The prospect of wrestling with God is not all that pleasant. Consider the man who knows God is calling him out on his abrupt and unfeeling ways at home, and he does not want to face him. Then there's the woman who knows her simmering resentment has gone as far as God will allow. Or what about the man who has moved heaven and earth to control his life, and now God has added the back-breaking last straw? Consider also the woman who knows God has a different agenda for her future than the one she's nourished, and now it is high noon. And then there's the student who knows the sinning must stop, and God has now summoned him to his office.
I repeat: the prospect of wrestling with God is not all that pleasant. We've thought about that the last two sermons in our study of Jacob. Sooner or later God comes after us aggressively, just like he did with Jacob in that dark night. If Jacob's wrestling with God is any model for our own—and it surely is—for a while we wrestle to get free of God, and then we wrestle to hang on to him. God wounds us, if he must, till we can fight him no longer. Then, from deep within, we give voice to the same yearning Jacob uttered: "God, I will not let you go unless you bless me!" Finally, after what seems like a lifetime of striving with God and man, we receive the blessing
Jacob named the site of his wrestling Peniel—"Face of God"—because, as he said, "I saw God face to face and my life was delivered." He didn't mean that in spite of seeing God up close and personal, he lived, but rather because of seeing God's face, his life was saved. And it wasn't the physical face of the other wrestler that he meant, either. Jacob saw the shining face of God's blessing, spoken of in the great blessing of Numbers 6. As we discovered in the last sermon, the narrator of this story says as much in verse 31: "The sun rose above him [like the face of God] as he passed Peniel [which means 'Face of God'], and he was limping because of his hip."
It is not all that pleasant to wrestle with God—to be forced by the Almighty to face who we are and what we're like, to be wounded till we surrender to him—but that's the only way he can bless us. We have to stop doing life our own way and trust him. But then what? What happens the next day? What lies ahead once we've struggled with God and God has struggled with us till we've both lost and both won? The next chapter in Jacob's story, Genesis 33, illustrates what it is like to walk under the sunshine of God's blessed smile.
God's grace gives us faith to face our fears.
The terrifying prospect that arose in Act One of this drama is now upon Jacob in the first verse of Genesis 33: "Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men." When Jacob had last seen Esau, 20 years earlier, Esau was determined to kill him. The 400 men he was bringing with him was ample proof that Esau knew how to feed a grudge! Knowing this, Jacob puts his little clan in order and sends them forward. And then Jacob does something unthinkable: he goes up against 401 men alone—with nothing to defend himself but his faith in the smiling God he met the night before.
That's what God can do for us: God's grace gives us faith to face our fears. I don't mean God's grace gives us the power of positive thinking—a grinning optimism or a really good feeling that things will work out. I mean God's grace gives us a faith in the God who saves. Jacob had prayed to God in Genesis 32:11, "Save me from the hand of my brother." Then after his night with God, he had said in 32:30, "I saw God face to face and my life was saved." When he goes out to face Esau, then, he is confident that God has already saved him. We sing that same idea in the old hymn: "Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, 'It is well, it is well with my soul.'"
We all face terrors and anxieties, and we all have learned that trusting God isn't easy. Putting our fears into God's hand is something like trying to tuck an octopus into bed. So, rather than focusing on our fears in our prayers, we ought to focus on our God. In order to think well about God, we need our Bibles—the Psalms, the stories of Jesus, the great truths of our faith in the Epistles, or Isaiah's words of comfort. We need to work the Bible's truth into our fears like we would salve into a sore.
Once our eyes are fixed on Jesus, then we can tell him every single angle on our fear or problem that we can identify. Philippians 4:5 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." We should take time to truly thank God for who he is, what he's done, what he's promised, and Paul promises us that "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus." Go ahead—try it and see!
One of the wonders of God's grace is how God can give us peace in the face of terrifying things. Ours isn't a faith that believes nothing bad will ever happen, but that nothing can harm us if God has saved us.
