Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
If you would, turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 32. I was reminded this week that a year ago, I was preparing to meet many of you for the first time. It has been good to be here in Canada, here in Brantford, and especially here at Bethel among you. God is good. This summer we have been listening and studying the life of Jacob, seeing God’s grace and patience in abundance. Jacob left the promised land because his brother wanted to kill him, and lived in Haran for twenty years, wherein he married, had children, and prospered in many ways. Now he has set out to return home, hoping his brother’s anger has cooled down. It’s Genesis 32. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.
Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
So he spent that night there, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’” He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you meet him, and you shall say, ‘Moreover your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” So the present passed on ahead of him; and he himself spent that night in the camp.
The same night he 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. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Nothing has come easily for Jacob. His entirely life has been one wrestling match after another. He began by struggling against his brother Esau in the womb, so strongly that their mother Rebekah went to consult the LORD what was happening. Esau was given his name because of his red color, but Jacob was named because he was second, he was grasping his brother’s heel. Jacob was named because of his struggle with his older brother.
Jacob continued to struggle. He contended with his brother, who sold his birthright to him for a pot of stew. Jacob contended with his own father, who planned to bless Esau, his favorite son, and leave no blessing left over for Jacob. Jacob deceives his blind, aged father with goat skins and savory meat. Jacob’s struggle with his brother and his father and victory over them has brought Esau’s fury to the boiling point and Jacob is forced to flee for his life.
But Jacob continues to struggle. He enters the house of Laban and struggles seven years for Laban’s daughter Rachel, only to have Leah thrust upon him without his knowledge. He worked another seven years for Rachel, struggling through heat and cold and under the injustice of Laban, all the while his wives fought and struggled with one another, using maids and mandrakes all in order to claim victory over the other.
When Jacob’s eleventh son, Joseph, is born, Jacob wants to leave, but Laban entices him to stay with the promise that Jacob can name his wages. In the next six years, however, Laban cheats and exploits Jacob, changing his wages ten times. Once Jacob has enough and the LORD tells him to return home, Jacob flees Laban. But even this is a struggle. Jacob must flee unnoticed, but the secret gets out and Laban chases him down and accuses Jacob of stealing from him. Jacob must struggle one last time with Laban in order to be free.
Finally, free from the house of Laban, Jacob heads toward home, toward his father’s house. He remembers that he left because Esau wanted to kill him, but that was twenty years ago, surely Esau has cooled off by now. Jacob sends messengers to let Esau know he is coming and that he can provide for himself. Jacob pretends to be subservient in order to sooth Esau’s anger, but the messengers come back telling Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him at the head of four hundred men. Their grandfather Abraham won a battle against five kings with 318 men and Esau is coming with 400 hundred. Jacob is justifiable terrified. The struggle does not seem to end for him. It is just one thing after another.
Jacob divides everything he owns in half, hoping that if Esau destroys half, the rest can get away. Jacob stops and prays the longest prayer we have recorded in the whole book of Genesis, asking for deliverance from the hand of his brother, Esau. He sends a train of gifts to Esau, 550 animals as presents hoping to ease his anger. Jacob even sends his family away, leaving himself alone at the Jabbok, waiting for Esau’s arrival.
But even here, the struggle does not end. A man wrestles with Jacob all night. Jacob refuses to let go, even after his hip has been pulled out of joint. He holds on, begging for a blessing.
Nothing comes easily for Jacob. Jacob is the chosen of God, the one through whom God’s covenant to redeem the world will continue. Jacob is the father of the nation of Israel, God’s people. Yet Jacob’s life is one struggle after another, one wrestling match after another. With his brother, with his father, with his father-in-law, and now with the strange man in the middle of the night.
Jacob’s wrestling match on the banks of the river captures all of what his life has been up to that point. Jacob has had to fight, to struggle, and hang on desperately hoping for blessing. And he has been blessed, but not apart from struggle, but in the midst of it.
Shouldn’t it just be easy? Maybe there is a place for struggling to build character, but at some point, should the struggle end and things just work? Especially when we are trying to live according to God’s will, shouldn’t we eventually reach a point where life is just good? The Bible makes no such promises this side of Christ’s return. Life with God is good, infinitely better than life apart from him, but it is never promised to be easy.
I have a good friend who has two grown children about my age. One is deeply involved in her church, while the other has strayed from the faith. For longer than I have known him, he has prayed daily for his children. He has struggled continually in painful prayer for his son to return to the faith. After Elijah was born, we began talking more about praying for and worrying about our children and he said to me, “You never stop being a parent. They get bigger and leave the house, but you never stop loving them, worrying about them, caring for them, praying for them.” You never stop.
