Back when I was a kid in the 70s, I saw these bumper stickers and buttons everywhere. I had them. Our church had them. And we weren’t the only ones. 15,000 churches were doing the same thing. What did the bumper stickers and buttons say? They had just three words. I found it with a big exclamation point. I We put these stickers on our cars, any surface where we thought people could see them. We wore the buttons hoping someone would ask the question. What did you find?
Now it turns out, before this whole campaign finished, over 85% of Americans had seen this slogan. But I gotta tell you. I don’t remember anyone ever asking the question of me. That may have been because I lived in a city known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. In that town, you either had already found it or if you hadn’t, you certainly didn’t admit it.
And I don’t know how much success the campaign had, how many folks found it so to speak. It did spawn other bumper stickers to spoof the message, like “I lost it” or “I wasn’teven looking for it.” So why am I talking about a campaign that ended 40 years ago? Because, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, it was, that slogan pointed to a crucial truth. People are looking to find it. They do want a real encounter with God, one that will change their lives forever.
But what does that encounter really look like? How can you know you’ve actually encountered God; that the creator of reality has reached out to you? Here, in this story of just such an encounter, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
What does a profound spiritual encounter with God look like? Lots of people like to think such an encounter would fill them with peace or serenity, a sort of beautiful warm fuzzy. But does that happen here? No. No warm fuzzies here; just two guys wrestling in the desert. But here God is telling you. That’s how it happens. It happens when you’re alone. It happens when you’re weak. Why? Only then, do you see what you really need, what God alone can give.
Before God shows up here, what happens first? Jacob has to be alone. And Jacob is about as alone as he ever has been. You see. Many years before, Jacob had betrayed his brother, Esau. He had to flee his home in fear that his brother would kill him. Now, he has become a wealthy man, and wants to come home. But he has just learned that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. So what does Jacob do? He tries to bribe him. He pulls together the best of his herds, and sets them up into three groups to go ahead of him. And he tells his servants, “Tell Esau that these are gifts from Jacob.” Then finally, he sends his wife and kids. He figures. If the goats and camels don’t save him, maybe the women and children will. And with all that done, Jacob has no one left but himself. And that’s good, because in that type of aloneness is when God comes.
Each Christmas and Easter, we get a lot of folks who show up here. I’m glad they come. But why don’t they come back? Many times, it’s because they’ve really never met God alone. Their connection to God, it’s sentimental, maybe even emotional, but it’s not yet real, not yet personal.
Or on the other hand, I’ve seen folks who have been going to church every Sunday, even become church leaders. Some even built a political career off their faith. Then it all comes out, the mess that they’ve let their life become behind that shiny religious façade. Christianity might have made them feel good, even superior. They might have liked being part of the group, doing all the churchy stuff. But down deep, where they really lived, it hadn’t gotten real. It hadn’t gotten personal.
There’s an old gospel song that I’ve never really liked. The folk singer, Woody Guthrie, kind of made it famous. It goes like this.
You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yourself. Nobody here can walk it for you. You got to walk it by yourself.
I’ve always thought. Sheesh, that’s such a downer. Why do you have to walk it alone? That’s so well lonely. But after reading this story, I finally got it. When it comes to really meeting God, nobody can do that for you. Your family might start you out. Your church might help you along. Other people may come alongside. But in the end, It’s gotta be just you and God. Only then, does it become real. Only then, does it get personal.
You see up until this moment, Jacob had a sort of transactional relationship with God. God, you help me. I’ll stay loyal to you. For Jacob, this whole God thing has been about business. It had never gotten personal. But now, he is faced with what could be the end of everything for him. And this journey home. It’s opened up some old wounds, some really deep ones.
And in that moment, that’s when God comes. That’s when God shows up. Why? It’s because Jacob is finally alone. He’s vulnerable. He’s open. So what does God do? Does he hug him? Does he put an arm on his shoulder? No. God jumps him. God wrestles him to the ground.
And God doesn’t just do this for a few minutes? No, God and Jacob wrestle all night. Have you ever seen a wrestling match? I’m not talking the WWE. I’m talking the real deal. Do you know how long a match lasts, even in the Olympics? It lasts about six orseven minutes, and that’s with two breaks in between. That’s it. Why? Because wrestling is really hard. It is brutally exhausting. But God and Jacob don’t go wrestle for a few minutes. They wrestle all night long. Why?
