Sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost
We’ve been tracing our way through the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith since late June, and we come this evening to the story that stands as something of a pivotal hinge on which the larger narrative turns: Jacob’s wrestling with God through a long, dark night. Much has transpired since last Sunday’s episode. The notoriously wily but altogether love-struck Jacob had been outwitted by his uncle Laban and tricked into marrying not only his beloved Rachel, but also her older sister Leah. Those arranged marriages cost him seven years of labour each, after which he’d stayed on working for Laban another six years, accumulating sufficient livestock, wealth, and independence to allow him and his growing family to set out toward his home country. Home had been calling him those twenty long years. Remember, when he had first fled from the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob had heard the voice of God in a dream—“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.’” (Gen 28:15) I will bring you back to this land… I will not leave you. And now after twenty years the time has come for Jacob to entrust himself to those promises.
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He has two problems, though. He has accumulated his large flocks of sheep at his uncle Laban’s expense—all through these stories, the two of them seem quite content to keep trying to con and best one another, family ties and loyalties notwithstanding. Laban will be less than happy to see Jacob leave having had the last word in the ongoing con game, and, to be fair, Laban will also be less than pleased to see the departure of his daughters and all those grandchildren. When Jacob does finally pack up his family to depart it is while Laban is out shearing his sheep; a clandestine escape that almost backfires… but after a mad chase, peace is made between the two men and the journey back home continues.
Jacob’s greater problem is Esau. Remember, he’d both cheated Esau out of his status as the firstborn son and stolen their father’s blessing, and it was Esau’s fierce anger that had caused Jacob to flee from home in the first place. How long will Esau harbour this anger? God’s assurance that “I will not leave you” aside, is it even safe to go back home? And so, typical of Jacob’s way of dealing with things, a plan is hatched. “[F]rom what he had with him he took a gift for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.” A serious and substantial gift, in other words, which he divided into a series of groupings, each under the supervision of a different servant. Jacob sent these on ahead, one group at a time, so that as Esau came upon them he’d be increasingly impressed by the largesse of the gift. Maybe he’d set aside his anger and resentment for the sake of all of this wealth; maybe Jacob could buy his brother’s forgiveness…
It is on the eve of Jacob’s meeting Esau face to face that he has this strange experience of being confronted by a shadowy figure with whom he must wrestle through the night. The description in Genesis is brief and matter of fact: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” The shadowy figure is at first described simply as “a man,” for it is only at the end of the story that it will dawn on Jacob just who it is he’s been contending with. And so it continues, “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” This is how Frederick Buechner imagines Jacob’s experience in his novel, The Son of Laughter:
He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, “Let me go.”
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching…
I said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
“Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
He said, “Who are you?”
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair. My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”
“It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
You have wrestled and striven with God and with mortals and you have prevailed; you have not been defeated, Jacob. You have been wrestling for position with others since you were in the womb—occasionally bested, but never entirely defeated. And now you see with whom you have really been wrestling all along; it is with the God who promised to be with you and to keep you always and ever.
Jacob is not defeated, but he is wounded. As Brueggemann observes, “Israel is not formed by success or shrewdness or land, but by an assault from God. Perhaps it is grace, but not the kind usually imagined.” As Flannery O’Connor wrote of St Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse,” the only way to stop Jacob from trying to run his own life by success and shrewdness and the accumulation of flocks and land was to knock his hip permanently out of joint, leaving him to limp through the rest of his life. Limping, but in so many ways more whole than he’d ever been before. No longer Jacob “the heel sneak”, but now Israel, the “God-wrestler.” It is this name that will be given to his heirs, to the nation that will be formed by his descendants.
And that name is part of our core identity, too. As Brueggemann points out, in the gospels “the disciples want thrones, [yet] Jesus counters by asking them about cups, baptisms, and crosses. Like Jacob, they are invited to be persons of faith who prevail, but to do so with a limp.” Though we might prefer to be graced with reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing, sometimes it is in our wrestlings—in our very woundedness—that we find ourselves surprisingly in the presence of the Holy. And why should we think it would be otherwise? How is it that God reconciles the heavens and the earth? In the wounding of God’s very self, on the cross.
“The sun’s rim,” Buechner’s imaginative retelling of the story continues, “was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok. Bands of gold fanned across the sky. I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep at each new step and my head bobbing. It is the way I have walked ever since.” And his first steps will take Jacob to Esau, the brother whose wrath he has been trying to manage and contain with all of those gifts. Yet what does he discover in that meeting? “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen. 33:4) When offered the lavish gift, “Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’” (33:9) “Then Esau said, ‘Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.’” (33:12) There is in the end reconciliation, forgiveness, healing for the brothers, yet it could only come after Jacob had been stopped in his tracks and made to wrestle through the night; wounded, renamed, and blessed. And this time, it is not a stolen blessing.
Consider your own wounds—consider those things with which you limp—and see if there might be a strange kind of night-time grace embedded in those as well. Not that every wound or every affliction or everything with which we struggle is sent upon us by God to teach us something or to serve as some sort of morally mechanistic corrective. No, that’s a kind of heresy. But in that wound—in that very thing that leaves you limping—is there also something of mercy to be discovered? In Paul’s paradoxical phrase, “Power is made perfect in weakness”. As Jesus’ wounds redefined the world, maybe even our own wounds and hurts can be transformed… and transformative. We are, after all, the sons and daughters of Jacob, and should expect no less than a wrestling God.