Unless You Bless Me

2022-10-16 Sermon               by Pastor Teddie McConnell
The passage from Genesis we’re looking at this morning comes at a point in Jacob’s life when his past was catching up to him. You may remember how Isaac’s wife, Jacob’s mother, had listened in on Esau’s conversation with Isaac about how to receive the blessing by hunting and then bringing Isaac his favorite dish. She decided to help Jacob steal his brother Esau’s inheritance by helping him pretend to be Esau and receive his blind father’s blessing. His mother gave Jacob Isaac’s favorite food and dressed Jacob in fur to fool Isaac further, since Esau was hairier than Jacob was. It was a devious and deliberate plot to steal his brother’s birthright.
Esau was furious and rightly so. Jacob was so afraid of what his brother might do to him in revenge that he ran away. He ended up working for his uncle Laban for 20 years. He’d married two of Laban’s daughters, had many children, and collected herds of livestock during that time. This was wealth he’d worked to earn, not a benefit of the inheritance he’d stolen. Ironically, Laban’s sons became jealous of him and spread rumors about Jacob, saying he had stolen their inheritance. Laban turned cold and distant. God appeared to Jacob in a dream and told him it was time to return to his home.
Jacob was worried about how Esau would react to his return, concerned that Esau would still be holding a grudge. He came up with a plan to mollify Esau and sent him a letter explaining where he’d been and what he’d gained in the meantime, then appealed to him for mercy. When he heard that Esau was heading his direction with 400 men, he started sending Esau a series of gifts timed to arrive before they would meet up, trying to win Esau’s forgiveness and maybe even impress him with his wealth. Then he sent his family across the river ahead of him. Finally, after all this elaborate planning and scheming, he settled in to spend the night by himself by the river Jabbok. He was alone, afraid and vulnerable.
Then, Jacob did something the Bible doesn’t record that he did very often. He prayed. He acknowledged God as the God of his ancestors, confessed his unworthiness – finally, a sign of humility! He begged God to save him from his brother, reminding God of his promises that Jacob would prosper. Jacob had matured to the point where it wasn’t just about him and his complicated schemes anymore, but about his relationship with the Holy One.
The response to this prayer is pretty odd. God sent a man, maybe an angel, to wrestle with Jacob in the dark for a long time. As they fought, Jacob realized that it was, indeed, God that he was struggling with. Then God confirmed it.
Why didn’t God just strike him down? Surely God had that power. Perhaps because God had other plans for him. Perhaps it was a learning opportunity for Jacob.
The angel struck Jacob in the hip, then asked to be released before the dawn broke. Perhaps God was concerned that Jacob wouldn’t survive seeing him in the light, since in Exodus 33:20 it says, “no one may see me and live.” God wasn’t in any danger, Jacob was.
But Jacob believed that this was his only chance to hold God to the freely given blessings God had already promised, the same ones he learned about in his dream at Bethel where he had seen the angels’ ladder. Jacob had such a grip on the angel that he couldn’t escape without hurting Jacob more severely. It was God’s mercy that spared him.
Jacob was willing to risk death for the sake of a blessing. I think he’d done so much wrong in his life, been so manipulative, that he didn’t feel worthy of God’s love, and was about to lose heart. He said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
The angel gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means, “The man who struggles with God who struggles with men.” Then the angel gave him the blessing. Jacob, now Israel, let him go. Although he still had a limp, he succeeded in getting the reassurance he needed, and something unexpected – a new name that recognized his strength, skill and determination in the struggle. The testing battle with God renewed Israel’s confidence in his ability to prevail in life and faith in God’s presence with him, even against his brother and the army he brought. God prepared him for the conflict with his brother by taking the form of the struggle he anticipated, creating a dress rehearsal for what lay ahead.
This is God’s relationship with us in microcosm. The God who made us struggles with us, challenges us, and we struggle back. We struggle to follow God’s commandments, to love God with all our soul and mind and strength and to love one another as we love ourselves. We struggle to suppress and deny our own selfish motives. We struggle with why God allows bad things to happen to good people. We struggle with not being able to see the big picture as only God can. We can’t solve the problems of our time unless we wrestle with God and hold on to God.
