GENESIS 32:22-32

NOVEMBER 2, 2008


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Fear can be debilitating, and of all our God-given emotions most of us would rate fear near the bottom of the list of emotions we would most like to experience.  Even though we know that fear can be a good thing, a warning device that alerts us to danger and prepares us to take flight or fight – despite this positive aspect of it – fear is not an emotion we would readily choose to experience.  We would much rather be elated or peaceful or angry or joyful than afraid.

And each of us has our own little fears like the child who laments,


I wouldn’t be afraid to fight a demon or a dragon if you dare me.

I wouldn’t be afraid of witches, warlocks, trolls or giants.

Just worms scare me.


All of us find ourselves afraid from time to time, and this morning we are going to look at a fear of Jacob’s which triggered his wrestling match with God.  Let’s turn to it now.

Our passage begins with the words,


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.


Those three words , “The same night,” refer back to some frightening news that Jacob had received earlier in the day.  The news?   Here listen to it, Genesis 32:6,


The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”


Let me remind you of where we are in our study of Jacob.  He has been away from home for 20 years.  He had to leave home because he had bilked his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing.  Now, after 20 years he is returning home.  A few days earlier he had said good-bye to his uncle and father-in-law Laban.  After that farewell, Jacob knew that as a condition of returning home he had to face his brother.  So, Jacob sent messengers to his brother telling him of his impending return and that he had hoped that time had healed old wounds, that there were no hard feelings, however, that did not seem to be the case.  Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.

Are you familiar with Stanley the Fierce?  He’s a boy Judith Viorst describes in her book of poems for children.  Let me introduce you to him if you haven’t had the pleasure. 

Stanley the Fierce

Has a chipped front tooth

And clumps of spiky hair.

And his hands are curled in two fat fists

And his arms are bulgy and bare.

And his smile is a tight little mean little smile

And his eyes give a shivery glare.

And I hear that he goes for 17 days

Without changing his underwear.[1]


Jacob was about to meet his own personal Stanley the Fierce in the form of his twin brother Esau, and that night while awaiting the encounter, he sent his wives, maidservants, children, and possessions to the other side of the river, so that they might soften Esau’s anger before he got to him, and it was during that night – that anxiety ridden, fearful night – that Jacob had the most important experience of his life.  What we see here is Jacob’s watershed moment.  From here on Jacob will be different, not only physically having to go through the rest of his life with a “hitch in his get-along,” but internally as well.  Let’s look at what happened to him.

As we do that, let me ask a question.  With whom did Jacob wrestle?  Was it God or did Jacob wrestle with an angel of God?  I guess is depends on which Bible you read.  Some Bibles title this section, “Jacob Wrestles with God.”  Other Bibles read, “Jacob Wrestles with An Angel.”  Still others take a non-commital approach.  They don’t take a stand as to whether the person wrestling with Jacob was God or an angel.  In these translations of the Bible, they title this section, “Jacob Wrestles at Peniel.”  So, with whom did Jacob wrestle?  Did Jacob wrestle with God or with an angel?

If it were God, masquerading as a man, then how do explain God’s not being able to take Jacob to the mat?  Did God have a power outage?  Was it something akin to pro wrestling were everything is staged?  And if it were God, how do we explain the words of the prophet Hosea who identified the mysterious figure wrestling with Jacob as an angel of the Lord?

On the other hand, if it is not God, but an angel, why then did Jacob say at the end of the match, “I have seen God face to face.”?  It makes more sense, if it were indeed an angel, if Jacob had said, “I have met the Lord’s messenger,” and not “I have seen God face to face.”

So take your pick – an angel or God wrestling with Jacob?  A good but not necessarily conclusive case could be built for either.  As for me, I favor the person being God, but whoever it was, the impact on Jacob was phenomenal.  His life turned around.  It was the watershed event of his life and this morning I want to look at two things which God did to Jacob to turn him around. 

The first thing God did with Jacob was God encountered him.  God met him face to face and as I reflect upon the church in America, not necessarily our congregation,  I find this to be one of the things most lacking in the church today.  Simply stated, the church seems to be comprised of a number of people, good people, faithful people, hardworking people, who have never had a personal, first-hand encounter with God.

Let me try to explain the significance of this by using an analogy.  I love to snow ski, and when I was younger I was somewhat of a fanatic about it.  I liked to be the first in line when the chair lifts open, and I liked to ski until the chair lifts close late in the afternoon.  In fact, I saw stopping to eat lunch as an intrusion, taking away from precious time on the slopes.

Anyway, one winter Trudy and I went to Park City, Utah to ski.  It was our first and only time skiing in Utah, and as is the case with many ski resorts, for just a couple more bucks you could buy a pass to ski a nearby area.  So, one day we decided to do that.  We decided to forego Park City for a day and travel a few miles up the road to a resort named Deer Valley. 

