An Angel’s Embrace

 A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

 Proper 13 – Year A –3 August 2014

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

  The Collect

 Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

One of the least favorite things I had to face in college Phys. Ed. was the wrestling requirement. All freshmen were introduced to a number of challenging sports, including cross-country running, football, soccer, basketball and track. The athletics department promoted the “sound mind in a sound body” ideal while pushing us to engage in a wide variety of activities. Wrestling, the toughest sport of all, was reserved for the cold winter months in Lexington. I had covered wrestling as high school editor, and I had great respect for the grapplers who gave their all every time they hit the mat. But I was not drawn to the sacrificial discipline and strenuous effort that wrestling demanded.

Nevertheless, the curriculum required that I experience the sport, and I complied. My class consisted of thirty or so guys, and we were paired up with opponents who were roughly our size and weight. As luck would have it my wrestling partner was a fellow pledge brother in our fraternity. Neither Bill nor I was really thrilled at the prospect of all that exertion, and so we always looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders as our time came to step onto the mat and assume the wrestlers’ positions. However, our mutual disinterest and feigned boredom did not continue after the coach blew his whistle. We went at each other with severe intensity.

After a grueling, and seemingly unending, period of grappling the clock would wind down to zero. The coach would sound the final whistle, and a great deal of muscle strain, maneuvering, skin-searing holds, and sweaty struggle would end. The daily combat would cease with a stalemate. Neither Bill nor I could ever pin the other, and the points we amassed for various moves always remained equal. So we simply shook hands and laughed and waited for another day on the mat. Victory exceeded our grasp throughout the gray days of winter.

As a test of strength and perseverance wrestling was without equal. I learned a lot about my own mental toughness and physical potential, and I grew to appreciate the virtues of my opponent as well. However, in our case the outcome of the sport was inconclusive. We were too evenly matched. And yet, the memory of the contest and fact that it resulted in a draw no matter how hard we tried to dominate the other, remains with me. Who knew that match would serve as a lens for interpreting a great biblical text in my later life?

Our survey of the Genesis account of the patriarchs of Israel reaches a moment of transforming truth today. The text tells the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with a mysterious nocturnal attacker at the River Jabbok. This was a night terror that was not just a bad dream; the nightmare was real, and whoever the assailant was, he was trying to overcome Jacob with brute strength. He forced Jacob to fight for his life, and that is what he did. The wrestling revealed the kind of power that both men possessed. And that is the focus of God’s word for us this morning.

Jacob was clearly a match for the mysterious individual with whom he had to wrestle throughout that dreadful night. He was known to have almost superhuman strength. Still, the fact that he was not subjugated by the stranger’s might may also indicate that he gained advantage by trickery – which would be consistent with Jacob’s character. He was innately a trickster and a fierce wrestler. Not only did he do battle with his twin brother Esau in the womb, but he also grabbed hold of Esau’s heel as exited the birth canal first. Jacob always wanted to win, and it was obvious that he was hard to shake, a man whose wits and physical strength was a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout his life Jacob had sought to gain unfair advantage. He cheated Esau out of his birthright. He deceived his elderly, nearly blind father Isaac, and tricked him into giving him the paternal blessing reserved for the firstborn. And when he himself had been the victim of trickery in the service of his uncle Laban, he figured out ways to build up a fortune in sheep and goats at Laban’s expense. He even influenced his wife Rachel to follow his dubious example as a deceiver. As a crowning bit of self-promotion, Jacob sent his whole household – wives, children, servants, and flocks of sheep and goats – ahead of him across the Jabbok River. This may sound as though he was safeguarding them at the crossing, but there is little to support that. They didn’t need a rear guard because there was no one in pursuit. Laban had declared an uneasy truce with Jacob, allowing him to return to his native land.

The thing to fear lay ahead of Jacob’s entourage. His brother Esau and a large contingent of men were reportedly riding to meet him as he made the trek homeward. This news caused Jacob great concern, and rightly so. He was a cheat and a supplanter, and Esau was his usual victim. It was altogether likely that Esau would be seeking revenge rather than reunion. Thus, Jacob’s sending forth his retinue ahead of him could be seen as using them as human and animal shields in a forthcoming fight.