I think there is something true to life in that statement. There is a beautiful struggle in being a parent, there is a beautiful struggle in being a spouse, a friend, a brother or sister, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jacob went from one struggle to another, from one challenge to another, and yet it was in those moments that he was blessed. Jacob held on to God in the midst of his wrestlings and found himself blessed again and again.
At the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob was blessed. That blessing took two forms – a new name and a limp. Wrestling with God changed Jacob’s identity and changed the way he walked from then on.
Verse 26: 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.”
At birth, he was given the name Jacob. Jacob literally means ‘he who grasps the heel’ or figuratively ‘deceiver.’ Jacob’s name was defined by his relationship to everyone else. He was heel-grabber, because he came out following his brother and chasing after him. Jacob was so named because of his struggle with Esau. He was deceiver, working to deceive his own father and later struggling in a battle of deceptions with Laban. Jacob lived into the name he was given.
However, at the Jabbok, in the wrestling, Jacob is given a new name. This new name is defined by his relationship with God. It is a God-given name, a God-given identity. Jacob is no longer defined by his relationship to his brother – he who grasps the heel, the one who is grasping after and chasing down his brother. Jacob is no longer defined by his past dealings with Laban – Jacob, the deceiver. Instead, Jacob is Israel, he who struggles with God. Jacob’s identity is in relationship to God. New name, new identity – all defined by his relationship with God, instead of with everyone else.
I knew a girl who carried a name with her, ‘Not good enough.’ It wasn’t the name her parents had given her, but the boy she dated that broke her heart. She carried that name, that identity into a host of bad decisions that she is still working to recover from.
I knew a young man who carried a name with him, “waste of a life.” He fought and struggled for years, pushing himself relentlessly in order to prove that he had not wasted his life on doing God’s will.
I don’t know what name you carry with you, what identity defined by your relationship to others, what others think of you, or what you have done. Maybe it is a past you can’t seem to shake, maybe it is a biting word that seems to play on repeat in your head, maybe it is a fear, a future, a failure that haunts you.
Jacob was given a name that defined him. It defined him by his relationship to his brother and his past as a deceiver. It was who Jacob was and he lived into his name.
But at the Jabbok, Jacob was given a new name. God gave him the name, Israel – he who struggles with God. The struggles are still there, but now he is defined by his relationship with God. He is who God has made him to be. He is who he is, not because of what anyone else does, what anyone else says, or what is found in his past, but he is who he is because of who he is in relationship to God. New name, new identity.
All who belong to Christ have been given a new name. Revelation 2:17 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
Or hear the Spirit through the words of Paul, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old has passed away, everything has become new.” “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” That old name you have been carrying with you for so long, it is not who you are anymore. If you belong to Christ, you have a new name, a new identity. You belong to Christ and who you are is not defined by what anyone else says, what you have done, or where you come from, but by your relationship to him. A new name, a new identity – one who belongs to Jesus Christ.
Walking with a Limp
Not only does get a new identity, but he is changed by his encounter at the Jabbok. During the struggle, his hip is touched and pulled out of joint and he walks with the limp the rest of his life.
Jacob, now Israel, walks differently because of his encounter with God. Every day, the way he moves, the way he walks in this world is a reminder of what God did at the river Jabbok. When Jacob set out from Canaan toward the house of Laban, God appeared to him at the place of Bethel. There, Jacob set up a pillar to commemorate the place where God had appeared to him. Now, as Jacob is about to re-enter the promised land, he does not set up a pillar, but limps. Now the event of God’s action is seen not in a place, but in his walk, in his life, in who Jacob becomes because of God’s work in his life.
Do you limp in your walk with God? Has God touched your life in such a way that people can see it by the way you live in this world? When Jacob becomes Israel, he limps and everyone can see it. Not a pillar of stone, but his life becomes the witness to what God has done. His walking differently than he did before is what points others to ask what has happened.
In Christ, we have a new name, a new identity. No longer do we have to live into those names others have given us, but into the name God has given us as he children. We belong to Christ and this should change our walk in this world.
In a few moments, we will have the joy and privilege of coming to the Lord’s Table, to eat of the feast prepared for us. But before we do, there is one curious detail at the end of this passage. Jacob’s wrestling at the Jabbok changed not only his life, but the lives of his descendants. It changed the way that Israel ate. Not only was Jacob reminded of the event with every step he took, but every time his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would eat meat, they would not eat the meat attached to the hip bone. When they did, they would remember the name given to Jacob at the Jabbok.
When we come to the table, we come to, among other things, have communion with God. By the Holy Spirit, we are brought into God’s presence and yet our life is preserved. My hope and prayer is that we will come to the table in joy and leave limping for Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.