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3. When The Sun Finally Rises: Wrestling With The Past (Gen. 32:22-32)

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Perhaps your past has brought you to a point in your life of complete helplessness and hopelessness; when everything seems black and you don’t know where to turn; when you want to forget the past because it only brings you pain. Sometimes, the experiences and hurts of the past just don’t seem to go away, do they? The memories still stare you in the face as if it were yesterday. Old attitudes and habits still plague you.

Perhaps you’ve spent your life in an attitude of self-sufficiency, “I’ll-do-it-my-way,” “I-don’t-need-God” kind of attitude. But now you’re not so sure anymore. Perhaps you’ve perpetuated the habits with which you grew up. Your home life was anything but stable, perhaps abusive even. And now you realize that you’re just a carbon copy of all that you despise about your past and you desperately want to leave it all behind. Or, perhaps you’ve worked all the angles; you’ve taken all the tax breaks (interpreted the income tax rules liberally), and you’ve gained a measure of success and status.

But all of a sudden your life has come unravelled. Your empire has come tumbling down, and like Humpty Dumpty “all the kings horses and all the kings men can’t put it back together again.” Perhaps you’re facing the night of your life right now.

Well, remember this: The night of agony always comes before the dawn of relief. That’s the primary teaching of our text. The darkness of dread precedes the light of liberty. Chaos of conscience goes before the calm of communion. The trauma of struggling blocks the tranquility of resting. The turmoil of striving pre-empts the security of trusting.

A few years ago I had a frozen shoulder. I had never heard of such a condition before. One morning I woke up and thought I had slept on my shoulder the wrong way. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it gradually got worse so that by the time I went to the doctor, it was fully frozen. The pain was excruciating. In fact, one time I was waiting for my wife in a store, and someone brushed up against me, making me move my arm quickly. I nearly passed out, the pain was so bad. When I began physiotherapy treatment, the physiotherapist said, “I’ll have to hurt you to make you better.” In other words, the night of agony always comes before the dawn of relief.

Twenty years have now passed since Jacob tricked his brother, Esau. And many more years than that have transpired since he chased his twin down the birth canal, grabbing onto his heel for all he was worth. And so began a life of fancy footwork. Up to this point, Jacob has been running away, but ...

I. Running From The Past Doesn’t Solve Your Problems (32:22-24a).

Jacob was a product of his past ambition. From his birth he couldn’t stand to be in second place. He had to be number 1 and he set out to prove that he was the best. He cheated his twin brother twice (first, out of his birthright and second, out of his father’s blessing), pulled the wool over his old father’s blind eyes, and conned his father-in-law out of the best livestock. Jacob was a product of his past ambition.

And Jacob was a product of his past environment. He had been raised in a dysfunctional home. He observed his parents’ divided affections – his father Isaac loved Esau; whereas his mother, Rebekah, loved him, Jacob. He recognized his father’s lack of leadership and godly example. He learned from his mother how to stretch the truth convincingly. And then there was his twin brother, who was so much like him and yet so different: Jacob was a mother’s boy; Esau was a “man’s man.” Jacob was level-headed (Mr. Cool, the strong quiet type) and ruthless to get his own way; Esau was rough and ready, an outdoorsman, but complacent about life (he undervalued the things that mattered, like his birthright). Jacob was the product of his past.

So, when things turned ugly at home, Jacob began running. He ran to uncle Laban’s house where through cunning and clever manipulation he prospered. By this time he had 12 children and he had accumulated a significant net worth.

But, when things turned ugly again, he began running again. When Laban wasn’t looking Jacob loaded up his animals and his family and left without even saying “goodbye.”

And so you can see how Jacob’s past shaped his values and character. For him the end always justified the means. Friends and family were treated just like anybody else - if that meant stealing, fraud, scheming, treachery, so be it. With friends like him, who needs enemies?

But God is at work again in his life. When God tells him to return to his family in Canaan, Jacob thinks it’s a great idea to escape from Laban’s clutches, manipulation, and jealousy. But what he didn’t know is that God was saying: “Jacob, it’s time! Time to deal with your past!”

