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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 20, 2013

Scripture:  Genesis 32:22-31


Jacob was partway through a long journey, traveling from what is now northern Syria to what is now southern Israel.  He had left under less than ideal circumstances, slipping away without permission from Laban, his uncle and employer.  And he was heading toward a very uncertain reception, returning to his homeland and his twin brother, Esau, from whom he had fled for his life twenty years earlier.  Jacob had brought along everything he had.  He had with him his family—his wives, and their servants, and their children.  He had with him his large flocks of sheep and goats and camels.  He had with him all his worldly possessions, everything he had earned and gathered and produced for all those many years.

Jacob was afraid, and understandably so.  He had good reason to fear an attack from behind by Laban.  He had good reason to fear an attack from ahead from Esau.  He had parted from both men on bad terms, and it would not have been surprising to find that one or both of them had decided to come after him.  So Jacob divided his large retinue in half, so that they could not all be taken at once.  Hoping desperately that he would see them again on the other side, he sent one group off to go home by another way, up and over the mountains, and he took his group by the river route, down toward the Jabbok and the Jordan.

They traveled on in this way for a while, and then, on the night in which our story takes place, he gave his servants some instructions, and kissed his family, and patted his livestock, and he sent them all on ahead, and he stayed there by himself to clear his mind and to camp for the night on the bank of the Jabbok River.  He watched them go until he could no longer see their outlines, and he listened until he could no longer hear their footsteps, and then, when he was alone with his thoughts, he lay down on the rocky ground and fell into a fitful sleep.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he awoke with a start.  Someone or something was upon him, and he cried out in surprise.  At first, he thought it was an animal, some wild beast whose habitat he had invaded.  After all, he was out in the wilderness, a long way from civilization, and there were plenty of fierce creatures that would have been happy to eat him for a midnight snack.  He flinched away and covered his face to protect himself from the sharp claws and teeth he knew must be coming… but no claws tore at his body, no teeth reached for his throat.  Instead, he felt the familiar shape of a human form upon him, pressing him down into the mud.

Perhaps it was a river god, he thought, some spirit or demon that inhabited that particular riverbank and did not appreciate his intrusion.  He struggled to free himself from its grasp and cried out a prayer to the God of his father, the God of Abraham, to banish this demon… but still the figure wrestled and writhed and tried mightily to overcome him.  It twisted his arm behind his back, and the sharp twinge of pain he felt convinced Jacob that his attacker was no spirit, but a living, fleshly being, a fellow human who had seized upon him.

Perhaps it was Laban, his uncle, after all, come to exact revenge on the one who had slipped away from him like a thief in the night.  As the two men rolled over one another, banging their elbows on rocks and grinding their knees in the gravel, Jacob remembered all the ups and downs of their 20 years together.  He remembered with a pang of guilt the way he had tricked Laban, causing his own flocks to increase and grow strong, while Laban’s animals dwindled and grew weak.  He remembered with a spurt of anger the way Laban had tricked him, giving him Leah in marriage instead of Rachel, then requiring him to work for seven more years for the hand of the woman he loved.  He remembered all those old hurts and grudges, and their bitterness made him wrestle all the harder against his attacker.

But Laban was an old man now, and this opponent was clearly in prime form, young and strong and fit, his body an equal match for Jacob’s.  Perhaps it was not Laban after all, but his brother, Esau, who was attacking him.  This thought made Jacob’s stomach clench with fear.  He gathered his strength to throw the man off of him, but he could not escape.  They scrabbled at one another’s backs and tore one another’s robes, each trying to gain the upper hand.

His fingers grasped at the other man’s wrist, and Jacob remembered how he had tricked his brother into giving up his birthright, his privileged status as the firstborn son, in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew.  He pulled at the other man’s hair, and he remembered how he had tricked his old, blind father into giving him the blessing that should rightly have been Esau’s, and how Esau, in his anger, had threatened to kill Jacob in retaliation.  The other man rolled on top of him again, and he remembered how he had sought his own advantage at the expense of his brother, and he felt the weight of twenty years of guilt press down on his chest, and that extra burden made it hard to keep wrestling.

Minutes stretched into hours.  The stars tracked their way across the sky, and still they struggled.  Their bodies became slippery with sweat, then abrasive with the sand that stuck to them.  Their muscles trembled with the exertion.  Sometimes they paused and fell apart from one another, panting, until one of them had regained enough breath to resume the struggle.  And all the while, Jacob traveled through memories of his past until he wasn’t sure any more whether he was wrestling with another man or with himself.