Now, let me tell you why we decided to go to Deer Valley.  We decided to go because Deer Valley had the reputation of being the classiest, the most luxurious resort in Utah, and we wanted to see it.  We were not disappointed.  Attendants met our car and helped us with our skis.  And the lodge!!!  It may be the best in America.  For those of you who ski, imagine this.  Imagine coming off the mountain to a facility with beautiful hardwood floors, rich decor and gourmet dining.  How they keep those floors so shiny with people walking all over them in ski boots, I’ll never know, but they did.  It was a thrill to see the place and I had Beef Wellington for lunch. 

But here’s the point.  I noticed something very curious while we were there.  I noticed some people drive up to Deer Valley just to see the place and eat lunch.  Even though there is this wonderful, challenging, take-your-breath-away mountain, they never get out there to ski.  Oh sure, they overhear great ski stories from people who had been out on the slopes, but they have never ventured out there themselves.  They just eat lunch, watch people ski, overhear ski stories, and leave.  And on the way home they probably talk about what a wonderful time they had, and wasn’t the meal good and the setting spectacular, but they never get beyond the lodge.

I thought to myself, how like the church.  So many people in the church who come to the lodge, but have never encountered the mountain.  And tragically, most of these people think they are in on the action.  But they have never experienced the mountain.  They have never personally experienced or encountered the living Christ. 

Let me ask a question.  Can you name a time when God encountered you or you encountered God face to face?  Not the church.  Not some dynamic or inspirational pastor.  But God?  If you haven’t, I do not want to make you feel guilty.  I just want to inform you that there is something more.  There is more to life than what you are experiencing.  There is a wild and challenging mountain out there that will test your limits and that will give you a taste of life, real life, that is unparalleled.  That’s why Jacob exclaimed, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Jacob got a taste of what that life was like – he got a taste of the mountain – and he didn’t want to let go of it.  It marked him.  It changed his life, and until we encounter the mountain, until we come face to face with God, we will be missing the essence of Christianity.  Oh sure, we’ll be close to it being in the church, but lodge life is a poor substitute for the real thing. 

The second thing I want us to look at in the account is not only how God encounters people face to face, but also the miracle of God’s persistent love.  God’s love of Jacob – even though Jacob does not deserve it – finally gets through to him, and it changes Jacob, it transforms him, and let me close with modern day story of love and transformation.

Like any good mother, when Karen found out that another baby was on the way, she did what she could to help her three year old son, Michael, prepare for a new sibling.  Along the way, they find out that the baby is going to be a girl and day after day, night after night, three year old Michael sings to his sister in his mother’s tummy. 

The pregnancy progresses normally for Karen, an active member of her church in Morristown, Tennessee.  Then the labor pains come. Every five minutes ... every minute, but complications arise during delivery.  They have to do an emergency C-section, and the baby is in serious condition.  With siren howling in the night, the ambulance rushes the infant to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The days inch by.  The infant girl gets worse.  The pediatrician says, “There is little hope.  Prepare for the worst.”  Karen and her husband contact a local cemetery about a burial plot.  Michael keeps begging his parents to let him see his sister.  “I want to sing to her,” he says.

Week two in intensive care, and it looks as if a funeral will come before the week is over.  Michael keeps nagging his parents about singing to his sister, but kids are not allowed in intensive care.  Karen, however, makes up her mind.  She will take Michael whether they like it or not.  If he doesn’t see his sister now, he may never see her.

She dresses him in an oversized scrub suit and marches him into ICU.  He looks like a walking laundry basket, but the head nurse recognizes him as a child and bellows, “Get that kid out of her now!  No children are allowed.”  Karen, usually mild-mannered, glares steel-eyed into the head nurse’s face and says, “He is not leaving until he sings to his sister.”

Karen tows Michael to his sister’s bedside.  He gazes at the tiny infant losing the battle to live.  And he begins to sing in the pure-hearted voice of a three year old ... “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray ...”

Instantly, the baby responds.  The pulse rate becomes calm and steady.

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The ragged, strained breathing becomes as smooth as a kitten’s purr.

“The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping I dreamed I held you in my arms ...”

Michael’s little sister, who had heard him singing to her in the womb, relaxes as a healing rest sweeps over her.  Tears conquer the face of the bossy head nurse. 

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

Funeral plans are scrapped.  The next week – the very next week – the little girl is well enough to go home.

Woman’s Day magazine called it, “the miracle of a brother’s song.”  The medical staff just called it a miracle.  Karen called it a miracle of God’s love.

My friends, like little Michael, God has been singing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” to you every day of your life.  Jacob finally heard the song and it changed his life.   May you hear the song as well.  


[1]Judith Viorst, If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1981), 11.