Dear Friend,

Have you ever lain awake, wresting with anger, anxiety, or similar demons? During such sleepless nights, can you perhaps discern the Lord making his face to shine on you?

On Sunday at Willowdale, we will explore our biblical ancestor Jacob, left alone by the River Jabbok, and wrestling with a man until daybreak. The biblical narrator calls the mysterious adversary a man (Genesis 32:24); the prophet Hosea calls him an angel (Hosea 12:4), and Jacob experiences him as God. Our ancestor marvels, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30)

God’s disruptive grace to Jacob at the Jabbok fits a strong pattern in Jacob’s life. Already in the womb, Jacob wrestled with his fraternal twin Esau, and God promised him a destiny so powerful it would shape an entire nation. (Genesis 25:23) As the two boys grew up, Jacob displaced Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 25:31), and as a young man, Jacob lied in the name of God to cheat his brother out of a blessing. (Genesis 27:20). In response, God promised Jacob the blessing of Abraham, consisting of land, offspring, and God’s unfailing presence. (Genesis 28:13-15). Such grace to such a scoundrel foreshadows the scandal of the cross, where, in response to human betrayal, failure, and murderous envy, God gives his beloved Son for us who are weak, ungodly, sinners, and enemies (Romans 5:6-11)

God’s scandalous grace to Jacob and to us saves us because it not only accepts but also transforms us. When God wrestles all night with Jacob, God does not overpower our ancestor, but God does change him, and that change comes out in Jacob’s new name, “Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28) In his superb book, Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks discerns the Lord teaching Jacob not to wrestle against his brother out of envy but instead to wrestle with God to share blessings trustingly in our competitive world. By means of a brilliant study of the original Hebrew, Sacks shows that by wrestling with Jacob, God was fulfilling the priestly blessing in which the Lord makes his face to shine on us in order to grant us peace. (Numbers 6:26) By such peace-making grace, the Lord transforms Jacob-Israel into someone who can discern in the face of his brother Esau the face of the God—the God at work to bless them both. (Genesis 33:10)

The shining of God’s face can seem harsh when anger, anxiety, and other afflictions blind us. But when we receive such grace not in vain, it transforms us into people who will not let God go until we receive the blessings we can share. (Genesis 32:26)