This Lenten sermon is from 1964. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.
And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh 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.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:24-30 (RSV)
Dear friends in Christ:
The trial of Jacob is the topic for today. In the text we find him on his way home. Twenty years have passed since Jacob fled the land of Canaan after deceiving his father Isaac and cheating his brother Esau. At that time he had had to flee for his life. On his flight he had a wonderful vision of the angel of God ascending and descending from heaven. That, of course, was a long time ago, and in the meantime Jacob had not seen much of angels. However, he had found a human angel in a good and faithful wife. He willingly worked fourteen years for her.
Now, after twenty years, Jacob was on his way back to his father’s country. In many ways he had changed during those years. When he fled, he had nothing in his hand but a staff; now he was a prosperous man. He had wrestled with fortune and prosperity and had won. He had flocks and herds, wives, children and many servants, but he was uneasy and unhappy. Why? Because he was approaching the border of the land where his brother Esau lived. He had been hoping Esau had forgotten the crime committed against him, but he just found out this was not the case. Jacob himself had forgotten his crime during the twenty years when he was busy getting rich, but now, suddenly, the memory awakened.
Isn’t strange how things work? The one sinned against might forget, but not the one who has sinned. Sin and remorse are not subject to time; they are timeless, ageless. Sins committed twenty, fifty, seventy years ago may be as fresh in the memory as if committed today. “Be sure your sin will find you out,” says the Bible (Numbers 32.23). It will find out everyone, now or in eternity.
This is what Jacob learned that day on his way home. He had sent messengers ahead to sound out Esau and ask for grace. The messengers returned with grim tidings, saying, “Your brother Esau is coming to meet you and he has four hundred men with him.” When Jacob heard this, he was very afraid and began to pray, “O God of Abraham and Isaac, deliver me from the hand of my brother, for I fear him, lest he slay us all, the mothers with the children.”
Then he divided what he had — the people, the flocks, and herds — into two groups and sent them across the river in two different directions, hoping that at least one might escape the anger of Esau. He himself stayed on the other side of the river. There he was left alone, waiting and praying. His family, his herds, and all his possessions were disappearing in the distance. Now he had time to think about the past, to pray, to repent, to cry to God. The hours passed slowly, but at last night fell and the stars come out. Suddenly Jacob found himself in the grip of a strong adversary. Unable to discern who it is, he wonders who has seized him. Could it be Esau, his brother? He does not know. All night the two struggle, then the mysterious adversary touches Jacob’s thigh, causing him to lose control of his body. In a moment Jacob is weak and lame. But even now he does not give up the struggle. In desperation he holds on to the strong adversary, realizing that he is not wrestling with a man, but with God or his angel. He says, “I will not let you go except you bless me.”
A man and an angel wrestling. I wonder how often this has been done or is being done now. God is wrestling with man, trying to bring out the spiritual, the heavenly and eternal in him, and man is wrestling with God, resisting Him year after year until he has no strength left, and cries out before he dies, “I will not let you go except you bless me.” Stop wrestling with God; he is the stronger. He can touch you so that you will lose all strength.
The morning was breaking. Light began to appear over the desert and the angel was ready to leave, but Jacob would not let him go without first receiving a blessing. He knew now with whom he had been wrestling. If we, too, would know this, we would do what Jacob did that morning, despite being weak and crippled. Jacob would not let go of the angel until he gave him a blessing. That the angel did, changing Jacob’s name and heart, saying, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, which means grasper, but Israel, which means a prince with God.” The angel blessed him, and Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, which means, “I have seen God face to face.”
This story teaches us how spiritual changes take place in the heart and life of a Christian. Jacob was wrestling with an adversary. It was a painful, desperate, terrifying struggle, but before it was over Jacob realized that this night wrestler had the power to bless him; that he didn’t wrestle with him in order to hurt him, but to make him ready for a blessing, to cry out for that blessing. This Jacob did when he said, “I will not let you go except you bless me.” At first Jacob believed this adversary was an enemy, but as time went on he realized that he was a friend with the power to help him. It took Jacob quite some time before he understood that the trial upon him was for his good.
It was the same with Christ’s disciples when they were crossing the sea and a great storm came upon them. Jesus had remained on the mountain, so they were alone in the boat. Shortly before daybreak their strength seemed to fail them, fear and despair filled their hearts. Suddenly they saw someone walking toward them on the waves. In terror they cried out, believing that a devilish adversary was coming to sink and send them to the bottom of the sea. They had been afraid of the storm, but now something worse was happening. As experienced fishermen they had some idea of how to battle a storm, but what could they do against a ghost? Certainly they could never fight an adversary like that. Ready to jump into the sea, they heard a voice saying, “Be of good cheer, it is I.” It was a voice they had heard often before. Instead of fleeing, they rested their oars, took Jesus into the boat, and the danger was over. The one they had considered an adversary was the one who could bless them and solve their problems.
We all have our trials, and to the anxious and troubled heart trials often seem like adversaries; like Jacob’s midnight wrestler, or the specter of the approaching Lord who came to give his disciples a blessing and a more abundant spiritual life. God often hides his face and it takes some time before we can see and understand Him. We wrestle with sorrow, with setbacks, with weakness. They are adversaries as far as we can tell, but it may well be that God has a hand in them. In fact all things work together for good to them that love God.
Jacob’s experience that night led to a new knowledge of God, which is a great blessing for anyone. By naming the place Peniel – which means, “I have seen God” – Jacob testified to all that he had experienced God anew. He had seen God twenty years before at Bethel, in a dream where angels ascended and descended, but now he had seen God in a new way. This has been the experience of many men and women of God. We all know that Job was a man of God before his severe trials; but after his trials he said, “I knew of God only from hearsay, but now I know Him from experience.” (Job 42:5-6). There is a tremendous difference between knowing God from hearsay and knowing Him from personal experience.
The night Jacob wrestled with an angel marked the real turning point in his life. Of course, there had been events which had prepared him for it, but this was the decisive night. Jacob realized that he had been a selfish, grabbing, undedicated Christian who went his own way and planned his future without God. It’s like driving on a road that you’re not sure is the right one. You drive on, slow down a little, then speed up again, hoping things will be clearer at the next turn. Then all of a sudden you come to a dead end, or some other sure sign you’re on the wrong path, and you turn around and go back. What had gone before prepared you for the turning point, but there was a definite moment when you turned. So it is with repentance and conversion. The change came to Jacob when he was weak and halting and prayed, “I will not let you go except you bless me.” He wanted a divine blessing to settle the old account with his brother.
The angel comes and struggles with us. He has the power to bless us, but our pride and self-righteousness must first be overcome. That angel, one might say, is the Holy Spirit. Do not resist it, or else the blessing He brings will not be yours.
Jacob yielded, received a blessing, and very soon his future looked different. He lifted up his eyes and saw Esau coming with four hundred men. The day before Jacob had divided what he possessed into two groups and sent them ahead to take the first beating or angry outbreak from Esau. Now he stopped them and went ahead to meet Esau first. He no longer pushed others forward to fight his battles and take the beating he deserved. He left all others behind and went to meet his brother, probably saying to himself, “I’ll take whatever comes; I offended him; I was a rascal and now I will ask him to forgive me.” Then we read that when Esau saw him, “he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The old bill was paid, his brother had forgiven him. That is what happens when we have an experience with God. He forgives and forgets, saying, “I will remember your sins no more.”
3rd Sunday in Lent, 1964