Meditations in Meaning & Values 19. Reaching Potential (1)
Gen 49:1 Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. “Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.
In our human experience we talk about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of.. That is what the world says. And then we come to the Bible and we find God constantly changing people and the sceptic says, “He obviously doesn’t like us as we are,” but the believer says, “He loves us so much He has got something better for us than we have at the moment. To reach potential, the world says work harder, try harder, train harder, but in the spiritual sphere, in God’s kingdom it works very differently.
To understand why it works so differently imagine a young ambitious man. He studies hard and gets two degrees. He gets a great job and takes every opportunity for improvement taking in-house and out-sourced courses. He works all hours of day and night and quickly climbs the latter of success. By his mid-forties he is at the top of the pile, a celebrity success, and everyone applauds him for his achievements, well almost everyone. But consider the rest of his life. He is self-centred and proud. He gets snappy and angry with less than perfect underlings. He drinks too much and by his shape obviously has too many business lunches and if he only knew it was lining up for a heart attack – but he is successful. His wife rarely sees him and when they go on exotic holidays it is like going away with a stranger. He is a stranger to his three kids; we could say a lot more about them but this is about him. He is a success, remember, in the eyes of the world, so much so that he is being talked about as being the next Government appointee for a major public organisation. The only trouble is that Jesus parable of the man building ever bigger barns (Lk 12) is about to come true and his life is about to hang in the balance – but he is a success!
So success can be measured by a variety of different standards, not all of them good. There are two men, one in the Old Testament and one in the New who have always stood out to me. The first is Jacob in the Old Testament. His very name means twister, or grabber, or cheat, and those descriptions sum up what his early life was like. He was a schemer, a plotter, a guy who was always looking to get the good for himself. But he overstepped the mark and ended up having to leave home before his twin brother killed him (Gen 27,28). He took off for a distant land where an uncle lived. On the way he had a dream and saw a ladder and angels ascending to heaven and descending from heaven, and then the Lord promising him all the land of what we now call Canaan.
Jacob’s response is typical: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”. (Gen 28:16-21) First he recognised that he had had a divine encounter. Second, he made a conditional vow. If God looks after me, he can be my God.”
In the years that follow Jacob, living with his scheming uncle, prospers and ends up with four wives and incredibly rich. He determines to return home. On the way home intriguingly he sees angels (Gen 32:1) and then sends messenger ahead to him to say he is coming. In response the messengers return and say that his brother is coming to meet him – accompanied by 400 men! Esau has obviously also prospered or is very influential locally for this number of men to come with him, but why is he coming? Is it to wreak revenge on Jacob? Jacob is fearful and divides his group into two to at least save half of them (Gen 32:7,8). He then prays a remarkable prayer that acknowledges his plight and seeks God’s help (Gen 32:9-12). He then separates out gifts for Esau from each of his herds – goats, camels, cows and donkeys, with big gaps between them. He aims to impress and appease Esau. He is still scheming. He sends his family to a place of safety and is left alone.
It is then that we find the most strange incident in Jacob’s life occurring. A man comes and wrestles with him throughout the night but is not able to get Jacob to surrender. We find the following: “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. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Gen 32:25-30) The man, Jacob comes to realise is God. When Jacob won’t surrender to him God puts his hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go – until God blesses him. God changes his name from twister (Jacob) to father of many (Israel) and then blesses him, but not before He has got Jacob to acknowledge his name, and acknowledge what he is like. The end product of this – Jacob in old age – is an old man relying upon God, honouring his inheritance and prophesying over all his twelve sons. He is now a man of God. He is a mighty patriarch even honoured by the powerful pharaoh of Egypt.
What were the ingredients that changed this man from a scheming twister to a man of God? He met with God, wrestled with God, was made to face his character and live in weakness with a limp for the rest of his life. Every Christian wrestles with the Holy Spirit as an unbeliever until they come to a point of surrender and can then receive God’s salvation – but we have to acknowledge what we are like and what is our need before that cane happen. The life that follows is one where weakness (acknowledging our incapability but God’s capability) opens the way for blessing. We’ll say some more in the next meditation when we consider ‘the other man’.