pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Struggle with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 28: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”.

For most of his adult life Jacob has been a schemer and a taker. As a young man his mother taught him how to steal Isaac’s blessing through the use of deception and dishonesty. During his time in exile he learned some hard lessons from his father-in-law Laban and then learned to out-scheme and take much more than he gave. When this caused his relationship with Laban to grow very tense, Jacob did what schemers do – he fled the scene of the crime. Now Jacob is not all bad. There is some good in him. He knows who God is too. On his initial flight from Esau and the land of Canaan, God showed him a vision at Bethel, where God promised to watch over Jacob and to bring him back to possess the land promised to Abraham and Isaac.

As Jacob is alone on the far side of the stream all that is his is on the other side. The stream is a symbolic line as well as a geographical line. Jacob means “grabber” or “schemer”. He has certainly lived into his name. Yet at a point all wheeler-dealer, schemer types want to step off the carousel. The wondering about who will catch up with you, the fear of finally being out- hustled, the unease at living a shady life – they weigh upon the heart and soul and mind. Alone, Jacob is ready for some soul-searching. Just as God had done twenty years ago when Jacob was in need of divine intervention, this night God comes and engages Jacob. The wrestling is real but also symbolic – man versus God, unethical versus ethical, taker versus giver.

Jacob is where we are at when we have been living for self and the things of this world. A part of us knows we are in a place we should not be. That part of us knows we should stop sinning and return to our walk with God. But there is still a struggle. That lifestyle, the sin, it is enticing and powerful. For Jacob, the battle goes on all night. Even after having his hip wrenched, Jacob will not let go of God this time without a blessing, a reassurance of his future. He has come to the point of surrender. Jacob is told, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”. No longer “schemer” and “grabber”, he is now “he struggles with God”. Leaving his old ways behind Jacob will now focus on the things of God and not of man. The new walk will not be easy. The limp will be a constant reminder of the “cost” of following. It is the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of.

It is a new beginning for Israel, just as it was the day we said yes to Jesus. That next morning Israel walked forward, ready to overcome whatever lay ahead, assured of God’s abiding presence. This too is our story. May we too walk forward in faith, assured of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Prayer: Loving God, each time that I have wrestled with you, in the end you always prevail. It is because of your great love. In that love you allow me to stumble and sometimes even to fall. But your love is always greater than my sin and is better than all the world has to offer. So you draw me back in. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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Wrestling with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 24: “So Jacob was left all alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak”.

As today’s passage begins Jacob is almost back home. He fled twenty years ago after stealing the birthright from his twin brother Esau. In the twenty years away Jacob lived in his ancestral homeland. Now he returns to Canaan with two wives and eleven sons plus many servants and large herds of livestock. Jacob is a successful man. Yet he fears the reunion with Esau. Earlier in chapter 32 he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Ever the schemer, Jacob devises a plan. He will give Esau a large gift of three herds, each with the message, “your servant Jacob is coming”. Jacob is seeking to “pacify” his brother Esau before actually seeing him face to face.

On the eve of the meeting Jacob sends all he has on across the stream and he remains alone on the far side. Part of Jacob is still trying to wheel and deal his way through life. But just part of him. A part also knows God. Earlier in chapter 32 Jacob also turns to God in prayer. He thanks God for blessings so far and he asks God to save him from Esau. Jacob invites God into his situation. Sometimes that is the best step we can take too. Whether our situation is something we created or if it is part of life, we too are best served by inviting God into our situation. Often the invitation is accompanied by a self-realization that our hand played a role in getting us to the point we are at. This was the case for Jacob. Like it usually is with us, this was a crossroads, a turning point, for Jacob. God accepts the invitation.

God shows up and wrestles with Jacob all night long. The length and physicality of the battle are symbolic of the change working itself out in Jacob. They wrestle all night long. At daybreak the man representing God asks Jacob to let him go. But Jacob will not simply let go. He asks first for a blessing. Jacob has come to the point of surrender to God. His life and faith will be different going forward. Each time that we wrestle with God, may it be the same for each of us.

Prayer: God of power and might, you are amazing – omnipotent and omnipresent. And yet I, at times, dare to walk against your will, against your ways. Grab hold of me too and wrestle with my heart and soul. Lead me to a quick surrender and a swift return to following you closely. May it always be so. Amen.


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Strong and Powerful

Reading: Genesis 29: 15-28

Verse 18: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”.

