You can read Genesis 32: 22-31 here.
I’m speaking to you today just a few hundred feet from the banks of the Virginia River that flows just behind the church building here at St. Mark’s on Logy Bay Road, as it flows down to Quidi Vidi Lake. Rivers are hugely important to the sustaining of life, moving nutrients around, providing clean water and food. Rivers are also deeply symbolic, pointing to the connection between the physical world and the spiritual world. Rivers are symbols of cleansing and transformation.
In our story from Genesis today we read of Jacob at the Jabbok River, the story of a strange encounter – a story of personal transformation for Jacob. But this story is not just about Jacob, our ancestor in the faith, it is our story too.
Jacob is a fascinating character in Genesis. His importance is shown by the twenty chapters dedicated to telling his story. And what a story it is!
If you’re expecting a nice, pious story about a devoutly religious man and his family then you will be sorely disappointed. From the very start of his life Jacob is born with a reputation. His name actually means ‘heel-grabber’ (a reference to his in-utero struggle with his twin brother Esau, where Jacob is born after Esau, grabbing his brother’s heel as they are born). It also carries the connotation of usurper, crooked, deceive or follow. Jacob does everything he can to live up to his name. He lives a life of struggle, mistakes and deceit. Jacob puts the fun in dysfunctional.
He has a dysfunctional relationship with his father, Isaac. He tricks his father into giving him the dying blessing that was meant for his elder brother Esau.
He has a dysfunctional relationship with his brother, Esau. He also tricks Esau into giving him his birthright inheritance for a bowl of soup. Fearing his life in a reprisal from Esau, Jacob runs away.
He has a dysfunctional relationship with his overprotective mother, Rebecca. It is she that encourages Jacob’s deception of his brother and father. It is Rebecca that suggests he flee to her family back home.
He has a dysfunctional relationship with his father-in-law, Laban. In Laban, Jacob meets his match. Jacob works for Laban for years in order to be granted permission to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Instead, Laban tricks him with his elder daughter, Leah. He works again for many years before finally being granted Rachel’s hand in marriage. Just imagine how awkward family gatherings must have been!
Yet in spite of all of this, Jacob is still central to the story of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. Despite all his flaws, this crooked trickster is a key figure in the fulfilment of God’s covenant faithfulness to not only the Hebrew people, but all humankind.
In this particular story God has told Jacob to go home. Going home means confronting his past, his mistakes and his brother, Esau. In typical Jacob fashion he has a plan, or better yet – a scheme. He divides up his vast estate into two camps – in case Esau attacked one, he would have something left. He sends ahead an extravagant gift, aka a bribe, to Esau in the form of livestock and other riches. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Finally, with Esau and 400 men approaching, Jacob sends his wives and children across the ford of the Jabbok River. Jacob, though, stays behind, alone. Jacob is no doubt fearful – perhaps the jig is finally up. Perhaps he is once again considering running away.
Suddenly a man appears and Jacob wrestles with this mysterious figure throughout the night. When the man sees that he is not getting the upper hand on Jacob and that daylight is approaching, he strikes Jacob on the hip, knocking it out of socket. Jacob still refuses to let go. Instead he demands a blessing. The blessing comes in the form of a name change. No longer will he be known as Jacob – now he will be Israel. No longer will he be crooked, a deceiver, a follower – instead he will be one who struggles with God and humans, and prevails. The newly-minted Israel asks the stranger his name but the man refuses. As the sun rises, bringing a new day, Jacob limps towards his brother and his future.
This is a wonderful story, filled with many layers of meaning, but it does not give up its meaning easily. One big question is who is Jacob’s wrestling opponent? Who is this man hailing from parts unknown who wrestles with Jacob throughout the night? Is it God or some other angelic being? Or to take a more psychological approach, is it Jacob himself? In a ‘choose your own adventure’ style ending to this sermon, let’s consider both.
If this is a story about wrestling with God, what does it say about our relationship with God? On the surface, wrestling with someone may not be the most spiritual of images for our relationship with God. But think about it – to wrestle with someone is an intimate encounter. You can’t wrestle from a distance; you have to get in close and grab on. Jacob does seem to share the personal relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham did. But it is never neat and tidy, never comfortable, but one fraught with struggle, mistrust and wrong steps. Yet the relationship holds. Somehow in the church, especially in the Western Church, faith has become very sanitized, more about self-help and positive thinking than the striving seen in Jacob’s faith. We have made faith about believing the right things, belonging to the right group, and following the right rules and rituals. But I think we need more of the raw, honest struggle of faith that Jacob shows us. A relationship with God where there is room for questions, doubt and screwups. A faith where we don’t always get it right; actually a faith where we rarely get it right, but yet God remains faithful. Remember that the blessing that Jacob so desperately wanted, finally came to him in woundedness, not in perfection.
If this story is about wrestling with ourselves, I think it means that we have to come to terms with, face-to-face, who we are, to do the hard work of self-reflection. Names in the bible carry great meaning, speaking to the character of the person. So, when the man asks Jacob his name, he is in a way asking “who are you?” I think that question haunts Jacob all his life. If we’re honest, it haunts all of us. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why do I do the things I do? What’s wrong with me? We’re all Jacob. We all wear a mask that tries to deceive those around us, and even ourselves, that we are something that we are not. That we are someone who has it all together and under control. For many of us it’s a mask that was given to us, or better yet forced on us, by a lifetime of people, situations and relationships. Some of it is beyond our control, some of it is of our own making. But the story of Jacob should fill us with hope. This is a story about transformation and enlightenment. Before Jacob can be reconciled with his brother, Esau, he must first face his own demons, his own mistakes. He must face himself. Jacob’s answer to the stranger’s question of ‘who are you’ is much like our own. He has deceived himself into thinking that he is broken, crooked, weak – perhaps irreparably so. Jacob is told that he is not that, but instead something whole, something good, something that is worthy of love and respect. This is what the psychologist calls self-actualization, the mystic calls the dark night of the soul, and the televangelist calls salvation. It is only when Jacob hears and accepts these words that the dawn of the light of enlightenment shines on and in him.
Or perhaps it is both. Maybe in struggling with God we come to see who we truly are, and when we dive deep into ourselves we find God, and the divine image we bear. Whatever the case, God’s grace is present and we are transformed when we encounter it.
Rev. Robert is the Rector of St. Mark’s Church in St. John’s, NL.