During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions. This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” the man asked. He replied, “Jacob.” “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said. “Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. Genesis 32:22-31(NLT)
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 NFL renamed the championship trophy after him.
Lombardi-isms are legendary. One of his sayings is recorded as:
If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?
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!
The fact is that we do get to choose our character.
My brother Thom retired last year after 50 years of teaching in the same school. Character Before Career, and their mission statement contains seven core values that govern how they teach, and what they will model for their students and the world; the values are Christian-centered: Love, Hope, Faith, Wisdom, Justice, Courage and Temperance. If Elizabeth and I were in the market to send a college prep age child to school, this one would be a top choice. As a sample of interpretation of their core values, just consider the one on Courage:
We confidently overcome and endure threats to our own well-being and the well-being of those we love. Courage requires not that we be fearless but rather that even in our fear we persist in doing what is right.
It was that way in the life of Jacob. His life’s story is competition, deception and ruthless ambition.
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”.
Now, if stealing the birthright wasn’t enough, with help from his Mom fooled his 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.
Twenty years later Jacob was coming home. 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 to relieve the river of anxiety acid in his stomach.
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!
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. No one 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, and admit it – that his name Jacob meant surplanter, trickster, and 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?”
#3. An honest struggle always produces growth!
When the struggle was over, God re-named Jacob the deceiver; now he was Israel, struggler! Now, that’s quite an upgrade…but it didn’t come easy.
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 the name of the one with whom he’d struggled. God told him to back off, and then blessed him anyway.
I know just what Jacob felt at that moment. I’ve always wanted clarity; I like to plan ahead, know where I’m going…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 more than likely off the chart. Jacob had wrestled like WWW-Smackdown all night long, and he felt like 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 and struggle is hard work, and the outcome is most always in question. Jacob named the place Peniel…survivor.
Nobody relishes the kind of struggle Jacob 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?
· And have you noticed that baby taking his first steps? Falling down is the next thing he experiences!
· 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.
Uh…pastor, did you say good news?
Exactly! 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, your 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 pastor preaches a message 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…and now you’re limping.
But, perhaps it’s not quite that simple? What if it’s that you found out your husband’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[ii].
Do you know what they do? They help Afghan widows grow past their poverty by starting businesses – Afghans! They began to support a women’s center where carpets are woven for export and it has a literacy center with a bakery.[iii] 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. Jacob’s twelve children became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
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[iv]. 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, and 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 said, Kill me or bless me; I am in your hands. So he chose character over life itself, and his surrender to God was complete. 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, pressing-on for the prize that will make me limp like Jacob – a person of Christ-like character!
[iii] Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, September 8, 2010 (quoted in Christian Century 10/5/10, p.8)
[iv] Romans 12:2