In the course of the night, Jacob arose, tok the entire caravan, and crossed the ford of the Yobbok River. After Jacob had crossed with all his possessions, he returned to the camp, and he was completely alone. ANd there, someone wrestled with
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (NRSV) ****************** Many people know Jacob for just two things- Jacobs Ladder and Jacob's Wrestling match.
And you all know the story: A man (or something) appears to Jacob- and they wrestle all night. And when it's almost morning, the man (or something) sees that he can’t win, he dislocates Jacob’s hip, and says, “Let me go, it’s almost morning.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, not until you bless me.”
And this story is a great illustration of perseverance; of sticking with it. We use it as a metaphor when are struggling- when we've spent a long night praying… pleading with God for healing, or provision, or loved ones, the world... and in our pleading we often find ourselves crying... wringing our hands. Perhaps you have spent a night or two this way, wrestling with decisions or dilemmas.
Our friend Jacob worked for his father in law, Laban well past the agreed upon time for his two wives- and his family, household workers, livestock and possessions have grown exponentially, but it was time to go home. It was time for him to live out his own life.
But last time Jacob had seen his brother Esau, he was furious, remember part of the reason Jacob left home was because Esau was so angry with Jacob after he had stolen the family inheritance. So he sent a message ahead to his brother Esau. And I like this- he told the messengers, "Tell my master Esau this, 'A message from your servant Jacob: I've been staying with Laban and couldn't get away until now. I've acquired cattle and donkeys and sheep; also men and women servants. I'm telling you all this, my master, hoping for your approval.'"(The Message)
This was very smart and of course savvy on Jacob’s part. But the messengers return, saying, “Esau is riding to meet you with 400 men!”
Jacob was scared to death. So in a strategic move, he divided the people who were with him; as well as the flocks and herds, into two groups, and sent them to opposite camp sites. His thinking; “If Esau comes to the one camp and destroys it, then the camp that is left will be able to get away.” (The Message) Ar least he won't lose everything.
Now Jacob, in a foxhole of sorts, (where they say even atheists learn to pray)… and he turns to God in prayer. And folks, this is no ordinary prayer.
He prays, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, 'Go back to your parents' homeland and I'll treat you well.' I don't deserve all the love and loyalty you've shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I'm afraid he'll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, 'I will treat you well; I'll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.'” (The Message)
Doesn’t this prayer sound a lot like the psalm we read? Sometimes it seems there is almost an arrogance on the part of some Psalmists- when they demand things of God. But what we find again and again in Hebrew Scripture is this sense of people in prayer who call God on the promises that are rightfully theirs. In times of trouble, they fall back on the very words God had previously spoken- and they have no problem reminding God- “Hey- You promised me this! Now it’s time to deliver!”
Jacob does that here He pours out his fears to God. He admits he is not worthy- or better translated, ‘vulnerable’ (pause...wow) and also acknowledges that God has always been present with him. But at the same time, calls God out on what he knows to be true… “You are the one who told me to go home… You are the one who told me that you would do well by me… You are the one who told me that you would give me so many descendants that I won’t be able to count them…”
How different does that sound from the prayer you and I say when we are afraid? How different from the pleading and the begging and the deal making prayers we pray? Can you picture 'calling God out 'on the promises God has given you? Most of us don’t.
We focus more on the “I’m not worthy” part of the prayer- the part that tells God (and reminds us) how fragile we are, how we have failed, or have messed up, or really don’t deserve God’s help. And for most of us, our prayer ends up sounding like this: "So, God, even though I know it's a long shot, and I should have been able to do it myself, and have done a million things wrong, you know I believe in you.... would you please give me this one thing… just one time…. just this time... please?"
But Jacob knew that entering into covenant with God meant that he and God were more like partners- and that God’s part in that covenant said that God would never leave him or forsake him- that God would protect him and provide for him. And if God was the one who made the promises- then it was OK to remind God of those promises… boldly! Jacob is someone who was not afraid to be completely vulnerable and honest with God.
You and I... we live in an anxiety filled world- we are fed fear for breakfast lunch and dinner, 24/7. Our anxiety as a society is so high there are corporations making trillions of dollars from it. We live in a constant state of feeling threatened; and feel as if we are always on the brink of calamity in one form or another.
Yet very rarely, if at all, do we stand toe-to-toe with God in prayer about any of it. We don’t boldly claim the promises as our own, but instead take a small, helpless 'wringing our hands' type of stand when it comes to our fears, and sadly, our prayers. But I believe it is through this kind of active bold prayer that we are empowered for the struggle that could come next.
