Twenty years before this moment, Jacob was forced to run for his life from his brother Esau, who wanted to murder him. He left in a hurry. He left with nothing.
And Moses showed us how he camped in some random place along the road — only to discover that this was not just some random place: he had actually camped right in the gateway of God’s land, right at the connecting point where God had chosen to build a stairway from heaven down to earth.
And that night, God promised to one day bring Jacob back to this land. And he promised that he would be with Jacob even during his exile in the eastern lands.
And when Jacob woke up in the morning, he made own promise in return. He said that, one day, when God did bring him back into the land, he would give God a tenth of everything he owned.
And then Jacob left. He passed through the gateway, into the outer wilderness, and he travelled east to his uncle’s house.
And for a long time it did not look as if God was with Jacob at all!
First he was deceived by his uncle and robbed of his freedom — which, really, he deserved, since he had deceived his own father and robbed his own brother before leaving home.
Then his wives fought each other for years, trying to win Jacob’s love and approval — which, again, he deserved, because he was the kind of husband who believed that love and approval are earned, not given.
But then, at the lowest point of the story, God remembered Rachel, and she gave birth to a messiah, her firstborn son. And she named him Joseph — which means “add”.
And sure enough, at that point God began to ”add” every possible blessing to Jacob’s life. This finally convinced Jacob that God really was with him, just as he had promised. This finally convinced Jacob that God’s love and approval are simply given, not earned. And this new understanding changed the way Jacob lived with his wives. It changed the way he lived in slavery under his uncle.
Then, last week we saw how this new understanding led him to break free of his uncle’s tyranny. And we saw how God made sure Jacob was completely reimbursed for all the years he spent in slavery.
And so, over the last few weeks we have been realizing that Jacob’s story has a structure to it. The first half of Jacob’s journey into exile was a steady, step by step descent into the valley of death and slavery. The second half has been a steady climb back up into life and freedom on the other side. Each step upward has mirrored each step downward, so that now we are able to pause, and look back across the valley, and realize that each crisis Jacob walked into on the way down is being resolved on the way back up.
And so now Jacob has travelled full circle: 20 years ago he passed through the gateway of God’s land into exile.
Here he is, returning from exile, approaching the gateway. When he left, he had nothing. Now he has four wives, twelve children, large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys. God has certainly been with him!
…but: does this guarantee that God is going to allow him to re-enter?
Well, Jacob thinks so: he went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And  when Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim — which means “Two Camps”.
Twenty years ago, Jacob camped in some random place — only to discover he had actually camped right at the foot of the angels’ stairway to heaven.
Now, here, again, he has camped in some random place — only to discover that he has actually camped right in the middle of where God’s angels are camped!
But what does this mean?
Well, God is letting Jacob know that he is now approaching the gateway back into the land. Angels had met him on the way out back in Chapter 28; now angels are meeting him again on the way back in.
This army of angels is a bit like an honour guard, sent by God to meet Jacob and carrry him safely across the border.
And Jacob has received that message loud and clear. He is not just one physical camp, his numbers have now been doubled: he is now Mahanaim, Two Camps.
Which means that now it is time to reach out and discover if Esau still wants to murder him:  Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom —
— which is actually in the south, outside of Abraham’s land.
 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now.  I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes…?’”
But  when the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We have good news and bad news. Good news: your brother is very eager to meet you. Bad news: he is also bringing four hundred of his best friends to meet you…”
So  in great fear and distress Jacob divides everything into two groups.  He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.”
And this is where we ask, “Why is Jacob so afraid?” Isn’t he ”Two Camps” now? Surely God’s army of angels should be able to beat any number of human warriors?
But it would take immense self-discipline to just stand still and trust God when a physical army is sweeping down on you, don’t you think?
So I think we can be a bit sympathetic to Jacob here.
Besides, after his initial, instinctive attempt to use military strategy to save at least 50% of his people, Jacob realizes that he doesn’t want to lose any of his people.
And this is when he remembers to pray: “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’  I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but here I am back again, and now I have become two camps.  Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.  But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”
Just like we often do, Jacob is saying, “Father, I do believe! — help me overcome my unbelief.” There is no point in lying to God: he knows our weaknesses, so we might as just admit them right up front and ask for help.
So, after praying, after calming down a bit, Jacob rethinks his earlier strategy. He brings his camp back together, and settles down for the night. And from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau:  two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams,  thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.
