“The Magnificent Defeat”

My Dear Shepherds,

“So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him” (Genesis 31:24). Oh, make no mistake, he was no mere man. By the end of that dark night Jacob whispered, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

After 20 years of exile, Jacob was finally returning to the land God had promised him, but before he could get there he had to face his twin brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of both birthright and blessing all those years ago. And while Esau was coming with an army of 400 men, little did Jacob know that the real threat ahead of him was not his brother but God himself. Read the account in Genesis 32:24-32.

Verse 25 says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him ….” How could that be? Jacob was strong, but he wasn’t that strong. But then again, this wasn’t a mere matter of muscle. It was a contest of wills, and Jacob’s will was herculean, very nearly a match for God! Yet as the old African American preachers used to say, “Your arm’s too short to box with God.”

One reason I regard Jacob as the Bible’s Everyman is that all those on whom God has fixed his love will find themselves, at one time or another, ambushed by Yahweh, whom Jacob called the Fear of Isaac (Genesis 31:42, 53). At certain times, between us and the life God has promised, lurks “the beloved Enemy” bent on our “magnificent defeat,” to use Frederick Buechner’s phrases.

Pastoring is hard work. Really hard work. The pandemic has made it insufferable for many pastors. I have an email before me from a pastoral couple who wrote, “We are seriously wondering how much longer we can do this, but God has not released us.” Jacob nods ruefully and says, “I know the feeling.” It may feel like your struggles are with your people, but don’t be too sure. God is good at disguises.

So when “the man” couldn’t overpower Jacob, he crippled him. God doesn’t really fight fair, as we all learn. I assume that at first Jacob tried to escape the man who ambushed him but sometime during those dark, sweat-stained hours, Jacob realized he had God within his grasp and if he let go he might never get him back. Hosea 12:4 says that Jacob “wept and begged for his favor.” Jacob gasped, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

I know, as you do, what it is to be wrestled to my knees by God. In my young years, having never failed at anything in my life, I was let go from my first two ministry jobs. Again and again I prayed, “Lord, please let me do something that will matter in a hundred years.” It was my version of praying for God’s favor. Another time, years later, I had to publicly ask forgiveness for responding too harshly to some people in a congregational meeting. It was hard enough to get up in front of the congregation, but what was really hard was to mean it. That was a long, dark struggle between God and me. There have been a few other matches, each which God won. I never thought to pray in those times, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” but neither did I let go of God.

That, dear brothers and sisters, is how God wrestles with us and, paradoxically, how we overcome him. There we lie, like Jacob, in the mud and blood, clinging to God when he says, “You win. I will bless you.”

Be ye glad!

Pastor Lee

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