A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 – Year C – 20 October 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
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 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.
– Genesis 32:22-31
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jacob was a cheat. He arrived in this world by cheating, and he proceeded on the path of deceit thereafter. Everybody knew that was the way he was; he was branded with that reputation from day one. And his name fully reflected the sinister nature of his character. Jacob means the “supplanter,” one whose way of life is to manipulate others to get ahead.
You may remember that Jacob grabbed hold of Esau’s heel as his older twin brother was exiting their mother’s womb first. That act of attempted supplanting was only the beginning for Jacob. His jealousy of his ruddy, hairy older brother was based on the firstborn’s birthright – the right of inheritance of all of their father Isaac’s livestock and household. So Jacob plotted to pounce whenever he sensed his brother’s vulnerability. Jacob’s chance came finally when he made a pot of stew that attracted the attention of his brother. He took advantage of Esau’s ravenous hunger by getting him to trade his birthright for a hearty lunch.
Then it got worse. In cahoots with his mother Rebekah, Jacob next deceived his father into endorsing the stolen birthright by posing as his brother Esau. Now old Isaac was blind. So he used his senses of smell and touch to determine the identity of the one in his presence. Jacob was literally and figuratively a young smoothie. He pretended to be Esau by dressing in Esau’s clothing and by covering his hairless upper torso with a woolly sheepskin. He passed Isaac’s inspection by smell and touch, and then he took the deception further by lying in response to his father’s question, “Are you my son Esau?” Jacob’s yes did the trick, and he supplanted Esau when old Isaac gave his blessing to the impostor.
Esau was enraged at his brother’s cheating, and swore to kill him after Isaac died. Jacob took his mother’s advice and fled. His refuge was with his maternal uncle Laban in the land of Haran. Years later, after working for Laban, taking his two daughters as wives, and fathering 11 children by them and their handmaids, Jacob decided it was time to go home and reconcile with his brother Esau. Heading westward with his whole entourage, Jacob sent emissaries ahead to contact his brother. The messengers returned saying that Esau and 400 men were coming to intercept Jacob.
That news terrified the supplanter, who sensed that the jig was up. To soften the coming blow he sent a tribute of sheep and cattle to his approaching brother. Then he sent his wives, maids, servants and remaining livestock ahead of him across the river Jabbok. His last hope, he thought, was to take up the rear guard, and dream of dodging the day of reckoning.
That is where we find him today. Jacob is alone, languishing by the river in the dead of night. He is seized by dread at the prospect of facing the fierce wrath of his brother. There is no doubt that he is guilty of deceiving his helpless father and cheating his brother Esau. In that state of fear and shame Jacob suddenly confronts a mysterious man in the dark.
The two of them wrestle throughout the night. Neither the man nor Jacob could subdue the other. But when the stranger realized that he would not prevail, he touched Jacob’s hip and threw it out of joint, and told him to release him, because the dawn was about to break. However Jacob would not hear of it. He refused to let the man go, saying that he would hold him until he had received the man’s blessing. That may mean that he was beginning to sense the presence of the divine in the shadowy figure. On the other hand, it may simply mean that Jacob wanted something for his efforts.
Meanwhile, locked in this grappling stalemate, the man asked Jacob his name, and he complied, thus revealing his deceptive character to his opponent. When the man heard this, he offered him an unqualified gift, saying, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” This change of his name signified an enormous transformation – one that came through the withering experience of wrestling with the truth.
Jacob, now known as Israel, pressed the man to tell him his name, but the man refused, asking rhetorically, “Why do you want me to tell you my name?” To give him his name would be tantamount to giving the former supplanter his social security number, his debit card with pin number, and his address. It not only would have demystified the mystery man, it would have tempted Jacob to take advantage of him. Neither thing happened. Instead, Jacob got his blessing. This time though, it didn’t require him to cheat, as in the older days. It was a gift from someone who put him to the test and held him to account for himself. There was something transcendent about that man. In him God was present in that wrestling match.
By the light of sunrise Jacob was revealed as a new man. He was one who had contended with God, and had lived to tell of it. Therefore the place where they wrestled was to be known henceforth as Penuel, for it is where tradition says the patriarch met God face to face and lived. Yes, Jacob was alive and well, but he left that place limping. That slight “hitch in his gitalong” was a reminder – not only of his mortality, but of the new lease on life that grace had given him. To face the truth, and wrestle with it, is to grapple with God. The process is painful, but the release from dread, and the transformation to a better self than before, is worth any wound sustained in the bout.
Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth, is about the art of preaching. It opens with a story about Henry Ward Beecher, the famous Protestant clergyman who was preparing to give a lectureship on preaching at the Yale Divinity School in 1872. Beecher had been struggling with what to say on the subject, but to no avail. Buechner depicts him as he stood gazing at himself in a shaving mirror. He looks into his own eyes, and perhaps even into his troubled soul, for a moment. Then he brushes lather onto his visage and picks up his razor. All at once, he has an insight, and exchanges the razor for a pencil and paper to sketch the outline of his lecture. Beecher noted later that he cut himself badly while he continued shaving, thinking out the substance of his remarks.
Buechner himself had the distinction of being asked to deliver his own thoughts in that Yale preaching series two centuries later. He chose to begin his own lectures with that historic image because he wanted to show that telling the truth is about the preacher’s honest encounter with himself and with God. In Henry Ward Beecher’s case, the truth he faced was that, despite his sacred principles, despite his gifts as a pulpiteer, and despite his vows at ordination, he was guilty of betraying all of it by having an affair with a woman in his parish. Absolute truth, which is God’s before it is ours to wrestle with, causes us to wince or to quake when we see it. Thus Buechner comments:
So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves. Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood, and so were all the men who over the years traveled to New Haven after him to deliver the same lectures.
It’s fair to say that all of the major players (both protagonists and antagonists) on the biblical stage had to deal with self-doubt, anxiety, and agony over decision-making. From Moses and pharaoh, kings and prophets, to Pontius Pilate and Jesus, Peter and Paul, the drama of wrestling with circumstances and choices is a familiar part of the Bible story. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, fending off temptations and choosing the way of God rather than taking the demonic path to worldly power. Peter had to move past his three-fold denial of Jesus to become the shepherd of the sheep in the early church. Paul spent time in his own dark blindness as he repented of his violence against Christians and emerged as the apostle to the Gentiles. In short, the personal stories of conversion and renewal after grappling with hard facts, guilty conscience, and shame are proper parts of the biblical narrative. Many, like Jacob, emerge from darkness and move toward the light of God, even though they may have a limp, or a razor cut, to show for their struggle with the man God would have them be.
I have spent more than a few nights wrestling with myself. I am sometimes my own worst enemy, bound by self-criticism and unreasonable expectations. At times in my reverie, I am treading water in the deep end of things, grappling with grief, or with conscience, or with worry about what and how to do what I feel called to do. I am by profession a preacher as well as a pastor and priest. I have the responsibility and privilege of pronouncing the Good News of God from this pulpit. But I am also one of God’s people, one who needs stories such as Jacob’s conversion, stories that point us forward through the valley of the shadows into the homing light of God’s redemption. Buechner’s truth-telling applies to everyone who yearns to hear the Gospel, including preachers. Regarding us all in this way, he said:
They [the audience that had come to hear the truth] also brought their worlds with them and when they looked in their mirrors saw, if not adulteries of the flesh, then adulteries of the spirit. Failures of faith, hope, love, failures of courage. Like Henry Ward Beecher, like all of us, each of them too had bled a little. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), Saint Paul says, which is another way of saying it, or all are human, which is another. We have all cut ourselves. We all labor and are heavy laden under the burden of being human or at least of being on the way, we hope, to being human.
Jacob heard, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” That would make a nice epitaph for everyone. All of us wrestle with the truth – about God and about us. That is a good thing; it is not a life sentence. It is essential that we face ourselves in the mirror, confess that we are works in progress, and that we have feet of clay. Denial only deepens whatever darkness in which we think we are hiding. The truth is that we are not only human, but that God is good, and we are still God’s children. As flawed and fragile as we are, we are not indelibly marked by our mistakes and our misuse of freedom. God loves us and wants us to come home to the place he prepares for us. If Jacob could change after his encounter by the Jabbok, then so can we. Limping toward the light with God’s blessing is far better than lingering in the darkness cursing our wounds.
In the Name of God, who is the resurrection and the life, Amen.