This is a fortune!
 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”  He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘What’s all this?’  then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau…’”  He also instructed the second, the third and all the others to say the same thing, for he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”
Now, this is interesting. Because at first it seems like this is just typical Jacob: the classic politician who is hoping to buy his way out of trouble.
But that is not actually a correct interpretation of what Jacob is doing here:
It is not as clear to us in English as it would be in Hebrew, but Moses is using religious language in this paragraph. The word he uses for “gifts” is actually the word for “offerings”. The word he uses for “pacify” is actually the word for “atonement”. The word he uses for “receive” is actually the word for “accept”, as in: to forgive.
So in verse 19, Jacob is really thinking, “I will atone for my sins against Esau with these offerings I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will accept me and forgive me.”
Jacob is not trying to pay Esau off. He is trying to pay Esau back.
Jacob is trying to show his brother that he is sorry for his sins, and that in his repentance he wants to give back everything he can and do his best to make things right.
So this is a good thing: Jacob has decided not to trust in military strategy, but he has also decided not to trust in political strategy. Instead, he has decided to put his trust in honesty and humility and repentance. He is asking his brother to forgive him — and now all he can do is wait to find out if Esau will forgive him or not.
 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
But still, it seems, Jacob is a bit anxious, so instead of just tossing and turning all night he decides to use the cool evening hours to do something productive: he got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
Now, the Jabbock river flows southward and eventually feeds into the Jordan river. So we are supposed to understand that Jacob is actually crossing the border now, back into his homeland. He has sent his family and everything he owns ahead of him, through the gateway, into the land that is also God’s house.
And then, for some reason, Jacob stays back, by himself.
Some interpreters have suggested that this was a coward’s move: to send everyone ahead of him so that even if everything goes wrong he would have a chance to save himself…
…maybe. But that sounds more like the Jacob of 20 years ago. That does not sound much like the Jacob who is ready to take responsibility for his sins.
More likely, Jacob knows that his family is safe. In those days it was very unusual and very risky for an army to attack at night: sunrise was usually the preferred time. So Jacob knows he has at least a few hours before Esau makes his move.
But more than that, Jacob has just sent his family ahead of him into God’s land, into God’s house: in Jacob’s mind they have actually never been safer in their entire lives!
So it does not seem likely that Jacob was deliberately sending his family forward into danger.
Most likely the reason Jacob stays back is because, after 20 years in exile, he wants some time alone to pray, to think.
After all: here he is, at the easternmost gateway into God’s land. And just over there, across the river, the angels of God are standing guard. And Jacob has to remember, in this moment — and Moses wants us to remember, in this moment — another eastern gateway, with angels standing guard, their swords flashing back and forth to kill anyone who tries to enter in an unworthy manner, by force or by trickery.
So this is a momentous moment, not to be taken lightly! Jacob is about to symbolically re-enter the garden of Eden. He is about to re-enter the nation-sized temple of God. And this is a man who has learned through 20 long, painful years that he does not deserve to enter God’s presence, he does not deserve to stand boldly before God, as a prince is permitted to stand before his father the king.
And so Jacob has sent his atoning sacrifices ahead of him; he has sent his family ahead of him; he has sent all his possessions ahead of him as a sacrifice of atonement to his brother — and to God.
And still he hangs back. Because: has he given enough?
God has told him, several times, “I am with you. I will bring you back into this land. I will make you into a great nation.” And Jacob believes! — but now, this moment is the moment of truth. In the morning he is going to step out, cross the river, pass beneath the swords of the angels, confront his brother’s army…and he may not survive the experience. He knows that God could allow his angels to strike him down, he knows that God could just stand back and allow Esau to strike him down, and Jacob knows that God would be perfectly justified in doing this! Jacob knows he deserves death.
The only thing that stands between Jacob and judgement right now is God’s Word, God’s promise.
And Jacob has to decide if God’s Word is enough to risk his life upon.
So in verse 24 we are told that Jacob was left alone there beside the river —
— and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
Well, okay. Let’s keep going and see what happens next:
 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
But still, despite the agony, Jacob still does not give up.
And so  the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Now Jacob must know something we don’t. Because, in the bible, it is the greater person who blesses the lesser person. So by asking for a blessing, Jacob is acknowledging that this stranger is greater than he is — even though, somehow, Jacob has managed to wrestle him to a standstill.