I once visited two friends in the hospital, Jim and Evy Stamoolis. Jim was really sick, and no one knew why. He was bloated with over thirty pounds of fluid. The possibility of lymphoma had been mentioned. At his bedside I read the story from Mark 4 about the storm at sea—the one where the disciples were terrified they would die, and Jesus was sleeping in the back of the boat. When in their panic they woke Jesus, he rebuked the sea till it lay still, and then he rebuked the disciples for their "little faith"—not because they didn't still the sea themselves, but because they didn't believe that they were safe as long as he was in the boat. I told Jim and Evy that night that it is a miracle indeed when God delivers someone from a deadly situation, but it is even a greater miracle, I think, when he gives his people peace no matter what the outcome. And that's exactly what's happening in Jacob as, alone, he walks by God's grace to meet Esau and his 400 men.
God's grace runs to embrace you.
What happens next is a stunner—the surprise ending that, if you didn't already know it, would leave you teary and sniffling. When Jacob spots Esau from hundreds of yards away, Jacob begins to make his way toward his brother, bowing every so often, seven times in all. All the while, 400 men watch with their hands working the handles of their swords. Behind Jacob is his family. Mothers hush their kids and put heavy hands on boys' shoulders. The air is still and heavy and hot. Then, the ending no one expected. Verse 4: "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept." The next verses just drip with grace.
Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. "Who are these with you?" he asked.
Jacob answered, "They are the children God has graciously given your servant."
then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.
Esau asked, "What do you mean by all these droves I met?"
"To find favor in your eyes, my lord," he said.
But Esau said, "I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself."
"No, please!" said Jacob. "If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need." And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Here's the lesson: once we've surrendered to God and received his blessing, God's grace runs to embrace us. Grace fills life with surprises—undeserved, unearned, unexpected gifts of eye-popping proportions.
Jacob and Esau had the nitro-glycerin of relationships—hatred from Esau, fear from Jacob. It was an explosion waiting to happen. But God miraculously neutralized both forces. God's grace is the wonder drug for relationships. We know how God's grace changed Jacob, but we don't know how it was that God changed Esau. I suppose Esau might have brought 400 men with him for protection, but I doubt it. I think he was fuming when he left home, and fuming when we came near. But somehow, in answer to Jacob's prayer—in an act of grace toward Esau as much as Jacob—God transformed Esau's heart, leaving those 400 menacing men standing there looking at each other as if to say, "Now what do we do?"
God shows his might most vividly when his grace changes hearts. Creating the world in six days, holding the sun still, multiplying bread, walking on water—all kids' stuff compared to what God does to change hearts like he did here! God will do that in our lives—to us and even to those whom we fear. Our faith in Christ Jesus has brought us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit changes who we are and how we respond to life.
Grace also humbles us without crushing us. There is a strange thing hidden between the lines of this story. God had told these boys' mother that Esau would serve Jacob, and when Isaac blessed Jacob, he said the same thing. Esau would bow to Jacob. Yet here is Jacob, bowing down seven times as he approached Esau—the way a man would approach a king. Some see fawning fear in that. I see grace. I see a man humbled by God. A man willing to bow so that he might be reconciled. A man who has become a servant but not a doormat. A man beautifully, righteously humble enough to bow to his brother as to a king.
Grace also heals inflamed memories. Both these men had some bad memories, vengeful or fearful, that they were carrying into this encounter like burning arrows. Memories are like that. They are dangerous, toxic. But somehow these two brothers who had fought even in the womb are suddenly hugging and weeping, making introductions all around and giving gifts. That's what God does when we give his grace room to work.
God's grace at work in us also releases God's blessing. The translation of verse 11 in the NIV is unfortunate: "Please accept the present that was brought to you." The Hebrew word is "blessing." "Please accept my blessing that is brought to you." That's that word again, so central to the life of Jacob: blessing. It is what he connived to steal from Esau in the first place. Having been a recipient of God's grace—and Esau's—Jacob now turns God's blessing back on his brother in the form of an extravagant gift. I often say that we as Christians are agents of God's grace. What we have received from Jesus—forgiveness, blessing, hope, peace, love—we turn back on others, giving them not something of ours exactly, but something of God's, entrusted to us.
