Summary: This is a sermon on the importance of being persistent in prayer, and how God will change your life through prayer.
It had been over twenty years since Jacob had last set foot in his father’s land; twenty years since his flight from his brother’s wrath, twenty years from that blessed encounter with the Lord at Bethel. Now, after two decades, Jacob was coming home.
He had left his home alone, with nothing but his walking stick, and now he was returning a greatly blessed man. Jacob returned with two wives, eleven sons, an abundance of sheep and servants. His time away from home proved successful; and yet Jacob was uncertain of what was to come.
Jacob was uncertain of his future and his safety. When he had left, his brother had threatened to kill him, and Jacob feared that Esau may still follow through on his word. Besides that, there was no telling how powerful Esau had himself become in the last twenty years, he may steal away all of Jacob’s family and possessions, claiming it all as his rightful share. There was no telling what might happen. Jacob’s desperate situation called for a desperate prayer.
Before entering his brother’s land, Jacob prayed for God’s blessing and deliverance. If you stop and analyze Jacob’s prayer, you will find a textbook prayer that people still use today to guide them in their devotions. Some of you may be familiar with the ACTS form of prayer. ACTS is an acronym which stands for: Affirmation, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
The first step of Jacob’s prayer is affirmation. He began his prayer by affirming who God is and what God has done. In verse 9 he prays, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’…” It is not unlike the way we start our prayers today. Take for example the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we pray, we begin by acknowledging to whom we are praying; and we state the character and holiness of the God we worship.
Next is confession. Proclaiming the identity of the God to whom we pray illuminates our own sinfulness. When we declare the holiness of God, we must then confess our transgression. Jacob continues his prayer saying “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown your servant…” Realizing his own nature in the light of God’s glory, Jacob could no longer cover up his life of deception; so he came to God openly and honestly.
Confession leads to Thanksgiving. Realizing that all he had came from the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord, Jacob gave credit where credit was due. “With only my staff,” he says, “I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” The Lord had blessed Jacob, and before he could dare to ask God for more, he must give his thanks.
Finally, Jacob turned to God in supplication. He had set the stage, and now he asked for what he really needed. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, for I fear him…”
It is a textbook prayer, Affirmation, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication; and Jacob even goes one step further. He concludes his prayer reminding God of his promises, making sure that God would follow through. It was a prayer that would make Dale Carnegie proud, there was no way that God could say no to this.
As perfect as his prayer may have been, however, our reading this morning suggests that Jacob still wasn’t sure that God would deliver him. We see him spend the day getting his house in order, sending his sheep and his servants ahead of him to Esau as a peace offering. And as night approached, Jacob still found no peace, so he sent his family across the river so that he could be alone.
What happened next is a story with which we are all very familiar. Genesis tells us that when Jacob had been left alone, “a man wrestled with him until the break of day.” Jacob, it is said, wrestled with God through the night, refusing to let go, even when he had been wounded, holding on until he had received a blessing.
The Hebrew word used here for “wrestle” warrants our attention. It is a seldom used word in the Bible, appearing only three times in the Old Testament. What is fascinating is that it comes from the root word which means “dust.” Quite literally then the word means “to get dusty” or even “to sit in the dirt at someone’s feet.”
Now I know what you are thinking, “Ethan, you’re going off into the Hebrew again,” so let me bring this all back together. Jacob had gone to the Lord in prayer, seeking deliverance and a blessing from God, but he wasn’t sure that his prayers would be answered. He feared for his life, and he knew he could not go forward without the Lord being with him. So Jacob went back to God in prayer, but this time he got down and dirty with God. He wrestled with God, he got in the dust with God, and he would not let go, he would not stop struggling, he would not stop praying, until he got what he came for.