February 28, 2021
In our Old Testament lesson, we meet Jacob at the climax of his struggle with God and men. In order to understand the significance of this wrestling match, we must go back a few chapters to when Jacob first fled his family home. Jacob left his father and mother, because his brother Esau vowed to kill him, because Jacob deceived their father Isaac so that he gave Jacob Esau’s blessing. In his flight, God visited Jacob in a dream and 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 in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
And after God blessed Jacob, and made him rich, and gave him eleven sons and a daughter, God again appeared to Jacob and said, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3). So, Jacob arose and took his family and his livestock and traveled back to the land which God promised to give to his descendants. And on the way, Jacob again met angels of the Lord to encourage him that God would carry out what he had promised to him.
But then, Jacob’s attitude changed. The messengers he sent ahead of him returned. His brother Esau was coming with four hundred men. Esau, the brother who had vowed to kill Jacob, now was equipped with more than enough men to kill him, his wives and children, and take all his flocks and servants. Now Jacob is afraid. He sends massive gifts of livestock ahead of him in droves to try to appease Esau’s wrath. He divides his family into two camps, thinking that if Esau raids the one camp, the other could flee and escape. Jacob is terrified.
Why is Jacob terrified? What has changed? What has happened to make one believe that God will not keep his promise to Jacob? God said that he would multiply Jacob’s family, that he would give them the land of Canaan as a possession, that he would bless all families through his offspring, and moreover, that he would not leave him until he had accomplished what he promised. So, what has happened to make Jacob doubt that God would do as he said? Has God appeared to tell Jacob that he has changed his mind? No. Jacob’s brother, who wants him dead, is coming with four hundred men. Jacob fears Esau will kill him, with the women and children. But that would mean that God’s promise would not come true! But what are four hundred men to God’s promise? It could be four hundred thousand men with chariots of steel, and that would not change God’s promise. Nothing has changed in regards to God’s promise. Yet, though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. Believing God’s promise when it looks like the promise will fail is too much for the sinful human nature, even if you dearly want to believe it.
So, what does Jacob do? He does as any Christian should do. He prays. Yet, pay careful attention to how Jacob prays. He says, “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.’” (Genesis 32:9-13)
Notice how Jacob prayed? He did not claim his own righteousness. He didn’t claim that he deserved anything from God at all, but that he was in fact unworthy of all that God had already given him. Yet, he clung to the promise. “But you said” That is the key to prayer: Faith in the promise. God only hears prayers said in faith. And Jesus promises, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24) Yet, how can you have faith that God will give you what you ask? You have to ask according to God’s promise. Jacob’s faith clings to God’s promise. In order to pray, you must have faith. And in order to have faith, you must have a promise to hold on to.
Yet, even after Jacob prays this wonderful prayer of faith, God doesn’t immediately answer him! Rather, God appears to Jacob as a man and wrestles with him all through the night! How is this an answer to Jacob’s prayer? Now, after pouring out his heart to the Lord, he must pour out his sweat and blood and endure extreme pain. Yet, even in the wrestling match, Jacob insists on God’s promise. When the Lord knocked his hip out of joint, Jacob clung on and refused to let him go until the Lord blessed him. This is the same as saying, “No, you promised. I won’t let go until you do as you promise!” And Jacob’s prayer was answered. God blessed Jacob. And the next morning, when Jacob arose Esau came to him, embraced him, kissed him, and wept. Jacob’s family was not in danger. Esau had forgiven Jacob. Jacob had passed the test and God kept true to his word.
So, what has God promised you? “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) These words from our Lord mean that your sins were washed away in your baptism and through faith you receive salvation as a gift. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Again, Jesus promises us that through faith we will receive eternal life! Holy Scripture declares, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13; Joel 2:32). How can your salvation be in doubt? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). St. Paul reasons, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). Indeed, we should have confidence to pray as God bids us in Psalm 50, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.”
So many and so clear are the promises of God to you! He promises to forgive your sins! He promises to give you eternal life. He promises to protect you from every danger! He promises a good resolve of every trouble you encounter, as St. Paul says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) I dare say, we have more clear and plentiful promises from God to do us good than Jacob did, who himself saw God.
Life is difficult. There is a reason why the most beloved Psalm of so many is Psalm 23, in which we recite, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” We suffer from sickness, death of loved ones, and our own impending death. We deal with regret, temptation, and our own lack of faith. We fear for the future, we’re ashamed of our past, we feel suffocated in the present. Pain, sorrow, shame, fear, these are all trials we must bear any given year. And this past year has been rough for a number of reasons. For most of us, our routines have been drastically changed. We all have people we care about, whom we now rarely or never see. Many of us are dealing with isolation ourselves. And this unnatural isolation has harmed the health of our minds, bodies, and souls. Many of us are struggling with anxiety, strife with those we want to love, but find it difficult, fear, anger, frustration, loneliness, listlessness; and all this heaped upon struggles we may already have been facing.
Yet, how do any of these trials cancel the promises God has made to you? How do any of these trials undo what God has done? They don’t. They can’t. Just as Esau and his four hundred men could not cancel God’s promise to Jacob, so neither can any trial you face in this life cancel the promises God has made to you. St. Paul writes in Romans 8, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vss. 38-39)
“Nor anything else in all creation...” That means you can fill in this statement of faith in God’s love with anything that seems to be separating you from God’s love. Neither death nor life, nor anxiety nor cancer, nor unemployment nor addiction, nor sin nor temptation, nor regret, nor sickness, nor betrayal, nor anything else you may be troubled with right now nor will be in the future will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord! Whatever your trial, cling to God’s promise! Know that nothing in all creation is able to undo what God has done for you in Christ Jesus your Lord.
Yet, often we do the very opposite of what we should do. Our trials lead us to flee from God’s promise, to avoid God’s word and instruction, to avoid receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, which forgives our sins, strengthens our faith, and increases our love toward one another. We avoid prayer and dwell on the problems that are threatening our happiness and security, or even worse, many try to drown their sorrows with medication, drugs, and alcohol, further harming their relationships and adding on shame and depression. Yet, these are not the solutions to life’s trials.
Taking a break from God’s Word will never help your faith grow. Delaying prayer will not prepare you to pray better later. Do not wait until you feel better to look to God’s promises for encouragement, as if God’s love is only for those who are without sin. No, while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Listen to God’s promise to forgive you and save you when you feel unworthy and utterly sinful. Do not wait to pray until you feel worthy. Pray when you feel unworthy, as Jacob did, who deserved none of the loving kindness God showed to him. Pray not according to your worthiness, but according to God’s promise, which cannot be taken away by anything in this creation, whether it is four hundred armed men or your foolishness and sin.
The only thing that will separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus is if you refuse to repent of your sins and refuse to cling to God’s promise to forgive and save you for Christ’s sake. Yet, when you hold on to God’s promises to you in Christ, you are equipped to pray with confidence and to endure trials. It is by focusing on God’s promises to us in Christ that we learn to rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not put to shame (Romans 5:3-4). Then we learn that God sends us these trials, so that we may learn that God does not cancel his promises to us. Amen.