The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“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 men 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” (Genesis 32:24-30 NIV).
“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do, no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:14-19 NIV).
Wrestling with God
When I first heard that the name “Israel” meant “he who struggles with God,” I was a bit surprised. Why would God give that name to his people? Why would he want to be known as a God with whom His people wrestle? It seemed strange to me at first.
After all, God set this situation up in the life of Jacob. He came to wrestle with Jacob not the other way around. Jacob was trying to prepare for his encounter with his brother Esau the next day. He had sent his family and goods over the Jabbok river and he stayed behind alone….to pray.
Jacob was worried. The report that came from his scouts was that Esau was on his way with four hundred men. Why four hundred men? It sounded like he was coming to exact his revenge on his brother, Jacob, for treating him so badly years ago.
Do you remember the story? Esau is hungry and Jacob negotiates a meal in exchange for the traditional blessing that would normally go to the oldest child. Apparently, Esau didn’t really care about that part. He just wanted his physical inheritance not the promises of future glory as a nation. And then Jacob and his mother deceive his father, Israel, when he was old and blind by dressing Jacob up in sheep skins and smelling like a hunter coming in from the hunt. Jacob was a herder and smooth of skin. The deception worked and Esau was mad but Jacob was able to escape by the skin of his teeth with nothing but the clothes on his back. No physical inheritance for him.
Jacob heads out of the country to live with his uncle, Laban, far across the desert north of the Promised Land while Esau continued to live in the desert region of Seir, south of the promised land. Laban was no pushover either and he deceived Jacob into marrying two of his girls, Leah and Rebekah, by working for him for 14 years in total. Jacob was getting some of his own back.
I often hear complaints from people who are new to the faith that some of the people in the Old Testament (and New) were not very good people and yet God chose them to be His people. What gives? We expect now-a-days that Christians ought to be good, moral, up-standing citizens. If Jacob were part of our church with his deceitful ways and manipulative character, I’m not sure how long he would last. Abraham was a tough old man but could also be a coward. David killed a man so that he wouldn’t find out that he had slept with his wife…..and the list goes on.
Jacob was a guy who struggled to get what he wanted out of life. He struggled with his brother as well as his uncle and now he had to pay the piper. He escaped from Laban and struck out on his own, heading back to the land of promise. He now had a large family and many possessions but he had no safe place to lay his head. He had no home. So he decided to head on back to face his brother Esau.
And now the scouts are telling him that Esau was coming to meet him, with four hundred armed men. That doesn’t sound at all good. What possible reason would you have to bring four hundred men with you to meet your brother unless you were bent on revenge? That is what Jacob feared the most. And so he came up with his strategies, and strategies within strategies.
He sent gifts ahead of him to his brother. Loads and loads of gifts. He wasn’t sure, of course, whether Esau would accept those gifts but it was worth a try. He divided up his family starting with his two maidservants and their children putting them up front and then Leah and her children and, finally, Rebekah and Joseph at the rear. To protect them of course. His favorites.
But he was still worried. When he had left home all those years ago with only the clothes on his back, he encountered God in the desert who promised to protect him. Do you remember the staircase to heaven? He called that place Bethel. He was alone and God came to visit him and start a direct relationship with him, confirming that he was the true inheritor of the spiritual promise of Abraham, his grandfather.
Even though he had deceived and manipulated his brother, Esau, in order to get it, God confirmed that it had, indeed, passed on to Jacob. Why? I suppose if you had asked Jacob why he went to so much trouble, he might not be able to answer you either.
The truth is that he desired the blessing and Esau did not. He wanted the spiritual promise with or without the physical inheritance and Esau wanted the physical inheritance with or without the spiritual promise. The two went naturally together but Jacob ended up with one and Esau the other.
And God confirmed it. He also blessed Jacob while he was with his uncle, Laban, turning the tables on his uncle a couple of times but only by divine intervention. Jacob had to pay double the bride price in order to marry Rebekah but he survived and even thrived during that time. He was starting to learn his lesson. God would provide. He did not need to be a schemer and a manipulator. But Esau was a different matter. You did not deceive your brother, attempt to steal his inheritance and think you were going to get away with it. Not then. Not now.
So Jacob prayed fervently and set things up so that he could be alone, hoping that God would show up again and promise to protect him. And it worked. Although, apparently, at the beginning, Jacob was not sure exactly who, or what, he was wrestling with. The passage talks about a man, but later it becomes clear that it was God himself. Wow.
There are so many questions that come to mind.
What is God up to? Why did he allow Jacob to wrestle with him all through the night? Did he come in the form of a human or an angel like he did when he visited Abraham that time? What does it mean that the man (God) “saw that he could not overpower him (Jacob)” (vs. 25)? When did Jacob realize that it was God (or an angel) that he was wrestling with and why didn’t that scare him half to death? Totally fascinating to say the least.
