Today I’d like to talk about Mr. Jacob, a very questionable character who made the final cut into the gallery of famous Old Testament people by just a couple of putts. And do you know why he avoided elimination despite being a very questionable character? Believe it or not, for the same reason that he was a very questionable character!
Write it down – Mr. Jacob, or just Jacob — never stopped struggling. As a matter of fact, he was born struggling. Even in his mother’s womb he struggled with his twin brother, Esau, who was to be born first by a few minutes. And when they were born, Mr. Jacob was grabbing his brother’s heel. That’s why he was named Jacob, “the grabber.” Jacob grabbed what he wanted as a young man, stealing his brother’s birthright and the family blessing that came along with it.
When Esau found out, he was so upset, he went out looking for his brother to kill him — Jacob had to run for his life. He fled Canaan and moved north to live with his relative Laban, where the story gets a little complicated, for Jacob fell in love with the beautiful Rachel. But he had to struggle with her father, Laban, to marry her. Laban let Jacob believe that he could have Rachel in marriage in exchange for seven years’ work, but on the wedding night he tricked Jacob by giving him Rachel’s sister, Leah — not Rachel, just Leah. Poor Jacob – now he was the one being cheated, and he had to work for another seven years to secure Rachel.
Many years later, Jacob felt he could return home to Canaan – now a rich man, he felt he could “buy” his brother’s forgiveness. Returning now? Not without a new struggle, for Laban tricked him again, delaying his departure for several years. Yet Jacob kept struggling until he finally set off for Canaan. But on his way back home he began to worry again about his brother Esau — what if my brother does not accept my offer? Just on the outskirts of his brother’s land, Jacob camped for the night. He needed to rest, but also to sort through his options and face his fears.
I love the way the biblical storytellers imagine such a night, a dark night of the soul, no less. They imagine Jacob sleeping in the wilderness, and a mysterious visitor who stops by to have a very serious conversation with him. The story does not elaborate, it only suggests that such a close encounter with no other than God was a real struggle, perhaps like a wrestling match, with serious questions asked by God, a God who was expecting serious, honest, transparent answers from this questionable subject.
Near sunrise, before leaving that place, the visitor did two things we find hard to comprehend. He struck Jacob on his hip, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. And he changed his name!
But why would God spend his holy time with a trickster, a grabber like Jacob? For the simple reason that God had noticed Jacob’s undeniable resilience, how he had dealt with adversity, how firm he was about his convictions, and how willing he was about a new direction for his life. God always needs this kind of people. But God still had a few questions for Jacob. Are you willing and ready to stop cutting corners, and to stop grabbing what is not yours? Are you willing and ready to put all your skills and your resilience into my service? It was not an easy soul searching, by any means!
Jacob struggled with God – and this is all that God needed to see happen, for to struggle with God, to hold on to God and not let go until his blessing is secured, well, my friends, that certainly speaks volumes about our being willing and ready to listen to him, and to obey him.
This story of struggle and blessings reminds me of Jesus’s personal struggles – those many dark nights of the soul in Jesus’s life we talked about during Lent — and of Jesus’ attitude and response to the struggle. Never give up, never despair, trust with all your heart and all your mind on what God can do for you and with you regardless of your personal failures or limitations.
Strengthen and persuaded by the power of the Holy Presence of God, Jacob came out of the struggle a new person. So impressed was God by Jacob’s faith and conviction, that before leaving the scene at sunrise he gave him a new name – Israel — a name that expressed so vividly Jacob’s struggle.
“You have struggled with God, and many others, and have prevailed,” such is the meaning of the name Israel. And God gave him a mission too — to be the “father” of the twelve tribes that would eventually come together to form a new nation. The day Jacob grabbed God’s blessing; he was born again. Eventually he would find the way to reconcile with his brother Esau.
Many years ago, while serving our sister congregation in Easton, Connecticut, I got a phone call from the Chaplain’s office at Bridgeport Hospital. A very ill, elderly woman had been at the hospital on life support for almost three weeks, but there was absolutely nothing else that could be done for her. The problem was, her only son – Eugene — was not ready to consent that her mother’s life support systems be removed.
Eugene had been struggling with such a decision from day one. The morning I received the phone call, Eugene had felt he was almost ready, yet he still had questions and so much anxiety, so he felt he needed to discuss further it with his mother’s pastor. But the pastor was away for a two-day meeting, and that’s how I entered the picture, for I was on call.
I found Eugene sitting next to his agonizing mother. He had been crying — it was obvious. We chatted and prayed together. I offered to stay with him if he felt it necessary, but he insisted it was not necessary, that he would let doctors know when he felt ready, so I left.
A few hours later Eugene called me. “Pastor,” he said with a sense of relief, “mother died just a few moments ago after I finally saw the rainbow and let our doctors know that I was ready to let go and let God. Mother’s struggle is now over, and mine too.”
“What did Eugene mean by “I saw the rainbow”? About an hour or so later we met again, this time in the chaplain’s office. And at some point, during our conversation I asked Eugene about that particular expression, about “seeing the rainbow.” Almost in a whisper, he told me — “Pastor, do you remember how badly it was raining when we first met in my mother’s room? Well, the rain and the darkness continued for some time after you left, if you remember, but suddenly the storm stopped and the sun came out of nowhere and it literally burst out with all its colors into my mother’s room, and even over her face, and then I saw the rainbow through the window.”
He went on: “When I saw the rainbow, I finally knew that Mother was not alone, neither I was alone, and our struggle was finally over, for the rainbow was God’s messenger right there to bless us. God was ready to welcome Mother, and I was ready to welcome that moment.”
Friends, life is no easy ride, as you well know. Sooner or later, everybody must face hardships and challenges. Some of your radiant faces here today may hide deep physical or emotional wounds. . . Some of your most radiant faces here today may hide deep worries about parents, spouses, children, jobs, careers, the future. . .
How are you going to respond when God stops by to visit with you in the midst of your struggle? Will you care to notice? Or will you grab God by the heel with the same confidence and determination Jacob did? And then, looking at God right in the eye, will you cry out as loud as you can, “I will not let you go until you bless me with your rainbow?”
May our holy time around this table, surrounded by these our brothers and sisters in Christ, strengthen our faith and renew our joy. Our loving God will take care of the rest.