"Struggles and Blessings"
A Sermon By:
David D. McDonald
Text: Genesis 32: 22-31
August 2, 2020
NRSV Psalm 23:1-6
1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
NRSV Genesis 32:22-31
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 27So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." 29Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Today’s scripture text is found sandwiched between the story of Jacob leaving Laban, his father-in-law, who has pursued him thinking that Jacob is a thief who has stolen his household Gods though his wife Rachel, Laban’s daughter, is the culprit. Laban and Jacob have tricked and been tricked by each other. So behind Jacob is a potentially angry father-in-law. They have agreed to part using the well known words of the Mizpah benediction (Genesis 39:49):
“The LORD watch between
you and me, when we are absent one from the other.”
Before Jacob is the Promised land, the land of his inheritance, but when he enters he must confront his brother Esau, from whom he has connived to buy his inheritance for a bowl of lentil stew and deceived their father to give Jacob the blessing. When they last parted, Esau swore to kill Jacob, who knows what years have done to his brother’s anger. This story has all the suspense and potential for horror of an Alfred Hitchcock tale.
There is an awesome mystery about this passage which captures our attention. It is pregnant with possibilities. For example, if we focus on the proper Hebrew names, we find a message flowing through the passage. Abraham is usually translated something like, "exalted father." His wife's name Sarah is often translated something like "princess." However, the root from which this name is taken is ambiguous. The Hebrew root which is translated "struggle, or contentious" could also stand behind the name of Sarah. The story of Sarah and her maid Hagar provide plenty of reason for such a translation. Abraham and Sarah's son is named Isaac, which is usually translated, "laughter” because of the story of the angel visitants who caught Sarah laughing at the idea that she would bear a son in her old age. Isaac's wife was Rebekah, which at least in the older Hebrew, etymologies, means, "to tie fast, which refers to her "binding" beauty. In the background of this passage is the conflict between Jacob and Esau. Jacob, is usually translated something like "trickster." He tricked his brother, Esau - usually translated "hairy" because his arms and hands were covered with hair, out of both his birthright and his father's blessing. Esau had sworn to kill his brother and Jacob had fled the land. Jacob is entering the Promised Land to meet his hairy, “wild animal” of a brother which may well prove to be a harrowing experience.
The saga of Abraham, Sarah, and their kin is a soap opera story. They would probably be called a "dysfunctional family" by many of us. The struggle which Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar experienced seems destined to continue in convoluted form through their children and their children's children. The struggle in which Jacob becomes embroiled by the river Jacob seems to echo a familiar strain throughout his life. Jacob left at his mother's behest, not only to avoid conflict with Esau, but to take a wife. He is caught in a controversy with his father-in-law. He wants to marry Rachel, but is tricked into marrying Leah, her sister. Jacob in turn manages to fleece his father-in-law of the strongest of the herds and he prospers. When his debt is paid off he leaves the land knowing that sooner or later he will have to deal with his brother Esau. It is on the way to encounter Esau that Jacob wrestles with this unnamed man by the river Jabbok. Hebrew simply calls this visitor a man (Eish). Jacob knows his brother Esau awaits beyond him in the darkness. The prophet Hosea in the retelling of this encounter states that a messenger a (malak) wrestles with Jacob. Jacob will, according to this passage, wrestle with God himself (verses 28-30).
This passage has another interesting under current to it. As Jacob leaves his father-in-law at the conclusion of chapter 31 we read:
"So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country….
Early in the morning Laban rose up and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed…." (31: 53b -55)
Jacob who has spent much of his life trying to secure the future from others who were more privileged, stronger, wealthier; now takes a risk and leaves a home he has known for years and faces the fear of his past and the fear of his father whom he deceived and his brother whom he cheated and deceived out of birthright and blessing. He has depended on the sagacity of his mother, Rebekah, to carve out for him a future and he has been dependent upon his father-in-law Laban for his hospitality while he rose to independence. Now he must face the future on his own and he must first confront - FEAR !
In a sense, Jacob wrestling with the unnamed stranger by the river Jabbok is Jacob's confrontation with fear! How will he survive? On whom will he depend? What will he do when the blessing of Isaac and Laban are all that he has to stand between him and Esau; between him and the evil of the world that surrounds him? Who will help this poor boy become a man?
Jacob discovers that he is far stronger than he thought and that he can contend with the unexpected and the dangerous. He can survive the struggle. Jacob had sent the family and the herds ahead of him, perhaps to act as a buffer in case he suddenly encountered Esau. It left him alone and vulnerable to face the terror of the night and it came. Jacob had been praying to God for protection; instead, he assaults him. Jacob confronts not only his own fear, but God.
In this strange encounter; Jacob seems to have a mirror held to his face that he can see himself and the world from the other side of the table. One commentator writes:
"Thus an ultimate irony; being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Penuel, the face of God."
Jacob will not release God unless He blesses him. Jacob had the blessing of his natural father and now he seeks the blessing of God. In Hebrew, the word for Blessed means steadfast.. God blesses Jacob by sticking to him through the struggles. God touches the thigh of Jacob and throws his leg out of joint. The match ought to be over! Day is dawning and if Jacob sees God’s face he will surely die. God blesses Jacob by changing his name to Israel. Jacob struggles with God and holds on – prevails.
As dawn comes Jacob realizes he has been truly blessed and was blessed all along. Jacob cannot but name the place Penuel (For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.)