The most important thing is that God is with us in our struggles through thick and thin, captured by the loving relationship we share. God is as bound to us as we are to God when we hold on and won’t let go unless God blesses us. God gives us grace despite our rebellious and unworthy nature. We give God worship, we promise to be good, then go our own way, only to sin again and again, to ask for forgiveness again and again. Like Jacob, we’re insecure enough to try to hold God to the promises God has already given. We ask to be blessed when we already have been through Christ our Lord. No, we’re not worthy of God’s love. Thanks be to God, we don’t have to be to receive it. God’s store of grace is endless, because God loved us enough to send Jesus to pay the price for our sins. Jacob went away from his struggle with God with a limp. Jesus still has the scars from his sacrificial battle for our souls. We may not have scars as obvious, but we have all been touched by God in some painful way during lives mostly filled with blessings. We all have losses. We can’t know what God has spared us through mercy. God blessed me with my husband, Tom, then took him away to heaven when letting him go was the last thing I wanted to do. He had suffered more than enough. Life is hard. God gives us good things, but none are permanent except God’s love.
Before Jesus told the story of the unjust judge, he warned the disciples that they would face hardship, rejection and suffering for the coming kingdom, then told them this story about faith and persistence in prayer to teach them how to handle the adversity to come.
What the widow in Jesus’ parable went through was different than wrestling with God in the dark for hours. While Jacob was a strong, wealthy and confident man, the widow Jesus invented was about as powerless as one could be in the first century without being a slave. A widows was no longer supported by her late husband and could not inherit his estate, which went directly to his sons or brothers.
The widow had nothing but God, time and determination on her side. She had no money and no male relatives to defend her. She had no influence besides her relentless persistence and a clean conscience. I picture her with a steely gaze and a firm, angry voice.
The judge was a paid magistrate, not a Jewish judge. We know this because Jewish judges worked in tribunals, three person panels. Magistrates had a terrible reputation for corruption and accepting bribes. He didn’t fear God or care about men. He was worried about her making him look like a fool. The original Greek has him saying he’ll give her justice “so that she doesn’t give me a black eye.” Being physically attacked by an angry woman was a humiliation too embarrassing for him to risk.
This judge is meant to be a sharp contrast with the personality of God. If this nasty, selfish judge can dispense justice if pestered long enough, we can trust God to bring us justice and righteousness in this world without too many prayers. Jesus promised through this story that God will not delay when his people are crying out to him day and night, but will quickly bring justice. God will bring us what we need and is also best for everyone in the long run. That’s why praying for God’s will is the prayer that never fails.
There is a catch, though. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Jesus asked. We must have faith, the kind of faith that holds on to God until we are blessed. Prayer can feel like you’re talking to a mountain, silent, massive, and immovable. God is mysterious, beyond our ability to comprehend, yet loving, merciful and faithful. God’s responses to our prayers come in God’s timing, not ours. Jacob waited twenty years for God to say it was time for him to return to the promised land. All we can do is keep at it, keep seeking God’s will and doing our best to understand our part in that will as we act on behalf of God’s kingdom. We ask, we knock, we wait, we pray, we keep working, we keep going.
A life of faith isn’t just one of persistent prayer. It takes worship, study, service, and giving, following the will of God to the best of our abilities. It takes the courage to believe in something better, larger and wiser than we are, something vast and unknowable.
Simply practicing our faith blesses us. It gives us life-changing experiences that mold us into better people.
Worship reminds us that God is powerful and in charge and we are not. Studying the life and words of Jesus gives us a roadmap for faithful living. Serving each other and our neighbors by giving out of the time, talents and goods with which God blesses us is more practice in Christ-like living. Giving makes us grateful for God’s abundance. Being faithful blesses us.
Persistent prayer isn’t just a way to ask God for what we want. It’s also a way to wrestle with what God wants from us. We need to keep at it, and not let go unless God blesses us, wrestling through the dark times. Jesus said it won’t take long. We need to be ready to show the returning Christ that we have been faithful, despite hardships, despite waiting, despite the vagaries of this life. Say to the Lord, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” And all God’s people said, Amen.

No Comments




no categories


no tags