Jacob never imagined the ending. Grace is like that.
Peniel—“Face of God,” Jacob’s wrestling place at the River Jabbok, lay behind him. The sun, which at dawn had caught the gleam of God’s face, now stood high and hot. In the distance four hundred fighting men raised a dark cloud of dust. At their head stood Esau, a bear of a man with wild red hair and beard.
For twenty years Jacob had been the ill-equipped, mostly faithless, bearer of God’s great Abrahamic blessing. Then, during the grueling night that had just passed, God faith-fitted him with a humbled limp, a new identity—Israel (God-Wrestler), and a life-changing glimpse of God’s bright face. But no sooner did Jacob leave one foe than he faced another. Esau approached with a menacing army and a festering grudge. Jacob situated his wives and sons with his favorites farthest from danger. Then “he himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (Gen. 33:3).
What happens next is a stunner—the surprise ending that, if you didn’t already know it, would leave you teary and sniffling. “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (v.4). Nobody but God saw that coming!
Do those words ring a bell? “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Kenneth E. Bailey opened my eyes to this in Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. It’s hard to imagine two characters more different than Esau and the father in Jesus’ story but they had this in common: neither had any reason to welcome their respective prodigals, each who had broken faith with them, yet each portrays the face of God’s grace.
That’s what Jacob said: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably” (v.10). Only hours before, Jacob had actually seen God’s face and been spared [saved] (Genesis 32:30), so this was no mere flattery. It was a theological Aha! moment. Jacob was saved by grace twice in one day.
Most pastors are limping these days; a beleaguered company of Israels in a long season of God-wrestling. So many shepherds ache over flocks who bicker about masks, politics, or over sheep who seemed to have slipped away from the flock under cover of Covid. Under the cloud of all this disappointment it is easy to project that God must be disappointed with you, too, or that your own unmet expectations mirror his. But you are called and outfitted to carry his Blessing, Jesus Christ. You come bowing over and over in apprehension but God in his grace runs to meet those whom he has prepared to carry his promise in Christ. He runs to meet you, not because you are prodigal but because you are a weary shepherd of his beloved sheep and a bearer of his blessing.
After their grace-kissed reunion, Jacob and Esau parted and Jacob finally went home to Shechem. “There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel,” which means, Mighty Is the God of the God-Wrestler (Gen. 33:20). There’s a project for you, pastor. Leave your flock for a bit. Bow your head, heft altar stones into place, focus on the face of God’s grace in Christ, and offer your sacrifices of thanksgiving to the mighty God of the God-Wrestler.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.