Ten years ago I had an experience that changed my life in a profound way. I was working at a Christian camp in the mountains of L.A. I lived in this cabin with fourteen other guys. We all served as lifeguards on the lake there. One night at midnight we received a phone call. Someone was missing: 21-year-old Samson Washington. Samson came up from inner city L.A. as a camp counselor for the week with junior high students from his church. He had been missing since noon. We assembled on the lake.
There were two theories on where Samson Washington was. One theory was that Samson was lost in the mountains. He had said he wanted to go for a hike. Maybe he had gotten lost or was hurt in the mountains. There were already search parties and rescue teams looking for him there. The other theory was that maybe Samson Washington had never come out of the lake. He had last been seen swimming. So I and the fourteen guys from my cabin, along with the female lifeguards, assembled along the shore of the lake. When the head lifeguard gave the signal, our job was to take two steps forward in the lake and search the bottom to see if we felt anything. We thought this was just a precautionary measure—a double check to make sure there was nothing there.
I was with a team of five people in the deep end of the lake. When the head lifeguard signaled, we dove down to the bottom of the lake, took two big strokes, feeling the bottom of the lake, the sandy floor, then we'd shoot back up to the top, tread water, and do it again on the lifeguard's signal.
It had been half an hour; it was now 12:30. We were cold. Nothing had turned up. We received the lifeguard's signal again, and we dove down and felt the sandy bottom of the lake. I didn't feel anything, but as I shot back to the top of the water, the guy next to me, Steve, shouted, "Everyone get out of the water! Everyone get out of the water!" It was like a scene from the movie Jaws. Everyone lost all form; we were all crazy and panicked.
I was the one person who stayed in the water with Steve. Everyone else got out. I stayed in the water because I saw that Steve was holding in his hand another man's hand—the hand of 21-year-old Samson Washington, who drowned earlier that day in the lake. I swam over to Steve and picked up Samson Washington's body. I held his torso in my arms, his head against my chest. Rigor mortis had already set in; his body was stiff. Steve and I carried Samson's body to the shore and covered him in towels. I finally got to sleep about 4:00 a.m. that morning.
The next week was a very significant week in my life, because I learned about Samson Washington's life. From inner city L.A., he was a drug dealer, he was a gang member, and he had lived a wild, reckless life. But a few years earlier, Samson had met Jesus, and the grace of Jesus had radically transformed this man. He devoted his life to helping other inner city youth. Hearing about Samson's life made me think about my own life and how I did not know God's grace like this man did. I had become a Christian as a young boy and I grew up in a Christian home, but I didn't know grace like that. I hadn't radically transformed.
The last ten years of my life have been a journey deeper into God's grace. Sometimes I think my story is a lot like Jacob's story from the Bible. Jacob was a stubborn, restless man who had to live a lot of life and get wrestled to the ground before he came to understand God's grace and what it was he was put on this earth to do.
I want to go after our restlessness this morning. It was St. Augustine in the fourth century who said, "God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." St. Augustine wasn't saying, "Once we find rest in God, we will sit on the couch for the rest of our lives." He was saying that once we find deep rest in God, we're released and set free to be the people that God has called us to be. Rest and release.
Here's Jacob's story—imagine that it's your story. There are two sons in the family: Jacob is the younger brother to Esau. They're sons of Isaac and Rebecca. Esau is a skillful hunter, an outdoorsman. And the Bible says that Jacob is a quiet man, dwelling in tents, a domesticated guy. Jacob's dad, Isaac, loves Esau but doesn't love Jacob. Jacob's more of a mama's boy.
When they were fairly young, Jacob so wrongs his brother Esau, that Esau wants to kill him. So Jacob flees far away to another country to start a new life. He has many troubles in the far country. He's deceived by his uncle, Laban. He has two wives who are always fighting. Men, you should never have two wives, but if you're going to, they shouldn't be sisters. But Jacob does prosper in the far country. He goes with nothing, but once there, he accumulates all this wealth. And he has lots of children—eleven kids. In the ancient world, this is a guy who had it all: he has wealth, he has wives, he has kids. But Jacob is still not home. He is still restless; he is still searching for something. It's been twenty years since Jacob left home, and now he decides to return.
So Jacob travels west, and Esau hears that Jacob's coming home. Jacob learns that Esau is coming towards him with four hundred men. That's a war party. Remember, the last time these two brothers saw each other, Esau wanted to murder Jacob, because Jacob had cheated him. Jacob, the man who has always been in control of his life is more afraid than he's ever been before. So he makes a game plan. He plans to divide up his wives, his kids, his servants, and all of his possessions into different camps, so that if Esau attacks, only one group might get taken.
