The most remarkable verse in today’s scripture is verse 28: God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, saying that he had “striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Jacob “prevailed” over God? He defeated God? What does that mean? And how do we see the gospel of Jesus Christ in Jacob’s victory?
Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32
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When we last saw Jacob—in last week’s scripture, in Genesis chapter 28—you may recall that he was running away. He was running away from his older brother, Esau, who vowed to murder him because Jacob had schemed, swindled, manipulated, lied, and cheated Esau in order to receive both the birthright and blessing to which Esau, as the older son, was entitled. So Esau vows revenge. He vows to murder Jacob, just as soon as their father Isaac dies and the period of mourning passes.
So with his mother’s help, Jacob runs away. He leaves the Promised Land. He goes back to his mother’s people in a faraway country, where he’ll be safe. And he stays there for 20 years. And while he’s away from home, working for his Uncle Laban, marrying his uncle’s two daughters, and tending his uncle’s livestock—and basically matching wits with his Uncle Laban, who is every bit his equal when it comes to scheming, swindling, manipulating, lying, and cheating—Jacob becomes fabulously wealthy.
And now, finally, God tells Jacob it’s time to go home—to claim what’s his, to take his place in the land promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Of course, the only problem with going home means facing his brother who, last time he checked, was promising to kill him. To make matters worse, as we’re told earlier in Genesis chapter 32, Jacob sends spies ahead who report back to him and say, “Your brother is coming to meet you. And, oh by the way, he’s coming to meet you with 400 of his closest friends—an army of men!”
And guess what? As today’s scripture begins, Jacob is afraid. Genuinely afraid! He arranges to have his servants go on ahead of him and lavish upon Esau gifts of cattle and livestock and servants—to soften his brother up, to buy him off, to appease his anger. He has no idea if it’s going to work. In fact, he divides his servants and livestock into two camps. Because he figures that if Esau and his men kill the first group, the second group will still have time to run away. Again… he’s scared! And who can blame him?
In fact, this fear inspires Jacob to pray his first real prayer earlier in Chapter 32—at least his first recorded prayer in scripture. And it’s a good prayer! He tells God that he’s not worthy of “all the steadfast love and faithfulness” that he has shown Jacob—blessing Jacob with all this wealth. And he tells God that he’s afraid. And asks God to protect him.
God can use fear. Have you noticed? Fear can sometimes be a wonderful gift! Because it can bring us to our knees quicker than anything else. And God can use our fear to bring us closer to him.
I should know. I am someone who, by nature, tends to be a fearful person. I’ve always been this way.
For example, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was afraid… of dying in a nuclear war between the United States and what used to be called the Soviet Union—Russia. In fact, I was pretty sure that I was going to die in a nuclear war.
Maybe this is hard to imagine now, but the early ’80s were a scary time for fearful kids like me. For example, when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined what it would be like if the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, TV news. At school, our teachers even took time out of class to have us share our feelings about nuclear war. And I’m like, “I feel like I do not want there to be a nuclear war!”
There was a popular singer at the time named Sting, and he had a hit song about nuclear war, in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command.” Do you know this game? You’re in command of a missile silo, and your job is to protect six cities from being hit by fast-approaching nuclear missiles. And these missiles just keep coming, wave after wave of them. You have to shoot these missiles out of the sky. And no one wins in the long run: eventually all your cities get reduced to rubble!
Around the same time, President Reagan was talking about building a real-life “missile command” system that could destroy Russian nuclear missiles before they landed on U.S. soil! But we knew that wouldn’t work in the long run because we played the video game. In the long run, we’d still lose,
We also watched movies like “WarGames,” in which a young Matthew Broderick is a computer genius who hacks into the Pentagon computers and nearly launches World War III—by accident.
So a part of me was afraid of dying in a nuclear war… And since I was making a transition from a small elementary school to a large and intimidating high school—back then, we didn’t have middle school— another part of me had the normal fears and insecurities about fitting into this new school—being accepted, not being a social outcast. And while I really liked girls, it wasn’t clear to me that any of them liked me—so it was an awkward age of braces, of acne, of trying desperately to be cool, yet living in fear of not being cool.
