Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31 for Pentecost +9, August 6, 2017
The same night he 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 that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker was discussing the ancient stories in Genesis. He was so impressed with their brevity. For example the whole story of Cain and Able takes only 15 verses to tell. These stories, he suggested, had been compressed over time, so that only the essential elements remained.
Why do people tell stories? Why do families and communities tell stories, and remember them and hand them down the generations? Well, stories tell us who we are. We especially value stories that tell us how we came to be who we are.
Names and Destinies
We just heard an ancient story from our wisdom tradition, the Hebrew bible, about how the ancient Israelites got their name. Names are not trivial. And when a name has been changed, it is all the more important. Abram, the exalted father, becomes Abraham, the father of a multitude. His name was changed because God’s promise and covenant changed his destiny.
So in this story, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. Jacob is the father of the 12 sons who become the 12 tribes, so this name change affects everyone. It tells everyone who they are.
We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob, and of the Israelites, so this name change affects us too. As Paul says, we Gentile Christians are the Israel of God.
Homecoming, Twenty Years Later
This story begins as a homecoming story. Jacob, whose name, according to the story, means “heel grabber” was the second born twin. But he stole his brother Esau’s birthright, and tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing of the firstborn son. Of course this made Esau mad enough to want to kill him. So Jacob fled to his uncle Laban’s home far away.
Now, twenty years has passed, and he is coming home. Twenty years ago he left home single and destitute. Now he returns with two wives, eleven sons, so far, and great wealth in flocks and herds. He is worried about how his brother will receive him. There could be violence. He makes elaborate preparations including huge gifts by which he hopes to assuage Esau’s wrath.
Tomorrow he will arrive and face his brother. This is the night before. He splits his large household in to two camps, and then goes off to spend the night alone. While he is sleeping he has a dream.
We remember that twenty years ago, as a single man, as he fled from home and from Esau, he had a night dream. He saw a ladder (or ramp) on which angels were ascending and descending. It was a dream about the meeting point between heaven and earth. He heard God promising him a future hope, just as God had promised Abraham and Isaac. He awoke exclaiming,
“Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!”
Now, twenty years later, twenty years of growing up, twenty years of maturing, he has another dream. This one is less clear. It is less black and white. In fact this dream is eerily ambiguous.
The Man Who Wrestles in the Night
What happens? He is alone at night, and the text says,
“a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Who is this man? We do not yet know. He is simply called a man. What does he do? He wrestles with Jacob all night long.
Jacob is wrestling with all kinds of things. He wrestles with his fear about his brother Esau. He no doubt wrestles with his conscience. He wrestles with decisions about his family – how is he going to protect them? He must wrestle with what it will be like to meet his parents; his supportive mother and the father he had deceived.
Perhaps he is wrestling with himself. What does it mean to be called the heel-grabber, the supplanter, the one who grasps and takes what belongs rightfully to another? Certainly he also wrestles about his future.
Everyone of us is wrestling with many things. We wrestle with our past, what we have done. We wrestle with our future, what will become of us. We wrestle with ourselves, with who we are.
We all live somewhere in between the self we wish we were and the self we are. We know ourselves; that we are capable of great generosity, kindness and sacrifice; we are noble. But we are also capable of pettiness and vengeance.
We are people who have suffered, and we are people who have caused suffering. We are complicated; ambiguous; not black or white. We wrestle with these ambiguities.
The Struggle in the Night
In that wrestling match, the man is not able to prevail over Jacob, so he touches his hip and dislocates it. Who is this that can dislocate a hip with a touch? And who would do such a thing?
The man wants to break off the fight. He says,
“Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
Who is this who can dislocate a hip with a touch, but who has to leave before daybreak reveals his identity, and yet cannot break out of Jacob’s hold?
The mysteries pile up. Nothing makes sense. This “man” cannot be a mortal, but neither is he acting like God. We still do not know who Jacob is wrestling with. Jacob does not know.
We never know, do we? All our life we wrestle, we struggle, and we never know – is it just life that we are struggling with? Is it God? If our struggle is with God, is God the cause of our pain? How could God both promise a future, and be the source of injury? It does not make sense.
Jacob senses that whatever is true, this is no ordinary man, so he says,
“I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Another person might have just given up the struggle and let the stranger go. Not Jacob. He is unwilling to let go of the struggle, even when it is painful; even when the struggle itself causes pain. Jacob will not let go.
The man asks Jacob his name – his identity. Jacob tells him: Heel-grabber.
No. This is not all he is. That is his past. That will not be his future. There is more to Jacob than what he was before. So the man says to him,
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Whether or not a Hebrew dictionary would define “Israel” with the definition that the man gave, this is the definition of the story. To be Jacob, is to be a person of the struggle. To be Jacob is then, to be “Israel”; one who struggles with God and humans.
Struggle, with God, and with his life relationships, now defines him, and his descendants. From now on, they are not the Jacobites, the supplanters, they are the Israelites; those who struggle.
Who has the power to make such a radical and complete identity change for Jacob? Jacob demands to know his name, just as Moses would do at the burning bush many years later. But Jacob is not given an answer. Nevertheless, he draws the conclusion that his struggle has been with God. The text says,
“So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Children of the Struggle
This is our spiritual ancestor. We then, are the children of those who struggle with God – a struggle which affects all of our relationships. It is a struggle that entails great ambiguity. It is a struggle that includes pain. But we, like Jacob, or Israel, have been grasped, and we cannot let go.
I was just in Ohio for a family member’s wedding. It was an outdoor wedding on a perfectly beautiful mild summer day. There was great joy. But there were also tears.
One brother was missing from the family. Less than a year ago, the brother of the groom rode his bike across an intersection and was struck and killed. His parents have been wrestling with an enormous amount of pain ever since. So is the rest of the family. Who would not be? And if it were my son who died, how would that struggle not be a struggle with God?
I have struggled with God all my life. How could I not? How could anyone not struggle? How do we read the evidence of our lives? We receive blessings without number. But we also suffer. Like the uncertainty of a man grabbing us in the darkness of night, we wonder how to understand what happens to us. Is God for us or against us? Blessing us or wounding us?
Whatever we conclude, one thing is certain, we have been grasped, and we are people of the struggle. It is in the struggle that we find our identity. It is in the struggle that we find our meaning.
We do not see this in the night, during the struggle, but we can often see it in the morning, looking back. Just as in the morning Jacob concluded he had seen the face of God, so looking back at the many struggles of our lives, we can see the hand of God. We would not be who we are today apart from those struggles, as painful as they were.
God, In the Struggle
This does not mean that God is sending us struggles to test us or to toughen us. That is a view of God that Jesus walked away from. For Jesus, God was Abba, or Father, in the most affectionate way. Not “Father” in a passive, permissive, nor neglectful way, but Father as one who wills the good for us in each moment, and who is there for us in our struggles, in the pain, suffering with us, as good parents do.
Jacob believed he had been blessed, and had seen “the face of God”. Jesus said,
“blessed are the pure in heart; they will see God.”
We do not see God in the night of struggle. But we see God, when we look back, as people who have been grasped by the ultimate, and who understand, with purity of heart, that it is not our grasping egos which have brought us this far, but it has been God, all along. Abba has been with us, and we didn’t know it.
So we can look to the uncertain future with hope. We are not only children of the struggle, we are children of the blessing. We do not know what the morning will bring – it will probably look differently than we can imagine – it always does. But we are people of hope, and therefore people of faith. We are a community of fellow grasped ones, fellow strugglers, and fellow hopeful ones. We are the Israel of God.