Life is like a marathon...or is it more like a wrestling match? When we read in Heb. 12:1 that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”…we may picture a stadium in which men and women of faith who have gone before us, are cheering us on as we run. Yet instead of being at the end of the race, let’s picture ourselves, as John Maxwell does, entering the stadium somewhere in mid-race, drawing inspiration and energy from the crowd. Making our way around the track, one by one, great heroes of the faith come down from the stands to encourage us on our journey.
It's now our second lap as a man comes jogging toward us with a limp. We rack our brains trying to remember his name from Sunday School...and how he got that limp. “I’m Jacob,” the man says, seeing our mental strain. Jacob... the grandson of Abraham and the father of the 12 tribes of Israel? He nods and then speaks six surprising words: “There is blessing in every defeat!” Jacob says it again, and then explains why as he shares these lessons from his own life.
“There is blessing in defeat because, in defeat, we learn to pray and give God the glory.” Jacob tells about a night long ago when he prayed to God, alone and afraid for his life, “O God of Abraham…and my father Isaac… I am not worthy of…all the steadfast love and…faithfulness that you have shown your servant… Deliver me from the hand of my brother…Esau for I am afraid of him (9-11). How did Jacob come to this point of utter helplessness and fear, we wonder?
Jacob’s story begins with his grandfather Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of a great nation; and that in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen.12). Eventually Abraham and Sarah are blessed with Isaac, a miracle son in their old age. In time Isaac marries Rebekah and they have twin sons (Gen. 25). Esau, whose name means “hairy," is born first, followed by his brother, seen grabbing at his heel. His parents name him Jacob, or “heel-grabber!” Now the Bible tells us that Isaac loved Esau, while Rebekah loved Jacob – not exactly a model family system!
True to his name, one day Jacob talks his famished brother into “selling” his birthright for some soup and bread. Then on one fateful day, he deceives his blind and aging father: Jacob impersonates Esau and tricks Isaac into giving him the coveted blessing that he had intended for his firstborn, Esau (Gen. 27). As a result, Jacob flees from his parent’s home and the fury of Esau, who vows to kill him after their father dies. He travels back to Northern Mesopotamia where he falls in love with a girl named Rachel. Eventually, Jacob has two wives, two concubines, twelve sons and one daughter (Gen. 30). How this happened is another story...
Fast forward twenty years when Jacob realizes that he must return to Canaan and face his brother’s wrath (Gen. 32). As he nears home, messengers inform him that Esau is approaching with four hundred men. Jacob, who up until now has relied on his own wits, begins to pray, fearing for his life:“O God…Deliver me from the hand of my brother…Esau for I am afraid of him. That same night Jacob sends his servants ahead of him with gifts for his brother. He then sends his family and all his possessions across to the other side of the river bordering Canaan, while he himself is left alone. He was alone and yet… an “unknown man” came to him and “…wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him…But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” - Gen. 32:9-12; 24-26.
I’ve learned that when God wants to get my attention he often gets me alone, stripped of all visible means of support, where I can only fall on my knees in prayer and give him the glory he deserves. I used to think of Jacob as a kind of biblical luchador who wrestled God to the ground, or was he an angel, until he agreed to bless him. But I think Dr. Joyce Baldwin is correct to infer that it was this unknown man who was in charge all along! It was he who orchestrated this divine meeting. It was he who took the initiative, meeting Jacob when he was stripped of all earthly means of support. It was his superhuman power that brought Jacob to his knees; that dislocated his hip with a mere touch. Sure, Jacob wrestled with him through the night, but he knew painfully well that his defeat was inevitable. All he could do was hold on for dear life and plead for a blessing, which is a clue to the Wrestler’s identity, because you don’t ask an inferior to bless you…you ask a Superior for a share in his strength. All his life, Jacob had been “grabbing at the heels” of his brother and others; but now the Divine Wrestler had grabbed hold of him. He had “out-Jacobed” Jacob! There is something about Jacob that seems very familiar. I like to assume that I'm in charge most of the time… when suddenly I'm reminded, often through some defeat or set-back or crisis, that God has been in charge all along, and so in defeat we humbly fall to our knees in prayer, and finally give him the glory!
