Sermon for Williamstown
3rd of August, 2014
Today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of my favourites, and Jacob is one of the biblical characters with whom I most empathise. That may seem strange; I hope it seems strange, given the story of Jacob’s life. We’ve heard some of it in the readings in preceding weeks, but we haven’t heard all of it, and it’s a story worth retelling. In fact, in order to understand today’s reading we need to know this story. So, here are some edited highlights from the life of Jacob, son of Isaac.
Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren, until Isaac prayed for her and God granted his prayer. Rebekah conceived not one baby, but two, and the twins struggled in her womb until she asked: “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The Lord answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When the two children were born, the younger came out gripping his brother’s heel, so they called him Jacob, which means “He takes by the heel” or “He supplants”. Jacob was a trickster and a troublemaker from his conception.
Isaac favoured his elder son, Esau, and Rebekah favoured her younger son, Jacob. We can only imagine what their family life was like as the boys were growing up. When they were adults, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for bread and lentil stew, despising the long-term prospect of his inheritance, preferring the short-term gain of food to appease his hunger. When Isaac grew old and blind and close to death, Rebekah conspired with Jacob to ensure that he received Esau’s blessing. This is the famous story of Jacob covering himself with goatskin to mimic Esau’s hairy body, and bringing Isaac a bowl of goats prepared by his mother in the way Isaac loved, to imitate the meal of wild game that Isaac had sent Esau to hunt. Isaac was convinced by this that Jacob was Esau, and gave him the elder son’s blessing.
Not surprisingly, Esau was less than pleased by this, and planed to kill his brother as soon as Isaac was dead. Rebekah arranged for Jacob to be sent to her brother, Laban: ostensibly to find a bride; really to keep him safe from Esau’s wrath. In his uncle Laban Jacob found someone as devious as himself. Jacob fell in love with his cousin Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. The Bible tells us that the seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her,” which is a lovely touch. But on the night of the wedding, Laban gave his elder daughter, Leah, to Jacob. Jacob didn’t realise the difference until the morning, by which time it was too late. This isn’t the moment to worry about the details and why Jacob couldn’t distinguish between Leah and Rachel; all we need to know is that Laban somewhat deceitfully managed to marry off his elder daughter before his younger one.
Jacob stayed with Laban for another seven years; married Rachel; and had many sons by Leah, Rachel and their two maids. After Rachel bore her first son, Joseph, Jacob approached Laban and asked to leave. Jacob had grown rich, and headed for home with wives and sons and sheep and goats and camels and slaves. Waiting for him at home was the brother he’d wronged. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him and they returned, telling him: “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Jacob was terrified; he divided everyone and everything with him into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.” This is the moment when today’s reading starts, with Jacob, the supplanter, the trickster, terrified at the thought of seeing his elder brother. He is alone, having sent his family across the stream. He is alone, and a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. In some ways the man is Esau. Jacob is spending the sort of night we all spend at some time, lying awake wrestling with our own sin and failure and wrongness. Jacob is about to face the brother he tricked out of his father’s blessing, the brother who wanted to kill him, and he is awake and wrestling with a faceless enemy in the dark. But the man is not only Esau.
We never learn the man’s name. When Jacob asks, the man refuses to tell him. But the man renames Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob names the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” ‘Israel’ means “The one who strives with God” or “God strives”. ‘Peniel’ means “the face of God”. The names tell us that the one with whom Jacob wrestles is God. This is why Jacob is one of my role models in the faith. He wrestles with God! And God lets him. This isn’t a story of unquestioning faith and obedience. This isn’t a story of someone “letting go and letting God”. This is a story of struggle and conflict between God and humanity – and the appropriateness of that fight.
After a night of wrestling, in which neither prevails, the man tells Jacob to let him go, for day is breaking. Jacob refuses to let go until he is blessed, and eventually he gets his blessing. Jacob comes to a draw with God. What does that mean? What does it mean about God that a human being can wrestle God to a standstill? What does it mean about Jacob that he manages to hold on and win a blessing from God? This is Jacob the supplanter, the trickster, the troublemaker. And now he is given the name Israel: Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. Israel is us, the people of faith. We, too, are part of this story. We, too, are the people, the troublemakers, who strive with God.
Jacob may hold his own with God; may win a blessing from God, but he doesn’t emerge from this encounter unscathed. 25When the wrestler sees that he is not prevailing against Jacob, he strikes him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip is put out of joint. The story ends with the words: The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.” The newly named Israel is marked by his encounter with God, an encounter that has led not to healing but to crippling. Jacob will limp for the rest of his life, wounded by his struggle with God. The people of Israel are those who struggle with God; we are also those who are wounded by God. Israel is crippled and blessed. This is the same paradox of victory and defeat, strength and weakness, which we see in the cross. Jacob is our ancestor: what does it mean to be the heirs of this crippled and blessed man? What does it mean to be those who struggle with God? Perhaps most importantly, what does this story tell us about God, friend and enemy, the one who injures and the one who blesses?
C. S. Lewis described this God in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan, and ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies.
“Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
God is not safe. God is good, but not safe, and we approach God with our knees knocking. We also approach God as the one with whom we intimately struggle. We approach God as the descendants of Jacob, trickster and cheater and supplanter, the one who grasps the heel. We discover that we are crippled by our own encounter with God, marked for life. And we discover that we are also the ones blessed by God, the ones given a new name that reflects that we have seen God face to face, wrestled with God, and survived. This is who we are. Thanks be to God.