For his whole life, Jacob's been trying to manage things for himself, and he's doing it again. His whole life he's been searching for something but he's never found it. But now he is facing a situation that is totally beyond him, and on this dark night at the river, everything changes in Jacob's life.
We are a lot like Jacob, and my hope is that what happened to Jacob on this dark night at the river might happen in our lives.
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
How can we know God in such a way that we have rest and release? There are three steps: the encounter, the blessing, and the wound.
The Jabbok River is a river that flows west through Gilead between a deep cleft in the rocks in the mountains. I've seen pictures of it and it's an eerie place. Jacob sends his family and his servants ahead of him across the river so that he can be alone. He has business to do with God. An encounter needs to take place.
We need community. We need the church. I am a man who has given his life to the local church; I love the church. But sometimes we must encounter God alone, one on one. Some people try to live off of a group-faith in God. They love coming to church; they love the preaching; they love the worship music; they love their church friends. But when the rubber meets the road, it's easy for those people to fall off the wagon. You learn that all along they've been living off of a group-faith and the atmosphere of the church; they've never met God personally.
Some people try to live off of a circumstances-faith in God. It's easy to be a faithful believer when circumstances are great. You have plenty of money, you get a promotion at your job, you have good health, you have lots of friends. But then the circumstances change: your health gives way, you lose some money, you lose your job, you lose your spouse. You realize that you were deeply in love with your circumstances but not with God.
Some people try to live with a stiff-arm towards God. You might like God or even claim to love him, but you hope he stays an arm's length away. You don't want him to get too close. You want to keep your life separate from him.
Jacob is alone by the river. He is without people. There is always noise around this man, with his wives, his children, his servants. But there are no people here. He is without his possessions and his wealth. All of those things have been sent ahead. Jacob is facing a situation that is totally beyond himself. He's finally realizing that his people, his possessions, his protection, his strength, his resources—none of it is enough. He can't fix the problem he's facing. He needs help.
There's a desire to be alone, to encounter God. Jacob has always believed in God. He learned about God from his dysfunctional family. We see a few prayers from Jacob in the Scriptures, but he's always referring to God as "the God of my father, Abraham, the God of my father, Isaac." Jacob has never known God for himself. God has been distant. Jacob's always tried to run his own life.
On this night, God interferes. A relationship with God always starts with God. God finds us; we don't find God. Under the darkness of night, a wrestler pounces on Jacob. We eventually discover the identity of this wrestler—that this wrestler is God. Here we see the real God, a God you can't keep at arm's length, a God whose presence doesn't necessarily ease your life. This is a true encounter with God: a radical disruption. You must meet him alone, apart from others, apart from comfortable circumstances, without your protective shell. You must feel his grip on the back of your neck.
Now comes the blessing. One of the best ways to get to know someone is to ask about his or her relationship with their dad. I do this especially with men. I sit down with a man for coffee and I say, "Tell me about your dad. Tell me about your relationship with him. What was that like? What is that like?"
Let's look at Jacob's relationship with his dad, Isaac. Isaac is a really interesting character in the Bible. He starts so strong, but then he fizzles out. He's the great child of promise that Abraham and Sarah waited for for so long. And there's that great scene where Abraham, his father, is going to sacrifice him, and Isaac is so full of strength and faith. Then there's the time when Abraham sends his servant off to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant returns with Rebecca. The Bible says that when she arrives, Isaac is off in the field meditating as the sun sets. He seems like a great, thoughtful man. We think Isaac and Rebecca are going to have a great romance, but it's a terrible marriage. It's a radically dysfunctional marriage. And as a father, Isaac loves his son Esau more than he loves his son Jacob. There's nothing more painful than that—to know your father loves your brother more than he loves you. This is what Jacob grew up with.
The defining moment of Jacob's life is when his father, Isaac, goes to give the son that he loves, Esau, the blessing. The blessing in the ancient world is everything; it's the father's words of love and value for a son, and it's the father's wealth given to the oldest son. So Jacob dresses up pretending to be his brother Esau, and he gets his dad to pronounce the blessing over him instead. Why does Jacob do that? Because he wants the blessing more than anything. Jacob wants to hear his dad say, "Son, I love you; you're my son and I treasure you."
