esau, a dream in which God promises to bless him, life with Laban the trickster and later intervening to neutralize Laban’s anger, and of course the wrestling match at Peniel. You see God’s grace in the midst of Jacob’s many trials and tribulations. You will see how God used these trials to transform him. If we reflect on our own lives, we too will see evidence of God’s grace.
The closing prayer is the first stanza of the hymn May the Mind of Christ My Savior. All of the stanzas are included in the homily that you can download. I encourage you to read and meditate on this and other hymns. They will greatly enhance your time of private prayer.
Let us pray.
May the mind of Christ my Savior
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and pow’r controlling
All I do and say.
May the Mind of Christ My Savior
Katie Barclay Wilkinson (lyrics)
A. Cyril Gould (music)
May the mind of Christ my Savior
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and pow’r controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of Christ dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His pow’r.
May the peace of Christ my Savior
Rule my life in every thing,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me,
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.