Make Sure You Lose
Part Three of the Series Struggling With God—
Lessons from the Life of Jacob
October 8, 2006
There’s a classic bit of comic relief in the original, 1977 “Star Wars” movie. The little trashcan shaped robot, R2D2 is playing 3-D chess with the seven-foot tall ape-like Wookie called Chewbacca—and the little guy is beating the big hairy guy. Han Solo warns R2D2 and his shiny golden robot companion, C-3PO (the one with the English butler accent), that Wookies have bad tempers and have been known to tear apart those who beat them, so C-3PO nervously says to R2D2, “My advice: Let the Wookie win!”
Sometimes, you have to let the Wookie win. Sometimes, you have to know when to “fold ‘em”, to quit, and to say that enough’s enough. No time is that more true than when you find yourself trying to fight with God. There’s a saying: Your arms are too short to box with God. That’s the situation that Jacob has here in Genesis 32-35.
We have to set up the story by looking at Jacob’s life thus far. We saw that while God had His hand on Jacob, Jacob was a schemer. He was always trying to do it his way. He scammed Esau out of both his birthright and his blessing, so he set off for the distant region of Paddan Aram (today, the border region of Syria and Iraq), the ancestral homeland of his people, both to flee from Esau’s rage—his brother was mumbling about killing him—as well as to find an acceptable wife from his clan, just as his own father had done before him. There he meets the family of Laban, who is more of a cheater than even Jacob. He fools him into marrying both of his daughters, Leah and Rachel, and basically makes him his wage slave for 20 years. While Jacob’s family and wealth grows, he is worn down by Laban’s demands and finally flees, going back to the land that one day would be called Israel.
But that means going right back to where Esau lives. That was the brother that 20 years ago wanted to kill Jacob for the way he’d been mistreated and cheated by Jacob.
Now, this is not just a soap opera from the 19th century BC. This is the story of God working in a man’s life. God was at work in Jacob’s life. We saw that back in chapter 28, where Jacob has a dream at a place he would call Bethel, the House of God. God showed him that the promises He’d made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac were for Jacob as well. God said He would make Jacob’s family into a great nation, a nation that would bless the whole world.
But Jacob’s faith was unsteady and uncertain. Again and again he shows an independent, self-sufficient streak that gets him into trouble.
There’s a passage in Proverbs, Proverbs 3:5-6, that tells us God’s intent for our lives:
5Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
That what God wants in your life: trust in Him, not in yourself. God wants you to give Him recognition in all areas of your life, and He promises then to bless you, to “make your path straight.”
Jacob was nowhere near this level of faith and trust. He was scared, and as we’ll see, he does his best to look out for himself until one faithful night.
What happened to change Jacob so much? We’ll find it all in the night Jacob wrestled God.
The mystery begins in the haunting words of Genesis 32:1-2:
1Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2When Jacob saw them, he said, "This is the camp of God!" So he named that place Mahanaim.
Mahanaim means “two camps.” Why does he name the place Two Camps? From Jacob’s point of view, One Camp was what he had: a caravan of servants, flocks and family, now aided by Another Camp, a camp of angels. That must have been a great comfort to Jacob. He was facing his angry brother, so it must be nice to think you have angels on your side.
But Jacob was still immature in his faith. He still thought of God as a Big Helper in the Sky, not as the Lord of Glory who wants to use him and also make him a good and godly man.
Jacob sent messengers ahead to talk with Esau. He was hoping to ease his way back with gifts and servants, but the message came that Esau was on his way—with 400 men! So what does he do? He divides his flocks and family into Two Camps, two groups, and sends another groups with more gifts to try to appease his brother. Two Camps! He was imitating on the earthly level what God had showed him from the spiritual level. Jacob was still trying to do God’s job along with his own. Well, Jacob sent them all on ahead, crossing the Jabbok brook, and he stayed behind—the very last person that Esau would encounter. Look at vs. 22-23:
22That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
We see Jacob here in a different mode than we have seen him before—panic mode. Esau is a tough guy. Now what?
This was the night God had been preparing Jacob for his whole life. This was the night that God would wound Jacob, for a very good reason. Look at vs. 24-25.
24So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
Out of the blue—a “man” wrestles with him until daybreak. It seems like a draw until—blink! —He touched Jacob’s hip socket—OUCH!
The “man” is God Himself in human form. (Vs. 28 says he struggled with God, and in vs. 30, Jacob says he saw God face to face. So when we talk about Jacob wrestling an angel, it isn’t quite right. He was in an all-night WWF fight with God Himself, in human form.)
What’s the reason? Why did God mug Jacob? Why does God sometimes wrestle us down? Ever feel like God’s wrestling you?
Many years ago, a prospective student asked A.H. Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary, if there wasn’t some way to accelerate his course of study. His response:
“Oh, yes, but it depends on what you want to be. When God wants to make an oak, He takes a hundred years. When God wants to make a squash, He takes a few months.”
Jacob was about 60 years old when he finally wrestled with God. God brought him to this moment with great patience. God has brought you here up to today with great patience as well. We’re all hard cases with God, but remember God’s goal: to make us like His Son Jesus in our love for God and our love for people. This wasn’t Jacob’s character, and it’s not our character by nature. One way or another, God will pursue us.
When God gets us in these moments of desperation, crisis and struggle, I have observed two things:
He has us there to prepare us for something else, something greater. God always has a “next step” for us.
But we cannot see what that purpose is yet—we are in the dark about what His purpose is at the time!
Jacob was literally in the dark when God wrestled him. That’s exactly where God so often meets us to change us—in dark times. Look at vs. 26-28:
26Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered.
28Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Do you get the feeling that this all a set up? That the “man” was holding back? Anybody who can turn a hip joint into Jell-O with a touch could have put Jacob away in an instant.
The real point was not to whip Jacob—it was to change him. “You’re name’s Jacob? The Cheater? The King of the Sting? Not anymore. You’re Israel now—God’s Fighter. And this is how you win in a fight with God—by holding on, even in the dark, not by winning. You held on. That’s enough.”
This is how he overcame—he held on to God in the dark. And that’s how it works for us as well—we breakthrough in growth when we simply hold on to God in the dark. Do you want God to do a real work in your life? To take you from where you are to the next step? To see real maturity break out in your life? Then I tell you, you must hold on to God in the dark.
Some of you have been through these times. You know how dark the dark can be. And you know that you overcame not by winning but simply by holding on to God in the dark. When the wound is deepest, make the embrace the tightest. When the night is darkest, then wrestle the mightiest. Hold on to God in the dark.
I think of the McDonough family. They were in the church in worked in when I was in seminary. The dad, Condon, told me that before their son Brandon was born, they were a family that happened to be Christian. But their son’s Down’s syndrome caused them to reassess their lives. They held on to God in the dark. And as Condon puts it, they went from being a family that happened to be Christian to being a Christian family.
What happens in that dark place is that God gives us the blessing of Peniel—the blessing of seeing the face of God.
Read vs. 29-30:
29Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
30So Jacob called the place Peniel, [“Face of God”] saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
The blessing is this: I have seen God! Peniel is when you and God have a face-off, and you blink. Peniel is when you see God at work in your life. Peniel is almost always discovered in the dark. Peniel happens when you “let the Wookie win.”
That’s when Jacob was a changed man—a permanently changed man. Look at vs. 31-32:
31The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.
That morning, Jacob was dead and Israel was born. He was a changed man. He would never be the same again. His limp was the necessary touch of God marked on his life for the rest of his days. Israel would memorialize this even in their eating habits. More important is the fact that the night by the Jabbok, Jacob learned that he could no longer be the independent, self-sufficient, act now, think later, kind of guy he’d been.
From the wreckage of this battle emerges a new man: a gentle, tender, thoughtful, godly man. A man who confesses his wrong to his brother Esau. A different man.
If you must wrestle with God, be sure to lose! Let God win! There is a beauty in this kind of brokenness. I have know saints who are chronologically mature, but nearly useless to God because they’re never been broken. They may have gone through the dark, but they did not hold on. They ran when the hand of God reached for their hip socket! They tried to win when they were wrestling with God.
But sometimes I meet people, some of whom have walked with God just a few years, some truly seasoned saints, in whom I see the beauty of brokenness.
Let me give you an example. Ravi Zacharias was raised in a Christian family in India—or as he calls his homeland, the land of 330,000,000 gods. Today, Ravi is perhaps the world’s best and best-known apologist for the Christian faith, author of dozens of books and has lectured in over 50 countries. At age 17, he gave his life to Christ. But the pressures put on him by his father, by his poor grades in school, and by the Hindu culture around him caused him to attempt suicide.
Lying in his hospital bed, a friend came in one day and read from the Bible. He frankly didn’t want to hear it; he wasn’t sure anymore what was truth and what wasn’t. They read from John 14. Vs. 6 he knew: “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” But what really caught his attention was vs. 19: Because I live, you also will live.
That hospital bed was his Peniel. Listen to his own words:
Again, I wasn’t sure what all that meant. I pieced together God’s love in Christ, the way that was provided because of Christ, and the promise of life through Him—and on that hospital bed I made my commitment to put my life in His hands…
When I was able to leave the hospital, I was a new person. No, I didn’t have everything figured out. But Christ was part of my life, and the change was more dramatic than I could ever have imagined.
Ravi learned what Jacob had: he held on in the dark, and saw a miracle in his life: the hand of God.
Interesting. The next day, Jacob came limping and there was Esau—who just embraced and forgave Jacob for all the wrong he’d done him 20 years before. I love what Jacob says to Esau in Genesis 33:10. “To see your face is to see the face of God.” Jacob’s swagger is gone. His humility is real. He’s a man who’s been touched by God and who is a changed man.
After a while, he makes his way to Bethel, the place where had a dream of a stairway from heaven. It was Jacob who told the others to get rid of all the idols they’d brought with them and who built and altar and sacrificed to the Lord. And God appeared to him, this time in a vision, not a dream, and reaffirmed his new name (35:10):
God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel." So he named him Israel.
Today God wants to meet you here and show His face to you. He wants to remind us of the beauty of brokenness. He wants to call us to the next level, the next step.
Today we have two stations for prayer set up. On this side, we have a tent set up to remind us of the Mahanaim—the Two Camps. That stands for being self-sufficient. On the other side we have the cross. That stands for Peniel, the Face of God.
In our closing time, I’d invite you to take action. If you say, “Lord, I know I’m way too self-sufficient for my own good, I don’t trust in you with all my heart, I don’t acknowledge you in all my ways,” then good to Mahanaim and admit that to God. Confess your stubborn independence.
Then move over to Peniel. God wants to show you His face, His love. The cross of Jesus is the greatest demonstration of His love ever. Let Him touch you, wound you and heal you. He wants to transform you. He wants you to enter into the fullness of His will and plan for your life.
Instead of a closing pray, I’ve asked Matt and the worship leaders to sing softly, and give you the time you need—to come up and to let God touch you, heal you and maybe even give you a new name. Let’s worship and pray…