What does Jacob know? What has Jacob figured out about this man?
Well, Jacob stayed back to wrestle in prayer with God, and to wrestle with his own faith. He knows he is right there, at the threshold of God’s temple, and he knows this holy place is filled with angelic guardians. And so, apparently, when this strange man showed up in the middle of the night, challenged him, and attacked him, Jacob knew at once that this was one of God’s angelic guardians, and he knew that he was literally fighting for his life.
So he fought. He fought with all his strength against this supernatural being, and clearly this supernatural being graciously lowered himself to a human level in order to give Jacob a fighting chance.
But now, even though the fight is over, and the angel is apparently willing to leave Jacob wounded but alive — even now, Jacob will not let go. He is beaten, but he will not admit defeat. He holds on, and he asks for a blessing.
Because Jacob does not just want to survive. He wants to cross the river. He wants to enter God’s land and rejoin his family. And if this man is one of the angelic guardians, then he could potentially give Jacob a pass, a passport, a visa: permission to enter God’s presence safely.
So the man says, “Let me go, for it is daybreak,” because he is a supernatural being. He contains some meaure of God’s glory, and it would be dangerous for Jacob — an unholy creature — to see his face clearly.
But Jacob basically answers, “I don’t care. I am going to hold on to you until the sun rises and I die from seeing your face — or until you decide to save my life by blessing me so that I can let you go and then cross the river safely.”
 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
Which makes us wonder: why doesn’t this supernatural being know Jacob’s name?
Well, actually, he does know Jacob’s name. But he wants to make sure that Jacob knows Jacob’s name.
And that’s when we say, “What? That’s stupid!”
But not when we remember what Jacob’s name means. It means “grasper”. Cheater. One Who Reaches Out and Takes. And Jacob lived up to his name for many years: he has caused untold grief for his father, his mother, his brother, his wives, and there is really no way to go back and make everything right. No matter how deeply he repents, no matter how much he pays back, he cannot undo the damage he has done.
In other words, the man is not really asking if Jacob knows his own name, he is asking if Jacob knows what his own name really means, and how it has affected the people around him. He wants to hear Jacob say his name out loud, so that Jacob can hear himself say his name out loud, and admit to who he really is, who he really has been.
The man wants to hear Jacob confess with his own mouth that he is not holy enough to cross the river and enter God’s presence. The man wants to know if Jacob knows that he is not holy enough.
So, he says, “What was your name again?”
And Jacob has to admit, “My name is Jacob…
“My name is Grasper. My name is Cheater.”
And with that, the war is over. Jacob has lost.
Because even he knows that no liar, no cheater, no grasper, can ever pass through the gates of God’s garden without being cut down and destroyed. Jacob knows he has changed a lot during his years away, but he also knows he has not changed enough. He is not holy enough. He does not deserve to come home to his Father’s house.
But  then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
And with that, the war is over — and Jacob has won.
With one word, with one stroke of the pen, his identity has been changed. He is no longer a liar, a cheater, a grasper. He has now been declared holy. He is now Israel, which means “May God Struggle”. Jacob has spent his life struggling against God and against everyone else. But all this time God has been struggling for Jacob, struggling to bring him safely home.
So this new name is Jacob’s passport through the gates.
But still, Jacob wants to be sure. In verse 29 he says, “Please tell me your name.”
When he approaches the immigration counter, he wants to be able to say, “It’s okay, I have a visa, see? It was stamped by your colleague back there, Jeff the Angel.”
But the man replied, “Why do you ask my name?
“You don’t need my name: you already know who I am.”
Then he blessed him there.
And in that moment Jacob realized that he had not been wrestling with one of the king’s angelic guardians, he had been wrestling with the King himself.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
And so, as the sun rises, Jacob crosses the river safely, and climbs up out of the valley on the other side. The gates of paradise opened, and he walked through.
But even as he went, we are told, he walked with a limp because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
And this seems like a strange way for Moses to end such a momentous episode!
I mean: come on! Jacob has been transformed! Made holy! He enters into God’s land after 20 years away! — and the moral of the story is…this is why we don’t eat a certain part of the sheep?
This does need some explaining:
See, back in verse 25 we were told that God touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched. Now, this word “hip” is actually the same word that was translated “thigh” back in Chapter 24, when Abraham made his senior servant swear an oath by saying, “Put your hand under my thigh.”