My daughter Christy recently told me about a real life Jacob story. She was among a group of mothers who regularly get together and this day they were going to the swimming pool where a group of their children were having a birthday party. One mother was struggling with MS and in a wheel chair at the party. She was a single mom and trying her best to give her children a normal childhood. Things were going wonderfully well and everyone was having a great time until her 8 year-old son’s accident. This boy had jumped in line, playing follow the leader, and was scampering up the ladder to the high dive, when in his haste and excitement he missed the last step on the 3 meter diving board and came crashing down from the ladder some 9-10 feet in the air onto the concrete deck, off balance, he took the full impact on one leg and everyone heard the sickening snap as his leg broke. The group of mothers fell speechless. The scene made a vivid impact on our granddaughter Emily who drew the boy with his leg at an angle and his mother holding his hand while an ambulance appears in the background.
Emily showed the picture to her mother and said something like, “I guess he will just have to hop along on one leg.
As a congregation and a community of faith we are familiar with struggles. There are those among us who are struggling with cancer. Each day becomes a wrestling match with treatments and illness and pain. The Covid 19 virus has left many families struggling with a potentially lethal illness that often leaves survivors with long term side effects. There are those who are struggling with the daily routine, radically changed by the pandemic’s presence. Things go on with seemingly endless repetition and constant boredom. Life seems to hold , but little meaning. There are those who, on the other hand, are struggling with enormous workloads. There is precious little time for family or self. The constant daily ground is wearing down the soul. There are those who are struggling with their identity. They are still in the process of becoming, but seem to have only found themselves floundering in the process. There seems to be something missing, something of value, and something worth holding onto. There are those who are struggling with temptation. To know what is right is one thing, to do it is quite another. Temptation and guilt seem to be constant companions.
As a congregation we are struggling with what it is to be the church. We have a variety of gifts, but we struggle with using them. Some familiar faces are no longer with us. Some have moved to be near family, some have moved because of work, some have died, and so the congregation we knew even a year ago is not the congregation we have today. In some ways, it is a temptation for us to feel like Jacob, assaulted by God; wrestling with a being who will not let us go. We pray and pray and our prayers seem to be answered with more obstacles. We are in the dark and hoping that dawn will soon break so at least we can see with whom we contend.
Surely on thing which this passage teaches us is the value of perseverance. Jacob, holds on for all that he is worth. He keeps struggling and wrestling until he and the stranger fall exhausted. The fight seems to have ended in a stalemate. Jacob cannot win, but neither will he let go. In some sense, Jacob seems to be joined at the hip with this divine one. His contender slips his hip out of joint with a blow and still he will not let go. Injured and in pain, no doubt, Jacob does not let go until he is blessed. Jacob will have a new name. He is no longer the trickster, the pretender, the fraud; he is a fighter. He has struggled and persevered. I like the way one commentator has translated this blessing:
"You, Jacob, have slugged it out with nature and your neighbor, and been successful at every turn. And so your new name will reflect your character: 'Scrapper-with-God.'"
Susan Fey in an article entitled "Snowed In" (A 4th Helping of Chicken Soup For The Soul, pps. 284-286) begins with these words:
"If it takes a village to raise a child, then January 17, 1994, was the day it took a village to save a child."
That was the day that Barbara Schmitt was playing with her three granddaughters when the long awaited call came. Michelle, her three-year-old, was awaiting a liver transplant. Louisville, Kentucky, where they lived was paralyzed with a snow storm. They needed to get to Omaha, Nebraska, with in twelve hours. She called a local radio station who put out a summons for help. Some 50 volunteers worked in sub-zero winds to clear snow ahead of the Schmitt’s so they could get their car out of the drive and to a near-by church. The church lot was cleared so that Kim Phelps of Skycare could bring in his helicopter . In the mean time Jason Smith had been contacted , he was a pilot, and he was on stand-by with a Lear jet. With dusk looming and a crowd of some 300 on-lookers and well-wishers, Michelle was whisked to her rendezvous.
Her transplant was a success that included the help of a transplant team, a child with a will to survive, a family that would not let this opportunity pass, and a whole village that found something better to do on January 17 than to stay warm inside and watch the snow. A mound of obstacles had been overcome.
Surely, this story from Genesis encourages us in the midst of struggles. Life is very imperfect. There is a great deal about it we would change if we could. Often that is not our task. Indeed, our task may be to struggle. In doing so, the encounter with God begins and may seem more like an assault than a love embrace.
The New Interpreter's Bible, in its commentary on Genesis writes:
"When it comes to struggle in daily life, we can count on God mixing it up with us, challenging us, convicting us, evaluating us, and judging us. We may have to place our life at risk, knowing that the one who loves life will find it. God honors relationships both by engaging in the struggle in the first place and by persisting in that struggle through thick and thin. The most meticulous of preparations cannot guarantee a certain shape for the future. God may break into life and force a new direction for thought and action."
Jacob will struggle with his past and future as they meet at the entrance to the promised land. The place is named Jabbok in Hebrew which in translation could simply mean – wrestle.
As Walter Brueggeman writes in his commentary on this passage:
“Jacob must deal with the crippling (and blessing) God.”
“There will be no cheap reconciliation.”
Could there be any more relevant message for today.
Peace will come out of war in the Middle East, but it will be costly. Many will be limping after their encounters on the battlefield.
Peace can emerge from broken families, but some will surely walk away limping or worse from the violence.
Out of the ashes of economic scandal companies emerge limping from their encounter with justice.
Out of a world brought to its needs by a virus, strong communities will emerge.
In this new day we can be reassured that God is with us in the struggle and blesses us even as we may emerge wounded. May the Lord care for us, even when we go limping from life’s battles. Frederick Buechner has termed them the Magnificent Defeat. Walter Bruggemann prefers to call them the Crippling Victory. We get the point. No one leaves this life unscathed. Thanks be to God who accepts us into the kingdom completely spent and broken. Let us pray for one another to be healed, resilient, and compassionate to others! Amen!