A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (02/08/2020): Jacob Wrestling

Jacob Wrestling
Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Jacob is on his way home with two wives, two concubines, ten sons and a daughter. Coming home with  more livestock than he could count. He is far better off now than when he left. And all of it, everything he possesses, everything that that gives him place and status and security in the world, all of it, he has sent ahead of him across the river that now lies between him and the land of his birth. The river forms a boundary between him and the brother he had cheated and betrayed. That brother is now coming in the other direction accompanied by 400 men. Jacob is more alone and more naked now than at any time since he had left the home of his mother all those years ago. Does he place a rock beneath his head? And as he drifts into sleep does he think of a dream that he had, when he made this journey in haste in the other direction? Does he remember the dream that he had, the dream of a ladder, a staircase, that stretched down from heaven all the way to the earth with the angels travelling up and down it? Does he remember that God seemed so real and so close to him then that he name the place Bethel, the house of God? 
But dreams are passing things. Like dew they evaporate in the morning. Human beings are forgetful creatures, especially when it comes to God. Whatever Jacob thought he knew about heaven and angels and God at breakfast, by lunchtime time had gone. Despite that dream, despite the experience of the divine presence, Jacob has lived for the last 14 years as a practical atheist. For all useful purposes once the river, to whose banks he has now returned, once that river was behind him he has lived without reference to God. Rather than accepting a future that God might be offering him, he has tried to carve out one for himself. He met and fell in love with his uncle’s daughter (that of course makes her his cousin) Rachel, and was determined to have her for himself. But God had other plans, and so did his uncle Laban. The trickster was tricked. On the morning after the wedding feast the night before it was Rachel’s plainer older sister, Leah, that was in his bed! He was given Rachel too. And given the headache of two sisters, two wives at war with another. One sister who he couldn’t or wouldn’t love enough and whose sons hardly compensated for her disappointment in her husband. The other sister who he couldn’t love more but whose lack of sons meant that no amount  of love could compensate her. Until Joseph was born, the son on whom all of Jacob’s hopes now rested, even if still God had other plans. Finally the trickster had returned to his old tricks. Jacob found a way to swindle Laban out of the best of his flocks. And once more he was on the road, back the way he came. Were these the thoughts that crowded his he as lay in the dark on his own?

As he he drifted into sleep was he hoping for another reassuring dream of God’s presence. If he was Jacob is seriously disappointed. There, in the night, he is attacked. Alone and vulnerable he is assaulted. He takes hold of his assailant. It is an invisible foe, a man. And Jacob wrestles. Since before he was born Jacob has struggled. As he grapples does he wonder who this can be? 
Is it Laban? Who has changed his mind and refused to accept the losses that Jacob has inflicted upon him. Is this the consequences of his actions, of 14 years of living without God and trying to make his own future catching up with him? But no! Laban is an old man but this opponent has vigour and power, mixed with cunning and experience. 
Is it Esau then? Is this his brother, his oldest and fiercest opponent, the first victim of Jacob’s trickery? Is the old wound that Jacob is seeking to heal still open and raw with his older brother? But no! Why come now alone in the dark when he has an army? And if it is his brother, why is he not already dead with a tent peg through his head whilst he still slept? 
A demon then? Jacob has no shortage of them. All his life he has been creating demons and running away from them. Have they finally caught up with him in the dark? But no! This adversary is more solid than any demon could be. This in no projection of his mind, this is not his guilt and his anxiety that is assaulting him. This is real and this is other. 
An Angel perhaps? That staircase he once saw, rather than assistance could it also deliver judgement? No! The grip this stranger has on Jacob is more personal, more intimate, this contest means something to the opponent as well. 
As the darkness and the struggle wears on through the hours of the night a growing certainty arises in Jacob. His opponent is God. But he cannot look at him to be sure. It is too dark.  He has him grasped from behind. He has him gripped too close so that Jacob cannot twist his head and remove all doubt. But this is God. God found in the form of a man. The real strange God. The almighty, all powerful, yet vulnerable and weak enough to wrestle all night with a single, frail human being and not prevail. A strange self-denial on the part of God that makes this an almost equal contest.

They say the night is darkest before the dawn, and that life’s difficulties weigh heaviest, just before they are lifted. The man strikes Jacob on the hip. He hits him so hard that the ball is forced right out the socket. An agony, it is a pain so great that Jacob never wants to be reminded of it. Never again will he eat a leg of lamb, so that he doesn’t have to see the ball of the hip joint and be remind of the pain he is in now. This his been a long dark night. And the difficulties of Jacob’s life have mostly been of his own making. But slowly, as surely as day does follow night, the eastern horizon behind them is turning from black to a lightening shade of gray and gradually gaining the thinnest sliver of colour, red and yellow. The man for a moment has the advantage and finally speaks: 
“Let me go for the day is breaking.” 
The advantage still swings to and fro. Jacob grips the man tighter. His grasp had always been his defining characteristic. The man wants to leave and Jacob recognises that he has leverage:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 
Convinced that he does at last have God by the heel Jacob asks for what he longs for most, a blessing. He asks for something to relieve him of all his past, something to tell him that it has all been worthwhile, something to assure him that is now set right and can live at peace with himself and with everyone around him. If Jacob and the man are equal as wrestlers they are no less equal in word play. So now the advantage has swung back to the man, Jacob wants something, and can be gripped and manoeuvred once more. The man evades Jacob’s demand and answers a request with a question: 
“What is your name?” 
Jacob has lived a life that has made the name he was given his own. He was born holding onto his older twin’s heel. “He grasps!” “Jacob,” they exclaimed. And everything he has done since then has been to live up to that name. “Trickster.” “Over-reacher.” “Supplanter.” “Usurper.” Jacob concedes a little and confesses his name: 
The name that he has made his own. The man declares: 
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” 
He is given the name that is his destiny. In this moment is founded the nation that Jacob had been promised he would become, God’s chosen people. They will be the people who will carry forth God’s promise and be a blessing to the whole human race. Typically of Jacob, for he was still the person he had made himself, and emboldened by his new name, he overreaches himself one last time. Still holding onto the man he asks:
“Please tell me you name.” 
Jacob would know for sure. He would remove all doubt and grasp the totality of God for himself. Trust and hope could be replaced by certainty. Yet that too would be an illusion, another dream, that would evaporate with the morning dew just as the first one had. That knowledge of God is simply not available to anyone. Human beings cannot live like that. 
“Why is it that you ask my name?” 
Enquires the man. And then he blessed Jacob. At last, here is a blessing that was his own, not something that belonged to someone else. This is not something that he cheated to receive and stole from the one to whom it rightfully belonged, but his own. This has been given as part of his new destiny and the new life that had to go with it. But now the man must go. If this really is God, does God’s power vanish with the daylight? Is God only God when we cannot see him in the darkness? Must God remain a mystery? The man slips from Jacob’s grasp. Or did Jacob let him go, realising that it is better to live with faith and hope rather than false certainty. In the growing day light he struggles to his feet. One might long to meet God. One might assume that that such an encounter would be warm and reassuring, like a ladder stretching down from heaven to the place where you lie. But Jacob now knows different. Meeting God is strange and terrifying and difficult. And because God is God it takes place on God’s terms, like an assault in the night. But God being the God is there is also a gracious self-denial that doesn’t deny us our freedom. We can still struggle. And we still must doubt and trust. That old dream took place at a location Jacob called “Bethel” the house of God. He knows that in this terrifying, wounding encounter he has been much closer to God. So he calls the place “Peniel” the Face of God. The encounter has marked Jacob forever. He will always walk with a limp. He is a cripple, but a cripple with a blessing and with a destiny.


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