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Jacob at the Jabbok
Genesis 32:22-32


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost—October 17, 2020

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Martin Luther says about today’s Old Testament Reading, “This text is one of the most obscure in the Old Testament.”  This strange story of “Jacob at the Jabbok,” the patriarch Jacob wrestling through the night with a mysterious man on the banks of the Jabbok River, is one of the most peculiar and puzzling events in the whole Bible.

Jacob is on his way home, on the other side of the Jabbok River.  But, it is a homecoming filled with fear and danger.  Many years before Jacob tricked his brother Esau, depriving him of his rights as firstborn son.  Jacob fled from his brother’s anger, to a far away country. 

It was on that journey Jacob had a dream, a vision of a stairway reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it—“Jacob’s Ladder.”  In the vision of Jacob’s ladder, the Lord promises that one of Jacob’s descendents will be the Messiah, the Savior of the world: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your Descendant,” the Lord declares to Jacob.

That promise came true in Jesus Christ.  For, he is the promised descendant of Jacob, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Son of God and Son of Man, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man.  “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your Descendant.”

All peoples on earth are blessed through him.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

By his sacrifice on the cross he suffered the punishment for the sins of the whole world.  In his body on the cross he suffered the punishment for your sins.  Because of his perfect life, his sacrificial death, and his triumphant resurrection, God forgives you all your sins.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”

In the vision of Jacob’s ladder, God also promised to be with Jacob and bless him.  And God did bless Jacob abundantly in that far-away land to which he fled, giving Jacob great wealth and a large family.

Now, many years later, Jacob is returning home with a huge caravan, of flocks and herds, servants and family.  But, Jacob is terrified of going home to face his brother Esau, on the other side of the Jabbok.  Will Esau still hold a grudge against him?  Will he pay Jacob back for his trickery and deceit?  Will he steal away Jacob’s flocks, herds, and servants, and then vent his anger on Jacob’s family?

So, Jacob sends messengers ahead to scout the situation, and they return with terrible news: Esau is on his way, and with him are four hundred men.  In great fear, Jacob cries out to the Lord, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau!  For, I am afraid he will come and attack me.”

To help pacify Esau, Jacob sends ahead all his flocks, herds, and servants, as gifts to his brother.  Maybe by bribing Esau this way, at least he and his family can escape with their lives. 

At the Jabbok River, Jacob and his family stop for the night.  The next morning they will confront Esau and his army.  Like a nervous soldier the night before a big battle, Jacob dreads the dawn of day.  “So Jacob was left alone.”  That is how “Jacob at the Jabbok” felt: afraid, anxious, alone.

But, Jacob was not alone.  Years before in the vision of Jacob’s ladder, the Lord promised to be with him and bless him: “I will be with you and will watch over you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you.”

Do you sometimes feel like “Jacob at the Jabbok”: afraid, anxious, alone?  Confronting your own tragedies and troubles in life, that bring you to despair like Jacob that night?  But, like “Jacob at the Jabbok,” really you are not alone.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “Trust in God; trust also in me. . .  Surely, I am with you always.”

“Jacob at the Jabbok” needs reassurance that dreadful night, reassurance of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessing.  He needs to feel God’s presence in a very real way.  And, so, God sends him, not just a dreamy vision like before when he saw Jacob’s ladder, but this time a physical presence: “And a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”

Who is this mysterious man who wrestles with Jacob?  As Jacob says, “I saw God face to face.”  In this mysterious, enigmatic event, it is God himself who appears like a man and wrestles with “Jacob at the Jabbok.”  A physical reassurance to Jacob that God is with him; and an unforgettable confidence builder for Jacob as he and his family cross the Jabbok River the next morning to face Esau and his army.

All through the night Jacob wrestles with the Lord.  “When 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.”

By touching Jacob’s hip, the Lord shows his power.  He could easily conquer at any time Jacob in this wrestling match.  But, he allows Jacob to win the struggle, even giving him the new name Israel, which means, “to struggle with God.” 

“Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.’”

All this is to reassure Jacob that God is on his side, to build up Jacob’s confidence.  For, if he wins this struggle with God himself, surely he has nothing to fear the next morning from his brother Esau.  Hebrews puts it this way, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’  So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?’”

Like “Jacob at the Jabbok,” do you  need confidence, reassurance of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessing?  Do you need to feel God’s presence in a very real way?

That is why God gave us the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  For, in the Sacraments, God gives you physical, tangible signs of his presence.

In Holy Baptism, the water with the Word washes away your sins, implanting and strengthening faith in your heart, making you “born again” as a believing child of God.  As Paul says in Titus, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

In Holy Communion, your Savior comes to you physically, inviting you to actually eat and drink his body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine, to strengthen you in the true faith unto life everlasting.  As Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”

Just as the Lord appeared to Jacob that night in the physical form of a man, in the Sacraments, God gives you physical, tangible signs of his presence, to reassure you of his love, forgiveness, and blessing.

At the end of their wrestling match, the Lord also reassures Jacob with his Word of blessing:  “Then the man said [to Jacob], ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”

The Parable of the Persistent Widow in today’s Gospel Reading begins: “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not lose heart.”  Like “Jacob at the Jabbok” and like the persistent widow, do not let go of the Lord.  Cling to him for his blessing, wrestle with him in prayer.  “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

And that’s exactly what happens for Jacob the next morning as he crosses the Jabbok River.  God answers his prayers, and all is well.  His brother Esau does not hold a grudge or seek revenge, but welcomes Jacob and his family with joy.

When you feel like “Jacob at the Jabbok,” afraid, anxious, alone, remember how God comes to you like he did to Jacob, to reassure you of love, forgiveness, and blessing.  Just as he appeared to Jacob physically in the form of a man, the Lord still comes to you physically, in the Sacraments, in the tangible forms of water, bread, and wine. And just as he left Jacob with a word of blessing, the Lord still comes to you and blesses in his Word.

Amen.

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