Do we know Jacob? Jacob, the disreputable younger brother, the trickster, the thief of blessings and birthrights, the conniver, the manipulator. Jacob, the fugitive, on the run from his brother Esau, on the run from his relative Laban, on the run from God. Jacob, a man of malice, a selfish man, a flawed man. Isn’t it interesting to note that whoever compiled the stories we have about Jacob did not bother to smooth away the rough edges? They did not buff out the blemishes of his story to give us an idealistic and shiny image of a saint. The book of Genesis shows us Jacob as he was. Which makes us believe that Jacob was a real person; in so many ways, he reflects our condition as human beings.
Do we know Jacob? We all know people who harbor malice and evil in their hearts. We know people who are just plain mean. We know people who are tricky and manipulative. We know people who are selfish and think of themselves first. We may even wonder if they give any thought at all to anyone else, let alone God. Odds are that you have someone in mind right now. Do we know Jacob? Sure we do. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, blatantly honest, brutally honest, we must admit that we share in those tendencies. Do we know Jacob? We do if we take time to know ourselves, for we, like Jacob, are flawed.
Yet there is Jacob, on the run from the wrathful Esau. He is fleeing from his older brother, and finds himself alone, in a rocky place. Sleeping there among the stones, he experiences a dream in which God reaffirms the promise made to his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac, extending the promise to Jacob and Jacob’s offspring. In spite of all Jacob’s treachery and deceit, God appears to Jacob and promises him land, innumerable offspring, and protection. Jacob is the heir of the promise.
If God will do that for Jacob, is there anything God won’t do for us?
And God keeps the promise to Jacob, watching over him and guiding him to prosperity. Jacob proves to be a shrewd and dedicated shepherd, working for his relative Laban. Jacob marries and begins a family, eventually producing twelve sons. However, his way is far from easy. In addition to falling victim to Laban’s trickery (getting a taste of his own medicine, some might say), Jacob discovers that prosperity has a tendency to lead to paranoia. Jacob again finds himself on the run, trying to escape relatives he thinks are out to kill him. God tells Jacob to return to his homeland, and he obeys. Yet he also knows that Esau is there, and though 20 years have passed since they have seen each other, Jacob is certain that Esau is still of a mind to kill him.
Again, we see through Jacob that we can never put sufficient distance between our transgressions and us. Jacob must face the consequences for his actions no matter where he goes. So must we. We can never outrun our sin and our mistakes. This Ash Wednesday serves as a reminder that we, like Jacob, must turn back to the path God calls us to follow. We must repent for our wrongdoing and trust in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ to bring us safely through whatever consequences we must face.
Repentance is not an easy endeavor. Pride gets in the way. We think, “I didn’t really do anything wrong.” We think, “Why does everyone else get away with it?” We think repenting will diminish our credibility or our status. We think repentance will humiliate us. It won’t humiliate us. It will humble us. Fear also gets in the way of repentance. We don’t like to face the music. We don’t like to make restitution. We are scared of what might happen, just as Jacob was scared of what Esau might do to avenge his birthright and blessing. This, I believe, was the reason Jacob prayed to the Lord, saying, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant… Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him…”
Sometimes we need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point of repentance, wrestled into submission. As Jacob wrestled with the mysterious man on the bank of the Jabbok, he experienced the type of struggle that we all experience in letting go of sin. There are things – be they material things, relationships, grudges, emotions – which we cling to with such white-knuckled force that they become for us a barrier that keeps us from experiencing a full relationship with God. For some of us, those things function like crutches. For others of us, they are more like prosthetic limbs. Regardless, removing them involves pain. It will leave us marked and scarred. Like Jacob, who limped away from his encounter with God, we discover during the season of Lent that we bear the marks of sin, the marks of repentance, and the marks of forgiveness. As we are marked by ashes, we will hear once again that we finite and frail, destined to become again the dust from which we were formed. As we are marked by ashes, we will remember once again our Savior who bore our infirmities on the cross. As we are marked by ashes, we will affirm our hope in the promise of God’s grace and mercy that leads us to eternal life.
We are like Jacob. We sin. We face consequences. We bear the scars of change. We succumb to fear and to greed, and we heed the voice of God who calls us to repentance. We wrestle to keep control and limp away in humility when we realize control was never ours to begin with. We are like Jacob.
But God is like Esau, “who upon seeing Jacob, ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him…” God offers us forgiveness, and God extends the blessing to us. Believing that – trusting that – let us now observe a holy Lent. Amen.