The blessing. Every human needs this. Every human needs to get from outside of themselves an assurance of value, a blessing. I knew a woman who used to always look in the mirror and say to herself, "I'm beautiful, I'm beautiful, I'm beautiful." But she never believed it, because no one else ever said it to her. You can't bless yourself.
If you don't get the blessing from your dad, you're going to try to get it somewhere else, and Jacob does that. Jacob tries to get it from a beautiful woman. He goes off into the far country, and he meets Rachel. Rachel is gorgeous and he falls for Rachel, thinking, If only I can have Rachel, then I'll be okay. He tries to get it from his uncle, Laban. His dad doesn't love him, but maybe Uncle Laban, the substitute father figure, will. Maybe Laban can give him what he is looking for. Jacob tries to get blessing from his work, from his success. There's quite a transformation that happens for Jacob in the far country. This quiet man who dwelled in tents goes off to the far country and becomes the kind of man that his brother, Esau, was. He does very well in the far country. He becomes a rancher, he works with animals. He's an outdoorsman. He becomes the kind of guy that his dad loved. But none of these sources can speak a blessing into Jacob's life that fills the emptiness, the homelessness, the insecurity, the longing that he has.
Jacob has been wrestling all of his life to get the blessing, but it's been like smoke that he just can't hold on to. It always eludes him. But tonight, here at the river, Jacob discovers that all along his real wrestling match has been with God. This is a wrestler who just touches Jacob's hip and it's put out of joint. This is someone who you cannot see face to face and live. It's God. See, Jacob thought the defining moment of his life was 20 years ago, when his father spoke the blessing over him. But this wrestling match now becomes his defining moment. Jacob's whole life comes together; his whole life is redefined on this night.
There is finally redemption in Jacob's life, because in the thick of this wrestling match, instead of letting go, Jacob says, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." He admits: God, you are the one I need blessing from. Everything I've done my whole life has been upside-down. This is the blessing, the approval, the love I've been searching for my whole life. My dad can't fix it; work can't give it to me; a woman can't give it to me. Only you can, God.
Jacob was right to be looking for the blessing from a father, but he was looking for it from the wrong father. Remember he says, "I don't care if it kills me, I want this. I want you, and I will not go on without your blessing. Nothing else matters anymore, because now I've encountered God, my true Father."
If you don't know God like this, if you don't get this blessing from God, you will spend your whole life wrestling, trying to get a blessing from someone else or something else. And it's going to look different for everyone, depending upon the family you grew up in and how you're wired. Some of us will try to get it from a human relationship. Some of us will try to get it from our work, from our success. Some of us will try to get it from recognition. But it will always elude us, and we'll spend our whole life wrestling and being restless.
This is a pretty incredible and pretty unique wrestling match. Who wins this wrestling match? Both parties win.
I've done some wrestling in my life. I was a football player. During my junior year of high school, my football coach told me to wrestle because he said it would help my football game. So I did wrestling for six weeks. The day I quit was picture day, the day you had to put on the spandex singlet and stand in front of everybody. Me in spandex: it doesn't work. But I learned that in wrestling all your strength comes from your hips. That's the wrestler's pivot of strength. Where does God touch Jacob? God touches Jacob in his place of greatest strength, the hip, and he gives him a wound, he gives him a limp.
God will do this to you. He'll touch your greatest strength, and you'll never be the same. You'll always have a bit of a limp. This is the victory and defeat in one. Jacob emerges from this match blessed and broken. He has a wound. Only God can give you the blessing you so desperately want, but it will break the old you.
Our greatest strength is often built on top of our greatest wound. God will give you a wound that rips open that thick scar tissue built around your deepest wounds. It's going to hurt, and it's going to feel so good. You'll limp, but you'll be free. This wound is a gift. Your life will take on a whole new trajectory. Your strength will have a different center, a different fuel source. Your limp, this wound, sets you free to live life by God's strength, not your own. What is God ripping open in your life?
God doesn't bless Jacob until he wounds him and asks him his name. In verse 27, God says, "What is your name?" God knows the answer to this question; he knows Jacob's name. Why does he ask him this? Because Jacob's name is a confession. The name Jacob means cheater, manipulator. This is an opportunity for Jacob to come face to face with God and confess the life he's lived and the man that he's been. Now, after his confession, God can bless him. Repentance is happening. A pure blessing can come.
