Saint John’s, Memphis, Tennessee
October 16, 2016
In the Gospel reading from Luke’s Gospel, we hear the story of the persistent widow who pestered the judge who finally gave her justice to get rid of her. Does that mean that God is like a crooked judge? I don’t think so. Does it mean that we should pester God like a poor widow? No, The point is that God is NOT like the crooked judge and that those who call on God do not have to pester God into doing anything. God is always more ready to answer than we are to call.
Perseverance: continued patient effort. Perseverance is a frequent theme in the Lord’s teaching. We think of perseverance regarding our continuing to pray and to continue following our Lord to the place where he has gone. That is certainly true, but I submit to you and me that what is more extraordinary is God’s perseverance – the Holy Ones continued patient effort! Nowhere is this more dynamic more clearly revealed than in the life of Jacob.
We have the key part of Jacob’s story in today’s first reading from Genesis. But first, let me bring us review the story up to this point. Abraham’s son, Isaac, married Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s brother. Rebecca and Isaac had twin boys: Esau and Jacob. The boys struggled in the womb and Esau was born first with the hand of his twin firmly around his ankle. Therefore the second twin was named Jacob or heel-grabber.
The boys grew up to be very different men. Esau was a big hairy guy who liked to hunt and to be out in the field. I’m sure that he had a gun rack or maybe an arrow rack in the back of his chariot. He was sort of a Bubba, and his daddy liked him a lot. Jacob was more of a homebody, and he liked to cook and hang around the tent with his momma. Needless to say, she liked him a lot.
Jacob was a schemer and Esau was a bubba so one day when Esau came in from hunting and was famished he sold Jacob his birthright for a mess of lentils. And then Rebecca hatched a scheme to get Isaac to give Jacob the blessing that rightly belonged to Esau. Isaac was almost blind so when he asked Esau to get him a mess of venison she went into action. She made up a goat stew that would pass for venison, and she put the hairy skins on Jacob’s smooth arms, and so the old man gave Esau’s blessing to Jacob. When Esau learned what had happened, he threatened to kill Jacob. So Jacob skipped town and went to live with Rebecca’s brother, Laban.
Now Laban was even better at scheming than Jacob. Jacob may have been good as a schemer, but Uncle Laban was a master of the art of using people and getting the better deal at someone’s expense. To make a long story short, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Laban’s second daughter. So he married her. But on the wedding night, Laban slipped the eldest daughter, Leah into the marriage bed. And Jacob in his haste didn’t know until morning that he had married the wrong sister. Leah was the sloe-eyed one. We don’t know what that means exactly, but you can count on the fact that it was no compliment. Maybe she had glasses that looked like the bottom of a coke bottle. At any rate for seven additional years, he was already signed up for seven years to marry the first daughter. So fourteen years became twenty-one by the time Jacob had worked off the flocks Uncle Laban “gave” him.
Then it was finally time to go home and face the music. So that brings us to the reading for today. Jacob sent word to Esau that he is coming home. The messenger tells him that Bubba is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men. Jacob is terrified. He divided his company into two groups so that at least one group would likely get away if Esau attacks them. That night he got up and crossed the Jabbok River. He sent both groups on ahead, and he is left alone.
On the way to Uncle Laban, Jacob had slept in the open alone like this night by the Jabbok. He had dreamed on that earlier night of a great ladder that stretched from heaven to earth. Angels were ascending and descending on that ladder. God spoke to Jacob and told him that he would go with him and that he would bring him home again.
Up to this time, gods were localized. If you moved from one place to another, you had to change gods like you have to change addresses. This is an innovation in the god business. Yahweh is not limited by the zip code! I will go with you, and I will bring you back again. So now over twenty years later Jacob is on the verge of returning home. And it was then that it happened. There on the river bank, (Note that crossing rivers symbolize the overcoming of an important personal threshold of experience.) in the night a being suddenly leaped on him. The literal words in the text say, “And there was one.” Some kind of seeming adversary grabbed Jacob. Jacob wrestles all night long. We never really know what the “one” is. Is it God? An angel? Does Jacob wrestle with himself? Today would we call it wrestling with our shadow? Or is it Esau or Esau’s angel that he wrestles with in a prelude to their match on the morrow?
They wrestled until daybreak. The “one” saw that he could not overpower Jacob, so he pressed Jacob’s hamstring so that he was injured.
The “one” said, “let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
He asked, ‘What is your name?”
He replied, “Jacob.”
He replied, “No longer will they say your name is Jacob, but rather Israel, for you have contended with the Lord and with men and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.
This wound is a wound of the spirit as well as the hamstring. It is the sort of wound that you can never be the same again after it. This is what happened to Jacob. This is what happens to all of us in time. All of us are like Jacob. We are all egocentric, or in other words, we want to be the center of the world
Jacob called that place, “Peniel, for I have seen the Lord, face-to-face and my soul has been saved.”
John Sanford says that there are three basic experiences can break down this diseased ego: 1. suffering, 2. coming to care for someone other than ourselves, & 3. the recognition of a power greater than our own will is at work in our lives.
Notice that Jacob does suffer as a result of his choices. Uncle Laban uses him, and that produces suffering. He came to care deeply for Rachel and now by the River Jabbok, which is a pun in Hebrew with the word wrestle, he encounters a power greater than himself. He limps into the future, but he limps with a new name. He is no longer, Jacob/heel grabber, but Israel.
God promises us that he will go with us wherever we go. God promises to bring us back to the land of promise. And many times we will not see God’s hand at work in the world around us, but He is there.
“Elie Wiesel wrote as about Jacob’s encounter with the angel: “Jacob has just understood a fundamental truth: God is in man, even in suffering, even in misfortune, even in evil. God is everywhere. In every being. God does not wait for man at the end of the road, the termination of exile; He accompanies him there. More than that: He is the road, He is the exile. God holds both ends of the rope. He is present in every extremity, He is every limit. He is part of Jacob as He is part of Esau.”
The late Elie Wiesel is correct as a Jewish elder brother that God is in man, even in suffering, misfortune, even in evil. We adopted children of Abraham; We do not have to go looking for God. God came looking for us. We believe that God revealed himself most accurately in the person of his son, Jesus the Christ. Regardless of what happens – Regardless of what we do or where we go God in Christ Jesus is there with us. We meet the risen Jesus tonight here in this communion. Let us bring all our suffering; let us bring those who we love; let us bring all that we are and all that we are not and present them to the One who created us. Remember the words of his son, “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.”
Ego pain is growing pain.