After stealing Isaac’s blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob runs away to his mother’s family in Haran. His mother, Rebekah, had schemed to get the son she loved more the coveted birthright. Her love for Jacob led her to place him before his older brother Esau. Once Jacob safely arrives in Haran, he soon meets Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban says to Jacob, “You are my own flesh and blood”. All seems to be going well.

After staying with and working for Laban a month, Jacob is asked to name his wages. Being in love with Rachel, Jacob names his price: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”. He must love Rachel very much. The time flies by – “they seemed like only a few days” – and Jacob asks for her. After a big feast Laban sends Leah, the older sister, to lie with Jacob. In the light of morning he realizes he has been tricked. In that moment he must have known what Isaac and Esau felt when they found out what Jacob and Rebekah did to them. Just as Rebekah’s love for Jacob led her to do what she thought she had to do, so too does Laban’s love lead him to do for Leah, his oldest daughter. To Jacob’s protest, Laban replies that it is custom to marry off the oldest daughter first. He grants Rachel to Jacob too, in exchange for seven more years of labor. Jacob willingly agrees.

Love is a strong and powerful emotion. We have all done things for love too. And we’ve all had people look at us and question our decision. That is the path of sacrificial love too. It is a love that leads one to place the other before one’s own needs… It is the kind of love Jesus practiced and calls for from his followers. May we seek to love well today.

Prayer: Living God, your call is to do anything in the name of your great love. Give me a servant’s heart today. Make my love pure and generous. Guide me to be love in the world. Amen.


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God Speaks

Reading: Genesis 28: 10-19a

Verse 17: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”.

As today’s passage opens we find Jacob leaving home, headed for Haran, the home of his mother’s family. Jacob is fleeing in fear because he stole the birthright from his twin brother Esau. By returning to the ancestral lands, he will first be safe and, second, Isaac and Rebekah hope he will find a wife from among the relatives. They hope that God will provide a good wife, just as he had done for Isaac.

At the end of his first day’s journey, Jacob finds a stone for a pillow and lays down for the night. In his sleep, God brings Jacob a vision and a message. The vision is a stairway or ladder from heaven to earth. The angels are coming and going. God stands at the top. From there he gives Jacob a message. God first reiterates the promise made to Abraham and Isaac. This land will be covered by many of your descendents and they will be a blessing to the earth. God then gets personal, saying to Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go”. With confidence and with assurance of God’s presence in his life and in his future, Jacob will travel on. But first he responds by saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”. In the morning Jacob builds a small pillar to remember and commemorate this place.

In the middle of nowhere, in a very ordinary place, God became present to Jacob. It is not with big fanfare; God is just suddenly and simply there. It could have been on day two or six of the journey. But it was at the beginning because that is when Jacob needed it most. God also appears along our journey. Sometimes it is in a way that is similar to Jacob’s experience. Through a thought or insight or maybe through the words of scripture or of a friend, God speaks into our lives. Often it is an after-the-fact realization. Looking back or reflecting on an experience, we can see God’s fingerprints. It is because we have the same promise as Jacob’s. Jesus said and says to all of his disciples, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. He will be with us forever. So we too can journey on today, knowing that Jesus goes with us. Thanks be to God. May it be so.

Prayer: Leading God, it is so awesome that you came to Jacob at just the right time. I am grateful that you do the same for me. Sometimes it isn’t in my time but in yours – which is always best. Continue to walk with me day by day. Amen.


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A Birthright

Reading: Genesis 25: 19-34

Verse 31: “Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright'”.

Today’s passage centers around twins – Esau and Jacob. At birth only seconds separate the moment they come out of the womb. Esau emerges first, with Jacob immediately following him, grasping his brother’s heel. The image of brothers wrestling as they enter the world is an extension of what they did in the womb and is a foreshadowing of their future relationship. Esau grows up to become a man of nature, of the outdoors, a hunter, a doer. Jacob grows up as a home body, a man of the inside, a cook, a thinker. Because they are so different they never really know or understand one another.

Because Esau entered the world first, he gains the birthright. He will be entitled to a larger share of Abraham’s land, animals, servants, slaves, and all other forms of wealth. He gains the power to one day be the primary decision maker. But Esau is a man unto himself. He hunts and spends most of his time alone. As he comes in famished after a long hunt, he desires food. Now. Jacob has food to offer his older brother, but at a price. He says to Esau, “First sell me your birthright'”. Esau quickly complies. The doer just wants to eat. He does so and leaves quickly. Jacob the thinker, the schemer, has probably thought this scenario through a thousand different ways. He is eager to take advantage of Esau.