But even more fascinating is the realization that this was all part of God’s plan and that he would characterize not only Jacob but the entire nation as a people “who struggle with God.” And how apt that is given the history of the Jewish nation. Their commitment to God was strong one generation and weak the next. One group was on fire for God and another tribe would inter-marry with their heathen neighbors. Very little consistency on any side. The nation was given the Law, but they did not have the ability to fulfill it and continually failed to live up to the covenant that God had so graciously enacted with them.
In some ways, it sounds like us, don’t you think?
We, too, are faced with the Law of God, the holiness of God, and we find it difficult to live up to its requirements. We started out seeking after God but then encountered the twin truths of the holiness of God and the wretchedness of our human condition. The more we gaze into the Word of God, the more we see ourselves for who we truly are. We now have eyes to see and ears to hear but we aren’t necessarily happy about it.
Paul concludes that “we know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Strong words for a Christian to say out loud. But true. Some people claim that Paul is not talking as a Christian in Romans 7 but I disagree. Sure it sounds a bit like an OT believer, trapped in the requirements of the law, but it also describes a NT believer who is confronted with that same law as he comes before the cross of Christ.
Some might agree that this is the experience of a non-believer who has not yet been saved, but once he passes on to the other side of the cross, where there is no condemnation, he no longer is a “slave to sin.” Well, that doesn’t make any sense either. How can a non-believer say that he “desires to do what is good” (vs. 18b) which is to say “what is in the law.” That isn’t likely.
On top of it all, we all know, from personal experience as well as from a LOT of different places in the Bible that our sanctification is progressive, not immediate. Therefore, it is more likely that this struggle of Romans 7 is a normal and natural part of the Christian walk as we are faced more and more with an understanding of God’s holiness and our own sinfulness.
From a Biblical perspective that is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something that we can do about it. Of course there is. That’s the whole point of Romans 8 and it is when we live out the truths of Romans 8 in the context of the Romans 7 struggle that we become more and more mature in Christ because we are forced to go back to the cross and depend on nothing else than the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We, too, are part of Israel, those “who struggle with God.” We are the new Israel, Paul says. But we still struggle with sin. We still struggle with God. It is the nature and quality of that struggle that defines our maturity in Christ.
Jacob had to learn the same lesson. After all of his scheming and manipulation of Esau and his father, Isaac, he is left penniless in the desert with nothing but the promises of God. After all of the struggling with Laban, his uncle, his only recourse was the divine intervention of God that made him wealthy in spite of Laban and gave him the opportunity to return home. Even when he had to confront Esau again, Jacob had to learn the lesson. It was God who would bless him and who would be the source of his providence, his safety, his future as a nation.
That doesn’t mean that Jacob wasn’t involved in the struggle. One thing is to struggle with sin, another is to struggle with God. Which one is it? To desire what you know is evil (or unhealthy, or unloving) isn’t really struggling with sin is it? You want to sin. There is no struggle there. The struggle comes the moment that God enters the picture and tells you what he wants – through the Law. The Law is a testimony and guide to love. Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. What is so difficult about that?
But it is difficult. We want to sin. We don’t want to obey God. So are we struggling with sin or with God? On the other hand, there is a new desire in us to please God, to do what is good. There is now a conflict of desires. What can we do about it?
When difficulties come, when Esau is out to get his revenge, when life throws a curve ball, we go to God and cry out to Him and call on His mercy and fervently pray for an outcome that is favorable to us. We wrestle with Him in prayer all night long. But why? We desire what is good, as Christians, but we are also compelled to do what is evil at times. And our evil and weaknesses get us into trouble. God help us!
Yes, there are differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Of course. But we are here talking about Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the faith who, like Abraham, lived before Moses and before the Law was given. He, too, lived by the faith of Abraham. But still….yes, we are different because we are in Christ, the Holy Spirit lives within us and we have the resurrection power to deal with sin and temptation. Of course.
But the struggle is the same even if the solution looks a bit different. Jacob had to learn how to rely on the blessing of God and His intervention so that Esau would not take his life and destroy his family. God had chosen him for a higher purpose and Esau could not contend with God. Period. But Jacob would need faith. And faith for a guy like Jacob was not an easy thing.
And there is a parallel there for us as well.
After all of our striving, our scheming, our manipulations, the truth of the matter is that we need to go to God, wrestle with Him and not let go until we receive His blessing. He has a purpose for our life. He will intervene and save us from our sins. He will give us a new name, a new identity in Christ. There is no more a “me”, only a “me in Christ.” And that change makes all the difference in the world.
But, mark this well. Jacob, for some reason, wanted the blessing of God. He wanted the spiritual promises when Esau did not. Jacob sought God alone and in the night when he was most vulnerable. He turned to God in his anguish and wrestled with Him and would not let go. And there, right there, is where Jacob “overcame” God Himself. The Bible tells us that God “could not overpower him.” Jacob would not let go. He had a holy persistence in seeking God’s blessing. He fought on until he got what he wanted, though the “wanting” itself was a gift from God.
And that is the beauty of it, isn’t it?
