Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon; Proper 13A; Genesis 32:22-32

Last week we heard the story of how Jacob ended up with Leah and Rachel as wives.  And as I said last week, the conflict found in Leah's struggles to find love, the fertility wars between Leah and Rachel, problems with Laban and more continue to define Jacob's life.

This week, as with two weeks ago, Jacob is alone for the night.  And, as with two weeks ago, he is once again visited by God.  But this time the direction is reversed.  Instead of running from Esau and certain death, he's running to Esau and a very uncertain future.  After 20-some years, four wives, twelve children and an accumulation of wealth, God tells him to return to the land of his ancestors and his kindred.  And while Jacob may have welcomed God's call to get out from under Laban's control and return home, it means that he will have to face the brother who wanted him dead.

In a foreshadowing of the Exodus, Jacob and his family escape from Laban as Israel will eventually escape from Egypt, including the plundering of valuables.  While traveling, Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau to both lay the groundwork for repentance and to see how Esau might react.  The messengers return to Jacob with a good news/bad news situation:  “The good news is that Esau is coming to meet you.  The bad news is that he's coming with 400 armed men.”

Jacob goes into survival mode and divides the people, flocks, herds and camels into to companies, hoping that at least one of them might escape with their lives.  And he prays.  He reminds God that it was God who called him here.  He notes his unworthiness before God.  He thanks God for all his blessings.  He prays for deliverance.  And he reminds God of the promise made.

This is a tense time for Jacob.  He remembers what he did to Esau, and it's most certainly true that Esau also remembers.  Jacob may be feeling regret here, but he's also looking to mitigate the harm he may potentially receive.  He is treading on dangerous ground and he knows it; which is why he has begun making contingency plans and why he prays.

Besides dividing those with him into two companies, he further divides the group, sending one section ahead in separate divisions as a peace offering.  And then he moves his immediate family to a place of safety leaving him alone to ponder and contemplate how he got here and how it might turn out.  And it's here in this place, alone and in the night, where he meets God face to face.

But this is no ordinary meeting.  This is not the Lord coming to Abraham and announcing Sarah's pregnancy over an afternoon meal.  This isn't Gabriel coming to a young girl assuring her that God will be with her.  Nor is this a godly encounter manifested in a wonderful dream.  This is an encounter with the Living God, the God who can't be named, the God who will inflict on Egypt an awful terror, the God who curses and blesses.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out, “He's not a tame lion.”

The meeting between Jacob and God was a struggle that lasted all night and into daybreak.  And while not an exact parallel or foreshadowing, I am reminded of another night struggle in a garden that lasted well into the night in which the one doing the struggling was irreversibly and irrevocably changed.

What was that struggle like?  One reading is that Jacob, not knowing with whom he was struggling, was fighting to win and not willing to submit any part of his person to this stranger.  God, on the other hand, was struggling to get Jacob to see that he needed to submit while also struggling not to kill him.

Regardless of the details, Jacob wrestled all night and into the dawn with God.  Even though there was the incident with Abraham arguing God down to ten men at Sodom, Jacob is the first man to really struggle and wrestle with God.  He certainly wasn't the last.  And in that struggling and wrestling, Jacob was irreversibly, irrevocably forever changed.

Certainly there were topical changes.  Jacob's hip is put out of joint, causing a life-long limp.  And his name is changed – not just modified as with Abram/Abraham – but changed to Israel.  Jacob, the trickster and supplanter, now becomes Israel, the one who contends with or struggles with or is preserved by God.  The meaning of the name isn't important.  What is important is that Jacob was forever changed.

In this encounter, God is doing a new thing.  Whereas before God ordered and humans obeyed (relatively speaking) – build an ark, move to a new land, sacrifice your son, return to your homeland – there is now the seed of something more.  Now both God and people are tested.  Now both struggle.  In this struggle a new, wonderful and terrifying intimacy occurs.  In this struggle, Jacob/Israel was forever changed and marked by an encounter with the living God.  And in this struggle God was forced to deal with his creation in a way that both damages and heals.

It just might be that in this story we are given the seed of the Incarnation.  It is said that the Incarnation accomplished two things.  First, it brought God to earth and allowed for the experience of being human.  It allowed God to experience creation from the side of the created.  And second, it gave us an example and conduit of how we could live to experience God fully.  It allowed us to see what we were created for.

In this struggle, God is still God and Jacob is still Jacob.  But the relationship changes.  God is changed.  Jacob is changed.  They are the same, but different.  God is the God of all that is, seen and unseen; but God can now be challenged.  Jacob is still husband, father and brother, but he is now Israel and visibly marked as having an encounter with the living God.

Where are you in your relationship with God?  Jacob/Israel was in a different place at daybreak than he was at nightfall.  Is our relationship with God changing and evolving, leaving us different and marked?

Part of proclaiming that we worship the living God means acknowledging that things can and do change; for only that which is not living remains the same.  If we think of God in the same terms as we did five, ten, twenty, fifty years ago, then maybe we aren't worshiping God as much as we are worshiping a God-shaped idol of our own making.

Where have you struggled with God?  Where has God come to you and forced you to wrestle with him?  Where has God touched you in a way that everyone around knows you've been changed?  Where is your limp?  And if you aren't sure, maybe it's time to pick a fight.



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