The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
It’s clear from today’s lessons that the theme centers on struggling and perseverance. However, we do need to be cautious in treating these texts so simply. If we’re not careful, we could wind up drawing the wrong conclusions. Case in point: Why did Jacob wrestle with God? Why did the Canaanite woman persevere, even after her Lord likened her to a lowly dog? If we’re not careful, we liable to conclude that the reason you persevere and wrestle is so that you can be rewarded/blessed. After all, God did end up blessing Jacob, right? He did end up rewarding the woman with what she asked for, right? They wrestled and persevered…and won. “Be it done for you as you desire.” Folks: That’s not what these texts are about! That’s not what the Christian faith is about! Such an understanding treats God as nothing more than a genie in a lamp who grants us our wishes/prayers, provided we have “enough faith” to wear Him down.
Why did God wrestle with Jacob? For those who don’t remember, there was a lot of bad blood between Jacob and his older brother, Esau. Esau sold his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of beans…and Jacob made sure that the deal was upheld and enforced. There was also the issue of Isaac’s blessing—the Messianic blessing. Years earlier Jacob had deceived his dad and robbed his older brother, Esau, of that blessing. Not surprisingly, Esau wanted to murder his brother for these terrible and deceitful things. Jacob wasn’t dumb. At his mom’s urging, he fled to Haran to stay with his uncle until his brother’s murderous rage subsided. It was while he was leaving for his uncle’s place that the Lord appeared to him in the vision with the angels ascending and descending on the ladder, saying: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring, who will be like the dust of the earth, spreading abroad to the north, south, east, and west. In you and your offspring will all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back into this land.”
Twenty-some years later, after marrying both Rachel and Leah and having a ton of kids and acquiring all kinds of material wealth and blessings, Jacob’s cousins start grumbling and complaining. They don’t like Jacob. His uncle didn’t care for him much either. Life was getting pretty miserable for Jacob. This is when the Lord steps in and calls Jacob to return home. “Return to the land of your fathers, and I will be with you.” So…Jacob obeys and goes, taking his entire household with him. It was right before crossing the river and returning into his homeland that some angels of the Lord met him, letting him know that he was in God’s camp. This is where Jacob set up camp for himself and his household. He then sent messengers ahead to Esau to let him know that he was returning home after twenty-plus years.
And how does Esau respond to the “good news”? He gathers up four hundred men—an army—and goes out to meet Jacob. News of this “welcoming party” terrifies Jacob. He divides his people and goods into two different camps. “If Esau attacks one camp, at least the other camp will have time to get away.” He also prays to God. “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and your kindred that I may do you good,’ I’m not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness that you’ve shown to me. Please deliver me from the hand of Esau, for I fear him.” Jacob then proceeds to send his brother a ton of gifts, hoping to buy him off and appease him. He also sends his family ahead of him, hoping that Esau would either not find the women and children, or at least leave them alone if he did come upon them.
Jacob stays behind, camping out that night all by himself. This is where our OT lesson picks up, the Lord coming to Jacob and wrestling with him all night. Why? Well…think about all that you’ve just heard. Jacob prays to God, but then his actions don’t exactly seem to display trust in God, do they? How many times over the years has he heard God Himself promise that He will be with Jacob and protect Jacob? And yet Jacob doesn’t seem to believe God.
All of Jacob’s (justifiable) fear of Esau had its foundation in his evil conscience, in the consciousness of the sin connected with his willful and treacherous appropriation/theft of the birthright and blessing. This is why God wrestles with Esau. This is why God presents Himself to Jacob as his enemy. Jacob’s problems weren’t really with Esau. His real problems were with God, and God was letting him know it. They fight and wrestle all night long. Did Jacob really have the power to wear God out and wrestle Him into submission? No. God is almighty and all-powerful. In fact, God shows Jacob how the fight could’ve gone if it was just a simple match of physical strength by simply touching his hip and putting it painfully out of socket. If God really wanted to fight Jacob, it wouldn’t have been a fight at all. What God was doing was teaching Jacob to hold fast to Him, even when it seems like God is against you or far from you.
