Text: Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
October 16, 2016
Of all the Biblical characters Jacob is the one who haunts my dreams, troubles my imagination, outrages my sense of fair play and causes me to question some of my hardest won theological convictions. Shrewd, ambitious, and totally unprincipled, Jacob is exactly the kind of man who has always done well in our world.
And yet, he is the kind of person I wish I didn’t know. He degrades my humanity and robs my self-esteem. He is one of those persons we just love to hate. Do you remember J. R. Ewing, and Howard Cosell? I could name a few politicians but I won’t go there. Jacob is so much less than he might have been, and so much less than we hoped we might become. In so many ways, Jacob reminds us of who we are.
And yet it is this Jacob/Israel whose name we bear. It is to him precisely that we must look if we are to understand what it is to be the Church. And it is to Jacob that we must look if we are to understand what it means to live with God’s blessing. Without making excuses, without retouching the picture, we must look to Jacob if we are to understand ourselves as the recipients of God’s promise.
The story we heard read this morning about Jacob is a rather typical one. It is ambiguous. It is morally unsatisfying. It is deeply disturbing. It is a story about Jacob’s homecoming, which may have come too soon. Years before, he had fled from the land of promise because of the well-deserved wrath of his twin brother. Poor trusting Esau, a stupid lamb, waiting for a shrewd conniver like Jacob to fleece him. And Jacob, with a sharp eye out for stupid lambs, had been more than willing to comply.
But now it was time, God’s time, for Jacob to return to the land of promise. But he cannot return without facing his brother. Jacob learns that his brother is coming out to meet him. But the news that reaches him does not sound like it is going to be a happy reunion. Esau is coming with an army. Jacob, at last, has come face to face with reality.
Even so, at first he refuses to see it, and responds in a rather typical Jacob fashion. He knows that trickery won’t work this time, so he prepares to use flattery. There will be lots of bowing and scraping, and gifts, tons of gifts. Anything but facing his twin brother as a brother, face to face, person to person, with nothing up his sleeve.
Plans all made, Jacob sends his family on ahead and waits alone as evening falls. But suddenly he is not alone. In the darkness an unknown stranger attacks him. Who was it?
A bandit come to rob him? An assassin sent by Esau? His brother himself? Perhaps a demon? He could not tell. All he knew was that he had come face to face with an opponent who was stronger than any he had ever met before. In the darkness, Jacob’s best weapons, his keen wit and his con-artist smile, were totally useless against this stranger. This was pure physical survival. Jacob had no choice but to hang on or die. As dawn broke, the stranger tricked Jacob and knocked his thigh permanently out of joint. Jacob will live, but he will always walk with a limp.
In spite of the injury, however, Jacob wins something too. He receives a blessing and gets a new name. No longer Jacob the deceiver, but Israel, “the who strives with God.”
Something terribly important happened to Jacob that night. He had been attacked and crippled. He had been blessed and given a new name. But there was something more. Finally, someone had succeeded in getting to Jacob, face to face…the only way it could be done, in an unbreakable wrestling hold, in pitch darkness, where his con-artist smile was useless and where manipulation was impossible.
In the darkness that was purer than day, Jacob for the first time in his life, truly saw a face. A face that was mercilessly inescapable, yet which was full of mercy. A face that could not be put on, painted on, or forced. A face that was truly human, truly redemptive, truly transforming. Jacob had finally come face to face with God.
Maybe it was his limp. Maybe it was a transformation in Jacob’s face that got to Esau, broke him up and made him forget about his armies and his need for revenge. Jacob and Esau would never be the kind of brothers who shared Thanksgiving dinner or played uncle to each other’s children, but for a moment, they embraced, and looked into each other’s face and did not try to do something to each other.
This strange story is first about reconciliation, about what it means to be Israel, about what it means to be the Church. It tells us that there is not such a thing as cheap grace or easy rapprochement. The cheap and easy kind is just play-acting, a worthless imitation. True reconciliation starts happening when people get attacked in the purity of darkness and see things that they have never before understood. It comes when they are encountered by the stranger and get permanently rearranged and have the faces and walk to show for it.
True children of Israel, authentic ministers of reconciliation are those who show the marks of having been wrestled to an absolute standstill. These marks come when there is no longer any possibility of winning or losing, only the possibility of living and being.
Among the children of Israel, only the broken are empowered for reconciliation, only the crippled can truly walk, only the faces that have seen too much can truly speak. Hard as it is to accept, none of this should surprise the followers of a crucified Lord, whose wounded feet has carried him throughout the world, and whose human face has haunted every artist of every generation. Amen.