I’m a recovering workout-a-holic. It started when I lost 75 pounds 20 years ago. It’s easy to forget the kindness of God who lead me out of gluttony, and begin to believe it was all me and my hard work. But when I do, the scales creep back up.
The truth is, I was fat because I’d tried to manage my weight myself. It was when I admitted I couldn’t do it that God enabled me. My secret for keeping it off is my inability.
This is the life of faith, one that learns to trust in God by fits and starts. This is how Jacob became a patriarch.
Jacob is the father of everyone who blows it. There’s not anytime in his life that I see a long track record of consistent faith. Mostly what he has is a track record of waffling, of belief and unbelief, of faith and then falling flat.
For all of his lying and scheming, his running away and hiding, his being afraid and sucking up, once Jacob realizes that the only way to have a blessed life is by hanging onto God, he does just that. He hangs on for dear life, despite his mess ups. Here’s what I find to be great about Jacob: his streak of weakness that tethers him to the God who won’t let him go.
In today’s passage, he goes through four flip-flops of faith. It’s been a comforting thing to realize as I write this post, that for all of our failures to believe, the “magic” of faith is the God who speaks–not us.
When Jacob leaves Laban, his father-in-law, with his family and herds after 20 years of service, angels from God meet him on his way and accompany him to his camping spot, “When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!'” Ge 32:2.
It would have been encouraging to meet up with angels from God as he sets out on his journey home with his entourage of children and wives and servants and animal herds. Has Jacob done something to earn the blessing of their company? I look for clues.
And I read in chapter 31 before the angels come, how he’s tried to sneak out of town so he doesn’t have to say goodbye to his father-in-law, a difficult man. Laban comes after Jacob and confronts him, saying, “Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing…?” Ge 31:27.
There’s nothing there to indicate Jacob is angel-escort-worthy. This appearance of angels is pure grace. He’s inspired to name that place Mahanaim, which means “two camps,” a name that suggests Jacob saw an encampment of angels alongside his own, a divine assurance of God’s traveling mercies for the journey back home, Ge 32:1-2 (NIV Study Bible note).
Surely this message would have been fortifying for what Jacob fears is coming: a showdown with his brother, Esau, who last he saw, was plotting to kill him after Jacob stole his blessing. Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to tell Esau he’s heading home with riches and hopes that he can find “favor in [his] eyes,” Ge 32:3-5.
The messengers return and say they found Esau, and he’s coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men. Jacob fears the worst. “In great fear and distress…,” he makes a plan. I can’t help but wonder what happened to the angel-army-camp consolation of a few nights before? God had given him eyes to see them, and still, Jacob freaks about 400 men, Ge 32:6-7.
He divides the people and animals into two groups, thinking if one’s attacked, the other might get away. And then he prays, Ge 32:7-8.
It’s a prayer to the God of his father Abraham and Isaac, the one who told him to return home, the one who’s made him rich in possessions and sons. He asks that God would save him from Esau’s hand. It’s when he’s terrified that Jacob finally depends on God and what he’s said, Ge 32:9-11.
He tells God, “But you have said…,” and he repeats God’s promise to him, that he would prosper and that his descendants would be “like the sand of the sea which cannot be counted,” Ge 32:12. God’s word won’t be fulfilled if Jacob and his people are killed.
But by the next morning, he’s making plans again. And while it’s wise to plan, I’m hearing desperation in them. Jacob hopes to pacify his brother with gifts, “so that later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me,” Ge 32:20. Perhaps? Jacob still struggles to believe that God, his angels, and his word are enough.
He selects herds of goats, ewes and rams, camels and cows, bulls and donkeys as gifts for Esau, and sends them ahead in droves with servants, instructing them to call Esau “my lord,” and Jacob “your servant.” That night, Jacob puts his animals and possessions across the river, along with his family and servants, and he stays by himself on the other side, the one farthest away from Esau, Ge 32:22-23.
He’s as safe as he can possibly make himself, but it’s not enough. He’s still afraid.
God in the form of man comes to him–scholars believe it was a pre-incarnate Jesus–and they wrestle til daybreak. What are they wrestling about? Jacob says why, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” and after some convo back and forth, the God-man “blessed him there,” Ge 32:24-29, (NIV Study Bible note).
Jacob knows that it’s God he wrestled with since he calls the place “Peniel,” which means face of God, “because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared,” Ge 32:30, (NIV Study Bible note). The man changes Jacob’s name, which means “supplanter” or “struggler,” to “Israel,” which means “God struggler,” since he’s wrestled with God and men and has overcome, Ge 32:28, (NIV Study Bible note).