This story of birthrights may feel a bit foreign in our modern era. Being the firstborn can carry some advantages, but they are nothing like they were in the ancient world. By Jesus’ day, for example, we know that the eldest son would receive a double portion. That would now be 2/3 for Jacob and 1/3 for Esau. Gaining the birthright was a huge advantage in life.

As people of faith we see our most important birthright as “child of God”. Through faith in Jesus Christ we are brought into the family as brothers and sisters, as coheirs with Christ. The reward of this birthright far outweighs any earthly birthright we may receive. But this birthright also carries a weight. As fellow brothers and sisters in and with Christ, we see all people as equal inheritors of God’s love. As such, our role is to be equal sharers of that love. Christ came for one and for all. He died for one and for all. May we see and treat one another – all one anothers – as equals, as dearly beloved children of God.

Prayer: Lord God, as I reflect and write this morning my mind returns to a song from Sunday. We sung that we are “no longer slaves” but are “a child of God”. As I celebrate that today, may I share it with others as well. Amen.


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Holding On

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 28: You have struggled with God and men and have overcome.

In a time of need, God once again comes to Jacob.  Even when Jacob cannot quite put into words the things he is feeling and needing, God enters the situation because that is what Jacob needs God to do.  God and Jacob wrestle and Jacob shows his inner grit and determination.  This time of physical testing leaves him changed.  He will always walk with a limp and he will have a new name.

As they wrestled, Jacob’s hip was touched and was wrenched.  Even this painful injury that would result in Jacob limping for the rest of his life could not force him to let go or to give up.  He held on.  He continued to wrestle with God.  Jacob passed this test.  The limp he carried forth will always remind him of when “You have struggled with God and men and have overcome”.

Jacob also walks away with a new name.  God has deemed him worthy to carry on the covenant.  This is the result of Jacob demanding a blessing from God.  He held on and would not let go of God until he received it.  Jacob demonstrates boldness and confidence by holding on until his answer is given.  He asks God for something big and holds on, expecting God to answer his request.

In our relationship with God, do we wrestle with God and stick with it so that we also overcome?  In our prayers, do we demonstrate Jacob’s boldness and determination?  When we need God – whether for an answer to prayer or for some other involvement in our lives – we should expect God to come through.  We should be open and honest with God.  At times that means we will be demanding.  Like Jacob, our prayers should be big enough that they demand an answer.  We should pray with the expectation of our answer and we should wrestle with God until the answer comes.  God desires good for us.  Do we wrestle with God like we trust this promise?  May we, like Jacob, cling to God, holding on to Him for all we need.


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Hold Tightly

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 24: Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.

God directs Jacob to return home.  He is being led to return to the family that he tricked and stole from.  This worries Jacob.  As he nears home, he sends all his family and all he owns across the stream and he remains alone on the far side.  The scene is set for some alone time with God.

At times we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We are returning to or going someplace that causes us some fear or worry or anxiety.  We may be the cause of it or it could be from things outside of us that are causing the uneasiness.  Yet we know we must go.  Here we too seek some guidance or direction or encouragement from God.  We want to know that we do not go alone.

“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him till daybreak”.  As turmoil stirs around inside Jacob, a man comes and wrestles with him.  It could be an angel.  It could be a man sent by God.  It could be God.  Whatever the case, Jacob realizes that this is a powerful foe and this leads him to demand a blessing.  He has already sent quite a blessing across the stream – his wives and children, his large herds and flocks, and his many possessions.  Yet he demanded more.  God has blessed him and now he asks for more.
In our times of trial and stress, we who have also been blessed often go to God asking for more.  Sometimes God will allow us to do a bit of wrestling too.  God will allow us to sit in our feelings of uncertainty and fear because it leads us back to Him.  He wants to know if we too will hold on tightly.  Jacob does not give up in the wrestling match and he is rewarded.  He receives a new name – Israel – the one who struggled with God.  Jacob departs the scene knowing that God is with him.  It is now a hopeful future for Jacob.

At times we too will wrestle with God.  We too will struggle and ask the “why” questions.  In this story we see that God is faithful to those who hold tightly to Him, to those who remain steadfast.  May we ever hold tightly to our God, trusting in His blessings.


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Seven Years

Reading: Genesis 29: 15-28

Verse 20: Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.

Jacob came to work for Laban after fleeing from home.  Jacob was his sister’s son, so Laban took him in.  After a month, Laban was coming to appreciate Jacob’s work, so he asks Jacob what he would like in exchange for his efforts.  Jacob has fallen in love with the beautiful Rachel so he names her as his desire and offers to work for seven years for her hand in marriage.  As I think about his offer, it seems like a long time.  Rarely does a dating relationship last longer than a few years unless marriage is the plan.  In such cases, people date for a while, consider and talk of marriage, and then set the date.  For most with marriage on the mind, they will cut it off and move on pretty quickly if the other is not “the one”.