Running from the past doesn’t solve your problems because (1) the past has a way of catching up with you (22-23). It caught up with Jacob here at the river Jabbok. So far, he had gotten what he wanted but at a great cost. We don’t know if he ever saw his mother again and he had certainly severed his relationship with his brother. Up to now, he hadn’t worried about meeting Esau again. He could patch things up; he could buy him off with presents. After all, he was wealthy now (32:1-5). But Esau’s wrath has been festering for 20 years. When he hears that his brother is returning, his anger boils over.

Jacob’s men return from taking peace offerings to Esau and they report that Esau is coming with 400 men (32:6)! Jacob intuitively knows that this isn’t a welcome home party. Esau means business: this is all-out war! Jacob’s fancy-footed, slick-handed scheming now looks pretty inadequate. He has just run right into a brick wall, and with no more tricks up his sleeve, he has to face the music. He has to look himself square in the face and he has only one place to turn – that’s to God!

He could have kept running, I suppose, but he didn’t. Perhaps by this time he was sick of running, tired of the sleazy side of his character, hated who he was and wanted to put it right. Perhaps he had finally reached the end of himself and his self-sufficient, self-improving, ambitious lifestyle. Or, perhaps he knew that he had just run out of options: he’d tossed the dice just one too many times. Whatever the reason, he played his last card (22-23) by dividing his company into two, so that if Esau got one party the other could escape (cf. 32:7f.), and he sent them on ahead while he was left alone.

Running from the past doesn’t solve your problems because (1) the past has a way of catching up with you and (2) eventually you have to stop running. There comes a time when you’re “left alone” (24a).

To be “left alone” with God is both frightening and exhilarating. Jacob had been alone with God once before when he was on the run at Bethel, as we noticed in a previous article (“When the sun sets: Jacob meets God,” Gen. 27:41-28:22). That time it was exhilarating. There was the vision, the ladder, the angels. And God’s promise to Abraham from years ago was renewed so that Jacob declares: “Surely, the Lord is in this place. And I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the very gate of heaven” (28:16). That was exhilarating and undoubtedly Jacob made a genuine commitment to serve God at that time. But he still has issues to deal with. He still has the old “end-justifies-the-means” ethics to deal with. He still has his old scheming character that he had inherited from his mother to deal with. He still has the past to deal with before God.

Last time his encounter with God was exhilarating, but this time his encounter with God is frightening! Now he meets God again – not at Bethel, but at the river Jabbok. Jabbok is the place where we stop running and fighting; the place of intense blackness - the midnight of the soul; the place where the moment of truth dawns - that we’re completely spent, no more ideas, the past has caught up to us, we’re at the dead end in the road, we’re trapped in the web of our own weaving; the place where we are alone; the place of wrestling; the place of a meeting with God.

Running from the past doesn’t solve your problems but…

II. A Meeting With God Brings You To Your Senses (32:24b-29).

Jacob wrestled tenaciously and desperately all night “until the break of day” (24b). Perhaps he wrestled about his past behaviour and habits - his duplicity, lies, scheming, fraud; about his present predicament which loomed large - his pending meeting with Esau; about his future destiny: “How could he change once-and-for-all and face the future? How could he be a man of integrity, at peace with God and other people?” You can be sure of this, a meeting with God stops you in your tracks (25). When God “wrestles” with you, you don’t go anywhere. You may struggle but you can’t get away.

Many of you have probably experienced a night of wrestling with God. Some people are very content with the way they are - complacent, no longing for God, no hunger for him. But others would do anything to change the way they are and what they’ve done. Great people have wrestled with God in the night of their lives. After his tryst with Bathsheba, David cried out in the agony of his soul: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). After his seduction by Delilah, Samson pleaded with God: “O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once” (Judges 16:28). After Elijah had succumbed to Jezebel’s threat, he moaned: “I, even I only, am left and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kgs 19:10). After Peter had denied the Lord with oaths and curses, he “went out and wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:62).

Some people come to Jabbok and decide to keep on running. They never face their past – only live for the present – and they don’t care about the future. They banish the past into the closet with all the other skeletons of their lives. They just rationalize what happened - make lifelong excuses: “I was a victim! It wasn’t my fault. There are lots worse than I.” They keep on running hoping that in the end they’ll escape. But there is no escape from God.

