The hymn we have just sung, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” is based on the Old Testament lesson read for us this morning. It was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley was a prolific writer of hymns. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns. He put the great affirmations of our Christian belief, and particularly those that John Wesley felt were important, and put them into hymns. Other Christian traditions recite their faith with a creed. The Methodists have always sung their faith with hymns, Wesley’s hymns.
Isaac Watts, perhaps the greatest hymn writer ever, was a contemporary of Charles Wesley. He said that this was Wesley’s finest hymn. It was also John Wesley’s favorite. There is a wonderful story associated with this hymn. Two weeks after Charles Wesley died, John was preaching in London. In his sermon he read out the first line of this hymn. When he came to the phrase, “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee,” he thought of his brother, Charles, who had gone before him to the other shore, and was now in heaven. He stopped, and put his hands over his face, and wept. The whole congregation wept with him as they remembered Charles, the great hymn writer of the Methodist movement. This hymn is one of his best.
It is a wonderful hymn, and it is Wesley’s words that I want us to look at this morning. He tells in this hymn the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the stranger at the River Jabbok. Last week we looked at the story of “Jacob’s Ladder,” as it is called, the dream that Jacob had at Bethel, where God gave him the blessing that he had struggled so hard to achieve all of his life. In order to get that blessing Jacob deceived his twin brother, Esau, and lied to his father, Isaac. We saw also in that story that his name “Jacob” means “the striver,” and how all of his life he had struggled and was driven from the moment of his birth. In fact, even before his birth, the story of Jacob says, when he was in the womb, he and his twin brother, Esau, struggled and competed, fought to be number one. When they were born, Jacob was holding on to Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob, “The Striver.”
As this text begins he has everything he has ever wanted and more. Which is the pattern with “Jacobs,” they often succeed in this life, and sometimes spectacularly. Just as often, they will lose it all, and then get it back again.
We wish the story were written differently because Jacob is not the most admirable character. His character is not the most exemplary. We wish these biblical stories were written in a way to say that that kind of behavior does not prosper. But the Bible is honest, always honest, always realistic about our human life. The fact about life is that “Jacobs” generally get what they want, and they will use any means available to get it. They don’t always break the law, but they will stretch it, push it as far as they can.
Jacob’s main offense was against his brother Esau. He tricked him. But Esau was a fool, and a fool and his birthright are soon parted. Jacob knew what Esau’s weakness was. “Jacobs” go after that, manipulate it, use it in order to get their own gain. And it worked. But Esau is now angry. He swears revenge against his brother Jacob. Jacob flees.
The first night of his flight, you remember, he has that wonderful dream at Bethel, where God blesses him and says, “I will be with you wherever you go…and I will not leave you until I have done for you what I have promised.” With that blessing he goes to Padan-Aram, to his mother’s ancestral home. There he continues to prosper.
We are not looking at that story this year in the cycle, but it is the third story in the cycle. It’s a wonderful story where Jacob meets his equal, his future father-in-law, a man named Laban, who is as devious and has as questionable a character as Jacob does. The story of Jacob and Laban is sort of the Olympic Games of dirty tricks. They are both world-class tricksters. Jacob wins that contest, too.
Jacob leaves Padan-Aram a wealthy man with two wives, Leah and Rachel, who are Laban’s daughters. He has eleven children as he leaves (he will have one more son), and heads for home. He leaves with most of Laban’s cattle and sheep, and his servants as well, all of which he has won from his father-in-law.
He is on his way home now to be reconciled with Esau, his brother. He has experienced what so many people experience who are tremendously successful. I notice this about them. They have the talent, cleverness, skill, energy and determination to compete and win in any area of life. They end up with all of the rewards of that striving, and, indeed, fit the image of success in our culture.
But after they have gained everything, they begin to think about all that they have lost, especially the relationships they have sacrificed in order to gain material reward. At a certain point in their lives, usually middle age, but if they are tremendously successful, it comes earlier than that, after they have gained the whole world, they long for a relationship, usually with one person, more than anything else. Reconciliation, that is what they want, with that person from whom they are estranged: a sibling, a parent, or a former spouse, or a friend, someone they haven’t spoken to for years.
Jacob is like that as our text begins this morning. He is going home to get the one thing that he lost and now wants more than anything else, reconciliation with his brother.
The caravan carrying all of his possessions, and his family, comes to the River Jabbok. On the far side of the river is Esau’s land. He sends scouts ahead as peace envoys, to meet Esau and to ask Esau if Jacob can come into his land. When the scouts return, they tell Jacob that Esau is heading for the river with four hundred troops. Jacob divides his family and his possessions into groups, and sends them in different directions so that if Esau attacks, some will survive. Then he sends his cattle and his sheep with some servants across the river to meet Esau once again, to offer him peace offerings.
Now Jacob is all alone, at the River Jabbok. “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.”
Perhaps he remembered that night, a long time ago, at the beginning of his exile, when he saw the ladder to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending, and God speaking to him, reassuring him, and blessing him. He longed now to have that same experience again. He wanted from God a sign, a blessing, an assurance, that everything is going to be okay, that the charmed life he has lived up to this time is going to continue, and God will be with him and bless all that he has done. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” That is what he wants, that peace.
