Pentecost 9A: “A Wrestling Match & A Christening”

Readings

  • Genesis 32:22-31
  • Psalm 17:1-7, 15
  • Romans 9:1-5
  • Matthew 14:13-21

You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

Once again we find Jacob on the move.  A the beginning of chapter 32, just prior to our reading, Jacob, having, stayed for many years at his uncle Laban’s house, has a large family of his own: four wives, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah – and at least eleven sons, and countless daughters.  And he has amassed a large collection of men and animals – he has become a wealthy man.

At this point in his story, it has come time to return home to the land of his father and grandfather – the land where his brother Esau resides.

Prior to today’s reading, we find some important details.  Jacob sets camp and sends messengers to his brother, Esau, asking him to receive Jacob and all that Jacob brings with kindness.  The messengers return and tell Jacob that Esau is coming and he is bringing 400 men with him.

Jacob remembers the last thing he heard Esau say.  Death was coming.

Genesis chapter 32, verse 7 tells us that “Jacob was terrified and felt trapped.”  So, ever the one with a plan, divides his camp in half.  He hopes that if Esau destroys the first camp, those in the second will survive.

Then Jacob does something else – he prays to God:

“Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ 10 I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. 11 Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. 12 You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’” [Genesis 32:9-11, CEB]

Jacob is panicking.

Dissatisfied with the prayer and the division of camp, Jacob then sets about creating a gift.  Jacob amasses the stuff of the gift he wants to give Esau: female and male goats, ewes and rams, camels and their young, cows and bulls and female and male donkeys.

Then, he instructs his servants how to approach Esau with these herds of gifts.  Divided by herd type, different groups, with very large spaces of distance between each group.  Each herdsman is to explain that they are a gift and that Jacob is coming behind them.  Then, he settles down for the night.

Only, Jacob is panicking.

He gets up in the middle of the night and gathers up his immediate family.  Wives, children, and their servants and everything that belonged to him – and helped them all across a river.  And, only one goes back.  Jacob.

And between himself and his approaching brother: a river, his immediate family and everything that belongs to him, five different herds and servants with each, and rapidly closing space.

I get the feeling that the writer of this story wants us to really understand what kind of a guy this Jacob is.  He lives up to his name – ‘heel grasper,’ ‘overreacher,’ supplanter.’

Back on the far side of the river, Jacob settles down to spend the rest of the night alone.  The last time that Jacob spent the night alone, he was in a similar situation in the place known as Bethel, having barely escaped Esau.

With the threat behind him, God visited the sleeping Jacob and promised even more blessings to come — land, generations of descendants, protection.  On Jacob’s return trip home, God once again takes advantage of the brief moment of solitude, a moment when Jacob is most exposed and vulnerable, to reveal God’s self.[1]

God leaps on a panicked Jacob, and they wrestle.  This is a battle of the physical, the mental, and the emotional.  It is so much more than a test of strength and skill.  Yet, Jacob finds himself holding his own, being able to keep pace if not actually overcome his adversary.  And though there isn’t really a victory, this does not mean that nothing has happened.

Jacob emerges from the night changed in two significant ways: Jacob earns a new name, and a new wound.[2]  These are important, so let’s look at the wrestling match a little deeper.

They struggle all night until as the sun comes up, and as the opponent’s strength ebbs, it reaches out and dislocates Jacob’s hip. That’s when Jacob knows – this is no ordinary opponent – he is the presence of something supernatural.  With the rising sun, his opponent asks to be let go, but Jacob holds on.  Not letting go until he gets a blessing.

“So, the wrestler asks Jacob’s name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, no clan, nor people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, ‘Yaaqov.’”[3]

Jacob.

But names in the ancient world are never just names.  We know that they are descriptors and indicators of one’s very character.  Jacob’s name – literally, “heel” – is no exception.  Jacob was the one who was grasping at his twin brother’s heel as they were born.  Jacob is the one who has been grasping ever since – living from his wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every step of the game.

So when the opponent, who turns out to be God, demands that Jacob name himself, God is asking for a true confession of the heart.  God is asking Jacob to face the truth of the life he has lived this far, to confess everything about himself – the ill-gotten gains, the checkered past, his fears and failures, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions. [4]

The really cool part of this story, I think, is what happens next.  God refuses to accept that Jacob’s confession is the end of the story.  God refuses to let Jacob’s name be all that there is to him.

No longer is he Jacob, he is now Israel.  Indeed, God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed.  It is an action of generosity and grace – of forgiveness.  Though Jacob has wrestled, he has hardly prevailed. Yet, there is something poignant there.  In our struggles, we emerge changed, especially in our struggles with God. [5]  “Especially when the One whom we wrestle with is the One whom wants to see us grow, to see us flourish, to see us redeemed, the One who loves us beyond all comprehension or understanding.”[6]

David Lose, one of my favourite theologians, in speaking about this text, reminded me of the poignancy of Confession & Forgiveness as well as Baptism.