Some people decide to keep on running, others decide to wrestle this thing to the ground. They’re at the Jabbok where God stops them in their tracks. In fact, the only way to overcome your past is to “wrestle” with God. Maybe that’s where you are right now. Perhaps you’re plagued with regrets - about your family, about relationships. Or, you’ve abused your position of power - in your family, your church, your work. Or, perhaps you have a secret sin that for years you’ve tried to cover up or beat, but you can’t. Maybe you’ve neglected God in your Christian life and you have lived like an unbeliever; you’ve hurt someone and never been reconciled; you’ve suffered from abusive relationships that torture you; you’ve engaged in immoral behaviour that torments you; your shady business dealings keep you awake at night; your cheating on exams gives you cold sweats; your unfaithfulness to your spouse haunts you; you have character traits that you long to change – a poisonous tongue, a bitter spirit, a hot temper, or a critical attitude.

And now you’re at the point you can’t stand it any longer. Your conscience is driving you crazy if you don’t deal with it. You can’t cover it up any more nor can you ignore it. Now, naked and exposed under the midnight sky you wrestle with God. The veneer is stripped off; you look yourself straight in the mirror and you’re forced to face it head on - no more hiding down the dark alleys of your past, no more mind games, but a head-on confrontation with God.

Be aware your hip may be dislocated in the process (25). Jacob had been a survivor. He had always won out. Every time there was a dispute, he came out smelling like a rose. Every time he was in a fix, he came up with a solution. But now he would have an experience like none other. God would permanently wound him.

When you wrestle with God you may be wounded. You’ll certainly lose; God always conquers. And sometimes he has to cripple you. When you wrestle with God, you feel his body next to yours. You feel his power as he inflicts a wound. And when you feel that stabbing pain in your hip, you know the reality of his presence and his power. Wounds bring contrition, repentance, yearning for God. A. W. Tozer put it like this: “I doubt that God can use a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”

Where was your first Jabbok? When have you been wounded as you wrestled with God? When did you feel the stabbing dislocation of your hip as God deals with you and your past? When were you driven to call on God in your trouble?

A meeting with God (1) stops you in your tracks and (2) a meeting with God makes you cry for a blessing (26-29). Jacob knew all about the blessing of God. He knew how God had blessed his grandfather, Abraham, with a son at 100 years old. He knew how his father, Isaac, had been delivered from the jaws of death on Mt. Moriah. And he himself had received a blessing from his father. To wrestle with God is to plead with God for a blessing.

If you’re in pain today that others have inflicted on you, then cry from the bottom of your heart: “O, God, I will not let you go until you bless me! Rid me of the pain from all those years of abuse. Take away the torment of my mind. Remove the pangs of conscience that hang like a thick cloud.”

Perhaps you’re the perpetrator of sin – you’ve inflicted pain on others. Then cry to God in the agony of your soul: “O, God, I’m sick of the past. I need a second chance, a new beginning. I hate who I am and what I have done. I desperately want a fulfilling life. I want to put right the wrongs I have done. I desperately want to know You. Change me, O God!”

If you need to get right with God about anything, say: “O, God, I will not let you go unless you bless me! Forgive the sin of my life - my self-sufficiency that left you out; my infidelity, lusts, envy, covetousness; the pornography I’m addicted to; my pride; my unfaithfulness to my spouse; my cheating; my fraudulent habits; my deceitfulness; the abuse of my body with drugs and sex.”

God will honour your cry and bless you (27-29), just as he honoured Jacob’s cry and blessed him. And he’ll radically transform your life. He’ll bless you with a new name, a new identity (28). God asked Jacob: “What’s your name?” (27). That seems like a strange question for God to ask – didn’t he know Jacob’s name? Perhaps God asked Jacob his name to remind Jacob of the last time he had been asked that question, “Who are you?” (27:18). That question was asked by his old, blind father and Jacob had lied to him. Now he is before an all-seeing God and he gives his correct name. He acknowledges who he was and God responds with a great promise: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (28).

Jacob’s name told the story of his life. It was his identity as a usurper, whose birth portrayed what his life would subsequently be - the second-born twin who sought to overtake his first-born brother by grabbing onto his heel as he exited the birth canal; the one who would seek to trip others up and overtake them.