Overcome what? God? That doesn’t seem right, especially since the man touches his hip and gives him a permanent injury. He could have stopped the match anytime he pleased. It’s more likely that he means Israel overcame himself and his unbelief, his scheming and deceiving as ways of getting the life he dreams.
Israel holds onto God as the only source of blessing there is, he hangs on even after God tells him to let go. This is Israel’s faith, hanging on no matter what, because he knows he has no resources in himself. If God doesn’t bless him in life, and most immediately with Esau, then he won’t be blessed. This is what was missing in all Jacob’s plans, from stealing Esau’s blessing to dealing with Laban, a simple, desperate trust in God to be enough.
The next day he faces his brother, and it’s a movie worthy reunion. We find Jacob afraid again though Esau’s effusive love and mercy feels genuine. They meet and part in peace. It’s such an unexpected ending to what Jacob feared–blessing in spite of failed faith again–that he had to feel full-up with thanksgiving and relief.
So much so, in fact, that he isn’t careful to go all the way to Bethel, another day’s journey, where God said to go, and he makes camp near Shechem instead, Ge 33 (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/genesis-33/).
It was a tragic mistake not to return to Bethel and fulfill the vow he made to God when he’d fled from Esau 20 years before, Ge 28:18-20. His only daughter, Dinah, is raped and her brothers seek revenge by murdering all the men of the place. Jacob seems concerned for his reputation and safety, not Dinah’s, and chastises his sons accordingly. It has to feel surreal to have evaded Esau’s revenge just to come upon unexpected disaster like this, Ge 34.
God speaks to him and tells him to go to Bethel, where he made his vow before, and to worship him there again, 35:1. He doesn’t correct Jacob or chide. His circumstances have already done that. God simply calls him again to come. God reaches out, even though Jacob has blown it once again.
There’s a pattern here that repeats. God blesses and Jacob believes, and then he disbelieves. And God blesses and Jacob believes, and then he disbelieves. God’s blessing isn’t following after great feats of faith. It comes after great unbelief.
It’s a pattern with comforting regularity. Yesterday as I was distracted by a thousand things and couldn’t write, I was encouraged by Jacob’s company, the mess-up who still finds blessing. Unbelief isn’t unique. God’s been dealing with struggling believers for thousands of years.
It’s not about me to figure out the Bible and get it written up and posted for folks to read. It’s about magnifying the One who opens our distracted eyes, the One who shows us folks so full of holes that we see through them to him.
Growing in grace isn’t growing in spiritual strength. It’s growing in weakness. It’s growing in humility. It’s growing in a steady certainty that we do not have what it takes, but our God does. His blessing comes despite our mess ups because it’s all about him.
He is more than enough.
(For the story of how God was enough for me in weight loss see http://onetruelove.blog/2020/08/10/the-10-truths-i-found-to-lose-75-pounds/).
After calling out the crowd for their wrong expectations of God’s kingdom, including expectations of John-the-Baptist and himself, Jesus denounces the cities where most of his miracles had been done, because “they didn’t repent,” v 7-24.
He praises God for hiding understanding from those who consider themselves “the wise and learned” and revealing it to little children instead. He says, “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” v 27. It’s not the ones who think they know; it’s the ones who admit they don’t who get it. Jesus says that knowing God is something he gives.
Then he says what faith and following him are like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” v 28-30.
Jesus’ way isn’t the way of rule following. It’s an easy resting in him. If we’re burdened by our faith, maybe we aren’t walking with the one whose “burden is light,” who lets children in. “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” Luke 18:17.
The fool says, “There is no God,” v 1. But David says God is present in the company of his people, v 5. There are plenty of folks who say they know God but don’t, like the crowd in Matthew who thought they knew what the Messiah would be like.
But Jesus himself tells us what he’s like: “I am gentle and humble of heart.” When you find people like him, you’ve found proof of God, because no one’s naturally gentle or humble. “All have turned aside…there is no one who does good, not even one,” v 3.
It would take the work of a real and living God and his saving Son to turn proud people into humble, “righteous” ones, v 5.
My take away today is heartfelt praise for God who accepts weak faith from imperfect people, ones who fail to trust and still find their place with him.
And praise that my posture of faith in Jesus is repenting and resting, not proving and striving. If I’m yoked in with Jesus, he bears the burden, so mine can be light.
It’s the low road of dependent faith that leads me straight.