I get back from a lovely vacation and what is the first text for the day? Jacob wrestling with God. That's both the gift and challenge of the lectionary and perhaps God's sense of humour at work. The passage of scripture is at once a challenge and beautiful. The text asks us to consider: "What does it mean for Jacob and for for us to wrestle with God?" I’ve been reading Barbra Brown Taylors new book Learning to Walk in the Dark where she says some of the most significant moments happen as we wrestle in the dark with God.
Jacob knows it only too well. Twice in his life he encounters God and leaves with promise and blessing. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, one of Isaac and Rebecca’s two sons. Jacob is the second son only by minutes. His older brother Esau was born first and Jacob came behind him quickly griping his older brother’s heal. It seems from the before the day that Esau and Jacob were born they were competing with one another. And it was Jacob the younger always striving for what was his older brother’s. The bad family dynamics don’t end there it says in Genesis 25 “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunger, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man living in the tents. Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27)
The ground work for this family feud was planted in fertile soil. Jacob’s grasping after Esau didn’t end with his heal. First Jacob tricks his brother into giving him his birthright and then he tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Jacob had taken everything from his brother and Esau was so angry he plans to kill his brother. The first time Jacob encounters God is as he flees and goes to live with his mother’s brother Laban who is a trickster to match Jacob.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Later God would come to Abraham’s Grandson Jacob in the middle of the night, after he fled from the family he betrayed in the worst kind of way. When Jacob could not run any longer, he lay down in the middle of nowhere and fell asleep, dreaming one of those dreams that arrives more like a vision. He saw a ladder with its feet set on the earth and its top reaching toward heaven, with bright angels of God climbing up and down on it. That was when God said more or less the same thing to Jacob that he said to his grandfather Abraham. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Barbra Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark page 92 – 93)
That is the first time God comes to Jacob. The second is in our passage for today, after Jacob falls madly in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. After he works seven long years to Marry Rachel and ends up marring Leah. After he works another seven long years for Rachel. After Jacob is tired of being tricked and cheated by Laban. After he finally realizes that the only place for him to go is home – back to the family he betrayed.
So he makes a plan. Jacob sends Esau presents with this message, “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favour in your sight.” (Genesis 32:5) Then return message is this, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Genesis 32:7)
And you can imagine what Jacob is thinking. He is coming for me. So he sends more gifts and indeed his whole family over to meet Esau. He stays behind by himself for the night.
Now Jacob must face all his fears and shortcomings. All night he wrestles with a man. “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. (Genesis 32:25)
But Jacob is tenacious. He will not let go until he gets a blessing. So the figure asks, “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.” (Genesis 32:27 – 28) Jacob walks away with a new name but he now walks with a limp.
And isn’t that what we are about as a people of faith? We struggle to understand God and how God calls us to live. We struggle with both faith and doubt. We struggle to live daily as God’s people. And on those nights we come face to face with our fears and shortcomings we like Jacob wrestle with God. And like Jacob, the most important thing we can do is never to let go of God. That means hanging on in spite of doubt and in spite of hard times to God’ promise.
The breath taking beauty of Jacob’s story is not that Jacob was perfect he wasn’t. What amazes me every time is that God chooses him even though he betrays his family, even though he is a liar and a cheat. God chooses Jacob not for anything he is yet to be but just as he is. Then God blesses him and gives him a new name. And if God will do that for Jacob, then God will do that for you and for you. And that my friends is God’s abiding, amazing, transforming grace. Amen.