Formed in the Struggle

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Oluf Hartmann (1907)

Pentecost +19 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Genesis 32:3–8, 22–30, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5, Luke 18:1–8

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

When I was in college, I was concerned about what would happen to my faith over time. Would I continue to grow up into the goodness of God or would I grow bitter over the years? Several older Christians whom I respected, seemed angry and bitter. In fact, the man who played a great role in my sense of calling to ministry and who taught me how to preach was a bitter man. As he aged, he continued to resent people around him. He had a dramatic calling to ministry and he played an instrumental role in the lives of many young men and women. But he also carried a deeper bitterness that seemed to go all the way back to his childhood.

As I interacted with people like him, I wondered if I would also grow bitter and angry. Would my eventual marriage be one of joy or one of regret and lifelong resentment? Psalm 92:12-15 are some of the verses that gave me hope for the future.

12    The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13    They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14    They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
15    to declare that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Scripture is filled with promises about God’s faithfulness to transform us and lead us into the fulness of love. At the same time, there are warnings about growing bitter and hardened. While I held onto these promises, I continued to wrestle with the tension of those who don’t seem to change. I also felt the very deep pain of watching Christians and churches split over various issues that were ultimately inconsequential.

These tensions led me to ask, “What does lifelong formation look like?” For the last 30+ years, that question has driven much of my reading and reflection. It led to my studies on community formation, friendship, the early Christian Celts, and even truth, goodness, and beauty. Richard Foster introduced me to the wide and varied disciplines of Christian devotion, and Dallas Willard gave me a way of thinking and talking about lifelong formation that remains rooted in the faithfulness of God’s generous grace. One man was a Quaker and the other a Baptist, but both men led me down a path that would eventually reach the Anglican tradition.

One source of encouragement and challenge has been to reflect upon church history and the specific stories of Biblical heroes of faith as well as Christian saints from across the ages can be a rich way of reflecting upon our own lives and God’s faithful work within us. These stories are not simple moral stories, but images or icons that reveal God’s grace in the midst of human struggle.

A couple weeks ago, Isaac offered us a picture of St. Francis and the threat of his devotion to the powerful people. Last week, we rehearsed the faithful lovingkindess of Ruth in her devotion to Naomi. Today, we pause over Jacob, a most reluctant Patriarch.

All these voices help us to see how God is at work in all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. Jean De Caussade reminds us in his book “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence” that God is at work perfecting the person in a life filled with suffering and in a life filled with pure joy and love. Our circumstances and our dispositions do not prevent His Spirit from working and leading us to him. It is true that some will choose a way of bitterness and anger, but even then we trust that Jesus will present them blameless before the Father in that great and holy day.

I explain all this because our focus upon Jacob today. Here is a Biblical character that seems less than appealing. Paul celebrates the faith of Abraham. We love the heart of David. Moses is like god among his people, and then we have Jacob, a heal grabber, a supplanter. He cons his brother, cons his father, must run for his life, and eventually even seems to try and negotiate a deal with God.

But the Lord never abandons his purposes for Jacob. In that, I find encouragement even for the mentor in college who seem embittered. God did not forsake him in life or death. We all fall short and sometimes in ways that disappoint those around us, but God in Christ has taken hold of us and is leading us into the fullness of His glory.

With this in mind, let’s pause a moment over the story of Jacob. In today’s reading, he is returning home after 20 years in exile. He is soon to face the brother that he wronged, that he tricked, that wanted to kill him. When they were young men, Jacob traded Esau for the birthright and then ended up stealing the blessing of Isaac from Esau as well. Even though Jacob may desire the right thing, he relies on his wits to take it rather than to trust God.

His brother wants to kill him. His father sends him away (both for protection and to find a wife). Jacob runs away never to see his mother again. At this point, his story looks like the Abraham story in reverse. Just like Abraham, Jacob has left his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, but unlike Abraham, he is leaving the land of promise and trusts more in his own wits than the call of God.

