Calling God Out
The Twenty-first Sunday After Trinity
Calling God Out
If I asked for a show of hands on the subject of angels, I suspect more of you would be for them than against them. The word conjures images of celestial beings bathed in light, messengers of mercy and healing and forgiveness.
We tend to forget that the ruler of the underworld is an angel, too – a fallen one. We prefer our angels cuddly, or at least cordial. Some say they’re on a first-name basis with a guardian angel.
I looked up some stories on angels to see what I’d find and, sure enough, they’re almost always the good guys. The famous evangelist Billy Graham published a book titled “Angels” in 1975 and it became the first book to sell a million copies within four months of release.
Graham was really fond of angels. He once said, “As an evangelist, I have often felt too far spent to minister from the pulpit to men and women who have filled stadiums to hear a message from the Lord.
“Yet again and again my weakness has vanished, and my strength has been renewed. I have been filled with God’s power not only in my soul but physically. On many occasions, God has become especially real, and has sent His unseen angelic visitors to touch my body to let me be His messenger for heaven, speaking as a dying man to dying men.”
One anonymous writer found himself pondering “the voice of an angel.” He’d heard the phrase often enough and he began to wonder just what an angel’s voice might sound like. Would it be as lovely as everyone supposed?
He searched the Scriptures and discovered the words an angel, if he turned up among us today, would be most likely to say – and he decided we wouldn’t be all that happy to hear them. Those words are these: “Get up and hurry!”
An angel comes to Peter in jail and says, “Rise quickly.” An angel tells Gideon, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the Midianites . . .” An angel tells Elijah, “Arise and eat” and when Herod is slaughtering the infants an angel packs Joseph off to Egypt, telling him in a dream, “Go quickly.” What does Philip hear from an angel? “Arise and go.”
The Greek word angelos means, literally, “messenger,” and the messages angels bear seem to contain a remarkably consistent theme of urgency: Get it in gear, now!
If we put away our romanticized idea of angels and see them more comprehensively for who they are we are not so surprised when we arrive at Genesis 32 and find Jacob wrestling with one. And it gets better – or worse. This angel cripples Jacob for life.
We do get a jolt, however – Jacob wins. This is a matter that bears investigation, the more so when we probe the identity of this particular angel.
Our text calls him a “Man” – with a capital M, for this being clearly possesses supernatural powers, and the church going way, way back has seen Him as an angel and many artists have portrayed Him as such.
He seems to be introduced as a man for the purpose of revealing his identity only gradually. By the end of this brief episode we understand this angel/Man is in fact God.
Jacob is bound for home after his long sojourn in Mesopotamia. He must take up the mantle of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac, for God has promised land, seed and blessing that will flow through the generations of his covenant people beginning with these, their patriarchs.
Jacob is next in line, according to God’s sovereign choice, because God has a point to make: Against the settled order of things, the younger son will be greater than the elder. God is pointing us to a truth we must not miss: His own second Son, Jesus, will surpass His first son, Adam.
But Jacob is not content to let events take their course. Full of fleshly passions, he has taken matters into his own hands, defrauding his twin brother Esau – who was born first — of his birthright, which is headship of the family and the larger share of their father’s possessions.
The manner of their birth foretold this inversion. Jacob’s name, in fact, refers to his grabbing his brother’s heel as they emerged from the womb, suggesting the nature of a deceiver who steals up on another from behind.
Now, Jacob must go to Bethel – which means “house of God” – to take up his exalted position. So it is that we find him on an unlikely route that has put him on a collision course with Esau, who is ensconced at the southern extremity of the land of Palestine.
Geographically, Jacob on his westward trek has no need to swing south to reach Bethel. Spiritually, he has every reason to do so. What will Jesus teach in the Sermon on the Mount?
“. . . if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Before he can approach the house of God, Jacob must first make peace with his brother.
Jacob, fearful, prays, reminding God that it was He who commanded him to return to Palestine and who promised him a multitude of descendents. Then he sends a huge peace offering ahead of him to test Esau’s reaction: “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milk camels with their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten foals” (32:14-15).
