Unexpected Encounter

Gen 32.22-31, 33.4 – Jacob and his relationships

The sermon series this month is titled Unexpected Moments in the Foundation of our Faith. When we read the Bible, we discover that it is full of unexpected moments. God certainly loves to surprise his people with unexpected encounters. I wouldn’t be surprised if God has surprised a few of you in your life times. And, these unexpected encounters in our lives and in the Bible form the foundation of our faith, hope, and love in God.

I don’t know about you but my family and I have grown to expect the unexpected in our lives. Unexpected encounters with God’s good grace and mercy can help us get through the most difficult times, and that’s what happens in our story today. Jacob has encountered God, and this is not the first time he has met God. But it seems that God meets Jacob during the most transformative moments of his life. God shows up at the most important life changing times.

Today’s sermon looks at a key Unexpected Moment with God. An unexpected encounter between Jacob and his God that results in Jacob’s leg being injured and his name being changed. This encounter directly impacts his unexpected encounter with twin brother Esau that results in words forgiveness and tears of reconciliation.

When I read the story of Jacob and Esau, I expected a major showdown between Jacob and his twin brother, but instead I read about men hugging and crying. Now I don’t know about you, but that wasn’t what I was expecting. I was not expecting this encounter to be so calm and peaceful, I expected violence.

When we read the Bible, we discover that Israel’s history is full of unexpected moments of encounter with the Living God. We discover that the history of Israel’s people is filled with unexpected leaders who rise up because God has chosen them. God encounters people in unexpected moments in their daily lives, and they have to decide whether they want to follow God, which ultimately redirects their paths.

In our passage today a man named Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match with God himself who comes to Jacob in the form of a man. For us to understand why this wrestling match takes place we need to know more about the man Jacob.

The story of Jacob is on of the most scandalous in the history of Israel. The story presents Jacob as a common everyday sort of guy whom we might even find offensive at times in his quest to gain power – family power. He wants to be number one in the family so much so that he is willing to barter and deceive to reach his goal. Nothing seems to deter him from his pursuit of the family inheritance.

When we read the Old Testament we soon discover that the foundation of the relationship between God and the Israelites is rooted in origins of dysfunctional family relationships just like Jacob and his twin brother Esau. The Good Book is filled with struggles for family inheritances, fights for birthrights, quests for leadership in the family tree, marital arrangements even multiple marriages, and prayers for children to be birthed from barrenness.

And, in the midst of these dynamic family relationships God seeks to have a relationship with his chosen people. God chooses for himself whom he wishes to continue the story of salvation history, and in this story he chooses Jacob. And, no amount of earthly striving or scheming on the part of the Jacob can change God’s mind.

The story of Jacob shows us just how big our God really is. God is fully invested in us even though we are self-seeking and self-interested in our relationships with others, or even when we are motivated with self-interests in our relationship with God.

God is out to capture the heart and lives of people just like Jacob who was out to make a living and get-ahead no matter what the cost to his personal relationships. The amazing part of this story is that God not only chose Jacob but that Jacob was destined to take part in salvation history.

It’s only fitting that we take a look at the dynamics of the family tree, and how this family came to have faith, hope, and love in God. To look at the whole story of Jacob we have to go back to chapter 25 in Genesis. Now, imagine with me a diagram of a family tree…

Jacob is a grandson of Abraham, the father of salvation history. And, it was through Abraham’s son Isaac that Jacob is born. It seems so simple when we talk about the basic family relationships. But when we diagram this family tree a bit deeper we see multiple marriages and sibling rivalry are at the core of these broken relationships.

In fact Abraham had two wives. The first one Sarah most of us know about. She and her maid-servant plot a scheme to give Abraham his first child Ishmael. But Ishmael is not the child of promise! Sarah and Abraham must have their very own child, Isaac before salvation history can continue. Then after Sarah dies, Abraham eventually marries again to a woman named Keturah and has several children. Abraham continues to have children even though he has Isaac, the child of promise.

Abraham and Sarah have their only child, a son named Isaac, after many years of barrenness. Even after Sarah gives birth to Isaac the salvation history continues to be in turmoil as God tests Abraham with Isaac’s very life. God asks Abraham to kill his only son, the son of promise.

The family continues to struggle with barrenness as Isaac and Rebekah take 20 years to conceive, but eventually they have twin boys named Esau and Jacob. These twin boys are Abraham’s grandsons, but it seems unlikely that Abraham ever met them. Jacob grows up to marry two wives with his beloved second wife Rachel struggling with barrenness as well.

Barrenness is an unexpected theme across these marital relationships. No expects to have trouble having children. In each situation God must intervene for the family tree to grow and for salvation history to continue. No doubt Jacob’s immediate family relationships were emotionally broken and messy.

In our passage today Jacob returns to his homeland after many years of being away from his immediate family – particularly his twin brother Esau – and has been growing a large family of his own. From the passage it seems that Jacob is intimidated by his brother. Jacob’s own past poor choices of bartering and deception to gain family authority has put him at odds with Esau in his heart, and he is fearful.