As he approaches the border of Canaan, he is alone, tired, and must rest “in a certain place.” Scripture does not name the palce yet. The story gives us this sense that he is no place and he is no one. He appears to have lost everything. Then while he dreams the heavens open and he beholds a ladder from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending. One Hebrew translation explains it this way,

And he [Jacob] dreamt that there was a ladder set upon the earth and whose top reached to heaven, and the angels who had accompanied him from his father’s house went up to announce to the angels on high.… (Targum Neophyti, Fragment Targum [ms. P] Gen 28:12)[1]

Thought that translation is simply a fragment, it captures the idea that he was never actually alone even though he felt alone. Unseen powers were with him. The Lord addresses Jacob in the midst of the vision and says,

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. 14 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 your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[2]

The first part of the address is a reiteration of the blessing to Abraham and Isaac concerning the offspring of Jacob. But the last part of a blessing specific to Jacob. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Jacob was never alone. The Lord was with him. Angels accompanied him. Though Jacob was on the run, the Lord was with Jacob, was before Jacob, was behind Jacob. Jacob was running from Esau and didn’t yet know that he had begun a holy journey that would result in blessing all nations. When Jacob awakes, he sanctifies the place with oil and makes a vow that when he returns with God’s blessings, he will serve the Lord and even tithe to the Lord.

Though he makes this vow, Jacob is still the heal grabber, the trickster, the con man that he was before. For the next 20 years, he will live in exile from his home. He will never see his mother again. He will serve a greater trickster than himself, his soon-to-be father-in-law, Laban. For 20 years, he will serve this hard taskmaster who continually alters his agreements with Jacob, who seeks to prevent him from ever leaving, and who steals his wages. During this time, Jacob’s family will grow, his wives will compete, and finally he will trick the Laban, the great trickster himself and head back home.

As Jacob re-enters the land, he once again sees angels, but this time it is no so clear why. Are they for him or against him?

He enters the land at risk. When he left, Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob knows his brother will be waiting. He is afraid. Jacob has no army, just a growing family. He sends whatever wealth he has accumulated in herds and servants ahead to his brother Esau. A messenger comes with news that Esau is coming with 400 men. Now as a side note, Abraham went to war to rescue Lot with an army of 318 men. Esau is coming with an army.

Jacob hopes that whichever way Esau comes, he will see the gifts first. He divides all the people with him into two camps, hoping that if one camp is attacked the other will be preserved. And then he cries out to God. This is the first time Jacob prays in the story. He is literally at his wit’s end. He confesses his own unworthiness before the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord. He confesses his fear and cries out for protection from Esau, prays that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

Then in the middle of the night while he is alone, Jacob is attacked by an unknown man, and they wrestle until daybreak. The man damages Jacob’s hip. Realizing this is someone other than a human, he cries out for a blessing. The man tells him, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Gen 1:27). Jacob leaves that place saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”

Jacob leaves his fear behind and humbles himself before Esau as a vassal approaches his Lord. The war is over and the brothers are at peace. Jacob’s life will continue to be filled with heartache and pain as he sees his owns trick him regarding Joseph. But the Lord will be faithful in all of it, leading Jacob’s family to the place where they will become the Israel of God, the blessed family that will bless all families.

Jacob’s physical and spiritual life might best be described as a life of striving, a life of wrestling with God and man. The Lord does not abandon him but is faithful in love and mercy.

As we think about St. Francis, we might think about the risk of true discipleship to a life of comfort. As we think about Ruth, we might think about a life of deep friendship that reveals the very kindness of God. As we think about Jacob, we might think about the life of struggle and hardship as well as the absolute faithful love of through it all. Jacob more than many Biblical characters reminds me that when the Lord takes hold us, he has done so for good and he is leading us into the fullness of grace and glory by His love. Though we often struggle and even know the pain of our own failed ways, we are not forsaken. Christ is making us spotless.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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. (Romans 8:38-39)


[1] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, and David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 213.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 28:13–15.

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