And as we discussed then — during the Q&A after the sermon, I think — that word “thigh” was actually a discreet way of describing Abraham’s loins…the center of his reproductive power, shall we say.
And this made sense, because Abraham was sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac: the future reproductive destiny of the family was at stake, so the symbol of the oath was a reproductive symbol.
In the same way, here, it is the “socket” of Jacob’s ”thigh” that God “touches” so that it is wrenched.
Basically, God struck Jacob in the center of his reproductive power, shall we say.
And every man here is thinking, “That was a dirty trick!”
But it was not a trick. Nor was it simply a clever wrestling move. God was actually giving Jacob a particular message in a form that Jacob could understand. By damaging Jacob in this way, God was commenting on the future reproductive destiny of Jacob’s family. He was sending the message that the future of Jacob’s family is entirely in his hands. Just like Jacob — just like the man Israel — the entire nation of Israel lives and dies by God’s grace.
And this was such an important message that, apparently, Jacob instituted this tradition in his family that at every meal they would make sure not to eat the animal’s…you know. And this tradition was meant to stand as a reminder of God’s grace all the way down through the generations to Moses’ time and beyond.
So, now we come to the point where we have to ask: what does this mean? What was Moses trying to teach the ancient people of Israel? And what does God want to teach us?
Well, in terms of meaning, we have already seen how this episode closes the circle: Jacob sinned against his family, he was driven out of the land, he lived through 20 years of exile in the east, and then he was brought back and cleansed, made holy. From this point on there is only one thing left for him to do: reconcile with the family he betrayed.
Which we will get to next week.
But when we zoom out and summarize Jacob’s whole life like that, we realize that this episode here is actually a summary of Jacob’s life:
Several times over the last few weeks we have noticed that Jacob’s exile in the east has resembled a steady descent into the valley of death, and his redemption a steady climb back up out of the darkness.
Well, the Jabbok river, as it drops down out of the hill country of Gilead, flows through a deep, winding valley. That night, when Jacob got up to send his family and all his possessions ahead of him, they would have had to climb carefully down into the valley, and cross the river, and then climb carefully up to the high ground on the other side. And as Jacob remained behind, alone, buried in the depths of that valley, hemmed in by the black bulk of the mountains on every side, he would have had nowhere to look but up at the stars. And it was there, through the darkest hours of the night that God came and wrestled with him, wrestled for him, and raised him up to new life as the sun rose again in the morning.
And that was Good News for Jacob, of course.
But what was Moses trying to teach his people — the ancient people of Israel — when he first wrote this?
Well, the people of Israel, as they listened to this history of their ancestors, would have seen their own story, their own lives, shadowed here in the life of Jacob:
Just as Jacob had lived in his uncle’s house for 20 years, so also they had lived in Egypt for more than 400.
Just as Jacob had led his family across the Euphrates river, out of their slavery in the lands of the east, so also Moses had led his people across the Red Sea, out of their slavery in Egypt.
Just as Rachel had plundered her father’s house, finally being repaid for the years of abuse she had suffered there, so also the people of Israel had plundered the Egyptians when they left.
Just as Laban had chased after Jacob and then condemned himself to death, so also Pharaoh had chased after Moses and then condemned himself to death.
Just as God had met Jacob in the wilderness by sending his armies of angels out to escort him home, so also God had met Israel in the wilderness at Mount Sinai.
And just as Jacob had stood there at the river’s edge, looking across the border into the land that was meant to be his inheritance, so also the nation of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan, looking into the land — and wondering if they were holy enough to enter without being struck down.
And that has been the central question of Genesis ever since Adam and Eve were first driven out of the garden: how can we ever truly return to life in our Father’s presence, now that we have been defiled and made unholy by our years in exile?
And that is the question the people of Israel were asking. They knew they were seriously messed up after 400 years of slavery in a land of idols and serpents and death and deception and abuse…
— now I realize that many of us today might object and say, “Hold on, it was not their fault they were messed up. Are you saying God would count that against them? That doesn’t seem fair!”
And if you are thinking this, then you are right: it is not fair. It is not fair when big brother pushes little brother into the mud, and then mom does not let little brother back into the house. It’s not fair, but the reality is that the little brother really is ”messed up“ by the mud, and if he came in he would mess up the house also.
