September 7, 2014
You reap what you sow. Honesty is the best policy. Forgive and forget. All those time honored sayings we’ve heard for years and spoken for years. They’re all worthy and they all have truth in them…but none of them applies to Jacob.
Jacob’s story in Genesis plays out like a classic example of good things happening to bad people. As the story unfolded, Jacob dressed up like his older brother, Esau, and snuck into his father’s room in the middle of the night to steal his brother’s blessing and birthright. And in the aftermath of his deception, there was no sign that Jacob had any second thoughts or any pangs of conscience. Not to mention the fact you get the sense that Jacob’s father, Isaac, practically took Jacob’s betrayal in stride.
After Jacob fooled his father, he had to escape from home and from the wrath of his brother, Esau. But even when Jacob traveled to a faraway country, he went to sleep one night with a stone for a pillow and had a dream so dazzling and so fantastic it would be the envy of anyone in this sanctuary. Far from being a bad dream about what happens when you double cross a member of your own family, Jacob instead dreamt about a great ladder stretching into the heavens with a line of angels ascending and descending upon it.
To top the dream off, God stood in a blaze of starlit glory above the ladder and laid out for Jacob an incredible, life changing promise. “The land on which you live I will give to your descendants and your descendants will be like the dust of the earth…behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” It’s proof positive that sometimes scheming and sneaking around and being dishonest has its rewards…
Look around and people like Jacob…people who are shrewd and ambitious and driven…strong on guts and moxie but weak on conscience and flexible when it comes to morals and ethics. All in all, the Jacobs of this world tend to make out fairly well. They know how to manipulate the odds. They have a way of spotting those whose naivete and good nature make them susceptible to being taken advantage of. They push the envelope even if it means stepping on a few people and a few rules along the way...
By all appearances in this morning’s portion of the narrative, it looked as though Jacob had it made. When we arrive at today’s Scripture lesson, Jacob was finally on his way home. Back to the land promised to Abraham, his grandfather, and to Isaac, his father, and to him. Taking with him his wives and his children and his maids and his livestock and everything he needed to settle down and prosper.
All Jacob had to do was ford the Jabbok River and there were no more obstacles in his way. Clear and smooth sailing for the rest of the homeward journey. But first, Jacob sent his wife and his family and all his possessions across the river so he could spend a night alone. Why would he do that? Perhaps Jacob wanted to celebrate in private one more time…basking in the defining moment of his lifetime as the self-made man about to return triumphantly to the land of his origin.
In any case, when night fell, everything for Jacob was set according to plan. Until a stranger materialized in the darkness and hurled himself upon Jacob. The story gives no indication where the stranger came from or why he showed up. Nevertheless, despite having no warning and being ill prepared for the sudden attack, Jacob had no choice but to engage his adversary. In fact, Jacob proved equal to the task as the two wrestled and fought back and forth through the dark hours.
Finally, just before the dawn broke Jacob seemed to gain the upper hand. But in an instant all was reversed. The story tells us the stranger reached out and touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and it was enough to render Jacob crippled and helpless. Maybe the two combatants had been evenly matched the whole time. Or more likely, the stranger intentionally held back and only struck at the turning point in the struggle when Jacob was exhausted…
Yet even as he lay on the ground motionless in defeat, Jacob refused to loosen his grip on the stranger. What hours earlier had been Jacob gripping the stranger in violence was now Jacob gripping the stranger in desperation. Like a man looking for a life jacket in the middle of a stormy sea, Jacob mustered enough energy to cry out to the stranger before he walked away. “I will not let you go until you bless me!”
No longer in a position of power, Jacob had no right to ask for a blessing. Losers are not the ones who end up with the spoils. Still Jacob asked anyway, hoping the stranger would offer him a blessing as a gift…however unmerited that gift may have been.
And as the dark of night lifted into the light of a new day, Jacob finally saw his opponent for the first time. Realizing for the first time that his adversary was none other than God in the form of an angel. I imagine Jacob’s initial instinct was to be terrified. For in his body and in his mind, Jacob knew that the angel had scarred him deeply. But when he saw God face to face, what Jacob felt instead was love…
You and I live in a world filled with people willing to work hard and fight hard and even manipulate hard in order to get what they want. Some of the things our world values the most, like prestige, success, power, money, and security…we see people and read about people every day who will go to any length to achieve distinction in the eyes of the world.
Once upon a time, Jacob had all those things as well. He had power and prestige. He had vast resources. He was driven by a desire to succeed at any and all cost. And everything he did up to that long night in Peniel paid off. Allowing Jacob to live the kind of lifestyle many human beings only dream about.
What Jacob learned in the middle of the night on the lonely side of the Jabbok River was new to him, however. By the end of his battle with the angel, Jacob learned that the things in life he really wanted and really needed were not things the world could give him. Things like peace, joy, love, hope. Those are things that only come to human beings in the form of a gift from God…
Along life’s way, you and I spend plenty of time and energy turning God into the adversary. We wrestle with God. We argue with God. We struggle with God. When we are done fighting with God hours or days or weeks or years later, though, what you and I are desperately hoping is that God will not walk away from us without giving us something we can hold onto.
In the story, God did not leave without offering Jacob a blessing. A costly blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed…”
With that blessing in hand, Jacob crossed the Jabbok River in the morning and joined his family to finish the journey home. His limp was pronounced and Jacob would never be the same. But Jacob gained far more than he lost.
God gives us everything but not without demanding something in return. Ourselves, our wills, our prayers, our loyalty, our treasures, our very lives. The question is whether we will give God what God wants, in spite of the cost.
Let us move then towards the communion table, remembering the story of Jacob and recalling the story of Jesus Christ. In the breaking of the bread and in the drinking of the cup we immerse ourselves again in the abundant love of God. And we tell the story of what it means to be victorious. Even in defeat. Amen.