God works in us to will and to want Him but we still need to work it out, (Philippians 2:13) to struggle with it, to make it important, to wrestle with God until we get the blessing. It is the grace of God that made Jacob who he was, and it was the grace of God that allowed a mere human to wrestle with God and “overcome.” How do we “overcome” God? By being persistent in our desire to seek His blessing. By struggling with God and not just ignoring him and wallowing in self-pity. By insisting on his promises and persisting in our seeking of His face, His favor. God graciously allows Himself to be wrestled with. Obviously. But he favors those who take the nature and quality of their struggle seriously and won’t let go until they receive the blessing.
Not that wrestling with God is easy or painless. After all, Jacob leaves the encounter with a limp for the rest of his life – a constant reminder of his weakness before the Almighty God. We may be able to “overcome” God, by His grace, but He will leave us with a reminder that it was by His grace lest we become proud.
Paul had something to say about that as well. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul tells us about his own struggles. He says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Do you see the connection with the story of Jacob wrestling with God?
Yes, we have that incredible privilege to wrestle with God and to “overcome” with a holy persistence that He, Himself, wants us to have. Returning over and over again to the cross. But we have the tendency to become prideful and therefore we are given weaknesses to deal with, difficulties, hardships because we need to learn to go to God and wrestle with Him in prayer in the midst of our weaknesses, difficulties and hardships. That is our strength.
It is not a strength in ourselves but in God. It is not about scheming, manipulating, trying harder, or the like. It is about going to God and wrestling with Him until we come out of that prayer closet in new power because we focus our attention not on ourselves but on Christ’s finished work on our behalf. And that is the key to our Christian walk, to dealing with sin, to our sanctification. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24b, 25 NIV)
It is beautiful in its simplicity, isn’t it?
If we focus too much on our sin, we can fall into spiritual depression. If we think we have our “conscious sins” under control, we fall into spiritual pride. God gives us weaknesses and difficulties so that we continue to come to Him, to wrestle with Him, to learn to focus on the finished work of Christ first of all, and in that power, go and make every effort to live out that life of faith.
So what am I saying? Is it really that easy? Easy? Have you been listening to anything that I have been saying? No, not easy. Simple. The answer to sin is always simple. Take it to the cross. Leave it there. Go and sin no more. But when you do sin, “we have someone who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (I John 2:1 NIV). So you go back to the cross as many times as it takes. How many times? Seven times? You know the answer to that one….
So stop struggling with sin and start wrestling with God.
Turn your focus from your sin and weakness to the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus, our Lord. You will find the power to deal with sin and temptation only at the foot of the cross.
Stop thinking that you are in this alone when there is no more “you.” There is only “you in Christ.” And if you are hidden in Christ, in union with Christ, then God’s grace is sufficient for you. In fact, it is your only source of power.
Forget about being perfect. Jesus Christ is your perfection. Now your job is to become mature in Christ. Mature in your consistency in going to the cross. Mature in your use of the means of grace – scripture, the sacraments, prayer – which brings you back to the cross. Progress not perfection is the goal.
That doesn’t mean you get lazy. Far from it. It means that you get powerful. And, in that power, you now can deal with life from an entirely different perspective.
In order to “make every effort” to wrestle with God like Jacob did, sweating and grunting and struggling like a mad-man to get his blessing, his protection from the vengeance of his brother, Esau, in order to get the blessing of his power, his anointing, his glory in your life, we need to “make every effort” to surrender our wills to God and to consecrate our efforts to doing His will.
That is the secret to the Christian life. Making every effort to surrender to his will.
You may think that surrendering is easy but it is not. As anyone who has ever had to do it (usually over and over again), it is hard work. It takes blood, sweat and tears. And if you don’t believe me, just look again at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who, even in his perfect love for the Father, had to wrestle with God until he got to that place of full surrender to the will of God.
Jacob finally got it. He wasn’t just another scoundrel on his own, fighting with the world, trying to get ahead on his own. He had to learn that he had access to God. He had the possibility of wrestling, relating, praying to God because God, in His grace, chose him to carry on the line of faith. He had purpose. He had a future. He was the inheritor of the promises of God. Just like us. As Paul said over and over again, “don’t you realize who you are?”
And what happened?
“Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” Excuse me? What just happened here? Esau was on his way with four hundred of his men. And all he does is hug his long-lost brother and they weep together. If you don’t see the incongruency of that, then I don’t know what to tell you. Something happened. God intervened. God gave Jacob favor in the eyes of Esau and saved him from his vengeance. I have no doubt in my mind that when Esau left with his four hundred men, he had another agenda in mind. But God blessed Jacob and intervened in his life to keep his promises to the one who would carry on the line of faith.
God will do the same for us when we bring our weaknesses and difficulties to him and surrender ourselves to his will. Then, in the resurrection power of the Spirit who is within us, we can go out and accomplish mighty things in His name.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, thank you for making me your son (or daughter) and giving me a future and a promise for this life and the life to come. I am important to you and to your plans. Help me to make every effort to surrender fully to your will. In your name I pray. Amen.