Images and memories flashed through his mind.  The smell of that long-ago lentil stew…  Esau’s face when they were little boys…  The pastures full of sheep and goats…  Laban’s kindness and treachery…  Rachel…  Leah…  The children’s laughter…  His mother’s face, old and wrinkled…  His father’s hands, callused but gentle…  He remembered the story his family told of the day when he and Esau had been born—Esau first, and Jacob close behind, clinging tightly to his brother’s heel.  He was named for that moment—Jacob, Yaakov, a play on the Hebrew word for “heel,” which also means, “he who supplants,” or, “he who usurps,” or, more loosely, “cheater.”  It was a moment that Jacob couldn’t even remember, but it had defined him from the very beginning.

His mind tossed and turned, and the demons of his past began to taunt him.  That’s all you’ve ever been, Jacob—a heel, a cad, a phony, a trickster, a fraud, a scoundrel.  You’ve spent your whole life coming up with ways to outfox those around you, to take what is rightfully theirs.  You hijacked your brother’s birthright.  You usurped your father’s blessing.  You commandeered your uncle’s livestock and took his daughters and grandchildren away to boot.  And now you’re going to get what you deserve.  You’re going to be put in your place.  Because that’s who you are, Jacob, that’s who you’ve always been—a cheater and a heel.  That’s your identity; that’s your destiny.

Jacob wrestled all through the night with the memory of his brother, and his uncle, and his own checkered past.  And as the dawn started to break, he heard the other man’s voice for the first time.  “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob would not, could not let him go—he could not let go of his past, of his memories, of his feelings of uselessness and hopelessness, failure and futility.  For some reason he did not quite understand, he knew that there was something big at work here, something bigger than Laban, bigger than Esau, bigger than Jacob himself.  He didn’t plan to say it, but the words came tumbling out of his mouth:  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

“What is your name?” asked the stranger.  Jacob’s heart sank, and he released his grip on his opponent’s wrist.  It was just as he had thought, just as he had feared, just as the demons of his past had said.  He replied, his voice full of resignation, “I am Jacob—a heel, a cad, a phony, a trickster, a fraud, a scoundrel.  I am Jacob—a usurping cheater, through and through.”

But the man propped himself up on his elbows and took Jacob’s face in his hands, and the fingers that had scrabbled so hard and grasped so tightly were gentle this time.  He said, “No, Jacob.  That has been your name, and that is what you have done—but that is not who you are.  You are not defined by your past.  You are not held hostage by the sins of your youth.  You are my child, and today I am setting you free, making you a new creation altogether, calling you to a purpose holy and high.  You have struggled with your past; you have struggled with your family; you have struggled with me—and you will prevail.  Today you are set free, beloved one.  Today you are no longer what you were.  Today you are nothing less than the apple of my eye, the one I cherish, the one I will defend and uphold and strengthen and comfort and bless and keep forever.  Today you are no longer Jacob, but Israel.”

And as the man spoke, light dawned, and Jacob understood.  He had not wrestled with a wild animal or a river god.  He had not wrestled with Laban or with Esau.  He had not wrestled with himself.  He had wrestled all night with God Almighty, his Rock and his Redeemer, his Creator and his Lord, his Savior and his Liberator, the One whose very name is Love.  In the darkness of that night, he had seen himself and his life by the burning light of God’s love, and when morning dawned, his heart had been set aflame.

He had wrestled tenaciously, fiercely, to the point of exhaustion and pain—but the One with whom he wrestled was the One whose love is the most tenacious force in all creation, the strongest power ever to exist.  That love had outlasted his fear, overpowered his shame, overcome his despair.  It was not a painless process, but the ache in his hip and the limp in his gait were nothing compared to the hope in his heart and the joy in his spirit as he walked on from Peniel into a new name, a new identity, a new day.


So if you’ve ever spent a sleepless night worrying about the past, or wondering about the future, or wrestling with things you cannot change… if you come from a family that’s less than perfect… if you struggle to let go of the baggage and burdens that weigh you down… if you feel stuck in a life that’s less than you want it to be… if you find yourself in the midst of a dark night of the soul… if you struggle with the demons of despair and futility…  if you hope and pray for a new beginning… if you are imperfect, which is to say, if you are human, then take heart.  For a new beginning is precisely what God has in store for you.  Indeed, a new beginning has already been given to you.  By virtue of your baptism, you are given a new name, and that name is Christian, which is to say, Beloved.

Christians, Beloved Ones, you are not defined by your past.  You are not held hostage by the sins of your youth.  You are God’s beloved child, and today God is setting you free, making you a new creation altogether, calling you to a purpose holy and high.  You may have struggled with your past; you may have struggled with your family; you may have struggled with God.  You may have failed; you may have gotten stuck; you may have felt trapped.  But today you are set free, beloved ones.  Today you are no longer what you were.  Today you are nothing less than the apple of God’s eye, the one God cherishes.  You may wrestle now… you may wrestle again… but you will prevail, because the one with whom you wrestle is the One whose very name is Love, and that love is around you and within you, the strongest power ever to exist, the most tenacious force in all creation, and it will defend you and uphold you, and strengthen you and comfort you, and bless you and keep you forever.