A few years ago, I was visiting with an older couple. They had two grown children; a son, a daughter and grandchildren. In the course of the conversation the man, a Mr. Edwards, told me, “I’ve finally conquered my ‘want-er.” I was not sure what he meant by “want-er.”
He explained that he had grown up during the great depression. He said he had worked hard hall his life. He had schemed and struggled - for money and the things money could buy. He had managed to buy a comfortable house, nice furnishings and a new car and truck.
Mr. Edwards and his wife lived on several acres of land. He said that no matter how much he had accumulated there was always something else he needed or wanted. But now, he told me, even though he did not have all the things he had previously thought important and had wanted, he no longer wanted anything else. He had conquered his want-er.
I thought of Mr. Edwards as I studied the life of Jacob. Jacob was also a want-er. He seems to have wanted everything and to be first in everything. We are introduced to Jacob in Genesis 25:26, the day he was born as the second born of twins. The Bible tells us Jacob came forth out of Rebecca’s womb grabbing hold of his twin brother Esau’s heal.
In those days the laws of primogeniture brought a great deal of advantage to the first born son. So we get a picture of the infant Jacob grabbing hold of his twin brother Esau ’s heel as if he was trying to pull Esau back in, so he could get out first.
Being a mother and a grandmother, I am a soft touch when it comes to babies. I can honestly say, “I have never seen a baby I did not like.” If I am in a Mall or out anywhere and see a baby, I instinctively turn and smile. Babies are wonderful little creatures
But even as a new born baby, Jacob does not appear likeable. He does not appear innocent. This picture of Jacob as a grabber, always wanting and grabbing to be first and to be best in everything is not a pretty picture.
So Jacob is pictured in the Bible as grasper from birth and we do not even get out of chapter 25 where we first meet him until we find him taking advantage of the weak and hungry and impulsive Esau by buying his brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup.(Gen. 25:29-34).
You’ve heard the story of Esau coming in from the field, tired and hungry. Esau asked for some of the soup Jacob had prepared. Jacob told him he would sell it in return for the birthright. Esau reasoned he was about to die of hunger so the birthright would not help him anyway, so for “immediate gratification” he exchanged his birthright for a bowl of soup.
While none of us are without sin, the more we hear about Jacob, the more we see he may have given a new meaning to the term “original sin.”
But the plot thickens and the story becomes more sordid. In those days, not only the birthright but a Father’s blessing was of supernatural value. The wily Jacob - well kids today would call him a “jerk’. It was not enough that Jacob had gotten the birthright from his brother Esau. He wanted the “blessing” too.
He wanted it all! So with the help of Rebecca, his mother, he deceived his elderly and blind father, Isaac, and stole his brother’s blessing.
When Esau discovered the deception, he threatened to kill Jacob. So in fear for his life, Rebekah packs Jacob off to his Uncle Laban’s. Jacob almost met his match for trickery in Rebekah’s brother Laban.
Jacob fell in love with Laban's daughter, the beautiful Rachael. Uncle Laban made him work seven years for Rachael which Jacob gladly did because of his great love. But Laban tricked Jacob; when in the marriage customs of that time and place, he substituted his older daughter Leah. So we find Jacob working another 7 years for Rachael.
Most of us have heard about the Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! We probably remember more about grandfather Abraham … how h Abraham went from his home in Ur of the Chaldees in answer to the call of God … How Abraham got into Covenant with God in Chapter 15 of Genesis How God promised that he and Sarah’s descendents would be as numerous as the stars seen on a clear night and how Abraham's descendents would be a blessing to the whole world.
When we get down to chapter 32 in the Genesis of our Bible, Abraham and Isaac are off the scene and the covenant is in the hands of grandson Jacob. And Jacob - like other second and third generation Christians today - was not concerned about a relationship with God. Jacob had his own agenda!
Many of us in this country founded on Christian principles are reaping the benefits of our Christian heritage, have long since forsaken or basically ignore the God who made it all possible. Many of us, if we are honest, look back at the Christian dedication of our parents or grandparents and realize we fall far short.
Fortunately there are notable exceptions. In fact, I know a few children of non-Christian parents who have rebelled in the opposite direction. One minister who became a committed Christian minister tells of quietly and secretly listening to TV preachers while his non-Christian and non-churched parents slept in on Sunday morning.
Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, is reaping the benefits of the covenant. But, as we have already talked about, he wanted to live life his way. In fact Jacob was a rascal of the first order! When we pick up today’s scripture lesson in Genesis 32 some twenty years have passed after Jacob’s flight away from the angry threats of Esau
Jacob is coming home from years of absence. He went out with nothing but the clothes on his back but he has prospered and reappears as a person of success. In Jacob’s preparation for the reunion with Esau, we see the same old calculating Jacob. He divides his camp and sent presents on ahead to hopefully soften up his improvident brother who had so easily been talked out of his birthright.
But while Jacob is on his way back home, we see something of the other side of Jacob. Jacob finally decides it is time to pray. It is a prayer of desperation. Jacob finally confesses to God that he is not worthy of the birthright and not worthy of the blessing … and this is not news to anyone who knows Jacob.
But before we get so self-righteous …we need to remember that it is also true with each one of us. We may not be the trickster Jacob was, but like Jacob most of us often go through life singing, “I’ve done it my way.” Jacob’s “my way” attitude clashed with God’s plan for Jacob’s life. So he finally realized that God, not Jacob, was the center of the universe.
Like a gospel song I heard a Gaither group sing recently:
“The mountain’s too high
and the valley’s too deep.
It was down on my knees,
I learned how to stand.
Lord, I can’t even walk,
without You holding my hand.”
Jacob’s moment of righteousness came when he started home to face the music - and he has run out of slick tunes. It is time to face the brother he has wronged. “Wronged” is too mild a word here for the reprehensible, we would say, “criminal” act of deceiving a dying father and stealing from a weaker brother. It makes the prodigal son look like a saint.
So the next picture we see is not one of God running out to embrace Jacob as the Father ran to embrace the prodigal son in Luke 15. Instead we see an “all night struggle” in the darkness of the brook Jabbok.
This passage about Jacob wrestling with the stranger is one of the most mysterious stories in the Bible. The Scripture does not tell us who the mysterious stranger is.but after it is all over, Jacob testifies that he has seen God face to face.
The God Jacob wrestled with at the brook Jabbok shows a different side of God …not the promise filled aspect of the God he met at Bethel, when he saw the ladder reaching down from heaven all the way to earth…and heard God’s promise to him because of his grandfather Abraham.
It reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis, “God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our sorrows.” Somehow we are able to hear God better when sorrow and grief slows us down. God whispered his promises to Jacob at Bethel where he saw the ladder reaching down from heaven to earth.
When we get down to the struggles that finally brought about repentance and change in Jacob … changed him as a person … receiving a new name and a new nation, God shouted to Jacob.
It seems God struggled to bring forth Israel … and so did Jacob.
It was a two way struggle. We are not told much about the wrestling, only that it lasted all night.
At the breaking of the light of day, we read, “The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed Pennuel” Jacob could finally say, “Sometimes I thought I was struggling with a man or a messenger of God but I was struggling with God and I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” (Verse 30)
But before he could be embraced by his brother Esau or by his God, he had to struggle and come out maimed. (This gives us a little insight into suffering.) Jacob prevailed. His life was preserved but he came forth limping and carried the rest of his life the mark of his struggle with God. Jacob had dealt with the terrifying face of the God who is hidden in sovereignty. One not to be appeased but the God who stoops to our weakness. (Philippians 2:5-8.) The God who so loved the world…Who so loved all of us, he gave his only begotten Son to save us.
When we wrestle with God, we do not come away unchanged. God does not change. Jacob still does not know God’s name but he knows who he is and he is a new creation. He is Israel. Jacob came out of the struggle limping but with a new name...a new focus. He is now Israel He is now God’s person.
And this is what the good news of God is all about … that people can change. We find Jacob, who had been a grasper all his life, coming out into the sunlight after his all night struggle with God … and saying for the first time, “I have seen God face to face... I have enough.” Perhaps this is why the whole sordid "warts and all" story is told. If Jacob can change, anybody can change. That is the Gospel story… through Jesus Christ, anyone can change … even me … even you.
Mr. Edwards told me he had been changed. Mr. Edwards had finally “conquered his want-er”, he told me. He had given up his desire for more and more “things”. But it had not been without struggle and pain.
Mr. Edwards had also been wounded in the struggle but he finally came out into the sunlight. Strangely, it came about in the midst of agony over the terminal illness of his only son who developed Leukemia. Mr. Edwards, in the midst of his grief over the death of his son, had seen God. He said, “I found God in the grief and it is enough.”
The theology of weakness in power and power in weakness turns this text toward the cross of Christ. In struggling with God to the place of surrendering our illusions of our own strength and self sufficiency, we know the power of God’s forgiveness and amazing grace.
As Mr. Edwards said, As Jacob finally said, as a little girl said in misquoting the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want. Amen