SCRIPTURE – Gen. 32:22-32
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Wake Up with Jacob sermon series
Sermon #4 – Punched by an Angel
July 22, 2012
Jacob. His name means “the one who grabs at the heel,” or more figuratively, “the deceiver.” Over the last four weeks, we’ve seen him both live up to that name and struggle to overcome it. Remember when we first met him? I wouldn’t have invited him to say the blessing before dinner, much less be the carrier of God’s promise. In fact, if you gathered a room full of famous people of faith, Jacob would be the guy picking their pockets and selling their watches down on the street corner. He stole his older brother Esau’s birthright and tricked his father into giving him his brother’s blessing.
To escape Esau’s rage, Jacob goes on the run, and has a dream about a stairway of angels. During the dream he hears God grant him the same blessing that God had given to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac, a promise of blessing and land and prosperity. God also promises Jacob that God would always be with him and that God’s promises would be fulfilled through him. In return, Jacob promised to accept God has his own, to make room in his life for someone other than himself. This was our first clue that something was at work in Jacob; this self-centered and self-serving opportunist was changing.
Jacob settled in the land of Haran with his uncle Laban. Laban had two daughters, and Jacob fell in love with the younger one, Rachel. He agreed to work seven years for Laban in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. But on the wedding, night, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying the older daughter Leah instead. Jacob, who had previously survived on his wits, had been outwitted. And yet his love for Rachel was so strong, he agreed to work another seven years for Laban in order to marry her. Once again, we see continued change in Jacob. The one who has spent his life grasping at things he wanted now chooses to give away something, once again moving beyond pure self-interest to bring others into his life. The fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing looked to have hit a dead-end with Jacob; now there is reason to hope that God can indeed work through this situation. But not without more struggle.
Jacob works a total of 20 years for Laban and ends up with two wives – Leah and Rachel – along with their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah. As we arrive at our passage for today, Jacob has one daughter and eleven sons (Joseph is still in Technicolor diapers, and Benjamin hasn’t been born yet). God has now spoken to Jacob and said, “Return to the land of your ancestors and your kindred, and I will be with you.” So he takes his now considerable family and heads back to his homeland – and a dreaded reunion with his brother Esau.
Twenty years away from home doesn’t mean Jacob has forgotten what he did to his brother Esau and Esau’s threat to kill him. Although God has promised Jacob that “I am with you,” Jacob doesn’t completely trust in that promise. Jacob knows he had been changed, but he also knows Esau doesn’t know that! Jacob sends a scouting party ahead to see if Esau has any surprises waiting for him, and he learns that not only is Esau rushing out to see his long-lost brother, and he’s bringing four hundred men with him. Either Esau is planning a big group hug or revenge. Jacob, who has been in conflict with people all his life, especially with Esau, is anticipating yet another struggle. And he gets it.
This impending meeting with Esau is weighing heavily on Jacob’s mind when he lay down to sleep that night. He sent his family to the other side of the river for the night so he could be alone, but he wasn’t alone for long. Jacob does indeed have another struggle, but not with Esau. Instead, very abruptly we are told that someone wrestled with him until daybreak. The big question here is: who was it? The original Hebrew says it was “ish,” which simply means “a man.” Jewish commentaries says it was an angel. Jacob himself believed it was God.
That would be only appropriate, since Jacob has been struggling with God all his life: struggling for control, struggling to get the upper hand. In this battle, neither the ish nor Jacob can overcome. Instead, they battle to a stalemate, and the man gives Jacob’s hip a wrenching blow, leaving him wounded.
We’ve all been in the same situation as Jacob, because life is a wrestling match. Not a day goes by that we don’t lock horns with our parents, or our children, or coworkers, or insurance companies, or neighbors, or store clerks. Not to mention the fact that we’re constantly wrestling with ourselves. We wage a war within ourselves that boils down to a battle of good and evil. We are so tempted to do things we know we shouldn’t: to cheat, to lie, to be unfaithful to God and our loved ones, to be selfish and greedy. And we’re only human; no one can resist all temptation. So we wrestle with our own humanity, striving to be good people in the face of the sin we know is within us. Simply put, life is a struggle.
