A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
September 22, 2019
Last week, you 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. I’m confident that if Jacob could have fled Laban without encountering Esau, he would have. He has not had a change of heart as the story begins. He’s run out of ways to escape the consequences of his past behavior.
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 is there another possibility?
Whichever it is, Jacob is out of options. He has tricked his way through life but 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:
As we say, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then it’s hilarious.
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, in the Hebrew.
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. We don’t hear what that blessing is.
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.
Jacob says he has seen God face to face at the end of our passage, but I’m not sure that’s exactly right. It was dark. The man leaves him after giving him a new name.
Listen to what happens in the next chapter:
But Esau ran to meet Jacob, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, ‘What do you mean by all this company that I met?’ Jacob answered, ‘To find favor with my lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’ Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.’ So he urged him, and Esau took it.
I wonder if Jacob doesn’t fully see God in the face until Esau offers him welcome, grace, forgiveness.
The wrestling with the man, or maybe with his own inner demons, or maybe God—the wrestling is an important part of it too. But I am confident the only way we ever fully see God face to face, the only way we ever really understand what God’s forgiveness and mercy are like, is because of the times we experience forgiveness and mercy from people around us.
And I suspect Esau also saw God’s face more clearly because of the mercy he offered to his brother. Studies have shown that people who receive forgiveness and people who offer it, both have better health outcomes. It’s complicated, of course. Just because we have forgiven someone doesn’t mean we are safe around them, and doesn’t mean they won’t seek advantage. To forgive means we have decided to let God be in charge of the mercy or judgment someone else receives.
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?”
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. I also hope we’re willing to recognize God in the face of the enemies we create, when they meet us and offer mercy.
As I worked on this sermon, I was aware that 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 the forgiveness and mercy we offer each other be what lets someone else see the face of God.
May it be so.