And to make matters worse… I had a neighbor down the street named Wes, who was a Christian, who tried to witness to me. He wasn’t very good at it, because he never told me how to actually become a Christian—only that if I didn’t accept Christ as Savior and Lord, I would go to hell. And he was right about that! But when I think back on it now, I wonder, “Why didn’t he tell me how to be saved? Don’t just tell me what happens if I’m not!”
So even more than being afraid of dying in a nuclear war, I was afraid of what happened after death. Because I knew that I wasn’t saved. I believed in Jesus—I mean, I went to Sunday school and church often enough to learn about Jesus—I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I grew up going to Vacation Bible School, I knew plenty of family members and friends who were Christians—but I had never personally encountered Jesus Christ; I had never decided for myself to receive his gift of forgiveness and eternal life; I had never received him as my Savior and committed myself to following him as Lord.
So in a small way, I don’t think I’m so different from Jacob. Like me, he grew up in a religious family—a deeply religious family in his case. His grandfather Abraham had met God personally—on more than one occasion. Same with his father Isaac. These were deeply faithful men, as were their wives. But notice something: It’s clear from his actions that Jacob didn’t inherit saving faith from Abraham or Sarah, or Isaac or Rebekah. In fact, none of us can inherit saving faith from our grandparents, or our parents, or our brothers or sisters, or our spouses. Our grandparents, parents, siblings, and spouses can’t possess saving faith on our behalf—as much as they might want to.
Growing up in church—by itself—doesn’t save us. Getting baptized—by itself—doesn’t save us. Going to Sunday school and Vacation Bible school—by itself—doesn’t save us. Going through confirmation class and getting confirmed—by itself—doesn’t save us.
We can fake our way through all that stuff. We can go through the motions of living a Christian life. We can even believe all the right doctrines about God and Jesus and his gospel and the Bible and still be lost. What does James say? “You believe there’s one God? Good! Even the demons believe that—and tremble.” I suspect that Satan himself could affirm the truth of every line of the Apostle’s Creed from firsthand experience. But that obviously can’t save him—or us.
Saving faith has to be personal for us! It has to move from something that lives up here—in our heads—to something that lives in here—in our hearts.
Maybe you’re one of those people who’ve sort of gone through the motions of “doing church,” gone through the motions of living a Christian life. But you’ve never surrendered your life to Christ. Or maybe you did at one time, when you were young, but that was a long time ago, and you know you’re not being faithful to Jesus now. Maybe you’re not so sure what’s going to happen to you after you die. You want to go to heaven. You hope you will. But you’re missing that inward assurance that the Bible promises. Or maybe you have best of intentions to follow Jesus… only not yet.
If this describes you, what are you waiting for?
Like many of you, I was deeply troubled this weekend by the news of Christina Grimmie being fatally shot on Friday night. This young woman and singer had been a viral video sensation on YouTube; she had been a contestant on the reality singing show The Voice. And on Friday night she was signing autographs for fans after a show in Orlando—when someone walked up to her and shot her to death. Gone… just like that. Her brother, who tackled the gunman to the ground, later tweeted that his sister went on to be with the Lord. And all I can say is, “I hope so!” I hope that even though she was young, she was ready to meet the Lord. Because her life was over in a flash, without a moment’s notice.
Friends, our lives are no less fragile than Christina Grimmie’s life; our future is no more certain than hers was; God doesn’t guarantee us a next year, or a next month, or a next week, or even a tomorrow. We know for sure that we only have this moment. What will we do with this moment?
And if that thought scares you, even a little, listen to your fear. God could be trying to use this fear to get your attention.
I remember the night in November of 1983 when God got my attention: like Jacob, God used fear to bring me to a place where I prayed my first real prayer. And I remember praying, “God, I don’t know how to become a Christian. But I know I’m a sinner; I repent of my sins. I want to be saved! I want to know your Son Jesus as my Savior and Lord.” I told my parents that night about what I was going through. They weren’t quite sure what to do about it, but they sent me on a retreat with the youth group two months later, where I heard the gospel presented to me in a way that made sense to me, and—as I’ve told you before—the Lord got a hold of me—perhaps not in the very literal way that he got hold of Jacob in today’s scripture, but it was still pretty dramatic. Like John Wesley, I found my heart “strangely warmed.” I was changed. I was converted. So many of my fears either vanished—or at least eased up.
I want that for you… if you haven’t received Christ. I want that for our Hampton community. I want you to want that for our Hampton community. I want God to instill within us a holy restlessness for bringing the gospel to people in our community. I want us to have a sense of urgency about this mission!
