The Jabbok Story

A leopard never changes its spots. You know that saying. You may have experienced the of truth it. People are what they are. But the spots of course are on the outside, are visible. There is more than the visible, more than meets the eye. So here’s another saying:

‘The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about’.

Both sayings could be related to Jacob. The grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah had been barren all her life. But the son that was promised by God, was received by them, from God, in their old age. His name was Isaak and he had two sons, twins Esau and Jacob. Brothers fight, it’s normal. However, in the case of Esau and Jacob, that fighting started, seriously, while they were in their mother’s womb, and the one who was born last, actually continued that fighting, as he tried to grab the heel of his brother, the first born. A last attempt to win, to be born first. But he wasn’t born first and therefore didn’t have the first born right. The name of the child that tried to grab the heel of his brother was Jacob, which in Hebrew means ‘heal-sneak’.

Yet, he managed to get the first born right, by stealing it. Pretending that he was the first born, Esau, Jacob managed to make his old father Isaak believe that he was Esau. So Isaak gave him the blessing that was Esau’s. That is how Jacob got the blessing, through a lie. Characterized by his strong will to get what he wanted, including the blessing, Jacob was used to being in control.

Last week we heard how Jacob had to leave his home, his home in the promised land Canaan. He had to leave his beloved mum, dad and angry brother Esau. A painful parting.

Yet, in the midst of his loneliness, God reached out to Jacob, gave him the assurance of His presence, every step of the difficult way that lay before Jacob, despite of what he had done, despite of what he was: a mummy’s boy, used to being spoilt by her, being allowed to live his life on his terms.

Stealing the first born right, that was what crowned it all.

A leopard never changes its spots. Can God change them?

Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was promised by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars and that they would be a blessing to all the nations. But look at this grandson, this dishonest man. How can he, with his dishonest practices, be a blessing to others?

Well, God had incorporated in His plan, an educational plan for Jacob. That plan shaped Jacob’s way, and, as for his deceit from which his father Isaak and brother Esau suffered, the plan included a taste of Jacob’s own medicine.

Jacob fell in love with the youngest daughter of Laban, Rachel, whom he wanted to marry. But Laban made Jacob work for him first, seven years.

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:20)

However, after the wedding, Jacob realized he had not been given Rachel, by Laban, but Rachel’s older sister Leah.

Surprised why he had been deceived by his father in law, Jacob asked why, to which Laban answered. ‘We don’t give away the younger before the firstborn. Work for Rachel now, and I will give you her’. Another seven years, Jacob had to work, before he was given Rachel.

When God has his educational plan, don’t underestimate it, for it will not fail to serve His purpose. And in His time, God told Jacob to go back to the land Canaan, where he was promised by God a new future. So Jacob returned.

You can imagine, that Jacob was overwhelmed by memories, when the land Canaan came into sight, after all those years.

That’s where we are in today’s first Old Testament reading. Jacob made sure that his family and all his possessions, his wealth, had crossed the water of the Jabbok, first.

Then he is left alone.

Jacob is overwhelmed by his fear, fear to meet Esau. Fear for Esau’s anger, the anger that drove Jacob out of the land, across its borders, years ago.

In the bible we come across a lot of playing with words, with names. In both the name of the river Jabbok and in the name Jacob, you hear the sound ‘abak’ meaning ‘struggle’. And by playing with these two names, the author says to its readers and hearers, ‘Jacob finds himself in a phase of transition. Jacob had to cross the Jabbok, because, symbolically, this water, was filled with all the things inside Jacob. All the things that he needed to face, acknowledge, that he needed to leave behind, before entering into that new future that God had for Him’.