Jacob continues as we jog along, “In defeat, God can also give us a new name and a new identity.” The unknown man said to me, “What is your name?” And I said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” - Gen. 32:26-27 Did Jacob prevail over this unknown man? I think Jacob may have described it differently. As Baldwin puts it, it was not the night Jacob prevailed, “it was the night he was made a cripple,” for from now on, every step he took would be with a painful limp and weakness! On the other hand, from now on, every step would also be taken with a new sense of confidence, a new identity, a new name. For the Mighty One said, you shall no longer be called Jacob (‘heel-grabber’) but Israel (‘God-grabber’ the one who wrestles with God’) and has prevailed. A significant improvement!
Sometimes, being beaten can be the greatest of honors. Imagine you are on an average high school basketball team, playing in a pre-season game. How would it feel to win that game in front of your family and friends? Pretty good, eh? But what if, after that game, Kobe Bryant walked up and invited you to play another pre-season game…against the Lakers at Staples? And imagine that on the night of the game, you played your very best, even scored a few points…but eventually got trounced. And just suppose that after the game, they invited you to dinner and a free basketball clinic? Wouldn’t you rather lose to the Lakers, than beat anyone else in your league? It would change your identity as a team! We can imagine Jacob saying, “When I realized I had lost a wrestling match to the One who could bless me and change the course of my life, I felt like I had really won! For the One who had beaten me was also the one who could bless and teach me…and so my name and my life were both changed. I knew then that God cared for me, that he forgave me for what I had done to Esau in the past, and that he considered me his child.
If you can see God at work in your failures, then every defeat will be an opportunity to grow as apprentices of the King. In Hebrew culture the name embodied the person…so a change of name meant a change of identity. Once Jacob was a “heel grabber” but now he was a “God-grabber.” Once he was “self-reliant” but now he was “God-reliant.” May the same be said of us. We’ve learned so much from Jacob, but he has one more thing to quickly say…
Finally, Jacob shares with us, "In defeat, God teaches us to walk in grace and humility." “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face. And yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” As we’ve been jogging with Jacob around the track, that limp has been a silent reminder that Jacob now knows what it’s like to be disabled; that he understands what it means to feel weak and to be humble before God. It’s not too hard to imagine Jacob saying something like this, “I was wincing in pain that morning, but I was also smiling, truly grateful for my pain, for it gave me a compassion for my brother that I was incapable of before. As I took each limping step, I recalled the pain that Esau had felt when he was betrayed by me twenty years before. That limp was a gift from God… because now I knew what to do; the words that I needed to speak to him. And so when I looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men…I bowed down before him seven times, humbling myself and sharing with him my sorrow at the hurtful things I had done in the past. Then came the moment I will never forget….For Esau ran to meet me, embraced me and fell on my neck and kissed me, and there we wept together" - Gen. 32:30-33:4.
It's true: “There is blessing in every defeat.” Jacob's wounds helped him to walk in greater humility and compassion. For who is able to console the defeated but the one who has been defeated? Who is able to help the wounded but the one who has been wounded? And who is able to help the hurting one if it is not the one who inflicted the hurt? Before Jacob returns to his seat in the stands he prays this prayer. “Dear God, help my fellow travelers know the blessing of defeat, that our biggest failures are leading us from self-reliance to God-reliance; teaching us humility, sorrow for our sin, and compassion for those who are hurting.
As Jacob returns to the stands we notice something different about him...it's that limp...it's gone! He turns to us and smiles as we remember the One who made the lame walk and opened the eyes of the blind. The One by whose stripes we are made whole (Isaiah 53:5); the One whose defeat resulted in our victory. It began the night Y'shua, Jesus, prayed with his Father in the Garden. “Not my will but Yours be done." That was the weekend that sin and sickness, death and hell were robbed of their power to destroy us… for on the cross he bore the weight of our sin, and on the third day he rose again in victory. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and no one can snatch them out of my hand,” Jesus said. No pain, no set back, no failure, can wrestle us from the Mighty One's grip, the grip of the One who has loved us with an unshakeable love through Jesus our Crucified and Risen Lord. Amen!