Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since Martin Luther first posted his 95 Theses 500 years ago, five Latin phrases known as the Solaes or Slogans of the Reformation have emerged as the principles of Christian faith. Sola Fide by “faith alone”: Sola Scriptura “by Scripture alone”: Sola Gratia “by grace alone”: Solus Christus “by Christ alone”: and the sola most popular among musicians, Soli Deo Gloria “to the glory of God alone.” For Luther, faith alone was always the most important. It was the solid, unshakable confidence in God’s promise which allowed the believer to act by faith. This morning we continue our sermon series on the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews. Today we will conclude the story of the Patriarch Jacob.
From Hebrews 11:21
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.”
Wrestling is a common metaphor in life. It can depict a physical, emotional or spiritual competition. One night, a man was walking home alone when, all of a sudden, a thief jumped him. The man and the thief began to wrestle. They rolled about on the ground, and the man put up a tremendous fight. However, the thief managed to get the better of him and pinned him to the ground. The thief then went through the man’s pockets, and all he could find was 25 cents. The thief was so surprised at this that he asked the man why he had bothered to fight so hard for a measly 25 cents. “Was that all you wanted?” the lone man replied. “I thought you were after the $500 I’ve got in my shoe!”
Scripture never identifies the mysterious competitor who wrestled with Jacob, as God, an angel, or simply another man. Some scholars have wondered why God would wrestle with Jacob? While others have responded that God wanted to “teach Jacob an important lesson.” Indeed, Jacob had plenty of lessons to learn. He was a cheat and a liar who swindled his brother out of his birthright and he lied to his father while his father who was failing in eyesight and health. He willingly played his mother Rebekah against his father Isaac. He chose favorites when he should have treated others as equals. He regarded his son Joseph more highly than his brothers, to the point that Joseph’s own brother despised him. When all else failed, when he was being pinned to the mat, Jacob knew that the best strategy for survival was a good escape.
That was perhaps the lesson Jacob needed to learn most: how to confront his mistakes instead of running away from them. It is a lesson that all of us must learn and that is where today’s meditation begins. Jacob was so covetous of Esau’s blessing as the elder son that he was willing to risk, home and family, security and safety. Jacob and Esau’s father, the Patriarch Isaac, had grown old and his eyes were so dim. Before he died, he wanted to place his final hand of blessing upon his elder son Esau. Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, however, loved Jacob. When she heard Isaac say this to Esau, she devised a way to disguise Jacob and steal the old man’s blessing. When the deed had been done, and Esau discovered that he had been cheated out of his inheritance, he vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah then instructed Jacob to leave Canaan and seek refuge with her brother Laban in Haran.
On that journey from Canaan, Jacob had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. And he heard the voice of the Lord beside him, saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” Then Jacob woke up from his sleep. Unfortunately, that revelation did not change his patterns of living.
Arriving in Haran, Jacob saw a well where shepherds were gathering their flocks to water them and he met Laban’s younger daughter. He loved her immediately, and after spending a month with his relatives, he asked for her hand in marriage in return for working seven years for Laban. He father agreed to the arrangement. These seven years seemed to Jacob “but a few days, for the love he had for her,” but when they were complete and he asked for his wife, Laban deceived Jacob by switching Rachel for her older sister, Leah, as the veiled bride in the marriage bed. In the morning, when the truth became known, Laban justified his action, saying that in his country it was unheard of to give a younger daughter before the older. After the week of wedding celebrations with Leah, Jacob married Rachel, and he continued to work for Laban for another seven years.
Jacob treated Leah, as if he didn’t love her, even though she bore him six sons and a daughter. Leah had weak eyes, it was written. Jacob’s family grew in numbers during that time and they needed more space and land. Unfortunately, uncle Laban always seemed to be taking advantage of his nephew Jacob forcing him to live as a tenant farmer in is his own home.