Then, suddenly out of nowhere, ‘someone’ struggled with Jacob. Clearly, this ‘someone’ was involved in Jacob’s crossing, in his transition. This is a wrestling of life and death. Who is this opponent? A river demon? There’s no winner in the sense that we are familiar with. This opponent, in all its mystery, only needed to touch Jacob’s thigh, and it got dislocated. He didn’t need to hit Jacob, didn’t need to strike him. Just touch, the socket of Jacob’s thigh…Whoever this opponent was, this struggle took place in the presence of God. Jacob knows this all too well. The opponent urges Jacob to let him go, but Jacob’s reaction is,

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (Genesis 32:26)

And with saying the name Jacob, all of Jacob’s questionable history came out: the grabbing of his brother’s heel at birth, taking from him his blessing. All the dishonesty, the insistence on a life on his terms, on staying in control, it all came out.

Jacob got the blessing, from the One he was fighting with, but not as Jacob. Not the ‘heel-sneak’ style of Jacob was blessed. A new name, with which Jacob was given a new identity, was given first. Then he was blessed, under the new name Israel, which means, ‘God-Fighter’.

A fundamental change had to happen first, and that change came with 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.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

(Genesis 32:28-29)

Jacob’s opponent refused to give Jacob His Name. Instead, He gave Jacob the blessing.

The Holy One with the ineffable name gives new names. What that means is that He initiates new beginnings, in His time, for His reasons, in His way, as it is said again in our New Testament reading:

and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:17)

Here we have Christ’s promise that perseverance to stay close to Him, takes us to a into His recreation, a new beginning, symbolized by the giving of a new name, about which no one else knows. That tells us that it’s something intimate, just between Him, the Giver and the receiver.

Jacob limps.

The way in which God realized his educational plan with Jacob, included wrestling that didn’t leave Jacob without scars. But what Jacob gained through the wrestling was that Jacob’s fear for Esau was conquered. Only then he was ready to learn  that the Esau he was so dreading to see, was so not the Esau Jacob had in mind. Instead, it was an Esau in whose face Jacob saw God’s forgiveness. That was Jacob’s entering in his new future.

The way in which God goes His way with each one of us, includes battles and, like Jacob, we don’t come out of them without scars. But it is with those scars that we can move on, into a future that is held in God’s Hand, just as Jacob’s was. And so, The Jabbok story is also our story.

Christ’s promise to us, as we have it in our Revelation passage, is rooted in the promise God once spoke to Israel, with which I end,

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,

until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,

    and her salvation as a burning torch.

The nations shall see your righteousness,

    and all the kings your glory,

and you shall be called by a new name

    that the mouth of the LORD will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,

    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

    and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

    and your land Married;

for the LORD delights in you,

    and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

    so shall your sons marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

    so shall your God rejoice over you.

(Isaiah 62:1-5)






A Change Like a Leaf on a Tree

I have heard people say that this year is a wasted year, that it doesn’t count. That would make us all a year younger, which may sound good, but it’s not true.

Moving into Autumn, we have shorter days and longer evenings. Soon we will see leaves changing colours and falling of trees. The moving from one season into the other happens with changes, they happen every year, so we expect them every year. Unlike the changes we have been experiencing since March, due to the pandemic. We never expected to sit in the church like this, two meters apart from each other, while wearing face coverings

But we will experience more, bigger changes in the church, changes of a different nature. Changes in its shape and structure, due to all sorts of factors.

But those are not the changes to which the title of the sermon, ‘A change like a leaf on a tree’, refers to. What it does refer to is the change that Jesus in our New Testament story sees in a man that is about to be his disciple.

A more well known story where an unexpected change is happening is where Jesus calls a little man, named Zaccheus. Zaccheus hid in a fig tree from where he safely, from a distance, could see Jesus, without being seen by Jesus, Zaccheus thought. For when Jesus approached the tree, He stopped and looked up straight into Zaccheus’s eyes, called his name and then said that He wanted to be Zaccheus’s guest.

In our New Testament reading we have another fig tree with a man, Nathanael, but he is not a little man and he doesn’t sit in, but under the tree. Whatever it was he did, it is interrupted by Philip, who finds Nathanael and says,

 “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1: 46)

‘We have found him…’ It sounds as if the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, had been on their mind, as if they had been looking, waiting for Him.

But maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to also say that the One who was found, was Jesus from Nazareth. For Nathanael came from Cana and Cana and Nazareth, they don’t go together. There’s rivalry between the two, Cana looks down on Nazareth. That clarifies Nathanael’s response to Philip: “…Nazareth….are you telling me Philip that anything good from God can came from Nazareth?”

Cynicism. There is a place for cynicism in the bible. John preached about Thomas’s scepticism two weeks ago. And there is one whole bible book that is full of cynicism, the book Ecclesiastes. And here we have it at the point when a group of disciples is being formed, around Jesus. Jesus from Nazareth is being assessed by Nathanael in terms of the rivalry between Cana and Nazareth.

Philip is not put off by Nathanael’s response, and says, ‘Come and see’.

What Nathanael doesn’t realize, when he walks with Philip, is that he is the one who’s being assessed; being looked at, looked through by Jesus. And as soon as Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus says with joy in his voice,

“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)

The name Nathanael means, ‘gift of God’, and by describing Nathanael as He does, Jesus acknowledges that Nathanael is a gift of God to Himself. This clarifies the joy with which Jesus meets Nathanael. He knows, that what He is given in Nathanael, is what the Psalmist says

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2)

Jesus sees Nathanael as he really is. He sees us as we really are, with or without face masks. Nothing, including scepticism, covers up what’s on our mind and in our hearts. God deals with what He sees.

Nathanael is surprised…’How do You know me?’

“Nathanael, before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

And now we have come to the change like a leaf on a tree. For as soon as Jesus says this, Nathanael’s objections and suspicion disappear and words of confession come out of his mouth

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)

If being seen under the fig tree by Jesus is reason for Nathanael’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God, then that is only the beginning. You will see much greater things than what you see now, Nathanael.

Greater things, what are they then? At that point in time Jesus points to their shared knowledge of an episode of the Jacob story.

“….you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)

‘You will see…’Just as Jacob did, when he was fleeing for the consequences of his deceit to his old father Isaak, fleeing because of the consequences of stealing the first born right, the blessing from His brother Esau, that left Esau raging. Jacob had overstepped boundaries with the result that his life was not safe anymore, as his brother Esau said, he was going to kill Jacob.

Leaving his home, his mother Rebecca and father Isaac, and furious brother Esau, Jacob puts himself to sleep, with a stone as support for his head. Jacob is feeling so alone. Alone? What is he seeing? A ladder is put on earth, from heaven. From heaven. Not the other way around. One cannot put a ladder on earth that reaches heaven. It has been tried, when people had this plan to build a tower that would reach heaven. That effort failed as God intervened by confusing the overconfident builders through giving them different languages. Overstepping boundaries has consequences.

Jacob doesn’t only see the ladder but also angels, ascending and descending. Descending they carry God’s comfort. Ascending they take Jacob’s guilt, grief, loneliness. Then God speaks to Jacob,

“I am the LORD, the God of

Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.

For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)

Why does Jesus point to this story? Why does He take Nathanael and the other disciples, and us, back to this ladder; to this connection between heaven and earth, with its angels?

Jesus does so because, now He speaks about Himself. This connection between heaven and earth, that is Jesus Himself. His new disciples were about to learn to see that, from then onwards, the heavens open, with angels descending and ascending, everywhere where Jesus went. True, the way Jesus says it is still a riddle, calling Himself the Son of Man. But what He is saying is that through Him, heaven had come to earth.

Jesus takes his disciples and us back to Jacob’s experience, for His reason. Jacob’s life had completely changed, being a mummy’s boy, he was now having to go a long way, without her running around him to make sure he had everything he needed. But what Jacob saw and heard, gave him strength and courage to go that difficult way, knowing that he wasn’t going anywhere without God.

Neither do we, whatever changes lie ahead. God’s words of assurance of His presence, His comfort, His encouragement, that came to Jacob when he saw the ladder with descending and ascending angels, those words of assurance come to us, words that have become flesh in His Son. The assurance of God’s presence in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as changes continue to happen, small ones, big ones, not one of them will be bigger than the promise of God’s presence with us.