Note: I preached a version of this sermon on October 16, 2016 (Proper 24C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
In a story, there are few things more satisfying than seeing the bill come due. Than seeing the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. And today, in our story from Genesis, the bill is coming due for Jacob. Jacob from the start of his life has been a grasper. He is the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac, but he shared his mother’s womb with a twin brother: Esau. They battled in the womb, and when they were born, Esau came out first—but Jacob was holding on to his heel.
And Jacob keeps on grasping. He’s a trickster and a schemer. He and his mother connive to get the blessing due to the firstborn—due to Esau—for himself. He succeeds, but when the scheme is uncovered, he has to get out of town right quick. As he travels to the home of his uncle to hide out, the grasper carries with him only his staff and the blessing he inherits from his father and his grandfather. There, serving his uncle, he makes himself wealthy by scheming against his uncle (which is not so bad, his uncle was scheming against him too).
So now he’s on his way home, about to meet his estranged brother for the first time in many years. His brother is coming with 400 men. It sure looks like all this double-dealing is going to come back to haunt Jacob for real. Now Jacob is still a grasper and a schemer; he’s going to play the percentages and look for any angle he can find. So he divides his giant household into two companies, so that if one gets captured and destroyed by Esau the other can escape. And Jacob sends flocks of livestock ahead of him in droves as gifts for Esau, peace offerings, hoping to mollify his anger.
Then, he sends his wives and children ahead of him, and he is left alone at the river. The grasper has empty hands, just as he is facing his greatest danger and his greatest trial.
It’s at this moment that he wrestles with someone, all night long. And the man he wrestles with turns out to be God appearing in human form. God has blessed him on his way, God has promised him greatness, God has been his strength and shield—but now God is battling Jacob. God has been with him through so much, but now God’s patience is ended. The bill is coming due.
This is the heart of today’s story, the heart of its meaning for the life of faith. God wrestles with God’s chosen servants, showing them an angry face, showing them rejection and punishment. We experience this when we despair of God’s forgiveness, or when we go through periods of doubt or spiritual emptiness, when we feel that our burdens are too heavy, the bill is overdue and there’s no way we can cover it.
But here’s the thing: Jacob is the grasper. From his first day to this one, he holds on, and today he is holding on to God. He is facing abandonment and judgment and death and hell and he doesn’t let go.
For Martin Luther, this is what the life of faith is all about. There are times when God seems angry at us, or indifferent to us, when our prayers aren’t answered and our sins oppress us. And for Luther, God wrestles with us, God gives us these attacks of doubt in order to provoke us to hold onto him. Abraham wrestled with God, hoping against hope that God would fulfill his promise of a son with Sarah. Job wrestled with God, demanding an answer and finally getting one. Jesus wrestles with God, saying, “Father let this cup pass,” saying, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
A person who has faith is not someone who experiences no struggles, no guilt, no abandonment. A person who has faith is someone who hangs on to God anyway. A person who has faith holds God to God’s promises.
That’s what Jacob does. He hangs on. God wounds him in his hip, giving him a limp for the rest of his life, but Jacob doesn’t let go. Jacob demands a blessing. And Jacob gets a blessing.
“So [the man] said to him, “What his your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Later, Jacob understands that he has been wrestling with God, that he has seen God face to face and lived.
Now I just want to point out two things more about this story.
The first is the wound. God leaves Jacob with this wound, with a limp. That, too, is faith. Everyone who is on a faith journey is walking with a limp. We may not be able to see it, but it’s there. Everyone has some scars from wrestling with God. Everyone has had to make a choice they didn’t want to make. Everyone has surrendered something to keep holding on to God. I am never more aware of this than when someone shares a story with me of how they have been wounded by the church. It breaks my heart because the church is where you are supposed to be safe and cared for and loved.
And honestly I am in awe of people who have persevered in their faith despite the mistreatment they’ve experienced. It would be so tempting to just let it all go. It would be so tempting to give up. But God’s faithful people demand a blessing. And God gives that blessing.
The second thing I want to point out is Jacob’s new name: Israel. It means, “The one who strives with God.” Striving—wrestling, to keep it simple—is part of the very name of God’s people. Jacob didn’t know he was wrestling with God until after it was over. Maybe it’s that way with us too. But this is what I want to be sure to leave you with today: your wrestling, your striving, your struggling—they matter. They’re real. These are not things you have to hide, not even from yourself. Wresting is part of the deal.
But know this: you can always hold God to God’s promises. God promised to each of you in baptism that he would forgive your sins for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ. God promises to make you part of the body of his Son. God promises to feed you at the altar. God promises the fulness of God’s kingdom, here and now as a shadow, but some day in full daylight. So hold God to God’s promises, until the dark night ends and the day breaks. Amen.