In verse 10, Jacob says, "For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably." "Face of God," of course, is the name he gave the place he had spent the night. He had just seen God's face. So what does Jacob mean when he says this? He doesn't mean that Esau looked like God to him. He is saying that when he looked at Esau, face tear-stained and grinning, restored and forgiving, he saw the face of God's grace. He saw God's grace at work before his eyes. In other words, grace is the face of God. What Jacob meant was, "To look at you is like looking God's grace in the face."
Wouldn't you like an experience like Jacob's? Jesus told of a prodigal son—not too different from Jacob, not too different from us—who also trudged home in fear. This son saw his father running toward him just as Esau had run toward Jacob. This prodigal was stunned to be embraced, just as Jacob had been. In fact, Jesus used words almost identical to the words used in the account of Jacob and Esau. In the grace of the father who ran to welcome and honor his prodigal son, we see the face of God. And we have seen the face of God in Jesus, when we bowed before him and found him embracing us, loving us, forgiving us. This picture—Jacob and Esau together—is what God's grace looks like.
Grace will lead us home.
The next few verses, verses 12-19, describe how Esau returned to his home in the south, while Jacob finally makes his way to the land God had promised to give him. It underscores another benefit of God's grace. In the language of John Newton: "Thru many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home." Grace will always lead us home.
Esau invited Jacob to come down to his place, but Jacob demurred and set out for Shechem, where he settled. God had told him to return to the land, and he did. The Promised Land was a big part of God's blessing to Jacob. John Cheever writes, "Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time …. You don't really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don't have, or haven't been able to find."
Where is home for us today—for those who have put their faith in Christ? Where is our home when we come from every tribe and language and people and land? Our home in this life is the church. In a good church, big or small, whatever language is spoken or whatever songs are sung, you feel you are home. I know full well that churches do not always feel that way, and some are terrible homes to be part of, but that doesn't change that it is God's plan for us. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:22, God wants us to be the "dwelling in which Christ lives by his Spirit." When people are born again, God gives us an instinct in our spiritual DNA that we belong with other believers in a local church. Christians who try to live without a church are spiritual vagabonds and hobos.
Ultimately, our homeland is with Jesus in heaven. That is our land. Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, once wrote a poem that draws on Psalm 116:15. The poem was read at the funeral of Velma Barfield, a convicted murderer who found Christ:
As the eager parents wait
The homing of their child
From far lands desolate,
From living wild;
Wounded and wounding along the way,
Their sorrow for sin ignored,
From stain and strain of night and day
To home assured,
So the Heavenly Father waits
The homing of His childv Thrown wide those Heavenly Gates
In welcome glorious wild!
His, His the joy by right—
once crucified, reviled—
So, precious in God's sight
Is the death of his child.
We must establish landmarks to remember God's grace.
When Jacob finally got home, after all the long years and struggles with God and man, he was no longer really Jacob. He was Israel. He was born again, you might say. He was newly minted—recreated by the grace of God. There he built an altar, and he gave that pile of rocks a name: God is the God of Israel. God Is My God. "Here is where I learned that," he was saying. "Here is where I saw God at his grace-filled, grace-working best. I resolve never to forget this place."
You have places like that in your life, if you've come to know Christ. The first is that place where you first met Jesus—praying with your mother, some moment at a youth group meeting, a lonely walk, a visit with a caring friend. And that hour that you first believed deserves a marker, a monument. There have been other moments, for sure. When they happen, they are so wonderful, so miraculous, that we are sure we'll never forget. But we can and we do. Jacob wanted to be sure that not only would he remember this place, but that his heirs would as well.
The prospect of wrestling with God is not all that pleasant, but how sweet it is to walk out into the sunshine of God's smile, even if we're limping! How wonderful it is when God's grace replaces our fears with faith, when his grace runs to embrace you and surprise you, and when God's grace leads us home.
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.