At some level, every family is dysfunctional. It’s really not hard to understand why this is. For starters, there is the basic fact that all families are made up of sinful people. And then on top of this, the unique dynamic of family itself produces tensions and troubles.
Family is the closet group relationship in which we live. Humanly speaking, there is nothing closer than the relationship between father and mother; parents and children; brothers and sisters. We physically live together day in and day out for years within these relationships. And of course there is also then that broader network of family relationships that includes grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and cousins. These too are important long term relationships that carry a great deal of emotional weight.
We have these close and permanent ties with family members. And yet the thing is, we don’t get to choose the people who will be in these relationships. It’s not like a spouse or close friends. In those relationships we get to choose the people we want to have in our life. We choose people who have similar interests and who have personalities we enjoy being around.
But that’s not how it is with family. It is amazing that he same two parents raising children in the same home setting can produce children that are so very different. Then add on top of this the fact that you don’t get to choose your brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws. And in turn, they then produce children that are diverse. All of this means that you can end up with some “contrasting personalities” – I’m being gracious here – who have to live permanently in relationship with one another. That’s a recipe for problems. And often there are.
Dysfunction in families is just part of life. And the God’s Word doesn’t make any effort to hide the fact that family dysfunction was part of life for the patriarchs in the Old Testament. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find a more dysfunctional family than the one Jacob was in.
Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, favored him while his father Isaac favored his twin brother Esau. Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright. And then Rebekah helped Jacob trick her husband, so that Jacob could steal the blessing of the first born twin Esau. Are you following this? Keep up, because it’s just going to get more twisted.
Esau wanted to kill Jacob, so Rebekah sent Jacob to Mesopotamia to live with her brother Laban. Laban had two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob fell in love with the hot one, Rachel. However his uncle Laban swindled him into marrying the older and not so hot one Leah. So Jacob ended up working seven extra years – fourteen total – to have a wife he really wanted and a wife he really didn’t. Needless to say Jacob favored Rachel, who unfortunately had trouble having childen. And then there began a competition between Rachel and Leah - which also involved using their servant girls – to see who could have more children. Oh yes, this is all very healthy.
When we meet Jacob in our text this morning he has finally decided that business tensions with his uncle Laban have become too great. And after making a less than gracious exit he is now headed back to Canaan. He hasn’t seen Esau in twenty years and the last time he was there Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob sends ahead messengers to Esau with a greeting. In return, Jacob doesn’t get a reply from Esau. Instead the messengers report that Esau is coming to meet Jacob … and that he’s bringing four hundred men along with him. We are told just before our text that “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”
Jacob divided his household into two groups in the hopes that if Esau attacked they wouldn’t all be destroyed. He sent ahead hundreds of animals as a gift to Esau. We learn at the beginning of our text that after doing all this, he had all of his family and possessions ford the Jordan River. And he then remained on the far bank as night began to fall.
Jacob is involved in a great number of difficulties – many of which are his own doing. But it’s important to realize what God had been doing for him. Twenty years earlier, when Jacob had been fleeing Esau’s wrath, God had appeared to Jacob in a dream. Jacob had seen a ladder going up to heaven with angels ascending and descending it. Above it was God who said, “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. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, 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 have promised you.”
God promised that he would be with Jacob and care for him. He promised to give his offspring the land of Canaan. He promised to give Jacob numerous offspring. And he promised that in Jacob and his offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Now God had blessed Jacob. And Jacob had set out for Canaan because God said to him, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” God had
repeated his promise to be with Jacob and as Jacob made his way to Canaan he was encouraged by encountering two angels.
Immediately before our text, as Jacob made his preparations to meet Esau, he prayed to God saying, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
This prayer determines how we should understand the events in our text. Jacob recalls before God all of the blessings he has received. He emphasizes the fact that his return to Canaan is faithful obedience to God’s command. And then he holds up God’s own promise before God when he prays, “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” Jacob is a sinful person. He is flawed. But he has faith in God’s promise.
We hear in our text, “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” Now the lack of details about this man and his struggle with Jacob gives our text a very mysterious feel. In fact Martin Luther comments, “This passage is regarded by all as among the most obscure passages of the whole Old Testament.” But he then goes on to add, “Nor is this strange, because it deals with that sublime temptation in which the patriarch Jacob had to fight not with flesh and blood or with the devil but against God himself.”
Jacob found himself in the dark wrestling against a man. They struggled all night and Jacob refused to give in – he refused to be overcome. Even after the opponent at wrenched his hip out of joint he continued. Finally the man said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man replied, “What is your name?” When he answered, “Jacob,” the man said “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Jacob wasn’t willing to leave it at that. He asked, “Please tell me your name.” But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. And by then Jacob knew that he had been struggling with God. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
In our text, Jacob is facing frightening circumstances. And on top of that, he finds himself attacked in the dead of the night. Yet the thing that has been made evident is that he has faith in God’s promise – his promise to care for Jacob and give him a future. Because of faith in God’s promise he doesn’t quit. He struggles all through the night. And even when he has been disabled he keeps struggling. It becomes apparent that it is God’s promise that gives him the will and the strength to keep going.
It is God’s promise that has kept him going. And it turns out that the One who has been accosting him has been God. It is God who has been pushing him in this moment of crisis – this moment of faith. It is God who has been testing him – pushing him to go further and deeper in faith.
Now I sincerely doubt that any of you have ever had a brother whom you thought wanted to kill you. You have probably not physically wrestled with someone all night. But each one of us in our own way has known – and perhaps knows right now – the struggle of faith. We know the struggle of continuing to trust in God when there are serious problems: problems that are physical, or financial, or marital.
We don’t want those struggles. But today’s text teaches us that God doesn’t always consider those struggles to be a bad thing. There are even times when those struggles become tools in his hand by which he pushes us. Yet he does so to drive us ever deeper into the promise of his forgiveness and love and care. He does so to exercise us in faith toward Jesus Christ.
We are able to trust in God’s love and care because of what God has done for us in Jesus. In the death and resurrection of Christ God has revealed his self-giving love that has given us forgiveness and eternal life. It has given us the assurance of resurrection and the end of all the struggles.
At the end of our text God says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” God gives Jacob a new name that is based on the Hebrew verb that means “to fight or struggle.” This new name was to be a reminder of this struggle in which Jacob had continued on in faith – in which he had not given up because of faith in God’s promise.
God has done something very similar for you. In Holy Baptism he put his Name upon you as you were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And in doing so he gave you a new name. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in the water and word you were joined to Jesus Christ’s saving work. You received the name Christian. The triune name of God and the name “Christian” serve as constant reminders of God’s promise of salvation in Jesus and of the faith he has created in you by which you grasp and hold onto him.