Is it enough? Will Esau, who has become a man of substance himself by this time but who has had long years to nurse his grievance against his brother, relent and forgive?
What do we know of these brothers?
In the culture, the birthright was transferable. One surviving contract from the Hurrian people of that era describes a man buying out his brother’s inheritance for three sheep. That was a handsome price. Esau sold out cheap.
What did he receive in return? The text cleans up his words a bit too much. What he actually says is more like, “Let me gulp some of this red stuff.” That’s the stew – one lousy bowl of it – for which he bartered away his birthright.
Esau is rash and thoughtless; he grabs after the pleasure of the moment regardless of the cost. If he lived in our day he’d probably run for president. Jacob is no choir boy, but he is tough and cool, tenacious in going after what he wants – whether a wife or an inheritance or the portion of the livestock he has coming from his crooked kinsman Laban.
He plays the long game, waiting for decades when necessary to claim his prize. His motives may not be pure nor his methods the most moral but he will not fritter away long-term gains to avoid conflict or pander to his palate. He has no problem, in our lingo, with delay of gratification.
In our day, he’d probably put on a pants suit and run for president on the other party’s ticket.
In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews applauds Jacob as one of the early pilgrims, resolute and steadfast. This same writer condemns Esau as a “profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.”
Finally, Jacob sends his family and servants and remaining livestock across the stream. He is alone, in the dark of night, when the angel appears . . . and the wrestling begins.
Let’s think about wrestling for a minute. I still have a lot to learn about Oklahoma culture but I know wrestling is very popular in this state. Whereas Texas, where I come from, is home to the greatest football ever.
That’s an eternal truth even if, as I must concede, this isn’t the best year to bring it up.
Wrestling is a grunting, grasping, sweaty piece of business, contact of the most personal sort. You can go to the mat with a stranger but he won’t remain a stranger for long. And Jacob and the angel wrestle all night.
And the angel “saw that He did not prevail against him . . .” At this point He resorts to extraordinary means, touching Jacob’s hip so as to dislocate it. I rather think such an injury would put most of us on the sideline, if not in the hospital, but Jacob, being Jacob, wrestles on.
There’s no quit in him. As they grapple, I think, Jacob realizes a truth about himself that each of us must come to on our own. He struggled mightily with Esau and then he clashed with Laban . . . and all the while his real contest was with God.
His tenacity had buttressed an overweening pride that demanded the lion’s share of the inheritance, the prettiest girl, every iota of the wages he was due.
If he had sought God’s plan for his life and submitted to it he would have avoided the spiritual pain he suffered along the way. That’s not to say he would have not endured physical and emotional affliction. That’s life.
But if he had seen all of his existence, the triumphs and the hardships, as integral to the outworking of God’s plan and purpose he would have taken it all with grace. As we will see going forward, he will have a son named Joseph who will excel in this arena, even accepting a long stint in a dungeon with aplomb because it affords opportunities to live out his calling from God.
Jacob refuses to disengage unless he first receives a blessing, signaling to us that he knows very well into whose embrace he has fallen. But before He blesses him, the angel renames him:
“And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’”
The name Israel means “he strove.” Because God gives it to him we see that this man whose sons will head the 12 tribes will henceforth place his heroic resolve in the service of his Lord. He is no longer the deceiver. Like his grandfather Abraham, he has received a new name that declares his new character and purpose.
That purpose is to oversee the covenant people through whom the Seed of the woman who will be the Savior of the world will come.
By maiming him and naming him, God has recast Jacob in a form that fits his divinely ordained destiny.
Jacob calls the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face-to-face, and my life is preserved.” Peniel means “God’s face.” Having survived his encounter with his Lord, we may trust, he will endure his meeting with his brother Esau.
The sun rises on a new creation, suited for service, and we see Israel limping toward his destiny. This episode was no dream. He leaves it with God’s mark upon him.