Needless to say, Jacob had a lot to think about on that night by the river. His deceitful past was shadowy, and his future seemed even dimmer. Guilt and doubt drew a pall over his consciousness. Jacob was anxious about the day ahead; his uncertainty about it was unbearable. He was groping about in the darkness – both literally and figuratively. That’s when he felt the powerful grasp of someone who wrestled him to the ground, and would not let go. The hand-to-hand struggle that ensued was terrifying. Jacob was afraid, but determined. He had the tenacity to contend with the stranger instead of capitulating. That was his choice, to strive with his mighty opponent rather than attempting to run or collapsing like a spineless jellyfish.

The match went on through the night. Jacob’s opponent was formidable, but he did not dominate the struggle. Despite the fact that the other wrestler had enough power to put Jacob’s hip out of joint, he did not pin him and declare victory. Jacob would not let that happen. He was locked in mortal combat, and adamantly refused to let the man go without receiving his blessing. This was a deadlock that would not be decisive, one-way or the other.

As daybreak approached, the stranger tried to call a halt to the struggle. He signaled for Jacob to loosen his hold and let him go, because the sun was about to rise. That was Jacob’s clue that he had been wrestling with more than a man. Mortals live and move in the light of day, but God’s messengers often prefer to come to us by night. He realized that he had an angel in his grasp, and he was more determined that ever to hold on for dear life. Jacob sensed that he had done well to wrestle him to a draw, and he may have thought that he could get a favor granted from the divine being.

Seeing that Jacob would not relent, the angel grunted out a question. He asked, “What is your name?” His query was not for information – an angel of God would already know the identity of one to whom he had been sent. Rather it was to get Jacob to say his name out loud, thereby exposing his identity. Names in the biblical world were regarded as symbols; they revealed the essence of the person to whom they were attached. Jacob answered, identifying himself to his opponent, who was in reality his advocate, the one sent from God to speak a word of grace to him. The angel replied,  “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s “prevailing” lay not in subduing the angel, but in not being subdued by him. His true victory was the change in identity that God bestowed upon him. The new name symbolizes that change. “Jacob” had described him as the “heel-holder” or the “supplanter.” The name “Israel” can be translated as “one who has striven with God,” but other meanings include “triumphs with God” and “prince of God.” In every case, though, the name Israel shows the transformation of Jacob’s character. No longer a cheat and a claim-jumper, he is one whose life is in the presence of God, a life now to be lived for the sake of God. That is a big change. It took a struggle and a blessing to make it a reality.

The text says that Jacob – now known as Israel – sought to learn the angel’s name. He did so in order to get a handle on him, to grab hold of the essence of God, so that he might still get an advantage. But he got no name from the other wrestler. Instead, he got a blessing, which is to say, a transformation. That gift was far better than an advantage. It was a conversion of his heart and mind, so that he could cross the river without guilt or fear, embrace his home and his brother, and experience redemption.

So Jacob arose from dust, and saw that the angel had vanished. He named the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob understood that his transformation was a miraculous gift. He had survived “facetime” with God. That is, he had looked God in the eye, and neither he nor God blinked. That is an amazing revelation. The ancient fear was that anyone who saw God would perish. The glory of God was like a consuming fire; no one could withstand its vaporizing heat.

But Jacob did. For him the face of God was a refiner’s fire. It made him a better man, and the father of the covenant people, Israel. The struggle left him with a reminder, though. He had not emerged unscathed. Jacob limped away from the wrestling match, and across the river Jabbok, because his hip had been damaged. That was his reminder of the night that changed his life. Jacob faced his own demons by facing his angel – the one whose message was the truth, the face of God. The encounter’s travail gave birth to Israel. The blessing was grace sufficient for the rest of his life.

God sends us his messengers in various forms. They come to us, and help us to face the truth, especially when our vision is obscured by the darkness caused by things we have done and left undone. They approach us when we are paralyzed by doubt, or fear, or uncertainty. Sometimes they take hold of us and wrestle us to the mat, and there coax us to reveal who really are, so that we may become the person God means us to be. The angel by the Jabbok River revealed the true power of God. He showed us that it is not coercive; it does not decimate or destroy. The power of God is creative; it is transforming love.

Jacob was changed. And we are all heirs of that transformation.

In the Name of God, whose love will not let us go, let us welcome that embrace and live. Amen.