Jacob, in his prayer, is giving himself a Pep talk- (no pun intended) He is naming with force and vigor, everything he knows to be true about what God has said is the plan for his life! He is drawing on, and naming those things as his own. He is putting on the armor of God in order to be able to face what lies ahead.
And when he gets up from that prayer- he is ready to face wrestling with anything that comes his way. Why? Because he has confidence that God keeps God's word- he believes!
So Jacob gets up, and regroups- instead of passively waiting for his brother to come to him, he sends out presents for his brother instead. (Maybe he can soften Esau a little before he gets to his camp… ) And he sends out groups of goats, then camels, then sheep, then cows, then donkeys.. and he sends each group out one at a time- with lots of space between each gift…
And the bearers are told only to tell Esau.. “these are a gift from your servant Jacob… he’s on his way…”
And then Jacob settled down for the night…
But as it grew dark, sleep escapes him; his fears began to creep back. So during the night he got up, took his family and got them safely across the river... and then he went back to the other side of the river by himself.
That’s when the man (or something) appears and the wrestling match begins. And we aren't told who or what it is that shows up to wrestle- many people believe it was an angel (as pictured on the cover of your bulletin) many people believe it was God, and some translations of the Bible support that, (I've preached that in the past) but I realized this week that in the Hebrew translation it says it's a mortal- like in a mirror.
And I get that. Most often in those midnight wrestling matches in my living room, it's me I'm fighting. And is there any greater opponent that yourself? I know everything about me- I can't hide from me, I can't put anything over on me, me knows all my weak points and that little voice is always there to remind me just how me has defeated me, in the past, amen?
But Jacob is ready for this fight. He has spent time in prayer, has renewed his confidence in God, and during the wrestling match, he stays strong, (I guess we would be too if we armed ourselves with the promises of God) He is, in fact so strong that the man (or something) strikes him on his hip socket and knocks it out of joint trying to weaken his resolve, but still Jacob won’t let go.
And Jacob says to Jacob “Let go already! Give up! Give in!”
But Jacob grabs on even tighter- grits his teeth and says “No- not until you bless me!”
And in that moment, Jacob, at least in my mind, acquires what it takes to be a Patriarch. Because when everything is on the line for him, instead of giving up and giving in… he doesn’t let go. He doesn't let go of the promises God made, or of the future God has planned, or the belief God has shown in choosing him- He will not give in to the Jacob who has won so many times in the past- not until he gets blessed, in other words, not until he can live without the inner voice once an for all, and begin living out everything God intends!
And the opponent asks Jacob, “What is your name?” And he shouts out, 'Jacob!' But he is not just saying his name, he is stating everything he knows to be true about himself… the name, ‘Jacob,’ means, 'grabs at the heel,' 'supplanter,' 'trickster'… This is the identity he has lived with his whole life. Saying his name is for Jacob, an act of confession. Yes, this is who I am- but it is not who I will be any longer! And at once- he is free- free to be everything God has designed him to be.
And his mirror opponent acknowledges defeat: "No- that is not who you are anymore. From now on your name is no longer Jacob- but Israel… "
No longer will Jacob be able to call himself, "trickster," "manipulator," no longer will Jacob be able to identify himself in a way that is anything other than God-like!
Can you imagine doing that in your own life? If you were unable to identify yourself or talk about yourself in a way that was anything other than God-like or nation building, or peace making?
So many times we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are that are either given to us by our parents, or our peers, or even our actions- we get so caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, or the ways we act or think, or the things we have done… that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity- a new name… through Jesus Christ. Through Christ we leave our “Jacob” identity behind and have been given a new name that reflects the attributes of God.
So you call yourself '(your name),' and all the things it means to be (your mane), to be identified as (your name)… but through Christ you are named, Holy. You call yourself '(your name)', and all that means to you all that (your name) is or has done or thinks or feels… but through Christ you are named, Righteous. You call yourself (your name), but through Christ you are Faithful.
And I’m not saying that accepting these names or growing into those identities is easy-after all we are struggling against ourselves and many of us have been wrestling with our identity for years… and most of us by the time we are done, end up with a limp…
But learn from Jacob- keep at it through the night… you know what God has promised, and if you don’t come and talk to me about it. You know what God has told you is true- that God has plans for you to give you a hope and a future, to prosper you and not to harm you- boldly claim that God will always be with you, confidently proclaim that God will always forgive you, will always love you, no matter what… believe those promises and my God… don’t let go… "not until you bless me…"