June 22, 2014 “Wrestling with God” (Genesis 28:10-17, 32:22-32)

Linda Bausserman, preaching

I thought I would venture into the OT today and explore part of Jacob’s story. It covers something over 10 chapters. But today I just want us to focus on the two encounters between Jacob and God. To start, let me just give an over view of his life. Sometimes these OT characters begin to run together or we look at one particular aspect of the story and it’s hard to put it into context in the bigger picture of the person’s life. The story actually starts with Abraham, whom God promised would be the father of a nation with thousands of descendants. Isaac was his son and Jacob and Esau were his grandsons. They were twins and their rivalry began in the womb. Esau was born first and Jacob was born holding on to his heel. Esau grew to be the active, outdoors man and Jacob the quieter son. Both would have grown up hearing the stories of Abraham’s life and of God’s promises to him. Both would have known the importance of their family and the privilege and responsibility of the first born. However, it would appear that Jacob took it all more seriously and understood its significance better than Esau; for Jacob manipulated Esau into giving up his birthright. Esau came in one day exhausted and hungry after hunting. Jacob offered him some stew in exchange for his birthright and Esau agreed after complaining that his birthright didn’t matter since he was dying of hunger anyway. Then, at his mother’s instigation, Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing as well. Esau was furious when he found out and threatened to kill Jacob after Isaac had died. So Jacob was sent off to his uncle until the situation cooled down. He heads out with nothing, frightened for his life and this is where the first scripture which Ken read takes place. God appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him he will be the carrier of the covenant with Abraham and promises to be with him and protect him. Upon awakening the next morning Jacob recognizes that he is on holy ground and dedicates the spot. Then he heads on to his Uncle Laban. There he falls in love with Rachel and agrees to work for Laban 7 years to earn the privilege of marrying her. Laban tricks him (Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine!) and the morning after the wedding Jacob discovers that instead of Rachel he is married to Rachel’s older sister Leah. The nights must have been pretty dark there! He agrees to work another 7 years to marry Rachel. Once they are married he stays on with Laban and both he and Laban prosper. When Rachel finally bears a son (his twelfth) he decides to return home. He and Laban wrangle about the terms of his departure (more trickery and chicanery), but eventually God tells Jacob to leave and he does. On the way back home his fear of Esau returns. He sends forward gifts to Esau and his messengers return saying that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob, feeling guilty, assumes they are coming to kill him. So he separates his party into two groups so that if one is attacked the other can escape. He then sends everyone forward while he remains behind. Again he is alone and frightened in the night desert and this is where the scripture read by Elsa occurs. This time he is visited by God who wrestles with him until dawn. God touches his leg throwing his hip out of joint but Jacob won’t let go until he is given a blessing. He gets a new name, Israel, as well as a blessing and again God’s promise to be with him. The next day he heads home and is greeted enthusiastically by Esau, who apparently holds no grudges. This is a thin sketch of the story. I would encourage you to read it – it is only 10 chapters and includes a beautiful romance as well as lots of intrigue. But for today I want to focus on these two encounters with God which Elsa and Ken read to us.

Now I have to tell you up front that I have had a problem with this story, especially these two encounters. What’s more I don’t have an answer to my questions. So you’re not going to get a sermon today where everything is tied up neat and tidy at the end. And worse, I don’t even feel guilty about it. Hear this quote from Richard Rohr, “The Bible illuminates your human experience through struggling with it. It is an invitation into the struggle itself; you are supposed to be bothered by some of the texts. Human beings come to consciousness by struggle and most especially struggle with God and sacred texts. We remain largely unconscious if we avoid all conflicts, dilemmas, paradoxes, inconsistencies, or contradictions.” And, he says, “The Bible is a book filled with conflicts and paradoxes.” So struggle with me a little. Here’s my question. Jacob leaves home in disgrace, having tricked his brother into giving up his birthright and then deceiving and lying to his father, pretty sleazy behavior. Then he has a dream in which God promises to give him and his descendants the land he is standing on, to be with him, to protect him wherever he goes, and to bring him back to this land. He has clearly done wrong by his brother and father but in his dream there is no accusation, and no judgment. Instead he is encouraged and given promises. This is already puzzling – not what one expects from the Old Testament God of judgment. The encounter on the return trip is quite different and just as puzzling. Jacob has worked for Laban many years, despite being deceived. He seemed to be trying to do his best; but when he nears his homeland and is again frightened and alone in the night, God comes and wrestles him. I’m sorry but it just seems that God got it backwards. When Jacob has done wrong, God is comforting and helpful; but years later, after he has been working hard but is equally in need of comfort, God wrestles him? Leaves him with a limp for the rest of his life? Well, it just didn’t make sense to me. But, since God obviously does not do things backwards, it suggests that maybe I am the one who needs to do some struggling to try to understand what is going on here.

