Jacob is the Bible’s “Everyman.” He is the first Israel. (Jesus is the second.) Jacob embodied the nation of Israel, literally and figuratively. And he is us. Not at our best, certainly, and not so much once Christ gets hold of us, but we are all Jacobs—grasping for blessings we don’t fully believe, glimpsing the glory of Yahweh, disappointed by our Labans and Leahs, but always in the grip of God.
You may not have read Jacob’s story in a long while. Most pastors have never preached on him. But I found my fourteen sermons on his life, stretching from Genesis 25 through 35, plus 48, to be among the most fascinating series of my career. Over the next weeks I’d like to think with you about the pivotal stories of Jacob’s life in Genesis 32-33.
After 20 years exiled to the household of his greasy uncle and father-in-law (twice over), Laban, God summoned Jacob to return to the land and life promised him. When Laban chased him down the Lord protected him and then, when Jacob “went on his way, the angels of God met him.” Not till the shepherds outside Bethlehem did anyone see so many angels as Jacob! Yet Jacob was “in great fear and distress” because Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.
He prayed well, to our surprise; the best prayer in Genesis, in fact. The heart of his prayer is familiar to us all: “O God … save me, I pray …” (Gen. 32:9-12). We all know that prayer by heart! It is a prayer standard, especially for pastors. Pastoring isn’t safe work. I was so often afraid—afraid of brewing conflicts, critics, not performing adequately, that my weak prayers left us defenseless, that I would be our church’s undoing. Fear is often the front door to the school of prayer.
Most of the threats Jacob faced were of his own making. He deserved Esau’s wrath and Laban’s conniving. We don’t deserve all that we fear but that is small comfort. But when we’re afraid, trust this: God plays favorites. When God plays favorites we call it grace. And you, dear shepherd, are among his favorites.
Despite God’s earlier promises, Jacob couldn’t imagine that God would actually treat him as his favored son. Pastors are prone to that same assumption. I used to think that Jesus was pointing straight at my ministry when he said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” and “When you have done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” So it was no wonder that I was often afraid, that I so often felt I’d have to face and fight my own battles. It went with the job.
But, dear shepherds, the angels of God are with us! Psalm 91 promises, “For he will command his angels concerned you to guard you in all your ways.” By the end of this story, Jacob could raise his hand to give witness, “Even when you deserve the worst, God will not treat you as your sins deserve. Instead he will treat you as his favorite!”
In his wonderful book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund writes, “Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to him is not a pointed finger but open arms.”
That said, there is a danger we all face. Not the army of Esau but the ambush of God. Till next week …
Be ye glad!
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.