And those among us who have experienced abuse know that this is what abuse does to a person. You did not deserve what happened to you, but the damage is real, and we feel that kind of damage in our souls as a kind of self-devouring darkness that cuts us off from God.
Simply speaking: slavery defiles the human spirit. And it does not actually matter whether we enslaved ourselves through our own foolishness, or whether we were enslaved by others who were stronger than us, the result is the same: we are defiled.
So: what is the answer to this question? How can a people messed up by generations of slavery ever re-enter God’s presence?
Well, Moses’ answer in this episode was this: just like Jacob, you need to be made holy! That is the only way a defiled people may re-enter into their Father’s house: they must be made clean.
Well, the religious language that Moses uses in this episode gives us a clue: Jacob knew that there can be no forgiveness, no cleansing, no holiness, without sacrifices of atonement. The abuses we have suffered and the abuses we have committed must be paid for somehow.
Now, at the beginning of Jacob’s exile, he had thought 10% was an appropriate amount. But when the moment actually arrived, when Jacob saw the angels and realized that this was actually a matter of life and death, then he realized that true atonement was actually going to cost him everything. He send all his possessions ahead of himself into the land.
And the fact that he did send everything ahead of himself, into God’s hands, proved that Jacob truly was repentant. He was willing to give up everything if that is what it would cost to go back and undo all the damage he had done in leaving.
Well, in the same way, Moses had set up a system of atoning sacrifices for the people of Israel. By sending their sacrifices ahead of themselves into the tabernacle — into the temple — God’s people could be made holy, holy enough to enter their Father’s presence and worship him without fear of being struck down in the gateway, holy enough to cross the Jordan River and claim their inheritance.
But this just leads us to another question: is this enough?
Were the sacrifices peformed at God’s temple enough to make God’s people holy and save them from death?
And Moses’ answer is: no, these sacrfices are not enough. The people of Israel were required by law to sacrifice 10%; Jacob sacrificed 100%! — but still this was not enough.
See, God was not actually interested in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. He does not actually want our stuff — which all belongs to him anyway! — what God really wants is us. His children. He wants a restored relationship with his children. And the only way this can happen is if his children have repentant hearts, hearts that see the damage they have done and at least desire not to do more damage.
What God really wants is total repentance. That is why he descended into the darkness of that midnight valley to wrestle with Jacob: because he knew that the only way to bring Jacob to full repentance, the only way to make Jacob truly holy, was by touching him directly, speaking to him directly, and giving him a new name, a new heart.
Moses wanted his people to understand that their system of sacrifices did not actually make them holy in any fundamental way. Those sacrifices were part of a larger system designed to be evidence of the worshiper’s repentant heart, and they were designed to prove the point that only God has the power to make a person holy. Sacrifice alone cannot not make a person holy, even if they give up everything they have! Onle God’s Word — only God’s declaration — can do that.
And that system of sacrifices was also designed to give God’s people a preview of what it would look like when God himself finally descended into the valley of death to make his people holy.
And this is what we are meant to see here as well: Jacob is a preview of the Messiah who was to come, the Son of Eve that God promised to send from the very beginning, the man who was destined to lead God’s children back into the garden of God’s presence. In fact, Jacob’s new name, Israel, was actually a prayer for that Messiah to come: “May God struggle.” May God come and fight for his people! May God come and redeem them from death and defilement!
And God answered that prayer: he sent his own Son to be the promised Messiah. Just as he did on that dark night beside the Jabbock river, Jesus came and took on human form and spent his life wrestling with his people and with his Heavenly Father. He became the mediator, the negotiator, the connecting point between earth and heaven, between mankind and God. And he won! — but just like Jacob, he won by losing.
Just like Jacob, Jesus died in that dark valley. He crossed the river, he approached the gates, he confronted the angels, and he let the sword of his Father’s judgement strike him down in atoning sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. Just like Jacob, Jesus gave away everything he had earned in life, and then he gave away his life — trusting that his Father would give it back to him, along with a new name.
And that is exactly what happened on that Sunday morning in Jerusalem 2000 years ago: as the sun rose above him, so did Jesus. And the bible tells us that, because he was obedient, because he sacrificed everything, therefore God gave him a new name, the name that is above every name, the name of God himself: the LORD.
