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Wednesday 5 August

Iain Proven continues his series looking at God’s unconditional love throughout the big picture of Scripture.  Here, the New Horizon Media Team brings you a summary of his message.

Reading from Genesis 32: 22 – 33. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Yesterday we thought about how the story of Abraham proclaims that message and sets the framework for understanding our own lives, especially when things are not going well, in those moments when it is hard to find the love of God in our lives.

The story sets out a wonderful vision and picture of a people chosen by God, living constantly in His presence, mediating God’s blessing to people around them and thereby changing the world. It is also potentially discouraging, if you are one of the meek of the earth. If you feel you do not possess a faith like Abraham, it may be hard for you to identify with Abraham.

It could also be potentially deluding if you are not yet one of the meek of the earth.  Some of us who are a bit more confident, read the story of Abraham, we say, “Fantastic, let’s go and change the world.” Off we go with great vision and expectation, with a profound sense of our own importance. We have our game plan. Let’s bring in God’s kingdom by Tuesday!  Super heroes of faith and ministry, well able to leap over tall church building and to dodge the speeding bullets of a hostile culture or even a hostile congregation.

Most of us find out that it is not as simple as that. God’s plan has a different emphasis. His plan involves changing us and not just the world. We often assume that the main problems lie outside ourselves and they are not too difficult to solve. Sooner or later we find ourselves wrestling with a God.  Eventually we discover that God is looking for ordinary human beings, with all their failings and weaknesses who are prepared to respond to God’s call when they hear it.

Jacob’s name has tremendous significance. It is a connected with a Hebrew noun meaning “a heel”. The name becomes important to the story because it defines who Jacob turns out to be. There is another Hebrew verb similar to the word for “heel” which means “to cheat”.

The whole reality of cheating dominates the first part of Jacob’s story. And the story is designed to answer two questions:

  • How can this man possibly be the father of God’s people?
  • How can Jacob possibly inherit the promise to Abraham if he leaves the land of the promise?

In Genesis 25, Jacob takes advantage of his brother Esau. The hand that once grasped Esau’s heel, is the hand of a character who is grasping and manipulative. This is not what we expect of somebody who had received the blessing of God and whose vocation is to pass it on to other people.

Jacob is a devious character. He has no moral qualms. His own character is alluded to in his physical self description. He says, “I am a smooth man.” That word is typically used elsewhere of deceptive speech Proverbs 26:28 (a flattering mouth – or a smooth mouth – works ruin). Jacob was a smooth operator, a slippery character.

These two infamous events lead Jacob into exile. If you had to welcome this family into your church, you would have to recognise that they were bringing a whole lot of baggage with him. Rebekah had control issues, Esau had simmering resentment and Jacob could not be trusted with the collection plate.

Jacob is God’s rat-bag but he remains God’s rat-bag.

The amazing paradox is that Jacob’s exile will turn out to be the very crucible in which new faith and new life will be forged. That is how it is with God, always turning evil and dysfunction toward the good.

Stairway to Heaven: The stairway is a symbol of the accessibility of God’s help and God’s presence. Where God is standing in this story is significant. It is more likely that God stands at the foot of the stairway rather than at the top. If that is right, then the love of God for Jacob is being powerfully communicated. Before there is any repentance, God is to be found with Jacob. It is a marvellous picture.

And as God stands there with Jacob, he gives Jacob a remarkable promise of land, of off-spring, of His presence, His protection and He promises to return Jacob to the Promised Land. God reveals Himself to Jacob as the same God of his father and grandfather. He confirms that Jacob is indeed one of the missional people of God. It is a remarkable picture of God’s grace!

Jacob names this place Bethel… it is his first encounter with God in the story. It represents a kind of conversion and is marked by a vow. “If God will be with me… then the Lord will be my God.” It seems that Jacob’s response to God falls very far short of God’s commitment to Jacob. It is conditional (if God will be with me…).  What is he really interested in? … If God will meet my needs and look after me… I’ll (kind of) make Him my God. He is still a smooth man. It is as much a bargain with God as it is a vow.

It takes him 20 years to get back. It is a long time to wait. And during that time, he learns a whole bunch of important lessons.

Jacob is a cheater but he doesn’t expect to be cheated by other people. It is poetic justice. Staying with Labanis the school of hard knocks. He says, “If the God of my father had not been with me… you would have sent me away empty handed.” It is nothing like having your own faults turned back on you, to get a taste of reality. God has been changing Jacob.

Now he heads back to the promised land and we reach the “wrestling match”. Jacob encounters an unexpected adversary. Hebrew is a great language for word play. That word “wrestled” has been carefully chosen and it is another play on the name of Jacob himself. One commentator suggests that this should read… “a man “jacobed” (wrestled) Jacob until daylight”

Somehow in this wrestling, God is present. Jacob is 97 years old but the man could not overpower him, which seems strange (although as soon as he wants to, he does). This not an ordinary wrestling match. Jacob will not yield but his injury alerts him to the identity of his opponent. Jacob asks for a blessing. How utterly predictable. He is a man obsessed with receiving a blessing.

But here Jacob is asked a deeper question. He gets a blessing but he has to declare his name – the name which reflects his old character.  As he enters back into the promised land, Jacob needs to reject that old character… he had to become a new man. He must learn that God is God and Jacob is not. Jacob receives the name Israel (God struggles or God fights). It is a name that will remind him of the wrestling match. It will remind him that in this encounter he has somehow overcome.

With God one has to lose in order to win!

Notice how God’s plan for Jacob is worked out but Jacob acts freely throughout the story. The sovereignty of God does not negate the serious bad choices that Jacob made. Instead, He weaves those bad choices into His plan. God so loves the world even in the midst of sin.

We realise that often the biggest problems are within. Does God really love me as I am? Can God really use me? Or is this God-thing for people with less sin in their lives? The confidence of the super-hero can quickly turn into the despair of the Psalmist in Psalm 2 – “I am a worm and not a man.”

Worm-theology is deeply rooted in Northern Ireland. To all of you who think you are too dark and screwed up and sinful to be of any interest to a Holy God. To any who believe that there can be no place for you in God’s plan and God’s kingdom because you are so bad. Consider Jacob – the ratbag of God, the cheat,with his dysfunctional family… be encouraged that however much baggage you bring into this tent nonetheless God is with you in your journey.

Look at Jacob and be encouraged! Take the story of Jacob to heart. Find yourself in that story. Be reconciled to God and experience the love of God who so loves you and so pursues you, even as he pursued Jacob.