Some of life's crucial turning points are recognizable only in retrospect. We look back and discover decisions made thoughtlessly or casually changed the whole direction of our existence. In other times, we are keenly aware of the intensity of that struggle. Our difficulty in perception is one of the reasons we need so deeply the guidance of God when we take him seriously in our lives. We have read today the Bible's description of one of the crucial turning points in the life of Jacob as he wrestled through the night with the messenger of God by the Brook Jabbock. Jacob was a con man in the process of moving from being a man who lived by his wits and whose name really meant "thief" to a man of faith whose name would be "Israel," one who prevails with God.
As we look at the pattern of the pilgrimage of the man for whom the people and the nation of Israel is named, we can see turning points that parallel our own. Jacob grew up in what we would call today a dysfunctional family. His mother Rebecca was a strong-willed woman who had come courageously across deserts and mountains to marry the son of Abraham. Abraham had left Ur years before and wanted a person for the mate for his son who shared the worship of the Unknown God who had summoned him to the distant land. She had never met Isaac and responded to the challenge. It is no surprise to find her aggressive in seeking to assist her favorite son in the struggle to secure the birthright and blessing of his father over the claims of his twin brother Esau. So the stage was set for Jacob to deceive his blind father Isaac into thinking he was giving up his blessing to Esau. He also preyed on the weakness of the hunter Esau when he was famished for food. He offered his meal of lentils to Esau in exchange for the birthright.
The first turning point for Jacob came like many of ours do. He was in trouble. He was fleeing from the scene of his actions. Alone and sleeping on the ground with a rock for a pillow, he had a vision in a dream. It was God meeting him in his crisis on the level of his understanding, showing him his glory with angel messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from the sky. Jacob finds out that God is bigger than he had thought Him to be. He had seen God as limited to the place his family occupied. Now he says, "Surely God is in this place and I did not know it." It is a mark of the grace of God that God brings assurance to this flawed and imperfect man that he will bless the world through him. He didn't wait till the day that Jacob could change his attitudes or make up for his mistakes. He simply declares his intention to use and bless Jacob's life. How amazing it is that God who knows all about our weaknesses reaches through them to trust us with his purpose. We don't clean up our acts so we can deserve that. We can never deserve that. It is Grace.
Jacob called the name of this place Bethel, the House of God. It marked the first turning point encounter with God in Jacob's life. The major turning point encounter with God comes in the scripture we have read together today. Jacob had spent fourteen years in the employ and partnership of his mother's brother Laban. Departing with Laban's army on his hills, he makes a truce and a settlement with him. He soon hears that his brother Esau is on his way with an army of four hundred men. Life has a way of catching up with us. Our deepest crises and our greatest turning points often emerge from those moments.
Jacob was willing to sacrifice his family and possessions in that crisis time. He sent them ahead of him and remains on the other side of Jabbock all alone. Life has caved in. In the night he encounters the Messenger of God-the Angel-and he wrestles with God through the darkness of the night. He determined in his desperate persistence to hang on to God, to pursue the truth whatever the cost. And as he does so, he finds a new perspective on himself, on his purpose in life, on his relationship with others, and the peace to live with the mysteries of God.
The first thing that happens to you when you get into a real encounter with God is that you are in a wrestling match, a struggle with the One who has made you. In that experience is the probing that is contained in God's question, "What is your name?" The probing of the essence of who you are. The answer, "I am Jacob, a deceiver, a thief, a con man, a manipulator." God's answer is NO MORE. You are more than that. You will be ISRAEL-A PRINCE WHO PREVAILS WITH GOD.
When you wrestle with God and you take him seriously, he holds up a mirror that makes you face up to what you are. This is to experience the element of conviction of sin and shortcomings. That's the essence of the call to repentance. I sorrow over what I am and what I have done. We are called to turn away from that.
However, you can also come into that encounter to discover your best self. The mirror of God also shows you that God has created the self he intends for you to be. He makes it possible for you to see through the lens of God. You see the possibilities of what you can be. He opens the world to you as he reveals his intention for you.
