Sunday, October 10, 2010

Come O Thou Traveler: Bless Me (Wesley Hymns #3)

Genesis 32
Luke 18 (kids)
Psalm 121 (call to worship)

This is quite a story, but to get the full picture we have to know a little more about Jacob than what we have here. Why is he concerned about his brother’s welcome? How did they last part? If he is this afraid, why doesn’t he go back the way he came? It is a fascinating account, worth a whole series of messages, but I will only summarize it here, since we are concerned with a separate series: The Hymns of Charles Wesley.

Jacob and Esau are twins, and Jacob is the youngest. In the womb, he and his brother Esau were wrestling each other. God declared, in conflict with typical practice in the culture, that the older would serve the younger. In the culture, the oldest son received two special considerations. First: The birthright, the right to a double share of the inheritance. Second: The blessing, a special blessing conferred by the father on the oldest that granted him status as head of the family and conferred other blessings as well.

The boys grew up, Jacob as mama’s favorite and Esau as daddy’s boy, Jacob as the farmer and Esau as the hunter. One day, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger and traded a bowl of soup for the birthright. Esau went away angry, angry at his brother and probably angry at himself but, like many folks, he was more comfortable blaming someone else for something he could easily have prevented.

Then, when the father, Isaac, now blind and infirm, became ill, Jacob, with mama’s help, presented himself in Esau’s place and stole the blessing from Esau. Esau declared that he would kill Jacob as soon as their father died, so Jacob left the country and found his mother’s family in another land.

There, he fell in love and married his cousins, the two daughters of Laban, who showed himself to be a match for Jacob in many ways. Things escalated over time – Jacob spent 14 years working for his uncle to pay off the bride price and more time besides – and Jacob fled with his family and livestock back to Palestine. Uncle Laban finally caught up with them, with his sons and armed men, but God appeared to him and prevented him from harming Jacob.

Jacob burned his bridges and there is no going back. But ahead of him is his brother Esau with a welcoming party of 400 armed men. No wonder he sends gifts ahead, divides up his family and livestock, and is left alone to face . . . not Esau, not his demons, but a man who comes to wrestle with him.

COME, O THOU TRAVELER UNKNOWN
by Charles Wesley, selected verses
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay
and wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am,
my misery and sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name,
look on thy hand and read it there.
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
Isaac Watts, the first great English-language hymn writer, died 6 years after this hymn was published (40 years before Charles) and remarked “that single poem, Wrestling Jacob, was worth all the verses he himself had written” (United Methodist Hymnal, #387). Brother John tried to teach this hymn two weeks after Charles’ death but broke down at the lines, “my company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee”.

“Left alone”. We experience it with grief. Jacob experienced in the classic way of the successful American male – successful at work and a failure in relationships. “I’ll be what I am, a solitary man” (Neil Diamond, “Solitary Man”). Jacob and his brother are rivals from the beginning, and mom and dad only participate in the rivalry. He marries sisters and sets up a rivalry. His children develop a destructive rivalry. It’s a family systems nightmare.

He craves his father’s approval, but that is given only to Esau. He gets the blessing, but only by deception, and finds himself still empty, and left alone. The Hebrew word “alone” is used earlier in the book of Genesis, in the story of the creation of the first man and woman. The LORD says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). God created us to connect with love and trust, but Jacob is broken, unable to connect with others.

Do you find yourself unfulfilled in broken relationships? Do you find yourself alone in the world at the exact time when you most need a friend, a partner, a spouse? Perhaps, like Jacob, your family system is broken and you need to do what he did not do – figure out how to be different, transformed. Perhaps, like Jacob, your relationship with God is distant, you are looking to wealth and success (like Jacob) or to a string of relationships to fulfill you. Until you come to terms with the legacy of your family system, until you trust in Jesus to fulfill your deepest needs, you won’t be able to connect with others in love and trust, you will find yourself – over and over – alone.
‘Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue
or touch the hollow of my thigh;
though every sinew be unstrung,
out of my arms thou shalt not fly;
wrestling I will not let thee go
till I thy name, thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain
and murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain:
when I am weak then I am strong,
and when my all of strength shall fail
I shall with the God-man prevail.
God shows up in Jacob’s life, but Jacob does not know how to pray, to worship. Jacob does not know how to be blessed. All he knows how to do is fight. So he fights with God, with this man, wrestling all night.

Ever pick a fight with God? Over unanswered prayers, over undeserved suffering? Just because you’re mad and need to take it out on someone?

“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob” (NRSV), “When the man saw that he could not overpower him” (NIV). The word for “prevail” or “overpower” is a word for raw ability. The man “was not able”. This expression reveals a mystery about God and God’s dealings with people: God will not force us to submit. God will not win over us by power, though God may win us over by love.

At the same time, God knows that Jacob must not win the blessing he craves by force. He has already done that once, and only found himself more empty and alone. If Jacob is to be blessed, he must first be powerless. Only then can this stubborn, hard-headed, fierce competitor know that he has been given a gift. So the man strikes Jacob on the hip, making him limp. Still, Jacob cries out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”.

Jacob triumphs, through his weakness, not his strength. Jacob is blessed, but only after he is broken.
Yield to me now–for I am weak
but confident in self-despair!
Speak to my heart, in blessing speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer:
speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love.

‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! thou diedst for me,
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure Universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move–
thy nature, and thy name is Love.
The Hebrew language is vivid in meaning. The root for “blessed” is also the root for “kneel”, as in, “kneel before the LORD”. So, as I meditate on this story, I imagine Jacob limp, writhing in pain, clutching the man for support, refusing to let him go. I remember mom – Joyce Grimm – breaking her hip this week, and I remember – before we knew her hip was broken – trying to help her stand. And I see this man, who wrestled Jacob, kneel before Jacob to bless him. This God who refuses to force us to submit, this God who refuses to overpower us, has the humility and gentleness to kneel before us and all our brokenness, and to BLESS.

“So he called the name of the place Peniel, for I have seen God face to face and yet my life was spared.” USA Today had a cover article this week in which they report that 21% of Americans think of God as angry, intending to punish them. That’s not the God that Jacob met at Peniel. There’s a possible double meaning to that final phrase. I haven’t found any translations that reflect it, but the phrase “my life was spared” could be translated “my soul was delivered”. Yes, Jacob survived his encounter with God. But this encounter, though it wounded him, also blessed and saved him.

The man who knew nothing but winning and losing, the man who knew nothing but being alone, the man who never knew his father’s approval . . . has finally received the blessing.
My prayer hath power with God; the grace
unspeakable I now receive;
through faith I see thee face to face,
I see thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove–
thy nature, and thy name is Love.
Benediction:
Lame as I am, I take the prey,
hell, earth, and sin with ease overcome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
and as a bounding hart fly home,
through all eternity to prove
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

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