In order to be saved, we must all reach a place similar to the one that Jacob is in in today’s scripture. Jacob’s name, you may recall, means “heel-grabber,” because he was born holding onto the heel of his older twin brother. And he lived up to his name! All his life up to now had been spent “grabbing for” what he thought he needed to be happy. First, he believed that his brother had what he needed to be happy, so he grabbed it for himself. And later he believed that his Uncle Laban had what he needed to be happy, so he grabbed it for himself. He really wanted to be blessed—and he was going to try to secure that blessing even if it meant scheming, swindling, manipulating, lying, and cheating.
In other words, “being blessed” in his mind meant relying on himself, trusting in himself, grabbing the blessing for himself.
And in today’s scripture, he sees that he’s wrong: he sees for the first time that the blessing he really needs is found in God alone. And this blessing from God is worth risking everything—even his own life—in order to receive it.
Why do I say that Jacob is risking his life? Because of what this man, who, as Jacob now realizes, is God in human form, tells him in verse 26: “Let me go,” God says, “for the day has broken.” Why does God tell Jacob that? For the same reason that God tells Moses in Exodus 33:20 that no one can see God’s face and live—something about being so close to God’s holiness and glory would destroy us sinners. As Jacob and God have been wrestling in the dark, God’s face was hidden in the darkness. But as dawn approaches, Jacob gets closer and closer to death. But he doesn’t seem to care.
It’s as if Jacob were saying, “Nothing in life—none of my material possessions, none of my relationships, not even life itself—is more important than your blessing. I’d rather die than live without it. I’d rather die than live without you.”
Which means that now Jacob gets it. Now he realizes that what he needs more than anything else in life is God. All of us have to reach that point in order to be saved. Remember when Jesus encounters the rich young ruler, he says: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Why does Jesus say that? Because wealthy people, like most of us in this room, tend to feel self-sufficient—like Jacob, we trust in ourselves; like Jacob, we feel as if we don’t need whatever it is that God can give us. That’s also why Jesus says that in order to receive the kingdom, we have to become like—what? Children. Young children are under no illusion that they’re responsible for putting food on the table, or paying the mortgage, or paying for medical insurance, or buying their clothes, or driving themselves to school. They are happy to live in complete dependence on their parents.
Likewise, being a Christian means living in complete dependence on God our heavenly Father—or it at least means recognizing that we ought to live that way! Striving to live that way.
The most remarkable part of today’s scripture is what God says in verse 28: He gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “Strives with God.” And then God tells Jacob, “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Wait a minute? Is God saying that Jacob defeated him? Is God is saying that God lost?
Yes. That’s exactly what he’s saying. God was willing to lose if it meant saving the soul of his beloved child Jacob. God won by losing. Do you see that? Now, don’t misunderstand. It says in verse 25 that God merely “touched” Jacob’s hip socket and put his hip out of joint. Clearly, God could have easily destroyed Jacob if he wanted. Certainly, that’s what Jacob’s sins deserved. Jacob himself realizes this: Notice after this wrestling match is over, in verse 30, Jacob doesn’t say, “Yay! Look what I accomplished! Look how I defeated God in this fight!” Maybe the “old” Jacob would have said that. The new Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” In other words, he’s saying, “It’s only by God’s grace that my life has been spared! I deserved to die; I should have died because of my sins; and it’s only by God’s grace that I’m saved.”
Do you see how this wrestling match looks forward to the cross? Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die on the cross; he could have easily saved himself if he wanted. In Matthew’s gospel, when he’s arrested by the temple police, he tells his disciples that, if he wanted, he could call down 12 legions of angels—72 thousand angels—to rescue him and utterly destroy all the soldiers and political and religious leaders who’ve arrested him and who would soon have him nailed to the cross. He could have done that, but he didn’t. Why? Because, like God in today’s scripture, he didn’t want to destroy them; he wanted to save them. Which meant suffering and dying on the cross. Which meant losing in order to win.
And Jesus Christ wants to save you and me. And Jesus Christ wants to save Hampton, Georgia, and surrounding area. And Jesus Christ wants to save this world that he loves, and he’s calling us at Hampton United Methodist Church to help him do it! Will you answer that call?
Christ’s defeat means our victory. His death means our life. His hell means our heaven. Amen.