And so, we ask, what exactly was his victory? I think he won the blessing God had always intended for him. He had cheated his brother out of his blessing but, we now see, that was a trivial thing. Just as he had been wrestling with God all the while, his true need had been for God’s blessing all the while.
And because he was willful and unyielding, God allowed him to fight for what he could have had for the asking.
And I think Jacob is all of us. We dig in our heels and resist God even as we seek His love. We wage our battles with the Esaus and the Labans who come into our lives oblivious of the truth that our only real struggle is with God – even as our only real desire is for God.
We bob and weave, shuffle and shake, trying to steer clear of Him because the Spirit who dwells within us will not let us deny that in the end we must reckon with our Maker. In an age of casual, comfortable Christianity, we flee in the other direction, like Jonah, in an all-out sprint to escape a face-to-face encounter with our Lord.
He gave us His law because He loves us, because those who follow that law will gain a shield that protects them from His judgment. Yet we try to circumvent it, or we run afoul of it, rather than submitting to it and living out the purpose God intended for us.
Yet God is gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He loves us enough to wrestle with us. To allow us to wrestle with Him, if only we will.
So give Jacob this much: He changed his course to intersect with that of his God. He sent his company ahead and sat alone, in the dark, and awaited his appointment with his destiny. And when God wounded him he kept up the struggle, for now he was, at long last, prepared to receive the true blessing, and to battle on in the name of the Lord.
When I was looking for stories on angels I decided to see what might turn up on wrestlers while I was at it. I found this one:
“In the days of the Roman Emperor Nero, there lived and served him a band of soldiers known as the ‘Emperor’s Wrestlers.’ Fine, stalwart men they were, picked from the best and the bravest of the land, recruited from the great athletes of the Roman amphitheater.
“In the great amphitheater they upheld the arms of the emperor against all challengers. Before each contest they stood before the emperor’s throne. Then through the courts of Rome rang the cry: ‘We, the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.’
“When the great Roman army was sent to fight in faraway Gaul, no soldiers were braver or more loyal than this band of wrestlers, led by their centurion Vespasian. But news reached Nero that many Roman soldiers had accepted the Christian faith. Therefore, this decree was dispatched to the centurion Vespasian:
“’If there be any among your soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christian, they must die!’
“The decree was received in the dead of winter. The soldiers were camped on the shore of a frozen lake. It was with sinking heart that Vespasian read the emperor’s message.
“Vespasian called the soldiers together and asked the question: ‘Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christian? If so, let him step forward!’ Forty wrestlers instantly stepped forward two paces, respectfully saluted and stood at attention. Vespasian paused. He had not expected so many, nor such select ones. ‘Until sundown I shall await your answer,’ said Vespasian.
“Sundown came. Again the question was asked. Again the 40 wrestlers stepped forward.
“Vespasian pleaded with them long and earnestly without prevailing upon a single man to deny his Lord. Finally he said, ‘The decree of the emperor must be obeyed, but I am not willing that your comrades should shed your blood. I am going to order that you march out upon the lake of ice, and I shall leave you there to the mercy of the elements.’
“The 40 wrestlers were stripped and then, falling into columns of four, marched toward the center of the lake of ice. As they marched they broke into the chant of the arena: ‘Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee the victor’s crown!’
“Through the long hours of the night Vespasian stood by his camp fire and watched. As he waited through the long night there came to him fainter and fainter the wrestlers’ song.
“As morning drew near one figure, overcome by exposure, crept quietly toward the fire; in the extremity of his suffering he had renounced his Lord. Faintly but clearly from the darkness came the song: ‘Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee the victor’s crown!’
“Vespasian looked at the figure drawing close to the fire. Perhaps he saw eternal light shining there toward the center of the lake. Who can say? But off came his helmet and clothing, and he sprang upon the ice, crying, ‘Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee the victor’s crown!’”
I suspect we must first wrestle with God before we can wrestle for God. Amen.Posted on: October 16, 2016Ed Fowler