Next week, I'm preaching on the life of Jacob. He's one of my favorite Old Testament characters.
This may be an interpretative stretch, but I think Jacob offers us a lesson in repurposed weakness.
In so many ways, Jacob is a wretched human being. He's an insecure, dispassionate liar who manipulates and bribes his way to success. He's desperate for blessing, yet distrusts the God who wishes to bless him. His life is marked by contentiousness. He can't seem to live in peaceful relationships with others.
In Genesis 32, Jacob's trickery catches up with him. He has played his last card. He's about to have a family reunion with Esau, his estranged brother. Given Jacob's past conduct, Esau has every reason to be livid at him. Esau comes to meet Jacob with 400 men. Jacob learns of it. He is understandably terrified. In response, he concocts yet another self-protective scheme to pacify his brother, and save his neck.
The night before the two brothers meet, Jacob is alone by the Jabbock River. A mysterious man approaches him, and the two engage in a conflict. They wrestle through the night. The scene is a microcosm of Jacob's entire life. He has always been wrestling, both with God and people. He's always resisting, always fighting for what's "his." Jacob ultimately prevails against the man. In response, the mysterious figure taps Jacob's hip-socket, and lames him. Instantly, Jacob realizes this is no normal opponent; he is in the presence of God. Nevertheless, Jacob does not relent. He clings to the man, and insists on a blessing. "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (v. 26).
We must hear his words rightly. This isn't the demand of a manipulative con-artist, insisting on his own way. Nor is it the claim of a prosperity preacher, who thinks that God is obliged to bless those who truly "believe." It's the plea of a broken man who has come to the end of his rope. Jacob has searched for blessing his entire life. He hasn't found it. Now, he stubbornly clings to God, and begs for the only blessing that really matters. It's as if Jacob is saying, "I have nowhere else to go. I need your blessing more than anything. Nothing else matters."
God blesses Jacob. He responds to this stubborn act of faith. And then, he transforms him.
"What is your name?" the mysterious figure asks (v. 27).
"Jacob" (v. 27).
Names are extremely important in the Old Testament. Your name testifies to your character; your identity. God isn't just asking for a name. He's asking, "who are you?"
Jacob's response is an admission of guilt. "Jacob" means, "heel grabber" or "cheater." Jacob has been grasping at people his whole life; pulling himself up by their bootstraps; usurping, cheating and deceiving. He will do anything to get ahead. Now, he clings to God's heel, but out of humble desperation.
Jacob is repentant. He confesses his wrong. He truly is a "Jacob." But God gives him a new name:
"Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." (v. 28)
Israel means, "He strives with God." This name is fascinating, as it has a double-meaning. On the one hand, Jacob has striven against God for years. He has questioned, opposed and distrusted. But when God lames Jacob, he begins to strive with God in an entirely new way,
In one moment, Jacob stubbornly wrestles against God. In the next, he stubbornly clings to him for blessing. In one moment, Jacob says, "I must have my way," In the next he says, "I must have your grace."
God breaks Jacob's will, and transforms him into a different kind of man. He takes Jacob's greatest weakness, and repurposes it. Jacob's stubborn rebellion is redeemed into stubborn reliance. The grasp of manipulation is transfigured into the grasp of faith. Jacob's greatest liability becomes an asset. He clings to God mercy just as fiercely as he once clung to his own independence.
God is powerful in weakness. He wants to use our weaknesses to reveal his strength. Don't let your weaknesses go to waste.