Unless you go to the theater regularly, you may not be used to thinking of stories in terms of acts. But most of the stories you read, or dramatic movies and TV shows you see, are presented in a three-act structure. In Act One we're introduced to the characters and their setting. Things are normal, but then—a crisis! A danger or villain or problem is played out before us until it seems insurmountable. When the first act ends, the audience looks at one another with raised eyebrows—a look that says, "How are they going to get out of that mess?"
In Act Two the plot thickens. Perhaps the hero is making her way toward a solution and then—wham!—there's a twist that makes things even worse. Perhaps there are several twists. What is she going to do? Things have gone from bad to worse. Then the curtain closes, or on TV, the commercials run.
In Act Three everything starts building to a climax—the final battle, the showdown in the courtroom, the big game. Then, it's over. The story is resolved, and the loose ends are tied up. The curtain comes down, you close the book, or the credits run, and you look at your friend with a satisfied smile. "That was good!" you say.
As we return to our study of the life of Jacob, we step into the first act of a classic three-act story that stretches through Genesis 32-33. You remember the back story. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, cheated his older twin brother, Esau, out of the great blessing of God—a blessing God would have given to him without all the shenanigans. Esau was angry enough to kill Jacob, so Jacob went into exile for 20 years. Now he's coming home, but he has to face Esau.
This story is useful to us because we all regularly have our own three-act dramas. A man moved his whole family to Chicago for a new job, but the economy soon flattened his company. His wife had warned him that things looked precarious, but he wouldn't listen. Now what is he going to do? He's in Act One.
Or what about the woman who discovers her little boy is autistic? She can't imagine what the future will be like and keeps wondering if somehow this is her fault. She's in Act One.
Consider the student who has just started graduate school and is now overwhelmed by the workload. He realizes how little he prayed about his decision and wonders if he has made a terrible mistake. He's in Act One.
A fair number of you are in Act One of a story in your life. Something has come up that is frightening—maybe something you never saw coming—and you wonder what the future holds. Jacob's story will have something to say to you, if you listen closely over the next few sermons.
Even if you're facing a crisis of your own making, God is on your side.
Act One—Genesis 32:1-21—looks great at the beginning. But then things take a bad turn. Act Two, which we'll study in the next sermon, is the unexpected twist—when things go from bad to worse, as Jacob is ambushed in the night by a mysterious man and has to fight for his life. Act Three, then, is what happens when the two brothers finally meet.
Here's the point I'd like us to consider from our text today: when you're living in the crisis of Act One, with no idea what the ending of your story will be like, nothing you can do is so important to the outcome as praying well.
As you read the text, you realize that Jacob's problem wasn't just that Esau was coming with an army of 400; it's that Jacob knew Esau had a good reason to hate him! Jacob was reaping what he had sown 20 years earlier. It's hard enough to cope and pray when you feel like the innocent victim of a crisis, but when you know that the crisis you're facing is at least partly your own doing, it's hard to know just what we can trust God to do for us. Maybe God wants us to get clobbered to teach us a lesson! But here's a lesson we learn from this passage: in some ways, God plays favorites.
Because playing favorites has such negative connotations in our society, let me offer a word of clarification. When God plays favorites, it's called grace. God's favorites are those who have trusted his Son, Jesus Christ, to save them. That's why the Father sent the Son, so that we might have our sins forgiven and be reconciled to God and counted as his own sons and daughters. His favorites. In this story, what Jacob doesn't understand is that God won't treat him as his deeds deserve, but will rather treat him as a favored son. Jacob doesn't realize that God is on his side. That means that in the end, when the curtain falls on Act Three, you'll be smiling. God's favor means there will be a happy, blessed ending.
One way God showed Jacob that he was on his side was through the appearance of angels in verses 1 and 2. For the second time in Jacob's life, God pulled back the curtain so Jacob could see the angels that surrounded him. The first time was the night when Jacob was leaving his home. He had a dream where he saw angels ascending and descending on a great ladder to heaven (with God standing at the top). Now, just as he is returning home after being away for 20 years, Jacob meets angels yet again. If the angels were camped about him, then God was near him, too, right at the top of the heavenly stairs.
Angels are around a lot more than we realize. In fact, I think they are always around. But since we don't see them, nor understand them very well, we don't factor them into our lives. But know this: God's angels camp near you, just as they camped near Jacob. Psalm 91 says, "If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the Lord, who is my refuge— then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
Do you remember the story about Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:15-17? Let me read it for you:
The King of Aram was so angry with Elisha that he sent a whole army to capture him. When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O Lord, open his eyes so he may see." Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
This is true even for us: "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." God's own angels have got your back. And this is because God plays favorites, and we who know Christ are his favorites. God is on our side!
When your future is frightening, nothing you do matters as much as praying well.
Into this idyllic situation comes the Act One drama. Esau was going to meet with Jacob, and he had 400 men with him. Jacob was terrified, so he did three things. First of all, verse 7 says, "He divided the people who were with him into two groups." This was so that at least half the people might escape. Secondly, verses 9-12 say he prayed. Finally, verses 13-21 say he sent waves of gifts ahead of him to "pacify" Esau before they met.