Extending the idea of working for seven years, what would one be willing to work for for seven years?  If I had my mind on a new car, for example, would I be willing to work for seven years, saving a little each month, until I had enough money to buy that car?  In a job, would I be willing to work for seven years to make that next step up the chain of command or to earn that first raise?  Yet in the context of today’s story, these things are small targets or goals.  When our thoughts move outside the concrete, there are many things we work much longer than seven years for.  When we do so, these are the things that really matter in life.

I look at my marriage and see something that I am still willing to work hard for.  I look at my college-age and post-college children and see many years of raising them and am still very dedicated to working at raising them.  And then I turn to my faith.  At 51, this is a journey longer than any other in my life, yet I still continue to seek to draw closer to God.  Looking back, I can see how my relationship has grown and deepened.  Seven years seems like a small blip on the timeline.  In this sense, I can relate to Jacob.  Seven years “seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her”.  May our love for God ever be the same.


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A Better Way

Reading: Genesis 29: 15-28

Verse 25: What is this you have done to me? … Why have you deceived me?

Today’s reading is an interesting turn of events.  Poor Jacob is tricked by his uncle and ends up with the older, less beautiful daughter.  But before we feel too bad for Jacob, let’s remember why he is here.  Jacob has fled from his home to escape the wrath of his father Isaac and his brother Esau.  He tricked the very elderly Isaac into giving him, the younger son, Esau’s birthright.  Maybe, just maybe, Jacob deserves what Labsn has done – a little taste of his own medicine, so to speak.

But before we jump on that bandwagon, we’d better take a little stock of our own lives.  Yes, we have probably been in a place like Jacob finds himself in.  We have been let down by someone we trusted.  We have had agreements and arrangements broken.  Maybe we were a faithful employee for years and years, only to see the new and younger person receive the leadership role.  Maybe we have seen a long-term friendship evaporate when someone new moved to town.  We have all been where Jacob finds himself.  We know the anger, the hurt, the frustration.

When we stop and reflect, though, we’ve all played Laban’s role as well.  Maybe we haven’t slipped the older daughter into a drunk man’s bed after he had worked for seven years for the other daughter, but we have made decisions or manipulated or crossed the line a time or two.  Maybe it was as simple as choosing how to reword something or to embellish it or to leave a detail out – to best insure our desired outcome.  In any event, we have been there and done it.  We too have made others shout, “What is this you have done to me? … Why have you deceived me”?

When we take stock, when we reflect on those moments, we realize there is a better way for us and for others.  It is the way of love, the way of the servant, the way of Jesus.  Lord, help me to be righteous, bringing honor and glory to you in all I do and say and think this day and every day.


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Remember

Reading: Genesis 28: 16-19a

Verse 18: Jacob took the stone… and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.

During the night, Jacob has an amazing encounter with God.  When he wakes up the next morning, he reflects back on this encounter.  His first thought is of surprise – he did not expect God to be in this place.  It was simply where Jacob stopped because it was getting dark out.  As he lay his head down on his rock, sleep was all he expected.  Jacob’s comment, “I was not aware” reveals his surprise.  On the one hand, we think God is everywhere all the time.  But on the other hand, it surprises us when God shows up in a big and unexpected way at a random place.

Once Jacob realized that God was very present, he shifts for a moment to fear.  The text reads “he was afraid” so it is not a healthy fear or a reverence for God.  If God were to speak to me in an audible, direct way, true fear would also be part of my reaction.  When our omnipresent God becomes direct and personal, one reaction would be fear.  God is talking to me?  Gulp.

Jacob quickly moves past fear and into celebration.  He says aloud, “How awesome is this place”!  Here God has chosen Jacob as being worthy of direct conversation.  Jacob is excited that God spoke to him here.  It is a place he always wants to remember, so “Jacob took the stone… and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it”.  It will always be a place of remembrance for Jacob.  It is where God spoke to him.  He builds an altar, using the rock that was his pillow, and he consecrates it with oil.  The altar will also help others to know and remember.

When we have significant personal encounters with God, how do we remember them?  At a meaningful and powerful remembrance of baptism service, I was given a small stone.  I carry it daily in my pocket as a reminder of when God drew especially close to me.  In your next powerful encounter with God, seek a physical way to remember the experience.  It will be a tangible reminder that will lead you to rejoice and give thanks for God’s hand at work in your life.