Jacob was a rather shrewd scoundrel. His latest coup was to trick his father. Jacob knew it was the father’s prerogative and power to bestow a blessing upon his eldest son, such a blessing, highly significant and irrevocable. By means of deception, Jacob himself co-opts the blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Jacob receives the blessing, but it comes at a near-crippling cost because he does not have the stature to carry the blessing.
Where the story picks up in our Genesis reading this evening, Jacob is traveling to meet up with his estranged and cheated brother, something which Jacob would surely dread. The difficult reunion is delayed because of this wrestling match Jacob undergoes in the middle of the night by the river Jabbok, as we’ve just read.i Jacob is fighting as if his life depends upon it… which it does. Is this a thief who accosts Jacob in the night? No, we eventually learn that Jacob is actually battling with God. Jacob comes into the light of daybreak with two costly things: a wound and yet another blessing, a real blessing. Both the wound and the blessing nearly cost him his life… and yet something amazing happens: he finds his life. You may be able to relate to this.
You probably have not deserved your life. Life is not fair, often in two ways: the blessings and the wounds. You have likely been the recipient of countless blessings, and from your earliest days. If you consider what we read daily on the front pages of the newspaper – the suffering and trauma that so many people of the world know, and, for some, a state of injustice into which they have been caste since their birth – you can likely recognize in bold relief so much goodness in your own life. If your life in any way parallels mine, you can lay claim on many blessings in life, far beyond what you could have asked for or deserved. You may even identify in some way with Jacob, who was a real operator. You may have a chapter in your past where your life was a little shadowy, or where you broke a rule or violated a virtue. This may be on public record; it may be a secret you hold in your heart. Because of what you did or said, did not do or did not say, you got away with something, perhaps something twisted, maybe even shameful, clearly not right… and you pulled it off.You may have the experience of your broken past not only being forgiven but in some way redeemed. It’s actually being put to good use, and to God’s glory. Your insight, care, or sensitivity, or compassion, or generosity, or humility which may be so evident to other people has come out of your broken past. If they only knew what you know. God knows. Jesus has promised to seek and save the lost, which may apply to some part of your own past, where you were lost and are now found. ii And that is a wonderful thing.
If you still have something dark in your past that is sealed up in the dungeon of your memory, then risk opening up the prison door. Of course, it’s not this piece of your history that is walled off; it’s you who are walled in, not free, not fully alive. You might even need some help from someone to open up what is sealed shut from a dark chapter of your past, but it’s worth it. You’re worth it. The most amazing thing happens when that door of shame is opened. Light comes in! It’s no longer a dark secret; it’s actually the secret of your life that is first your breaking and then your making. Your past, whatever it is, will provide the firm foundation for your life. Even if there’s rubble, the rubble will be reformed into an edifice far stronger and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. This is your life. And, of course, this was the story of Jacob’s life. Which was such a mess. Not outwardly. He had the world by the tail, every blessing one could hope for… except for one thing: his own sense of worthiness and integrity. Without that strength, he could not bear the blessings he had so generously received in life. Coming out of this wrestling match in the night, he was relieved of life’s stains, and he was left with life’s scars. Scar tissue is very strong, and the most amazing, wondrous things happened hereafter in Jacob’s life.
A blessing in life is something that everyone wants. A blessing is the assurance of wellbeing, a promise of provision, your sense of being “the apple of God’s eye,” of having a place in God’s heart. This understanding of blessing lies far back in the ancient religions of Middle East, and is connected to the fertility of animals and crops and human beings. Therefore, a sure sign of blessing is that there is more: more in substance, more in promise, more in goodness. Prosperity, in every form, becomes the sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. When a blessing is spoken, those words channel a power that cannot be changed or reversed. What has been named will come to be, which, in Jacob’s past, seems so terribly unfair and yet, a blessing once spoken is irrevocable.
In the New Testament, in the light and life of Jesus, this changes. Now it is adversity that becomes the touchstone for blessing. Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…” iii
What Jesus is saying here is unbelievable unless this has been your experience: to know blessing coming out of adversity and suffering. And surely this has something to do with the cross of Christ which Jesus invites us to take up.iv Jesus promises that God’s favor, God’s care, God’s provision, God’s love, God’s blessing can be known in the best of times and in the worst of times… which you can probably best understand if you’ve been there. If you have been to brink of death, if you, in your own words, have cried out to God like Jesus did from the cross, “Why O why have you forsaken me?” and then miraculously lived to tell the story, then you probably know something about mystery of blessing that can come out of the greatest of adversities. What was undeniably and perhaps unexplainably bad has in some miraculous way been redeemed as a channel of God’s light and life and love. And that is the paradox of God’s blessing, where you can neither deny the bad – when you’ve been weeping or hungry or in some other way tormented – nor can you deny the blessed good that has somehow come out of the bad. Maybe even the one has prepared the way for the other.
The whole of life is to be blessed. Look for it, ask God for it in your past, in your present, in your future. Blessing is of the essence of God, who longs to be in relationship with you and everyone else in sight. Whether you have a shadowy past (like Jacob) or are as vulnerable as a dove – many of us are probably a bit of both – God knows, God loves, God calls you by name. God longs to bless you, and bless others through you. It’s of God’s essence; it’s of your essence, you who have been created in the image of God. Bless you.
i The Hebrew word ’ābhaq, wrestled, is a wordplay on Jabbok.
ii Luke 19:10.
iii See Luke 6:17‑26.
iv Matthew 10:37-39 and 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23.
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