After 21 years of service, God told Jacob that he should leave the land of his exile, which he and his wives and children did without informing Laban. Before they left, Rachel stole the household idols from Laban’s house. In a rage, Laban pursued Jacob for seven days. The night before he caught up to him, God appeared to Laban in a dream and warned him not to say anything good or bad to Jacob. When the two met, Laban played the part of the injured father-in-law, demanding his household idols back. Jacob and Laban then parted from each other with a pact to preserve the peace between them. As Jacob neared the land of Canaan, he sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau. They returned with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with an army of 400 men. With great apprehension, Jacob prepared for the worst. He sent on before him a tribute of flocks and herds as “a present to my lord Esau.” He then transported his family and flocks across the ford Jabbok by night, and he stood alone in communion with God.
Throughout his life, Jacob had relied on cunning and deceit to obtain physical blessings. He bought his brother’s birthright for a bowl of soup and later deceived his father to acquire his brother’s blessing. Perhaps that has been you secret to success as well. With just enough drive and deceit, you believe that you have merited God’s blessing. Like Daddy Warbucks, in the musical “Annie,” you’re not afraid to step on a few people on your ascent up the ladder of success, because you’re not planning on coming down again. But now, it seems that every night, you are wrestling with a stranger. Jacob wasn’t simply wrestling with God. He was wrestling with himself, with his past and with his future, and his own sense of God’s purpose for his life. And why did it all happen that night? His life had gone south, and he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to return home after 21 years in exile. He had left his father –in-law, Laban angry at his parting, and he was afraid his brother Esau was ready to kill him as he crossed the River Jabbok. Perhaps, for the first time he had no other place to run.
In the end, Jacob did what we all must do. He confronted his failures, his weaknesses, his sins, all the things that were hurting him . . . and faced God. Jacob wrestled with God all night. It was an exhausting struggle that left him aching and limping in the morning. It was only after he came to grips with God’s power, that he could put his hip out with the touch of a finger, that he realized that he could not go on without Him. It was only then that that he could cease his struggling and receive God’s blessing. It was there that he received his new name Israel- “The One that God fought.” And so he went forth to his brother, and his future as a new man.
Let us now turn to that tiny verse in Hebrews, By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” There is an ancient rite which is celebrated each Friday evening in Jewish homes before the Sabbath meal. The father of the household places his hand upon each child and offer a blessing. To the girls he says, “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. And may the Lord bless you and keep, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” And to the boys, he says, “May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh.” The blessing recalls the faith of Jacob, who when on his deathbed, arose and leaning upon his staff, blessed his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph who were born in Egypt. In God’s kind providence, or perhaps, his divine irony, Jacob like his father Isaac could not see. And yet in spite of the protests of his son Joseph, he crossed his arms to place his right hand of blessing on the younger son Ephraim to become the elder, and his left hand on the older Manasseh to become the younger.
Now it may seem strange that the blessing of these two grandsons would be the act of faith we are called to be remembered. Surely other events in Jacob’s life are more fantastic. But even Jewish rabbis have debated the reason for recalling the names Ephraim and Manasseh, instead of the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The view most commonly held is that Joseph’s sons were the first pair of brothers in the Bible who did not see each other as competitors. They did not struggle for power, and their dynamic as a family never seemed to be the source of great difficulty in either of their lives. By raising and blessing children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, they are seeking to bestow upon their children the legacy of peace and harmony. Another interpretation notes that the two brothers grew up in Egypt, unlike the patriarchs who all grew up in Israel. Joseph’s sons maintained their distinct religious identity, even though they lived in a place where they were surrounded and outnumbered by the Egyptians and their gods. The ability to remain faithful to God, even when it is a struggle, is a legacy of faith that we want to pass on to our children.
According to scripture, before his death, Jacob requested he be buried with his ancestors, in the cave at Machpelah, beside his wife Leah. When he died, Joseph ordered that his father Israel be embalmed in a manner fitting the Pharaoh himself. Together with his brothers, Joseph returned to Canaan for the first time since his brothers had sold him into slavery to bury his father. And then they returned Egypt where Joseph himself the last patriarch would be buried. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.