We do the same kinds of things when we're in the crisis of an Act One situation. We take every precaution we can think of. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but in Jacob's case, two of the precautions he took proved unnecessary. One, however—his decision to engage in prayer—changed the outcome of the whole story. The lesson is clear: when your future is frightening, nothing you do matters so much as praying well.
A study buddy of mine pointed out that this is the greatest prayer in the Book of Genesis. And who prays it? Noah? Abraham? Joseph? Nope. Jacob. This prayer is uttered by the guy who is more like you and me than anyone else in this book. Three-steps-forward, two-steps-back Jacob. Jacob, the slick and sly. Leave-it-to-me-Jacob prays one of the great prayers of the Bible.
It often takes a crisis to get us to sit down and concentrate on praying, doesn't it? I read recently that nearly half of all pastors do not regularly sit down for a dedicated time of prayer. They pray on the run—"short prayers throughout the day," the survey said. I can only assume laymen do the same. We all do—except when we're afraid. When we are afraid, we sit down, close the door—maybe even kneel—and we pray. We pray hard. Fear is often the front door to the school of prayer. Like Jacob, we stop and think soberly about our prayer—who we're speaking to, where we stand with him, what he has said that we can lay hold of. We sort out what we really want God to do.
What makes a prayer great? Frederick Buechner has a few thoughts on this as he begins his book On the Road with the Archangel:
I am Raphael, one of the seven archangels who pass in and out of the presence of the Holy One, blessed be he. I bring him the prayers of all who pray and those who don't even know that they're praying.
Some prayers I hold out as far from me as my arm will reach, the way a woman holds a dead mouse by the tail when she removes it from the kitchen. Some, like flowers, are almost too beautiful to touch, and others so aflame that I'd be afraid of their setting me on fire if I weren't already more like fire than I am like anything else. There are prayers of such power that you might almost say they carry me rather than the other way round—the way a bird with outstretched wings is carried higher and higher on the back of the wind. There are prayers so apologetic and shamefaced and half-hearted that they all but melt away in my grasp like sad little flakes of snow. Some prayers are very boring.
Jacob prayed a flamingprayer—not because it was long and complex and comprised of lofty language, but because it came from a God-oriented heart. And this prayer carried Jacob's fear into the heart of God's grace.
You can pray well by using the same elements that Jacob did. First of all, talk to the Lord as the covenant-keeping God. Do you see how Jacob begins his prayer in verse 9? I don't think Jacob's point is simply that he is praying to the same God as his forefathers. He is praying to the God who made an everlasting covenant with his grandfather and father. When you pray, start by recognizing who you're talking to. Talk to God about who he is, what he has promised, and what he has done for you and others in the past. Dwell on that until your faith finds its footing.
Next, humble yourself in view of God's grace. The risky part of Jacob's prayer is found in verse 10. You can't just talk a humble game. It's never easy for us to get to a sincere, "I am unworthy." To get ourselves down to size, we need to take enough time to truly consider the Lord's grace and our unworthiness. This isn't about groveling. It is truth-facing. Think of where you were—what you were—when God found and saved you. What has God done for you? Did you deserve what God gave you? Were you worthy? Sort that all out before God in prayer. Consider the words of Isaiah 57:15: "For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'"
Finally, based on his promises scattered throughout salvation history, ask God to save you from whatever is confronting you. Isn't that what Jacob does in verses 11-12? There is nothing wrong with the simple prayer, "O Lord, save me!" But what makes Jacob's prayer great is the way he ties his plea for God's deliverance to God's own promises to make from him a great nation. Jacob is not actually praying for his own life at this point—at least not primarily. He's praying for the lives of his children. If Esau should attack and kill them, then God's promise of a great nation would die with them. When we pray well, we search our memories and our Bibles for the promises of God, and we hammer our prayers deep into those promises.
What was it Raphael said at the start of Buechner's story? "There are prayers of such power that you might almost say they carry me rather than the other way round." Remember our three frightened friends in the first act of their dramas? The man who moved to Chicago only to lose his job might pray: "O Lord, we just moved here and now my job is gone. You tell me not to be afraid, that you care for us more than the sparrows. You tell me to cast all my cares on you because you care for me. You promise not to withhold any good thing from those who love you. So Lord, one way or another, in a way that shows how great you are, take care of my family!"
The mother with the autistic child might pray: "Heavenly Father, I know you love my little one, and this is in your hands. Jesus invited children to be blessed, and I know he will bless my child, too. Jesus promised that my child is guarded by an angel who always sees you and my baby at the same time. But I am afraid for the future. How can I be a mother to a child with these needs? Father, teach me how to parent and love this child, and give me joy and peace in this walk."
The overwhelmed student might pray: "Lord Jesus, I was so sure you opened the door for me to be in school here, but now I'm not sure I can do this. You promised that if any of us lack wisdom we can ask you for it, and you'll give it. You promised to give your strength to the weak. You promised that if I trust in you with all my heart, you will direct my steps. Rescue me, Lord! Whether you want me here or somewhere else, I want to serve you and I will put all my hope in you."
Act One has come to a close, and questions still remain, the danger still marches toward us, and there are more unsettling twists in the story yet ahead. But already the direction of the story has been set—not by all the precautions we take or plans we put in motion, but because we pray to our great covenant-keeping God.
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.