As the sun starts to come up, the stranger asks to be let go. Why didn’t Jacob let go? He’s had a sleepless night, he’s worn out from struggling, his hip is on fire with pain. Why didn’t Jacob let go? Barbara Brown Taylor says it’s because Jacob got hold of someone who “smells like heaven,” and the manipulator in Jacob knew there was something to be gained. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” he says. Once again, Jacob strikes a deal that leans heavily in his favor. Once again, Jacob living up to his name, “the grasper,” “the supplanter,” “the deceiver.”
As if to confirm it, the man asks him, “What is your name?” Jacob had been asked that before. It was by his blind father, as Abraham prepared to give his fatherly blessing. Then, Jacob had answered, “I am Esau,” and stole what didn’t belong to him. This time there is no pretense, no hiding his true nature. This time, he claims the dubious name he has spent his life running from: I am Jacob, the deceiver.
At that moment, Jacob, who is used to taking things from others, has something taken from him. The man takes his name. No longer is he Jacob, the one who deceives. He is now Israel, the one who struggled with God and who overcame. He is no longer Jacob the supplanter; he is Israel the survivor. No longer does he see himself as others see him, the heel-grabber; now he sees himself as God sees him, the one who perseveres.
The stranger departs, leaving Jacob with a blessing and a bum hip. Jacob couldn’t have one without the other. God’s blessing often comes through struggle, and the reminder of the struggle is also the reminder of the blessing, like the scar that reminds us of the successful surgery. Jacob has experienced what Frederick Beuchner called a magnificent defeat.
This story took on special meaning to me during my last year of seminary. I preached on this passage for a class in the fall of 2000, and in the spring of 2001 I had my first symptoms that would lead to my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. You know what those symptoms were? Weakness in the muscles on my left side, including my leg. The result of those symptoms was a limp. Through seminary I had struggled with God for understanding, and now as I prepared to leave for ministry, I was leaving with a limp.
I was scared. Scared of my own body, scared of what the future held, scared for my family, scared about finding a job. Like Jacob fretting over Esau, our moments of struggle are the time when we are most afraid of what is to come, when we feel most alone. But it is also the exact time when we encounter God face to face.
Jacob’s wrestling match reminds us that God is there in the midst of our struggles. Jacob tells us to hang on for all its worth, to ask for a blessing in the midst of the wrestling match, and to not let go until you have one. I was blessed through my struggle as I learned the power prayer can have in your life. I was transformed in my understanding; God got bigger for me in that time. Transformation doesn’t take place when we’re safe and comfortable and have everything under control. It happens in the midst of struggle. When we lose our grasp on control, our only choice is to move forward on faith, and growing in faith always means we will be changed. We can choose to ignore it, or we can take it head on, wrestling with it until we emerge transformed.
It won’t be easy. It will probably mean a struggle, maybe more than one. You may limp away from the encounter. Anyone who dares enter deeply into life with God walks with a limp. Anyone who has raised children or cared for aging parents walks with a limp. Anyone who has invested themselves in a congregation walks with a limp. Anyone who tries to follow Jesus in their dealings with others or commits to taking scripture seriously walks with a limp. If you dare to wrestle with God as you try and figure out your faith, it’s gonna leave a mark.
But you will also leave with a new name, a name that describes you as God sees you. Can you hear it? Can you hear your new name? For me, it was “minister.” For you, it might be “teacher” or “leader” or “elder” or “servant.” Maybe your new name will be “survivor” or “benefactor” or “role model” or “friend.” When you wrestle with God, you are transformed, you are no longer the same person.
Jacob’s new name was Israel, for he had wrestled with God and had overcome. But there’s more. The next morning, when he went out to meet his fate with Esau, his older sibling ran up to Jacob and threw his arms around him in a huge bear hug. Jacob’s transformation from selfish trickster to man of God was complete. And Jacob heard another new name: “brother.” And he was home. In the midst of our struggles, may we experience the same feeling as we remember that God is holding us close. And may we persevere through our struggles, limping away blessed.