Not to put too much of a Christian lens over a Hebrew story, but it’s interesting to me that Jacob passes through a body of water three times in this story.  He confesses who he is and what he has done to the face of God, and emerges in the breaking dawn with a new name and new future.

“This is just what happens at baptism, when we are given through water and the word the name of Christ.  It’s where the popular word ‘christening’ comes from. Way before we used this word to name ships or homes, it described Holy Baptism, the place where we were, quite literally, Christ-ened, given the name of Christ and God’s promise to regard us always as Christ.”[7]

We are a people gathered by water, we’re given a new name.

Recognizing what has happened, Jacob names the place ‘Peniel’ – meaning ‘face of God’.

And with that, with this new name, Jacob enters into a new future, and passes his name, faith, and future on to his descendants, who bear that name even unto this day.[8]

What happens next is also really cool.

Jacob rearranges his family, his company of people, and walks forward past them all, and goes ahead of everyone to meet his brother, Esau, and his four hundred men.  I wonder if, even after everything that’s happened, there might still be some fear in Jacob’s heart as Esau runs forward and towards him.  But, “instead of striking his brother, Esau grabs him in a bear hug, kisses him, and then weeps. It seems Esau does not bear grudges.  It is a scene of reconciliation, a scene of gracious welcome, and overwhelming relief. One can imagine both brothers sobbing, holding on to each other to keep from falling down. And somehow, this encounter, this reconciliation, is for Jacob something like the encounter he just had at the Jabbok”[9] because “Jacob says that seeing his brother’s face is like seeing the face of God.”[10]

Today’s story is pretty straightforward: Jacob spends the night alone.  He wrestles.  He converses with his wrestling partner.  His name gets changed and he gets blessed.  He names the place.

But in the story we find still more information about our relationship with God.

God blesses us with increasing awareness of divine presence that convinces us we are never alone.

God was there with Jacob through it all.

And, Jacob, still wounded, even after the wrestling match had concluded helps us see that sometimes life leaves us troubled and challenged as well.  But, that doesn’t change the truth that God is here and there and everywhere with us, too.

And just as each step Jacob takes is marked by the divine touch,[11] God blesses us in the wrestling matches of all challenges, all pressures, all stresses, all tensions. They are there and so is God.

Let us pray,
God, we come with praise and gratitude.
Thank you for your word, for speaking to us anew today.
In faith and trust, we open our ears and minds to you.
We know you are with us in the rush of life.
God, you see us as we truly are, with our secrets and shames, our dreams and hopes.
We crave your blessing and direction.
Bless us, as you blessed Jacob, with perseverance to find new ways of living in your peace, and in the wisdom of your Spirit.
We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Kirsten Abbott. Wrestling at the Jabbok.
  2. Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Reading, July 31, 2011.  org
  3. Mendy Kaminker. “Clash of the Titans: Jacob and the Angel.” Parshah: Vayishlach.  org
  4. David Lose. “Tell Me Your Name.”  Dear Working Preacher: July 24, 2011.org
  5. Geoff McElroy. “August 03, 2008 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.” Desert Scribblings.
  6. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading, August 03, 2008.  org
  7. Amy Merrill Willis. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading, August 03, 2014. org

This week’s image is entitled, “Jakobs kamp med englen,” created by Oluf Hartmann, in 1907.  The image is public domain.  You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Amy Merrill Willis. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading, August 03, 2014.  WorkingPreacher.org
[2] Geoff McElroy.  “August 03, 2008 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.” Desert Scribblings.
[3] Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Reading, July 31, 2011.  WorkingPreacher.org
[4] David Lose.  “Tell Me Your Name.”  Dear Working Preacher: July 24, 2011. WorkingPreacher.org
[5] Geoff McElroy.  “August 03, 2008 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.” Desert Scribblings.
[6] Geoff McElroy.  “August 03, 2008 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.” Desert Scribblings.
[7] David Lose.  “Tell Me Your Name.”  Dear Working Preacher: July 24, 2011. WorkingPreacher.org
[8] David Lose.  “Tell Me Your Name.”  Dear Working Preacher: July 24, 2011. WorkingPreacher.org
[9] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.  “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading, August 03, 2008.  WorkingPreacher.org
[10] Kirsten Abbott. “Commentary.” Wrestling at the Jabbok
[11] Wil Gafney. “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Reading, July 31, 2011.  WorkingPreacher.org

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