And interestingly enough, just like Jacob, Jesus carried the wounds of his victory with him. Jacob was limping as he climbed up out of that valley into his inheritance; Jesus was pierced: he had the marks of his cruxifixion in his hands and feet and side. And this, too, is symbolic. Just as Jacob’s damage was a mark of how his whole family was saved through his suffering, so also the marks on Jesus’ body are an eternal reminder that when he rose up out of the grave into the light of day, he carried all of his people with him also.
So practically speaking, now: what is our application? What are we supposed to do with this information?
Well, if you are here today, and you are not a Christian…do you ever find yourself haunted by certain questions? Do you ever find yourself sometimes lying awake in the night, staring backwards into the darkness of your past, ashamed of certain things that you have done, certain things that were done to you?
If you do sometimes experience these things, then this could mean that God himself is wrestling with you, wrestling for you. And if that is the case, then this is your application, this is what you should do: surrender quickly! Stop trying to set yourself free from slavery and death, because it is just not going to work. You cannot set yourself free from yourself! Instead, cling to Jesus. Pray right now. Just say what Jacob said: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
If you do this, he will answer. He will carry you through the river, he will sprinkle you with clean water, he will change your name and your heart, he will raise you up to new life on the other side. That is our Saviour’s promise to you.
Now, if you are here today and you are already baptized into Christ, then this is what we are supposed to do: live our new lives! We used to be dead in sin, slaves to our own appetites, slaves to those who are stronger than us — but no more. In the words of Paul, in the New Testament: we have been raised with Christ. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body…Rather, offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Like Jacob, and like Jesus, we are called to sacrifice our lives to God…but we do not do this in order to pay for God’s blessings, we do this because we already have God’s blessings.
Now, if you have been a Christian for a while, you know that this is easy to say…a bit harder to do. And the reason it is hard is because we forget that salvation is a free gift from our Father to his children, we forget that — in Christ — there is really truly so such thing as condemnation and judgement, we forget that when we give our lives to him he just gives our lives right back to us, but transformed, made new.
And when we forget all this Good News, then we find ourselves back in that dark valley we left, thinking that God must surely be angry at us, that he must surely be ready to send his angels to chop our heads if we do not start to behave properly…!
And once we start thinking like this, we generally do one of two things: either we decide to give up and go back out of the valley the other way, away from the guardians and the gate — we give up completely on faith — or we try to pay even more, we become hyper-religious, thinking that we can pay God to accept us.
Which, when we stop to think about it, turns God into a kind of cosmic prostitute: we have to pay him to love us? It’s really a very blasphemous insult, which is why the bible speaks so strongly against legalistic religion.
But anyway —
Clearly it is very important for us to remember the Gospel, to remember the Good News: in Christ, there is no condemnation, only new life!
And, fortunately, our Father has given us tools to help us remember these things, just as he gave ancient Israel a tool to help them remember. They had this tradition: they would avoid eating certain parts of an animal, and this was supposed to remind them that their salvation was in God’s hands, not their own.
Well, we have a similar tradition, and we are doing it right now:
Every week we come together like this and we relive Jacob’s journey through the darkness, Jesus’ journey through the darkness. If you have worshiped with us for a while, you have noticed that we use a pattern in our worship, and this pattern is actually designed to retell the Gospel story.
Every week we begin with a Call to Worship: we are reminded that we have been born again into God’s family.
We read the 10 Commandments or one of the Creeds, which reminds us of who we are as God’s children — and reminds us that we are not very good children yet.
This takes us down into the valley of the shadow of death, where we wrestle with God and with our own sins: this is the section that we call our Worship through Confession.
Then, at the very bottom of that valley, we come to our turning point, where we read God’s Promise of Forgiveness, and are reminded that through Christ we have been raised to new life…and that we paid nothing for it.
After that, with our hearts cleansed and lifted up, we are ready to pray together, to read together, and to listen for our Father’s voice.
Some weeks we eat and drink together. Some weeks we baptise someone new, we help carry someone new across the river.
And all this pattern is designed to remind us every week of the truth, and keep us turning our eyes away from ourselves to Jesus our Saviour.
So, in closing: what do we do in response to our Father’s kindness?
We live our new lives. And we continue to worship together, no matter what happens. Every week we descend together into the darkness, we cross the river, we help each other up the other side. And the more we do this, the more we discover that — really and truly — we have actually already arrived.
So let’s keep on doing that.