When he left home, Jacob was clearly in need of God’s comfort and encouragement though he certainly didn’t deserve it. He was obviously in the wrong. Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, were ambitious and were pushing against God’s timetable. God had told Rebecca that Jacob would be the more powerful son but Rebecca couldn’t wait or didn’t trust God enough to wait for God to make it happen. Sometimes we have to wait for God’s grace. But when God wills something, it happens. God says in Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Once God makes a promise, it happens. One can see why Jacob is more suited to the birthright and blessing than Esau, who really had no interest in carrying on the covenant. Jacob’s problem is that he resorted to deceit to obtain it. Despite all this, God comes to him in a dream and, after identifying himself as the God of Abraham, he promises to give him the land, to keep him safe and bring him back to the land. God says he will not leave him until all this is accomplished. Jacob realizes the significance of the dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” The next line in the text is “And, he was afraid.” Why was he afraid? He had just been given this wonderful promise. We have talked before about how when one confronts God one sees oneself. I think Jacob saw that what he had done was wrong and felt guilt and fear. So he made a vow saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in the 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, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.” He’s still pretty gutsy, adding specific wants to God’s promise, but he does recognize his indebtedness to God and promises to give back a tithe. Perhaps Jacob needed the encouragement to continue his journey. He was after all young, had probably never been away from home before and was probably lacking in confidence. Or, maybe he needed to know that despite being sent away, he would still be the one to carry out the family destiny. Maybe he needed to be reassured that though he was weak and had failed, his relationship with God was still intact. In any event he proceeded to his Uncle where he stayed until God told him to return. So Jacob had had a continuing relationship with God and was obedient to God’s commands.

When he returns he is a wealthy man. He has two wives and their two handmaids with whom he has fathered 12 sons, who will become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, emotionally he is not far from where he was when he left. He is still guilty and fearful. He divides up his retinue hoping that half of his people, animals and goods can be saved. And then he prays. “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” Jacob is humble in that he admits that he is undeserving but then comes on pretty strong in reminding God what had been promised him. ‘You promised me countless offspring and now I am afraid that my children will all be killed. You told me to come back and said that You will do me good. I have obeyed and returned but now I am afraid.” So he admits his indebtedness and his fears to God and he begs God to make good on his promise. He sends everyone off and again finds himself alone in the night. This time a man wrestles him. Jacob puts up a good fight and the man dislocates his hip. The man tells him to let go but Jacob insists that the man give him a blessing first. He asks Jacobs name and gives him a new name, Israel, which means contends with God or prevails against God. When Jacob asks the man’s name he doesn’t answer but does bless Jacob and Jacob comes to realize that the man is God. Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” It has been suggested that this encounter is to strip Jacob of his pride in his accomplishments. He has been made weak and his limp will be a constant reminder of God’s strength and his dependence on God. It may be that God was displeased that Jacob was frightened even though God had promised a return in peace. Since all the other promises had been kept, Jacob should have trusted that he would return safely. A point has been made about the fact that he didn’t let go even after his hip was dislocated. If he thought he was being wrestled because of his sin, then holding on may have been his way of begging for forgiveness. God told him “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” God told him why his name was changed but he did not tell him, nor us, why he wrestled him in the first place. However, this experience moved Jacob beyond the usual perception of power as wealth or authority over others, to a new spiritual depth and spiritual power, which only comes by encounters with God.

The fact that I don’t fully understand what was going on doesn’t take away from the story for me. I don’t expect always to understand God’s actions. God is way too vast and mysterious for me to try to understand. And, isn’t that what faith is about, following without always understanding everything. That isn’t to say, however, that we shouldn’t study and try to understand. We grow to know God better when we do.

If you look at the shape of this story, does it remind you of a New Testament story? Two sons, the younger leaves for a far country, leaving an angry older brother, and returns many years later. The outline is like the story of the prodigal son. There are obvious differences. Jacob left home with nothing and came back wealthy and the opposite was true of the prodigal son. Also, Esau welcomed Jacob home but the prodigal son’s older brother was still angry although his father welcomed him enthusiastically and lovingly. There are many stories of leaving and returning home. Moses was away living the life of a shepherd for many years before returning to Egypt to free his people. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. This is still a topic of stories today. There is something about getting away for a time that allows us to see our situation, who we are and what our values are more clearly. For Jacob being away was a time of maturing, learning to work for what he got and learning patience.

Another important lesson from this story is that God uses whoever and whatever is needed to get the job done. We often think that a person must be perfect or at least special to be used by God. Since none of us is perfect, isn’t it a good thing that God is willing to use flawed people! Again and again, God chooses ordinary and even flawed people to do his work. For example, God chose Moses, who had killed a man, to deliver his people from bondage in Egypt and Isaiah, “a man of unclean lips,” to be a prophet. And Jesus chose simple fishermen for disciples. Yet we think that God cannot use us. We are not deserving enough or not educated enough or not strong enough or not energetic enough. Or, the all-time favorite, we don’t have time enough. Jacob, for all his faults and fears, said yes to God. Perhaps we don’t need to understand the reasons for God’s actions to see that God was faithful to Jacob and Jacob in turn was obedient and faithful to God. And the result? A nation grew out of that covenant of faith. So the story of Jacob demonstrates for us God’s faithfulness. And the story of the prodigal son shows us God’s love. Why then should we be afraid? If we can grow to trust God’s faithfulness and love, then our fears can be turned into hope.

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