A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost — Genesis 32:22-31
A first-grade Sunday School teacher seated her students in a circle, and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. One by one, each child announced, "I want to be a doctor, like my father," or "I want to be a pilot, like my mother."
All the students in the circle had shared their dreams, when the time came for the most shy and timid boy in the class to speak. He said, "When I grow up, I'm going to be a lion tamer in a circus. I'm going to face those ferocious animals with my whip and chair and make them leap through hoops of fire. They will obey all of my commands."
The stunned silence and looks of disbelief on the teacher and his classmates was followed quickly by his reassuring, "Well, of course, I'll have my mother with me."
God was with Jacob. A few weeks ago we heard God promise to be with Jacob, do you remember? Jacob dreamed of a stairway connecting Earth to Heaven, and in that dream, God drew very near to him and promised to be with him.
Well, perhaps that promise and that encounter seemed like a distant memory to Jacob where we find him in the reading this morning.
Let’s look back over his life, just a bit. Jacob was the younger twin brother of Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob was a usurper, a trickster – and he had managed to trick his brother and his father into getting the birthright and the blessing that should have been Esau’s.
Jacob had fled from Esau’s wrath. He had gone to live with his mother’s people, namely Laban, her brother. Twenty years have passed. Jacob had married Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and now had eleven children by these two women and their maids. But Jacob was not content with all that he had. He had tricked his way into gaining much of what belonged to Laban, to the point that Laban’s sons complained that Jacob had more of their father’s possessions than they had.
Jacob had to go. Suddenly, he was homeless again due in large part to his trickery. But now he had wives and children and servants and huge flocks of animals with him. He set out to return to his homeland, which was now the territory ruled by his brother, Esau. Would 20 years be enough for Esau to cool off?
Do you think Jacob was rushing back for a tender reunion? No, the account shows him hedging his bets, sending messengers ahead to find out what Esau’s reaction to his brother’s return would be.
Jacob receives word that Esau is coming to meet him, and not alone, but with 500 men!
At this point, Jacob decides to send peace offerings ahead. He sends some of his best flocks on ahead with word that these are gifts to Esau. Finally he is left with just his family as they cross into Esau’s territory. As our reading recounts, he ultimately sends his family ahead of him, with “everything that he had.”
The text makes clear, “Jacob was left alone.”
Suddenly it was like it had been 20 years before, when Jacob encountered God in this same desert, homeless and fearful for his life.
In the beginning of this chapter, Jacob makes an impassioned plea to God to remember the promises that God had made to Jacob.
And what happens at this point? Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match.
Now, remember that the origin of his name may imply a wrestling move, grabbing the heel, getting your opponents feet out from under him.
Well, here the heel-grabber is in the fight of his life. He and this strange man wrestle until dawn. Who is this mysterious stranger? An angel, Jacob’s Freudian subconscious, is it God? Regardless of who it is, the two wrestlers come to a draw. And then this man pulls a dirty trick – he cripples Jacob. But does Jacob let go? No way!
Clearly Jacob senses that this is no ordinary man – he demands a blessing from him. Where any of us might be relieved when the man asked to be let go, Jacob refuses. Perhaps he sensed that this man could provide him with something for his impending reunion with Esau.
The man asks Jacob his name. This may seem odd to us, but names were very significant in that ancient middle-eastern culture. Your name provided not only a family link, but it often referred to a trait unique to you. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham. Sarai to Sarah. And we shall soon hear how God’s own name is important. Some scholars have suggested that to know someone’s name was to have some measure of control over them. They were no longer anonymous, their identity was revealed. So here, Jacob, the usurper, the heel-grabber, gets a new name.
Will this mark the beginning of a new era for Jacob? Is his life as a usurper over?
The name he is given is “Israel,” literally “a man who has contended with God.” And the stranger adds, “a man who has contended with God and has prevailed.” Jacob has proven his tenacity and his will to survive. Rather than tricking his opponent for a blessing as he did in the past, here he has won it fair and square. Remember he asks for the blessing after this man has crippled Jacob.
Then Jacob demands to know the name of the man he had been wrestling with. We don’t hear the man’s answer, but we do hear Jacob’s response. Like he had at Bethel, he consecrates this place. Jacob knew that in some way he had encountered God and yet had lived to tell about it.
But Jacob, now Israel, does not leave that encounter the same as when he began to wrestle with this man.
He sets off to meet Esau the next morning, limping.
This encounter with God not only changes Jacob’s name but it more importantly changes his way of getting around in the world. This clever usurper had met his match. He came away with the blessing of his opponent, but he came away with what we might call in today’s parlance, a “career ending injury.”
Why would God do this? This God who had promised to be with Jacob, had promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore, has just wounded Jacob! Now he is vulnerable, and visibly so – Esau would be able to see from a distance that his crafty younger brother was in no shape to wrestle him.
Yes, God had promised to be with Jacob, but had it ever occurred to Jacob that God’s presence might also mean affliction and opposition?
Jacob had had it pretty easy so far in this story. But suddenly he is humbled, crippled, slowed down.
What does Jacob have left as he turns his steps toward this reunion with Esau and possible death? He doesn’t have his possessions anymore. He has sent his family on ahead. And now he doesn’t even have his physical prowess. Jacob is left with no option but to place his absolute trust in God and the promises God had made to him. His schemes can no longer be his first recourse. He won’t be able to grab at Esau’s heel. Not this time! He is humbled – forced to plead for mercy.
In the end, this encounter with God just before his encounter with Esau should have told Jacob, now Israel, that he needed to be reconciled with his brother. Rather than pull a trick, he must ask for mercy. The pain he suddenly finds himself in has transformed not only Jacob, but it has transformed his relationships – with Esau and with God as well.
God had Jacob’s undivided attention wrestling on that desert floor all night, the night before he was to meet his ultimate fate.
Would he approach Esau, whom he had so ruthlessly tricked, with his wits and his cleverness, or with humility and a limp?
Remember that this man, Jacob, now Israel, would become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. An entire nation was waiting to be born in this man. What then might this say to us about how we engage with others, whether it is on an individual and personal basis or in the realms of international diplomacy? Some approach confrontation with a swagger, itching for a fight. Others limp. Should we confront the opponents in our life ready to get the upper hand, to grab for their heel, or should we allow our vulnerability to show? Should we not try to hide our limp? These are remarkably different approaches to human interaction, and will no doubt bring about remarkably different outcomes.
In this encounter with God, Jacob was given yet another glimpse of the character of the God he, once Jacob, now Israel, was serving. As he approached Esau in the distance, if Jacob led with his cleverness and strength, he would have been living out of his old name and identity. But instead, thanks to God’s intervention, Israel was now forced to rely solely on God’s promise as his defense. He began to live into his new name, his new identity and his new purpose, one closer to God’s intentions and closer to God’s own heart.
In the end, the reunion is a peaceful one. Esau, who had every right to be furious with Jacob, greets him with respect. Was it because of the limp? Who knows? Jacob, now Israel, has many more miles to go in the adventure of his life, an adventure that will take him all the way to Egypt. But that story is for another Sunday. Amen.