You need to acknowledge your old name, who you really are. Then, God will give you a new name – a new name that will take away the stigma of the old life; a new name to remind you that, formerly, you took charge of your life but that you struggled with God and finally prevailed; a new name that acknowledges that now “God is the ruler of your life.”

Running from the past doesn’t solve your problems but a meeting with God brings you to your senses, so that now…

III. Facing The Future Gives You Renewed Hope (32:30-32).

(1) You can face the future with renewed hope when you’ve “seen the face of God” (30). God breaks through our past and opens the future so that we can say: “I have seen God face to face and yet my life has been delivered” (30).

The place of wrestling is the place of divine appointment. It’s the place where we suddenly realize that the person with whom we wrestled is none other than God, that we have actually met God face to face and lived to tell the tale!

Have you ever seen God face to face? No one can see God and remain unchanged. You’ll get a new name and you’ll lose your independence. You’ll walk with a limp and lean on a cane for the rest of your life. To walk with God means to lean on him, to claim his power. Remember, Esau is always at the gate threatening, swaggering, waiting to throw us off the path. He’s the Judas (betrayer), the Diotrephes (pre-eminence), the Demas (loved the world), the Alexander the coppersmith (opposer). Whenever he shows up, he whispers: “We’re at the Jabbok again.”

You can face the future with renewed hope (1) when you’ve seen the face of God, and (2) you can face the future with renewed hope when the sun finally rises (31). As an aside, notice how the author has book-ended this segment of Jacob’s life with these two expressions: “The sun had set” (28:11) and now “the sun rose” (32:31).

Jacob emerges from the night and “the sun rose upon him” (31a). When God breaks through our past, the darkness of night becomes a beautiful sunrise. Sorrow may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:15).

Perhaps the sun hasn’t shone much in your life recently. You may have spent a lot of time in darkness, desperately longing for the sun to finally rise. Is that what you want more than anything today, to walk out of this service into the sun rise of your life? To feel the sunshine of God’s love shine upon you? To know the beauty of God’s truth as it infiltrates your soul? To bask in the radiant heat of God’s all-embracing mercy and power?

As he goes to meet Esau, Jacob “limped on his hip” (31b). The limp serves two purposes: (a) it reminds us that we can’t stand on our own, that we’re totally dependent on God, that we must lean on him. Every time you take a step, get out of bed, put your shoes on, you’ll know that a life lived for God is a dependent life. So, it reminds us that we can’t stand on our own, and (b) it preserves us from ever trying to run again. It ensures that we stay close to God.

The subsequent practice by the Israelites of not eating “the sinew of the thigh” (32:32) would surely have served as a constant reminder to them of what happened to Jacob that memorable night when God changed him from one who was running away to the man who was returning to be the leader of God’s people.

Final Remarks

Remember our thesis: The night of agony always comes before the dawn of relief. This scene closes at the dawn of a new day. In the early morning sunlight we see Jacob limping into the sunrise across the Jabbok, ready to face Esau with courage and joy. Now his life can begin anew. If you need to settle things with God and with other people, don’t continue to fight it, to put it off, to rationalize it. Don’t think there will be a better time. There’s never a better time than now.

Don’t be afraid that it’s too late or it’s too complicated. No amount of years is too long for God to span. It took Jacob years to deal with his habits, attitudes, and self-reliance until God wrestled him to the ground. And he has gone down in history as the father of the Israelites. No life is too far gone for God to bless.

If you had to choose whether to bless Jacob or Esau, whom would you choose? You’d probably choose Esau, because we look on the outward appearance. But remember that God looks on the heart, for where we see a cheat God sees a champion; where we see a runner God sees a wrestler; where we see a liar God sees a leader.

God sees into your life with all its past and he wants to bless you for the future. For you that may seem like a daunting task, but, as Max Lucado puts it: “For God… it’s all in a night’s work.”

If this message today has touched a cord in your life, why not make a commitment to God now, whether you have suffered pain or inflicted pain; whether you’ve been running or you’ve stopped running? Remember, God pours healing into hearts that are hurting; God gives grace to people in pain; and God extends mercy to sinners and saints who repent.

Perhaps this was what the hymn writer had in mind when she wrote:

I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
no tender voice like thine can peace afford.

I need thee, O I need thee; every hour I need thee!
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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