Remember Simon Peter's encounter with Jesus when the miraculous draught of fishes miracle happened? He knelt and said, "Depart from me for I am a sinner." Jesus responds, "You are called Simon but from now on you're going to be called the ROCK." In meeting Christ, he was called to the design that God had for him-his best self, the steadfast one. It was a long trail between Jesus' prediction and Simon's solid stand for Christ, but the process was begun.
That's what God wants to bring to every human being, to every one of us, for he has created this new humanity. He has tried to make us in the image of Jesus, and he has put together something so beautiful in you that you haven't yet discovered. The Spirit of God comes to convince you of sinfulness as a prelude to this new life.
The second thing you discover in this experience is that the new perspective creates a new purpose. No longer wrapped up only in himself, Jacob limps away from this encounter with a new attitude that makes him relate differently to others. Esau is on the road to him. He's seen Esau as a man bent on revenge. Now he goes out as a brother and discovered that Esau is a man looking for a brother. He doesn't need Jacob's sheep or cows. He needs a brother. When God alters your understanding of who you are, you are lifted to the point you understand yourself as the son and daughter of the King. Something alters in our relationship with others. A new kind of love flows through you. Love begets love. The more you give of yourself to God the more things change in the way you perceive other people and the more things change in the way they relate to you.
It's a beautiful kind of spiritual and psychological sequence. God changes the relationship as Esau and Jacob discover their brotherliness. They find they don't have to hand each other things any more because hearts become knit together in a forgiveness and grace.
The third thing you discover in this turning point is the privilege of living with the Mystery of God. Jacob demands to know of the angel, "What is YOUR NAME?" The response is, "Wherefore is it that you ask after my name?" And later Jacob calls the place Peniel for "I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved."
You find in this turning point's deepest dimension that you never quite fathom God but you can face him. There's a constant yearning of the human spirit to know the details about who God is and what God is doing. God always responds with the fact that we will know what we need to know but will never comprehend it all. You don't need to be the center of things. You can know what is essential for the next step. The British man of letters, Malcom Muggeridge, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, made a list of the things that he'd learned. In it he says, "Man's search and accumulation of facts can become an avarice, a kind of Midas touch of destruction in which we substitute facts for truth. We substitute theology for God. We pull together things that we believe for the essence of the experience of God. What God is interested in most is not that we can outline all that he does but that we are in on the doing of it."
As we live with new experiences of that discovery of God, we are faced with other times of encounter with God and the turning of life in his direction. Jacob pitches his tents by the city of Shechem. He lives in touch with the truth of the mystery God revealed in that encounter. However, the values and beliefs of the gods of Shechem seep into Jacob's household. The drift becomes a tragedy when he discovers that his daughter Dinah has become pregnant. There is a proposal of marriage and the old deceptive behavior of Jacob's past shows up in the behavior of his sons. They trick the men of Shechem into becoming circumcised in order to make the marriage acceptable. When they're unable to fight, Jacob's men rise up and destroy Shechem.
Jacob laments his sorrow over his people's behavior that has made it impossible for him to say in the land. In that crisis comes another turning point. God tells him to go back to Bethel-the experience and the place of his first encounter with God. He is to return to the basics of his faith and relationship with God.
Burying the gods and values of compromises, he renews his promise to God. God then renews his blessings as Israel in Genesis 35:14-15.
Turning points in our spiritual journey have to come again and again. We can be renewed and rejuvenated in his service.
The essence of the second Bethel experience for Jacob/Israel is that God is the God of Another Chance. There are many of us who are in the midnight of wrestling with God at the Brook Jabbok, hanging on with the hope of finding new meaning and new power for our lives. Even more of us are on the journey to Bethel for another moment in which we can find renewal and refreshing to a life tattered and tainted with our compromises and failures. To each of us, God calls with this promise: "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
May we pray.
Father, we pray that you will be the God of the Second Chance for us, that you will meet us on the level of our understanding to the depth of our need and that we will renew and be renewed so we can be useful in your kingdom and fulfilled in our lives. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.