Blessings are verbal in the Bible. What does God say to Jacob after he confesses his name? The text doesn't tell us. We don't know what he says, but I imagine he said something like this: Jacob, I am your true father. I love you. I am your father, you're my treasured son.
It's not just Jacob who emerges from this wrestling match in victory and defeat. It's also God. In the darkness God holds back his strength; he pretends weakness so that Jacob can limp forward with this new identity. I also learned in wrestling that you wrestle based on weight class. What was Jacob's weight class? 150? 160? Maybe 180? What's God's weight class? Jacob, 150; God, the universe. God holds back his strength so that Jacob can win. I have three young sons, ages 4, 2, and 8 weeks. I wrestle with my older sons, and I hold back my strength so that they win. Isn't this the gospel? God comes to earth as a baby boy; he holds back his strength. Jesus holds back his strength at the Cross so that we win. That's the gospel: God holds back; we win.
Until this wrestling match, Jacob's life has been a tragedy, but on this night the trajectory of Jacob's life changes. He's not a perfect man moving forward, but he is a different man, and he is reoriented. He gets a new life. God wounds and God speaks a blessing over this restless, insecure, deceitful man, and he's never the same.
A new name
Part of the blessing that God speaks over Jacob is to give him a new name. A name in the ancient world is everything; it's an identity. It's the whole way you saw yourself and the way other people saw you. God says in verse 28, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel."
Names are powerful. I'm sure you still remember, and you're still in part defined by, names that people called you back in junior high. Remember those names, often harsh? Stupid. Ugly. Fatso. Nerd. Maybe it's time you let God start calling you names. Maybe it's time you listen to his voice, because you will never be free until God's opinion of you carries more weight than other people's opinion of you. God's name for you holds infinitely more value.
I wonder if God has been wrestling you recently. I wonder if he's been touching your hip. I wonder if he's been naming, blessing you. Jacob confessed and repented to God before God blessed him. I wonder if, in part, the name that Jacob confessed before God and the name that we all need to confess is this name: Orphan. An orphan is someone without a dad. I believe the main thing that Jacob heard God speak over him in the blessing was the word "Son." This is the word Jacob had wanted to hear his whole life; he just didn't know that he needed to hear it from God.
There's another story in our Bible that's very similar to this story of Jacob. It's another story of two sons—the story of the prodigal son. Similarly in that story, the younger son goes off to the far country, thinking he'll find what he's looking for there. Life does not go well for the younger son in the far country. He's lost. He loses all of his money, all of his stuff, and he has no food to eat. He's an orphan out there, a man without a dad. Finally, he decides that he's going to try coming home. He comes up with this speech that he thinks might help him earn his way back into the family. At the center of his speech is this sentence that he's going to give to his dad: I am not worthy to be called your son. He's rehearsing this speech his whole walk home, and there at the edge of the village, contrary to all of his expectations, he sees his father. His father comes sprinting towards him and embraces him and hugs him and kisses him—he kisses his son who has been through desperation and famine. He smells, he's filthy, and the father embraces him and kisses him. And then the son hears two words that change his life: My son. His father says, "My son." Have you heard those two words? Has anyone ever spoken them to you? My son. My daughter.
There are eight words I want you to remember from this sermon: Believe the blessing, then go change the world. Rest and release. Jacob encounters God, and he finds this deep rest, this blessing, and it releases him to be the man that God called him to be. He gets a new calling. Our world is beautiful and broken, and what it needs is ambitious Christians who are going to make a difference and bring change. But we're not to be people who do this with the hopes that through it we'll earn some blessing or favor. We need to believe this deep blessing that we have from God, and then go out and change the world with whatever it is that God has uniquely called us to do with our lives.
The movie Chariots of Fire is my favorite movie. I'm a runner, and it's a movie about running. It's really, though, a movie about two men who run fast for two very different reasons. One character, Harold Abrams, is this burdened, driven man who thinks that by his running, by his performance, he can earn an identity, he can earn a blessing. At one point he says, "When I get out there to run, I have ten seconds to justify my existence. If I win, then I'll be somebody." Eric Liddle is a very different man. He's a Christian. He knows this deep blessing that he receives from God, his Father, and he says, "I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure. To win is to honor him." This is not a driven man; this is a launched man. He is a man at rest and a man released.
What has God called you to do with your life? You're a son. You're a daughter. Believe the blessing, then go change the world. Run fast, do what God has called you to do. This honors him.
Justin Buzzard is founder and lead pastor of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley, California.