Instead, out of the darkness, a stranger jumps him, throws him to the ground. These two bodies struggle in the darkness against each other. All night long they wrestle. The strength of the stranger is terrible. Jacob, the mightiest, the cleverest of men, is having difficulty holding his own. Who is this stranger who has come to him out of the night?
Just before dawn, Jacob starts to win. At least it seems that way. He holds the stranger in a grip. The stranger holds to him. The stranger then strikes him in the hip, dislocates his hip. From that Jacob will limp the rest of his life. The stranger says, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” Jacob says, “Bless me, and I will let you go.”
Now we know what Jacob knows, that this stranger he is wrestling is God. He is wrestling with God. It may be a stranger, it may be a man, it may be an angel, we don’t know. But Jacob knows who it really is. Jacob is at last wrestling with God, holding on now in desperation, crying to God, “Bless me. Give me a blessing.”
The stranger says, “What is your name?” “My name is Jacob.”
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and mortals, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asks the stranger, “What is your name?” He would not answer, for to know somebody’s name is to know all there is to know about him, and God remains a mystery. We do not know all about God. So Jacob does not learn anymore about God from this encounter than he knew before. Nothing has changed, except Jacob. Jacob has changed. Jacob is no longer Jacob, “the striver.” He is now “Israel,” the one who has striven with God, and is changed.
This is an incredible story. It is one of the richest stories in the Bible, and one of the richest stories in the treasury of human literature. For Jews, Jacob is the father of the race. His new name, “Israel,” is their name. His sons, he has twelve sons, will be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, so this is the story of the origin of the Jewish people. All Jews are sons and daughters of Jacob. This is Israel’s story.
But it is also our story. This is every man’s and every woman’s story. You can see yourself in this story. These stories are called “archetypes,” where you can see yourself in the story, and where you can read the story to learn about yourself.
When I came back to this story of Jacob wrestling the stranger at the River Jabbok, I saw something that I had never noticed before. That is, Jacob is like Prometheus, in the Greek myth. Prometheus stole the fire from heaven and brought it down to human beings so that we could be like gods.
The meaning of the Promethean myth is that there is something in us that wants to be like God. There is something in us that will not be content with the limitations that are placed upon all human beings. There is something in us as human beings, in fact, that causes us to try to transcend these limitations.
The Olympics originated in ancient Greece, in the land of Prometheus. They were religious festivals, really, held in honor of the gods on Olympus. That is why they were called the Olympian games. In the contests the athletes strove for perfection. They tried to be the best that it is humanly possible to be. In fact, they even tried to transcend human limitations with athletic achievements.
That has always been the spirit of the Olympics. Even today, young people, some very young, fourteen year old girls, pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to achieve perfection in what they do. You notice they are scored against the standard of perfection. They are judged by whether or not they come up to a standard of perfection. It is just part of being human to strive for that excellence, to try and be as great as you can be.
You see the same thing in the story of Creation in Genesis. No sooner are Adam and Eve created as human beings than they start to be something more than human beings. It happened immediately. The same day as the Creation, they strive to be more than human beings, to transcend the limits that God has placed upon them. They try to be like God. God gives them the rules of the Garden of Eden. He says they can do anything they want, except eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for that property belongs to God alone.
So what do they do? Immediately they do what Prometheus did, only it’s an apple this time, and not fire. But it is the same thing. They tried to be like God. They were punished, like Prometheus. They were exiled from Paradise; Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus. Adam blames Eve, “She made me do it!” Eve blames the serpent, “He beguiled me!” But they are both to blame. It is both their fault.
But in another sense, it is not their fault. If seeking to be the greatest that we can be is part of what it means to be human, then we are going to try to reach as high as we can. In fact, that’s the part of human achievement that we celebrate. It is the way we raise our children. We tell our children, “You be whoever you want to be. You climb as high as you can.” That’s what it means to be a fully realized human being. To know that you have within you unlimited possibility. To be successful in life is to be a person who has striven to achieve all that is possible for them to be.
That is what Jacob did all his life. Then he came up against the limitation at the River Jabbok, and he wrestled with God. Like Prometheus, he was defying the gods. Like Adam and Eve, he was disobeying God. He tried to do that. Jacob tried to defeat God. Only Jacob’s story is different. Jacob loses. He finally accepts his humility, and asks for God’s blessing.
The meaning of the Jacob story is that our human limitation is not a condemnation. God has not created us to strive for the highest only to frustrate us. God has created us for relationship with him. We don’t have to storm heaven to get a blessing, all we have to do is confess who we are, and God will come to us.
The word for that moment in Christian piety is “surrender.” In this story we can see what surrender really means. It means confessing that the one thing that you cannot get by yourself is God’s grace. That surrender is not the end of your life. Jacob discovered that. It was the beginning of his new life. God did not destroy Jacob. God checked him, then checkmated him, and then held-on to Jacob until he could admit who he really was, and surrender. Surrender is not the end of life. Surrender to God is the way to begin your life.
Nikos Kazantzakis, a contemporary Greek writer, tells a story. A young man visited a monk on one of those islands on the Aegean Sea, those islands that come out of the ocean like a big rock.
The monks had built their cells on the face of the rock, lived there alone. A young man climbed up to the cell of the monk and asked, “Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?”
The monk answered, “Not anymore. I have grown old, and the devil has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.”
“With God?”, the man asked, “You wrestle with God? Do you hope to win?”
“No,” he said, “I hope to lose.”