The story describes Jacob as someone who sought after his own entitlement to authority in his family tree. Jacob schemed to take his older brother Esau’s birthright …and his father’s blessing. The elder twin Esau takes his own position of authority for granted, even as he gives away his birthright. And, Esau hates his brother Jacob for taking what rightfully belonged to him. And, he hates him so much that he plots to kill him.

When you read the story, it’s not hard to be empathetic with Esau’s position. But, of course, he is the elder brother. And, Jacob is often driven to secure his own well-being at his brothers expense, which can easily fuel our dislike of Jacob. This drive to family power leads Jacob to encounter God several times, even to a place of altar building and wrestling with God.

Jacob first encounters God as he escapes from the wrongdoing he has done to his brother Esau. He has just stolen Esau’s blessing. He has taken Esau’s complete inheritance for land and family destiny. When God encounters Jacob, God comes to Jacob in a dream as the God of his family, his ancestors. God extends the same promise of inheritance of land and descendants just has he has to Jacob’s forefathers.

First, Jacob wars with his brother even from the womb. God pronounced to his mother Rebekah that the two boys in her tummy were two nations fighting against one another. Second, Jacob barters for Esau’s birthright and wins. Third, Jacob deceives his father for Esau’s blessing. And, as Jacob escapes from Esau’s anger, Jacob finds himself sleeping with his head upon a stone, and having a dream where God promises him land and descendents. Jacob names the place “Bethel,” which becomes a touchstone for future encounters with God in his life.

Next, Jacob meets and marries two wives through the deception of his relative Laban. Life with Laban was a time of great struggling. Jacob works 14 years to marry his daughters Leah and Rachel. Jacob’s skills and God’s provision lead Jacob to experience great wealth and large flocks. Laban finally has to send Jacob away as Jacob is given a directive from God to return to his family and settle the land of his family. Angels even accompany Jacob on this journey.

Throughout Jacobs life, relationships have been tangled up with bartering and deception, compromising his own identity to take on an inheritance of property and possessions – and yet God is with him all the way. Every messed up relationship was met by grace and blessing from God.

And, now as Jacob is brought back to the land of promise, he is faced with an unexpected encounter and wrestling his God through the night. Suddenly Jacob is no longer focused on the confrontation of his older sibling Esau, he is locked in a battle of wills with his God in such a tangible way that the presence of God is manifested as a man.

The struggle between God’s will and Jacob’s will lasts all night with Jacob holding his own up until the very last moment when God touches Jacob’s hip sock. The transformation in Jacob was disfiguring, leaving him with a life-long limp.

This physical battle between heavenly and human wills gives way to a heated verbal exchange. The heavenly man requires the human to let go. But Jacob refused to give into the will of God unless God would bless him. And, with that tenacity God surely blessed Jacob with a divine word: a new name, Israel.

Because Jacob saw God face-to-face and lived, Jacob named that place Peniel. Jacob has been compelled each time to rename the places of his encounter with God. Jacob’s personal striving with his family was but a reflection of his inward striving with his God. Jacob has given all of his strength to the struggle with his family and with his God. And, yet three things remain: faith, hope and love in God.

Jacob has laid it all out. He has spent himself striving for personal gain. He has received God’s provisions and promise. Yet, he has not fully understood his own idenity in the grand scheme of things. He has not considered his identity as the child of promise. He has not embraced the plans for his future.

So how does this guy named Jacob with his turbulent relationships have anything to do with you and me?

  • First, the most important point is that fighting with God is very costly. We truly have to realize our own finitude, and embrace God’s infinite wonders.
  • Second, this story teaches us something about the character of our God. God cares deeply for his people. God is always seeking to heal our brokenness and restore our relationships. God is not interested in destroying us, but restoring us. But sometimes our will gets in the way of what is best for us and God will do everything possible to get us back on track — even working with us for years to move us toward reconciliation.
  • Third, when God embraces us in our distress or misbehavior, the struggle we find ourselves in can feel like a loving embrace or like a terrible struggle. The end result is always for our good — to restore relationships.
  • The bottom line for us is that Jacob struggled with every relationship he was in from the time he was conceived throughout his lifetime. No relationship came easy, and even his own children were conflicted with their relationships with each other because Jacob was quick to choose a favorite ….his son Joseph whom we will talk about next week.

The foundation of our faith is ultimately rooted in the restoration of broken family relationships. God has been seeking to restore family relationships since the Fall of Humanity in the Garden. And, the result is that Jesus came to offer us that opportunity. Jesus teaches us to forgive. Forgiveness is not an easy gift to accept or share, but it is essential to being a real Christian.

Living a life of forgiveness toward God, self and others brings freedom in everyday living. And, it brings peace and comfort in otherwise strained relationships just like the final meeting of Esau and his twin brother. If we jump ahead in our text to the next chapter, we will discover that Esau forgives Jacob unconditionally and in tears.

I want to invite you to reflect on your relationships in your life that need a special touch from God. Maybe you’re tired of wrestling with God over a relationship. Maybe it’s time to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness in a way you never thought possible. Maybe it’s time to trust God unconditionally with your troubled relationships. Maybe it’s time to pray for that unexpected encounter with God that will surely lay a foundation of faith, hope and love for God.


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