Because, to see what you really need, what God alone can give, it’s not enough to be alone. You usually gotta be worn out too. This isn’t the first time, God had shown up in Jacob’s life. He had come decades before, right after Jacob had fled for his life. But Jacob hadn’t gotten it. He wanted what God could give him sure, but God, just God? Not so much.
Too often, when I’ve been in the lonesome valley, all I wanted from God was to get me out. But the reality was, it was only by walking that valley, by walking it until I was worn to the bone, would I be ready for what I really needed, what God alone could give.
And only as day breaks, does Jacob get to that point. Heck, only then, does he get it. He hasn’t just been wrestling some bandit in the dark. Jacob has been wrestling with the creator of the universe. What gives it away? Well, first it’s that whole hip injury. The translation here really doesn’t do what happens here justice. The word here they translated as struck is way too strong. The word actually means touch. Basically, God touched his hip, and ripped the whole thing out of joint. And then God says. I can’t be here when the sun comes up, because (he’s implying), no one can see God’s face, and live.
But what does Jacob do? Beaten, injured, Jacob holds on. You are wrestling with God, and you hold on? That’s a pretty risky move. Why did he do it? He finally gets it. He finally knows what he really needs, what he’s always needed, what every human being needs. He needs a blessing.
What did Jacob do to his brother, Esau after all that was so awful? What caused the rift? You see. Growing up, Jacob knew. His father, Isaac, loved Esau best. Jacob was a momma’s boy. Esau, well Esau, and Isaac, just clicked. Jacob knew it. He knew he didn’t have his father’s love, not the way he yearned for it. And a wound like that, you can carry for a lifetime.
This past week, I was talking to a young woman, whose grandparents raised her for the first 12 years of her life. Her mother had gone to work in another country. Eventually her mother brought her over, but even so, the daughter never felt the love. She told of a time, when her mother served all her siblings food. But then her mother said. You, you go get it yourself. It had been decades since that conversation. And she still carried the wound.
How did Jacob deal with his wound? He did a pretty bizarre thing. Since Esau was the older brother, he would get the lion’s share of the wealth when the father died. But with the wealth, came a special blessing, given to the eldest son. So Jacob figured. Since his dad was blind and pretty deaf, he could trick Isaac into giving Jacob, Esau’s blessing. And his deception worked for like five minutes. But why did he do it? Sure he got the blessing. But it didn’t entitle him to the wealth. In fact, his trick took away whatever wealth he was going to get. And he didn’t just lose that. He lost his family, his home. He almost lost his life. So why did he do it? Because, even if it was for only a few minutes, even if it was under false pretenses, he wanted to hear those words of love, of affection. He wanted a blessing. But even then, it didn’t work. His wound remained.
So he fled to his mom’s cousin, Laban. He fell in love with Laban’s beautiful daughter Rachel. He worked 14 years to win her hand. And he thought. If I get her love, her adoration, her blessing, that will heal my wound. But it didn’t.
And now, alone and worn out, he gets it. Here is the blessing he always needed. Here is the love he yearned for. Here is the love everyone yearns for, to hear the creator of the universe speak love to your hearts, to hear… You are loved. You are loved. And nothing can ever take my love away. Because, everyone has this wound. Everyone wants an unshakeable love, a blessing that nothing can take away. Everyone wants to know in the deepest part of who they are that beneath all the mess: you are beautiful and you are beloved.
Jacob knew he didn’t deserve that love. He had done some pretty awful things. But he yearned for it anyway. He knew that’s what he needed. And God gave it to him. We don’t know what blessing God said. But it changed Jacob’s life forever, so much so, he was never called Jacob again, but Israel, the one who had wrestled with God. And that limp he carried proved it. It reminded him, of how in that wound, God’s love had healed the deepest wound of all.
But not only did Jacob have to become weak to get the blessing, God had to become weak too. After all, do you really think the creator of reality couldn’t win a wrestling match with a 70 year old? So God feigned weakness so that Jacob might finally find the blessing he had needed his whole life. And in that weakness, God points to the weakness that makes us all whole.
For in Jesus, God didn’t just pretend to be weak. No, God became weak, vulnerable even unto death. And where Jacob risked his life, to get the blessing for himself, In Jesus, God gave his life, to get the blessing for us. Jacob was wounded so that his heart might be healed. But in Jesus, God was wounded unto death, so that we might be healed. And why did God become weak and wounded? Why did God hold on, even to death? He held on because he loved you. Because he wanted to bring you home. He wanted you to know. You are loved. You are loved.
Do you know that? Has it become real for you? Has it become personal? If not, make this the day it does.