This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
A blessing is a mysterious thing. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's narrator is an elderly pastor named John Ames. Ames lives in a small Iowa town called Gilead. His best friend, Boughton, is also a pastor in that town. They are so close that Boughton names his son after his friend: John Ames Boughton. But the boy grows up to be a disappointment—a scoundrel, in many ways. This obviously poses a problem for the pastor he's named after. It's hard not to take it personally when your namesake ruins your name! The boy, now grown, comes home to visit his dying father. Things don't go well, and he decides to slip out of town. Pastor John meets up with him and walks him to the bus depot. He gives the younger man a little money, and they wait for the bus together. Robinson writes:
Then I said, "The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you."
He shrugged. "What would that involve?"
"Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—." There were a few people on the street.
"No, no," he said. "That doesn't matter." And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course: "The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn't open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, "Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father." Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
"Thank you, Reverend," he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I'd have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment. He just studied me, in that way he has. Then the bus came. I said, "We all love you, you know," and he laughed and said, "You're all saints." He stopped in the door and lifted his hat, and then he was gone, God bless him.
If that were a true story, would that young man go forth blessed? Would he get what was given? Did God in fact bless him? It's an important question, because in many ways, that story is a Jacob story.
This week we pick up where we left off last week in the story of Jacob wrestling with the Lord. The Bible says a man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. Have you ever seen two people fight over nothing? It seems like that is what happened there by the Jabbok River. There was nothing more Jacob wanted than to be blessed by God. That's what drove everything he did in life, from birth onward. He wanted the great blessings God had first given Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, and father, Isaac. Likewise, there was nothing God wanted to do more than to bless Jacob. In fact, he had blessed him numerous times before—his family, his prosperity, the way he prevailed over Laban. So what were they wrestling over?
The problem with God's blessing on our life is not that we don't want it or that God doesn't want to give it. The problem is that we don't realize what is required for us to receive it. That's why I wonder what will happen to John Ames Boughton in the story I mentioned moments ago. He was blessed, but would he receive that blessing?
The way Jacob had tried to get God's blessing all his life was by heel-grabbing (which, as we've learned, is what Jacob's name means). He gained God's blessing by deceiving and conniving others. His theory was that to get God's blessing, you had to get there ahead of everyone else. The blessing goes to the winner. But that was where things went wrong.
The other problem Jacob had is that in spite of all God's promises of blessing throughout his life, Jacob didn't trust God. He believed in God, but he didn't trust God's promises. Why else would he cry out in his wrestling, "I will not let you go unless you bless me"? We want to say, "You are blessed, Jacob! You just don't believe it!" With God, you cannot enjoy his blessings if you don't trust him.
As I've said before, Jacob is an everyman. In these two blessing-busting weaknesses, he is like us: (1) thinking God's blessings must be achieved, and (2) not trusting God's promises. That is why God wrestled with Jacob by the Jabbok River, and it's why God will wrestle with you and me. Today I want to show you what it takes for God to bless us.
To bless us, God must disable us.
Jacob wrestled with God, because he thought that was the only way to get God's blessing. He had been grabbing heels to get ahead all his life, and here he was grabbing God's heel. "I will not let you go unless you bless me," he said. I picture him sprawled out on the ground, both arms locked around God's leg while God tries to get away. He had to prevail over God like he had prevailed over everyone else. The blessing of God goes to life's winner, right? To the person who has fought God and man for it? That was Jacob's manner of thinking.
It is in our blood to think the same thing. We think that God will bless us if we're good, if we try harder, if we jump through the hoops, if we keep the rules. Surely, God smiles on the girl with the most gold stars and the boy with the most trophies—and not on the losers who never tried.
In order to make us see that God's blessing is all about God's grace and nothing about our achievements, God will disable you if he must. He will cripple your star-making talent, your trophy-winning skill. Just as he touched Jacob's hip so that he collapsed and had to stop wrestling for the win, so God will touch us somehow. He will disable us.
Do you have a blessed limp? God has disabled me several times. I once asked my son how he would characterize me in a word. "Overachiever," he said. True, perhaps, but this overachiever was fired from a ministry job. Twice. I still limp from those events. I'm not nearly as self-assured as I was once.
I have other hip-wrenching stories, but I suspect you have your own. Grace is at work in these limps, but it is a strange kind of grace that disables us to bless us. It is because the blessing of God does not go to the winners, but to those who surrender to God. Not to the strong but to the weak. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul wrote, "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."
Has God disabled you? Has he taken away an ability, a strength, a position you've depended on for success and significance? Consider yourself blessed!
To bless us, God must change our identity.
R. C. Sproul shares the story of a college student he once taught who had cerebral palsy. You know what that looks like—spastic movements and garbled speech. But as is often the case, this student was very bright and capable. Sproul writes:
One day he came to me vexed with a problem and asked me to pray for him. In the course of the prayer, I said something routine, with words like, "Oh, God, please help this man as he wrestles with this problem." When I opened my eyes the student was quietly weeping.