Just consider the fact that God’s blessing of Jacob is a new name—Israel, which means “one who has wrestled with God/Man and prevailed.” It’s a name denoting faith; i.e., one who holds fast to God and holds God to His promises. Jacob hadn’t been holding fast to God’s promises. He may have called God “Lord,” but his actions showed a great distrust in God. He wasn’t seeing God’s blessings play out in the way/time that he thought they should, which is why he doubted and fretted and still tried to do his own thing in order to save his own hide. The blessing of the new name was meant to remind Jacob of the Messianic promise that God had already made to him multiple times. This is why God wrestled with Jacob. He wanted to teach Jacob—Israel—about holding fast to His promises, even when it seems like God may be distant or working against you.
The same goes for the Canaanite woman, although in this case it wasn’t that your Lord was teaching her to hold fast, but rather His apostles. She didn’t need teaching. They did. They viewed her as an outsider; as an “enemy” of God. And your Lord’s treatment of her didn’t exactly serve to change their minds. It was through her faithful, persistent confession of who He truly was that our Lord Christ taught those proud men what it truly meant to hold fast to God and His Gospel promises. What about you? Would you suffer and persevere if you knew that God was using it as an opportunity to teach and strengthen those around you?
And take careful note here: Your Lord never says “no” to this woman as she pleads for help. I say this only because we understand that God does sometimes say “no” to our prayers. This is true. This is love. But…this isn’t the case here. He never says “no.” He just doesn’t answer immediately. In fact, He says nothing to her at all throughout the entire uncomfortable affair; not until the very end. His reference to her as a lowly dog is spoken to His disciples, who urge Jesus to simply give her what she wants so she’ll shut up and go away. This is when she interrupts and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She doesn’t argue. She doesn’t even take offense and call for a boycott of all things “Jesus.” Nope. “Yes, Lord, I am an undeserving dog. You did come for the children of Israel. But you are the Son of David. You are the Messiah. You are the Lord God in the flesh. I believe this. Have mercy on me.” This woman demonstrated a truly great faith in her God and Lord. She persevered and held fast to Him and held Him to His promise to be merciful to all who call upon and hold fast to the Lord God.
What about you? That’s why these lessons are appointed for our study this second Sunday in Lent. What are you struggling with? What are you wrestling with? We all have crosses to bear. We all have struggles and sorrows and pains and worries. This isn’t about learning how to wear God out and force His hand into getting what you want. Besides, Christians don’t think like this. “Thy will be done.” We don’t always hold fast to God and His promises though, do we? This becomes especially true when we’re not seeing things play out the way we think they should or when they’re not happening as quickly as we want them to. Every one of us here calls God “Lord” and prays that His will be done, and yet every one of us here has also struggled and wrestled with God, wondering if He might just be acting as our enemy once in a while. Did you ever stop to think that maybe God is strengthening you through your suffering? “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” St. Paul says that all of this is reason for Christians to rejoice in their suffering! Do you? We all want to lead God-pleasing lives, right? Did you ever stop to think that maybe your life needs to significantly change in order to be pleasing to God? Maybe God is trying to change you. Maybe God is trying to change someone else through you. But…that kind of Godly change might cause us to suffer, right? We don’t want that, do we?
Look to this cross. Here is why we rejoice, in good times or in bad times, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ.” Look to this cross. Here is the One who truly became God’s enemy…for you. He took your place. Jesus was forsaken by God for you. Our heavenly Father poured out all His righteous wrath upon this One, all so that He wouldn’t have to pour it out on you. This One drank down every last drop of that fiery Divine wrath—dregs and all—all so that you would never have to taste even a single drop of it. God has fulfilled His gracious promise to be merciful to you. He has fulfilled it in the work and person of Jesus Christ, who Himself has victoriously declared from His cross, “It is finished!”
And God makes this promise of redemption real and tangible for you. Look to this font. Your Lord has kept His promise to you. Here is where/how He has made you His own, giving you a new name—His almighty triune name—placing it upon your forward and your heart, bringing to you His cruciform victory and peace. Hold fast to this promise…daily. You are baptized! You belong to God! I don’t care how bad things may seem. You belong to God, and nothing and no one can ever take that away from you. Look to this altar/rail. Here is your Lord, in your midst, not to wrestle with you, but to comfort you, keeping His promise to be with you always, even to the very end of the age. Not even the gates of hell can prevail against this. “As often as you do this, remember what I have said. This is My body. This is My blood, given and shed for you for the complete forgiveness of all your sin; for the peace that surpasses all understanding.”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Here is your justification. Here is your peace. Here is your reason to rejoice…always. May this cruciform peace change you. May you ever and always hold fast to this cruciform Truth and peace, and may you be blessed with the gift of Christ’s peace for you, now and into all eternity.
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