Monday, October 18, 2010

Deeply Defeated

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the 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 is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, 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 place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.[1]
We, who inhabit America, live in a “success story” land. We enjoy more luxury and ease than most of the rest of the world can imagine. And we are told, from a very early age, that anything we want, or want to be is within our grasp. We are a nation of winners, achievers – over-achievers!
If there is a prototype for this American dreamer, it might very well be the iconic professional football coach, Vince Lombardi. In the late 1930’s he was part of Fordham University’s storied “7 Blocks of Granite” defensive line. His first pro head coaching job was with the Green Bay Packers in 1959. In his first year he was named coach of the year. A total of nine seasons in Wisconsin brought him five world championships, including the first two Super Bowl games played. After Lombardi’s death in 1970 the league renamed the championship trophy after him.
Lombardi-isms are legendary. There are websites with dozens of sayings attributed to him, such as:

If you can accept losing, you can’t win
If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?

I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.[2]

Vince Lombardi was a man committed to winning. It is part of our national heritage and collective personality – we want to win!

Sometimes – often times – the obsession to win (and in an effort to “fit-in” to this mold) causes people to lose contact with the purpose for which they were created. We can lose sight of who we are, and what the pursuit of power, pleasure, possessions and position can do to the image of God that is stamped on each of our souls. In short, we trade character for cash or personal pride!

We do get to choose our character
It is by our actions that character is formed, and it is either growing into the image of Christ, or growing more hellish every day! It was that way in the life of Jacob. His life’s story is competition, deception and ruthless ambition. Consider the timeline of Jacob and his twin brother Esau:

Esau was the first-born, but Jacob wasn’t far behind; in fact, when they came out of the womb, the second-born had his brother by the heel.

Being first-born gave Esau the right to a double-portion of the estate; Jacob wanted more. He waited until his brother came in from an unsuccessful hunting trip and tempted him with a pot of stew. Esau sold away his right to lead the family and be in the middle of God’s plan for a “happy meal”.

When the twins’ father, Isaac, was elderly and near death, it was time to bless the offspring. Now, if stealing the birthright wasn’t enough, the smooth-talking, smooth-skinned Jacob (with help from his Mom) put some goat skins on his arms, and spread the smell of wild animals on himself to fool his blind dad into thinking he was blessing Esau.

When Esau found out about it he vowed to kill his mama’s boy of a slimy, scheming brother. Jacob hit the road…all heels and elbows! He was out of town before his shadow could find him.

The Return – 20 Years later
Our text is the homecoming – only it wasn’t by invitation. Jacob hadn’t seen Esau since stealing the blessing the night he donned the designer forearm hair and eau’de’crud disguise.

On this night he is shaking like a skeleton hanging in a tree on a windy Halloween night. He is camped just across the Jabbok river crossing, less than a short walk from the home he’d left twenty years prior. His servants have informed him that his brother Esau is on the way to meet him; and, by the way, he’s got 400 men with him. (What would be going through YOUR mind about this time?)

Jacob has matured some by this time, but this night he would fall back on his manipulative ways. He is scared, but not enough to forget how to strategize. He sends his servants on ahead with gifts for his brother. He divides his wives and children into two groups and sends them ahead at different flanks. Jacob is alone with his thoughts, and he settles down near the river bank for a night of wondering and Pepto Bismol.

That’s when God showed up!

Jacob’s character development was about to bump-into a test for signs of growth. God had been working on this character’s character, and it was time to check-in for a mid-term exam. The river’s name, “Jabbok” is actually a play on Jacob’s name, and it means “wrestle”. Jacob was really good at scheming and manipulation; unbeknownst to him that night, there is no planning, training or alliances you can make when the wrestling match is scheduled by God. That’s the really unnerving issue here – it is God who decides when the test is given….what the rules are…and He knows the outcome before you even know you’re in a contest. It was going to be wrestling, but it wasn’t much of a match!