I asked him what was wrong and he stammered his reply, "You called me a man—no one has ever called me a man before."
Giving that man a different identity changed the way he wrestled. Something like that happened to Jacob in his quest for God's blessing. Consider what happens in verses 27-28, when God gives Jacob a new name. We spent a lot of time on this strange name in the previous sermon. While the verse leads us to assume "Israel" means "he struggles with God," it actually means, "God struggles." In a sense, it doesn't matter which it is. If God struggles with me, I'll have to struggle back. The point is that Jacob the Heel-Grabber and Deceiver, becomes known as Israel, God-Wrestler (as Eugene Peterson's The Message puts it). It is a dubious name at best. I myself would prefer Rock or Prince or Son of Thunder. But it fit Jacob, it fits the nation he fathered, and it fits us. The point of this new name, as strange as it is, is that this man would be known henceforth by his connection with God, even though the connection is a wrestling match.
Even though our relationship with God is a sweat-stained, spirit-wearying, wrestling relationship, we are not what we once were. Our relationship with God in this life will never be easy. My will and his clash often. But we are locked together till this life is over. It is only God-Wrestlers whom God can bless. It's messy, but that's the way it is!
To bless us, God's face shines upon us.
Verse 29 is strange. Why did the stranger ask, "What is your name?" In the Bible, a name sums a person up. The name that sums up God is beyond our reach. So why even put that exchange in the story? It's there to remind us that while the Lord will not reveal his name, he does reveal himself.
I puzzled over the simple statement, "Then he blessed him there." I want to know what the stranger said in the blessing! But what he said wasn't the point. Look at verse 30. The translation we have is a little misleading. It leads us to believe that Jacob believed he'd somehow survived in spite of seeing God up close and personal. But that's not quite right.
Remember when Jacob heard his brother Esau was coming with 400 men? In verse 11 he had prayed, "Save me from the hand of my brother." That same word is here in verse 30: "I saw God face to face and my life was saved." His life wasn't saved in spite of seeing God face to face. His life was saved because he saw God face to face. The blessing Jacob received was seeing God's face. But even still, that isn't the point of the passage. Remember the great blessing God told Aaron to pronounce over his people in Numbers 6? "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace." Look at how the author puts what happens next. Verse 31: "The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel (which means, "Face of God"), and he was limping because of his hip." The poet who wrote this meant for us to see a connection between the sight of God's face and the rising sun.
The blessing Jacob received was the certainty that God was shining his grace and peace upon him. The blessing of God had always been on his life, but now—having seen God's face shining upon him—he was able to believe it. And once he believed God's face was really shining upon him, he knew he was saved. Esau posed no threat, because he was certain God was with him.
How do we see the faith-producing sunshine of God's face? We must draw near to Jesus. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that "the knowledge of the glory of God [is] in the face of Christ." Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus! Read the stories and words of Jesus in the Gospels. Read how the rest of the Bible describes him. And then spend time with him.
For you and me, Jesus is that unknown man who ambushed us—the one Charles Wesley called "O thou Traveler unknown." In that hymn he sees himself as Jacob and Jesus as the one with whom he wrestles. Wesley writes:
My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand.
And finally, Wesley names the unknown Traveler:
I know thee, Savior, who thou art,
Jesus, the feeble sinner's friend;
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay and love me to the end:
Thy mercies never shall remove,
Thy nature and thy name is Love.
In the story I read to you at the beginning, what would it take for that young man to be blessed? For one thing, he had to want to be blessed. For another, God's blessing had to be given—which it was. But the question is, did he receive it?
I love giving benedictions—one expression of God's blessing on his people. Recently we had some people over who were relatively new to our church. I always go around the circle and ask, "What was one of your first impressions of our church?" That night, one woman said, "The blessing you gave us at the end of the service. In all my years of going to church, I'm not sure I had ever been blessed like that before."
Last spring I spent an hour one day visiting with students about the spoken blessing of God. I appreciated what one student said: "In chapel when the service is over and we're asked to stand for the benediction, some students are busy gathering up their things. But I always stop and focus so I can receive the blessing."
To receive God's blessing—not just the benediction, but every expression of God's blessing—there are two things required of us. First of all, we must stop our own striving and heel-grabbing, and rest on God's grace. His blessing is entirely an unearned gift. Secondly, we must trust his Word—trust that he will give what he's promised us.
It is not easy, even for Almighty God, to wrestle us into receiving the blessing he wants to give (and we so desperately want to have). It reminds me of an Australian prize fighter that I read about. He wired his father after a bout, saying, "Won easily in 84 rounds." Maybe that's how God felt when he vanished from Jacob's presence, and how he feels about his bouts with you and me: "Won easily in 84 rounds."
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.