24C Jacob Wrestling
Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30.
St. Mark’s, October 20, 2019
In the name of our God, who wrestles with us and blesses us. Amen.
Just before my father’s birthday the day before Halloween,, I would always ask him, “What would you like for your birthday?” Every year he gave the same answer, “Peace and quiet.” /I learned at an early age the importance of the basic human need/ to control the chaos around us. We pray that God will bring order to our lives, restore the status quo, let us feel safe and comfortable again. That is how we know God is present and has blessed us, when all is peace and quiet. When our heart stops pounding and we can breathe normally again. We know God’s presence when we no longer are afraid,/// like that sigh of relief we experience when our teenaged children drive the family car late on Saturday night safely back into the driveway. /This viewpoint of knowing God’s presence is appealing, but unfortunately the Bible does not always support this perspective of our relationship with God. Many of God’s greatest blessings take place in total chaos, with people scared out of their wits:/ Mary, listening to an angel’s ambitious plans to plunge her into scandal; Paul, lying on the Damascus Road with his life’s mission wiped out in the dust./ Since we know the ending to these stories, we may forget the wrestling, the sheer terror, the collapse of the known world that accompanied these blessings.///
It has been twenty years since young Jacob ran away from home fleeing Esau’s vow to kill him after he steals his twin brother’s blessing from their father, blind Isaac, with his mother, Rebecca, as an accomplice. Soon afterwards in the wilderness north of Beersheba, our imposter dreams his famous vision of the holy parade between heaven and earth. Jacob names the place Bethel, and our King of Deals cannot resist cutting another one. Speaking to no one in particular, but loud enough for anyone at the top of the ladder to hear, he shouts, “If God will be with me,/ and will keep me in this way that I go,/ and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,/ so that I come again to my father’s house in peace,/ then /the Lord shall be my God.”/ We are so like Jacob, praying the Bethel prayer, listing the conditions for us to be in relationship with God./ We see God like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, answering the petitions of his subjects. But our God and the God of Jacob is not in the business of granting wishes. Our God is in the business of resurrection, of raising the dead, giving people new life./ Have you ever witnessed someone coming to a second life? It is a blessed, painful process. An alcoholic who has lost almost everything has a moment of clarity, seeks help and after many stops and starts, gradually becomes one of the most amazing women helping others in her community./// Doctors’ I Phones cry out “code blue.” You are having a cardiac arrest. Your lips are purple; there is a terrible pounding on your chest. The smell of fear is in the air. Finally, you feel the choked return of your breath, like a drowning person rising up for air./ For many this wrestling with death becomes a life changing event. There are people in our congregation who can validate these stories.// We would rather make this return to a new life like sleeping beauty by candlelight with the smell of tea roses and the cello in background, a soft kiss on the lips and gentle rubbing of our hands and feet until feeling returns. But this is not the way that new life comes. The birth of a baby constantly reminds us that new life is a blessed, painful process, often filled with chaos./
There is nothing wrong with letting God know what we want, but we must not mistake our list for God’s covenant./ God’s covenant is unconditional, not a deal. It is God’s promise to be our God not by consent, but because of love. It is a relationship. Our only choice is whether to believe it; but we are never in charge of the relationship. If we choose to believe in this relationship, we must give up our illusion of control. /
Jacob has been the poster child for the struggle to control. He poaches his brother’s birthright, flees with the stolen goods, picks up a dream along the way, and arrives in Haran, where he meets his deal-making match in Uncle Laban. He also meets the love of his life, cousin Rachel, and serves fourteen year’s hard labor for her hand. /The struggles of domestic life become life changing for Jacob; there is nothing like two wives, two mistresses, and eleven children to extinguish the illusion of control. Jacob changes, but cannot imagine that after over twenty years that Esau has. He fears that the brother he twice robbed will still want to kill him. In a last-minute effort to repay this debt, he sends hundreds of animals ahead of him, moves his family to another camp, and waits alone across the river./ In the darkness he meets what appears to be a new adversary, a muscular angel. They cannot see each other in the moonless night. They fight by feel until the rosy light of early dawn. Just as Jacob seems in control, the “angelic” stranger drops all his weight on Jacob’s leg, and “pops” Jacob’s hip out of joint. But Jacob will not let loose of the angel. He is in extreme pain and crippled but smells the scent of heaven. Then Jacob does what Jacob does best; he makes a deal. “I will not let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.” Locked in each other’s arms, the angel asks, “What is your name?”/ If we really listen, we can hear the echo of the same question, another time when someone else who barely sees Jacob asks his identity. “I am Esau,” he said that previous time. “Jacob,” he answers this time, and the name falls away from him like a snake losing its old skin. He is no longer Jacob, the supplanter. He is Israel, the survivor, the one who strives, who struggles with God. Jacob limps to his reunion with Esau, in whom he sees the face of God for the second time in one day. His exile is over. He is home.///
Let us fast forward to several years and imagine that we are sitting around the campfire with old Jacob and his grandchildren and ask him the question we all want to know. “Why didn’t you let go of the angel when you had your chance?”/
Old Jacob’s eyes brighten as he whispers, “Because that was the most alive I ever felt. I have never seen anything like the light in that face and I could not let go.”
“But Jacob,” we ask, “what about the limp and the hurt leg you have for the rest of your life?”
“Oh my, it indeed hurts, but it goes with the blessing. They are a matched pair. Every time I lean to the right and feel that shooting pain in my thigh, I remember my new name, Israel, the one who strives, who struggles with God.”/
It is the answer to Jacob’s Bethel prayer, not the comfort and safety part, but the “God be with me” part. It is the end of making deals with God, the last act in his struggle for control. /
Of course, this is all a Bible story until we, ourselves, have some new life-changing event like a stranger with the faint scent of heaven on our back wrestling us for all it is worth. When it happens, do not let anyone tell you there is something wrong. Do not let anyone convince you that if it were really God it would not be scary and it certainly would not hurt. Hang on with every part of your mind, body, and spirit, even if it hurts. Insist on a blessing to go with your wound/ and do not let go until you have one. Then, thank God for your new life, LIMP AND ALL, and leaning on your cane slowly make your way home.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Striving With God,” in Gospel Medicine,(Cowley Publications 1995) p. 107-114.