Wrestling Lessons
There are some really important and valuable lessons that Jacob learned that night. They are still valid.
#1. Our really important struggles challenge and determine our character.
The text (v.24) says they wrestled all night. You have got to care about something to wrestle with God like that. It has been my observation that the bigger the character issue is, the messier the fight! And you won’t have a whole lot of help. Jacob was alone – and when it comes to character, it’s all about being alone. Character is even defined as the way you act when nobody is looking. Nobody else can wrestle for your character – that is something as individual as your fingerprints!
#2. Character begins with honesty (facing the truth about yourself)
Again the text (v.27) says that the angel (God) demanded that Jacob tell him his name. It’s not that God didn’t know – Jacob needed to say it, own it, admit it – that his name “Jacob” meant surplanter, trickster, heel-grabber…DECEIVER!
In that time and culture, names were an indication of character. Jacob certainly lived-out the prophetic nature of being so-named . God was asking him, “What’s your character, Mac?” Often people would rather not face reality; denial is so handy, so warm and cuddly. We can be that way personally, or in homes or even church families. God demanded Jacob face the truth, name the truth, and then God could do something about that truth. Until we’re honest, we haven’t a prayer of lasting 30 seconds in the ring with God as adversary!
#3. An honest struggle always produces growth!
God re-named Jacob the deceiver; now he was Israel, struggler! Now, that’s quite an upgrade…but it didn’t come easy.
If you cut down a tree sometime take note of the “growth rings”. You can tell a lot about the history of a tree by the thickness and shape of its rings. Tough years, dry years, good years, storms – the whole life of that tree is there for the reading. It’s that way in humans – struggle produces growth in character. James (1:2) says that when you’ve got trials on top of trials, count it all joy! He doesn’t suggest you be thrilled with having trouble – he’s telling you to look beyond the trouble to the kind of persevering character that’s being built in you. You’re pumping “character iron”!
#4. Even an honest struggle won’t settle everything
The text (v.29) says that Jacob also wanted to know his adversary’s name. God told him to back off, and then blessed him anyway. I know just what Jacob (Israel) felt at that moment. I’ve always wanted clarity; I like to plan ahead, know where I’m going….I hate surprises….I want it all laid out, neat and clean.
I suppose Jacob and I are related. He wanted to know what kind of God he was going to serve – if he could expect this kind of rough treatment again. (Don’t forget, by this time his leg bone socket was dislodged from his hip; his pain was off the chart – he’d wrestled like WWW-Smackdown all night long….he was entitled to at least know whether he’d really accomplished anything here!) I have to admit to being that way. Give me a little sign, God…how about a hint? Do I really have to step out without knowing for sure? This leads right to the next lesson…
#5. We often resist out of fear – we don’t like struggle or change
We hate to change the way we do things…ruts are comfortable, struggle is hard and the outcome is in question. Jacob named the place Peniel…survivor. Nobody relishes the kind of struggle he faced; we prefer the warm, fuzzy womb of our complacency. But God is not content to let us rest in ruts – his plan for us is abundant life; they don’t sell that in bargain basements…life is all about struggle:
· Have you noticed that a baby has a rough ride down the birth canal?
· Have you noticed a baby taking his first steps? Falling down is next!
· Have you noticed how hard geometry and calculus are?
· Have you noticed that ceremonies and honeymoons only last a little while, and then she actually expects you to take out the garbage?
Life is about struggle – and God offers us life…you cannot have one without the other. And now, for the good news…
#6. If you choose Godly character, the struggle will probably leave you with a limp where he knocks your legs of pride out from under you.
Often the test comes just when we’ve got our lives neatly arranged. The job is going better, and you’ve gotten used to that mortgage payment. Your child stopped throwing a tantrum at bedtime every night.
And then, wham! The car breaks down, dog bites the mailman, and you get sued for looking at somebody the wrong way. On top of it all you’re gaining weight for no apparent reason. Life just isn’t fair! And then, the preacher picks that passage on being called to ministry – and you’re actually sensing that God is asking you what YOUR name is. What timing! Suddenly, everything that was so settled is now a real bother….you were running the race…now you’re limping.
Perhaps it’s not quite that simple? What if it’s that you found out he’s having an affair? How about the doctor telling you it’s Leukemia? What if your daughter was murdered? Now, that is cause for a limp, is it not?
What if it’s September 11th? You know….9/11. What if it was your husband in the North Tower? It was that way for Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. They were widowed by the attacks of 9/11. They had a struggle; their existence was plagued with limping along in grief. Do you know what they did? They formed a non-profit organization called “Beyond the 11th”. Do you know what they do? They help Afghan widows grow past their poverty by starting businesses – Afghans! They supported a women’s center where carpets are woven for export and it has a literacy center with a bakery.[3] They decided if they’ve got this limp, they’re going to do something Godly with it!
Choosing Godly character means limping, because it’s not an easy ride, but you will be changed. Like Jacob, God will give you a new identity and a new mission. Jacob became Israel, the struggler. He had 11 children…then one more. Those twelve became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Success or Servant?
If you played for Vince Lombardi you bought into “winning is everything”. Fitting-in with the American success story is what the Apostle Paul called being “conformed to this world”[4]. It’s letting this world squeeze you into its mold so that you look, act and breathe “success” for yourself. It means you’ve chosen cash over character, career over character, comfort over character.
That’s how Jacob spent the first half of his life – me, mine, and right now! Then he wrestled; he wouldn’t let go – he chose character, and his surrender to God was complete. He said, “Kill me or bless me; I am in your hands.” He didn’t write it, but he could have, “Have thine own way, Lord; Have thine own way; Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after Thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.”
A poet[5] once wrote about how character grows through struggle:
…he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Jacob chose character – and he was transformed into Israel. He gave up his “winning” and gained everything.
I choose that also…call me deeply defeated…and transformed.

[1] Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible
[3] Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, September 8, 2010 (quoted in Christian Century 10/5/10, p.8)
[4] Romans 12:2
[5] Ranier Maria Rilke, The Man Watching,

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