A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Sept 27, 2015
Last week, we heard about the birth of Jacob’s father, Isaac. Years and chapters have passed and Jacob is about to meet up with his brother Esau.
Jacob and Esau are twins, although Esau was the elder brother, by a few minutes. Jacob managed to finagle both his brother’s birthright and blessing from their father and the two have been estranged.
Jacob has worked 14 years to earn Rachel and Leah as his wives. He’s multiplied his Father in Law, Laban’s, flocks, making sure he benefited in the process. He’s packed up his wives, children, servants, flocks, and tents and taken off in the dark of night, deciding to strike out on his own and move out of Laban’s shadow.
And to leave Laban, and get where he wants to go, he has to walk through his brother Esau’s land. Esau, the twin whose blessing and birthright he stole is on the other side of the river.
Jacob’s scouts have gone ahead of the party. They return.
“How is it?”, Jacob asks.
“Oh. Very nice. And did we mention we saw Esau. (cough—and he had 400 men with him….) but the weather! It’s delightful!”
So Jacob has sent presents to his brother, in hopes Esau won’t kill him. Jacob has also sent half of his traveling party ahead of him, hoping that if Esau is in a murderous rage, it will work itself out on the advance team and not on him.
Jacob also prays to God. “Don’t let my brother kill me. I know I’m a horrible person. But you promised my offspring would be a blessing to the world, so don’t forget it!”
And then, finally, Jacob sends his beloved wives and children across the river ahead of him. Jacob is left alone.
Esau is waiting for Jacob. On the other side of the river. And Jacob is not exactly sure what to expect.
Will he get what he deserves, which is what he fears?
Or will he receive an unexpected offer of grace?
Whichever it is, Jacob is out of options. He can’t trick his way out of this situation. To get where he wants to go, Jacob has to face the music.
There is no turning back.
And this is where the magic happens.
Jacob has stopped trying to rely on his charm and his bamboozling. The trickster is, we’re told, left alone. Without his family, his belongings which show his status and success, and without his wiles. All is stripped away.
Jacob is left alone, at a moment of crossing over that is much bigger than just fording the river that is down the banks, burbling in the night. And it is here that God meets him to wrestle, to contend, to bless, and to wound.
I’ll confess right now that I don’t get wrestling.
Is it a guy thing?
I don’t greet my friends by tackling them and beating them up. Yet in my house of men, a standard greeting might involve violence. Our life resembles the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, when Calvin would come home from school and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes would greet him at the door like this:
And so Jacob and God wrassle.
Good for them.
Maybe physical struggle was the only way for God and Jacob to work it out.
God, who has promised to be there for Jacob, to bless him as a child of Isaac, a grandson of Abraham, might possibly have been frustrated by Jacob’s duplicity, his insistence on doing it his way and trusting in God’s promise only when he needed rescuing from his mistakes and bad choices.
Is God wrestling Jacob to physically force him to understand what he can’t seem to grasp intellectually? “How many times do I have to tell you, YES, I love you!”
And Jacob, trying to figure out how God could love someone like him, seems to be pushing, testing the limits. “I know you’ve said you’ll make a blessing out of me. But really? Is that possible? I’m a mess. I lie, cheat, steal. Do you really love me?”
And they spend the night, rolling around on the riverbank, neither willing to concede.
Jacob’s persistence, his endurance in the struggle, leads the man to tell him, “let me go”.
Uncle, the man cries.
And then he touches Jacob in the hip, leaving him with a reminder of the struggle.
This struggle between Jacob and God is interesting. Jacob is just who he was born to be. He is a product of his upbringing, learning from his parents how to scheme and finagle. He’s a product of his gifts—a keen mind, a charming personality, a tenacious spirit—allowing him to talk himself into and out of all kinds of trouble and success. The very gifts God has given him seem to drive God nuts—will this guy ever stop?
No God, he won’t. He’s exactly what a son of Isaac and Rebekah, knit together by you, was born to be.
“I won’t let you go until you give me a blessing”, Jacob tells God, as only Jacob would do.
Being a grandson of Abraham and heir to the blessing—not enough.
Stealing his brother Esau’s blessing—not enough.
Jacob demands another blessing.
And God gives him a new name, Israel, to go with his new limp. His original name, Jacob, shares a root with the word “trick”. I wonder if this new name is to try to help Jacob live into a new way of being. While he still is called Jacob as often as he gets called Israel from here on out, we won’t see the same tricks and scheming from him that we saw earlier in his story.
And Jacob, now Israel, watches the sun come up, starts getting acclimated to that pain in his hip, the way it shoots through his body each time he steps, and I wonder if it occurred to him, “what in the world was I thinking?! Why did I decide to fight God?”
Seeing how he lived his life, I suspect that might be my question, not Jacob’s.
Fighting with God was not something I learned as a child in Sunday School, in my Sunday best. I learned to be polite, well mannered, respectful of my elders. Jacob clearly takes fighting God as a matter of course. Fighting God, pushing God to the limits, is what Jacob does. And it gets him a blessing. A new name.
This story reminds me of this quote by the writer Annie Dillard. I think I’ve shared it with you before.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
I realized one of the many differences between me and Jacob (Israel) is that he encountered God, willing to be injured, wearing a crash helmet, and ready to push, and push, and push, until he prevailed.
I am not sure how often we do that.
Jacob certainly didn’t know exactly what would happen when he prayed that impudent little prayer to God, “please don’t let my brother kill me. Remember how you promised me my offspring would be a blessing?”
But when God showed up to wrassle, Jacob didn’t back down.
Are we willing to be injured?
Are we willing to keep asking God questions, pushing the boundary again and again, until God relents?
Until God says, “why are you asking me that?”
Until God leaves us with a limp?
Annie Dillard has us figured out, even if we don’t wear hats to church any more. We forget our God is not a tame God. The Holy Spirit will not be contained and controlled.
If we were wrestling with God, I suspect many of us would have replied, when God first asked us to let him go, “Oh, I’m sorry. My bad. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Had Jacob done that, however, he wouldn’t have gotten the blessing he sought.
He also would still be walking without a limp.
We have to weigh the risks.
Are we willing to struggle for a blessing?
Jacob didn’t know what the blessing would be. It might not have been what he was hoping for. He might not have even appreciated it at the time. But he wasn’t going to let go until he got it.
What are we willing to struggle for?
I hope there is something we, as a congregation, are willing to fight God over.
I hope in our own lives, we can identify where we’re willing to risk injury in the pursuit of a new blessing.
This sermon was difficult for me to work with, because I’m aware many of you know far better than I do, what it looks like to struggle with God.
Walking beside you as you’ve faced diagnoses and health crises, or attempting to offer care as you seek a blessing in the midst of loss, pain, and tragedy, I’ve seen your limping gait, and I’ve seen your blessings.
I hope we can share these stories from our lives, help each other recognize them, even when we’re in the midst of the dark night of the wrestling match of the soul, and learn to call each other by the names we get in the end of the struggle.
May it be so.