by James Nieman
22 The same night he got up
and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children,
and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 He took them and sent them across the stream,
and likewise everything that he had.
24 Jacob was left alone;
and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob,
he struck him on the hip socket;
and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
26 Then he said,
“Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
But Jacob said,
“I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
27 So he said to him,
“What is your name?”
And he said,
28 Then the man said,
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,
for you have striven with God and with humans,
and have prevailed.”
29 Then Jacob asked him,
“Please tell me your name.”
But he said,
“Why is it that you ask my name?”
And there he blessed him.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying,
“For I have seen God face to face,
and yet my life is preserved.”
31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel,
limping because of his hip.
When you came to chapel this morning, what did you expect? Perhaps you were seeking a break, the stillness of this place, a chance to listen and pray. Or maybe you wanted the chance to sing and shout, to praise and rejoice and give full-throated thanks. Some of you came to hear scripture, first the muscular message in 2 Timothy to do the right thing and stay the course, and then this amazing account of Jacob’s nighttime smackdown with a stranger at the Jabbok river. It almost makes it worth getting out of bed to be here. And maybe a few of you now are waiting for a sermon that will wrap all these expectations in a neat package with a big bow tied on top. Well, to the alarm of some and confusion of others, I’m not going to give you one. Instead, I’m going to give you three.
Sermon #1 — Jacob was a fighter. You could tell even before he was born, wrestling and roiling with his brother Esau while still in their mother’s belly. And ever since, the story was the same. One fight seemed to lead to the next, with Jacob struggling and striving to win his place and secure a future. He would be second to none. If getting the inheritance meant cheating his brother, well, that’s just what it took. If having his father’s blessing meant lying to the old man, well, you try any means necessary. By adulthood, Jacob knew how to seize an opportunity, with a well-earned reputation for getting what he wanted—riches, honor, even women. Sure, there were setbacks along the way, a cheating uncle and other family problems, but each only made him tougher, more resilient. At the end of the day, Jacob was cunning, crafty, confident, a fighter able to hang in there and win.
In fact, that’s why he was here, by the Jabbok, at the end of this day. His brother Esau was still steamed at Jacob for getting the family goods so long ago, and now they would finally meet again to settle the score. As usual, Jacob had made his plans and was ready. He sent gifts ahead to soften up his testy brother, then wives and children to calm and flatter. When they actually met tomorrow, though, it would have to be man-to-man. So tonight, Jacob went off by himself to review, to reflect, to focus on the fight ahead. But the fight came far sooner, a stranger out of nowhere attacking, taking advantage of his being alone. Jacob was no stranger to struggles like this, giving as good as he got, holding this stranger at bay. As the fight wore on, maybe he sensed something was up, something out of the ordinary. Maybe this was a test, a vision quest. So Jacob hung on. Even after being deeply wounded, he hung on. So finally, with day dawning, the stranger gave up and gave in, even gave a blessing. The sun rose and Jacob was like a new man, a contender, striding onward. He was ready for anything.
And that’s how you should be. Here ends the sermon. Well, sort of a sermon, though not a Christian one, devoid as it is of any good news. Yes, the details are true, as far as they go, but they surely don’t tell the whole truth. Even so, it is a kind of sermon—one our society preaches every single day. You can be a contender! If you try harder, work longer, stop at nothing, and give it your best, the goods and the glory all can be yours. Even better, God will smile on what you’ve done and bless your achievements. So be a fighter, just like Jacob. Go and do likewise. Which means this sermon is just one gigantic, collectively authorized lie.
Sermon #2 — Jacob was a fighter. That’s what his mother had told him as a child, recalling how he and Esau wrestled and roiled, even in her womb. So at the end of this day, Jacob looked back over a lifetime of struggle and wondered how he ended up here, in this lonely place. There was the Jabbok, a line of sorts between clans, so he was now a migrant in the borderlands, on a dangerous frontier where no one belonged. What was he doing here, alone and at night? Jacob wasn’t some lonesome cowpoke by a blazing campfire beneath an evening sky bejeweled with stars. No, this was an inky, suffocating darkness that enveloped his frame and mirrored his soul. Reviewing all his days up to this one, he could trace a lifetime of struggle for scant gain, not to mention lying, cheating, ambition, manipulation, greed, cruelty, and self-absorption. And yes, also tendency to run, to flee, to hit the road and escape his latest fight.
In fact, that’s why he was here, by the Jabbok, on maybe the last night of his sorry life. Fleeing from his uncle Laban, he was headed straight into the arms of his cheated brother Esau, who along with four hundred of his friends was only too ready to greet him. Jacob, by contrast, wasn’t ready at all. He had done what he could, sending bribes and hostages as a pathetic plea, but that simply left him depleted, vulnerable, alone. And if he wasn’t ready for Esau, he wasn’t ready for anyone else. Unlike Jesus at Gethsemane, Jacob wasn’t off by himself to pray. He was just off by himself. He wasn’t looking for God, only a way out. So right then, God instead came to Jacob, to interrupt his story. At his lowest point, worn out and ready for nothing, just then Jacob received a stranger and the fight of his life, a close encounter of the God kind. And the next day, that’s just how he spoke of this fight he neither won nor lost but only survived, as if he had seen God’s own face but still lived to tell the tale. And along with the struggle came two unexpected tokens: a new name and a deep wound.
So make of that what you will. Here ends the sermon. Well, that’s not much of an ending, though this sermon is more honest than the first. Jacob’s story, his real story, was not about a brave guy whose lifetime achievements were rewarded by a divine sugar daddy, but of a pitiful scoundrel at the end of his rope. And right then, God drew near—first to wound Jacob, and then to bless him. In fact, some Jewish scholars see his wound as a kind of blessing because it exposed a hidden truth. Jacob was now visibly lame, stumbling, unable to flee, and therefore finally, blessedly, completely God’s. Well good for him, but how is his story ours?
Sermon #3 — When you came to chapel this morning, what did you expect? Did you seek stillness and solitude? Did you hope to sing and shout? Did you want an inspiring story, a pep talk to lift your spirits, maybe even a sermon (or two, or three)? Just about two dozen of you are part of Seminary Sampler, so you’re here for yet another reason. You’re seeking, searching, checking us out but also checking out yourself. Is this the right calling, the right place to nurture that calling, a way of life where your gifts can be used in witness to Christ? Well, if that’s what you wonder, I have a secret to share: so do we. I don’t mean we wonder about you. No, I mean that, like you, we all wonder about our callings, our gifts, our growth in this place. Though we barely know each another, we have a lot in common. We’re all finding our way, which is why we find our way to this place on a regular basis.
That’s why I ask again: when you came here this morning, what did you expect? It’s easy to expect only the familiar and ordinary—music and stained glass, artful space and odd clothes, nice people with fresh-scrubbed faces. But when you came here today, did you expect to meet God? Did you expect God to interrupt your story, to pin you to the ground and hold you fast, to expose your wounded, limping spirit, to rename you and claim you as a holy people? If you’ve been listening, though, then that’s already happened. Jacob’s story renames this space beyond our usual expectations. There is our little Jabbok, the water that marks out this borderland, a frontier where we flee from danger to refuge. Though it looks light outside, our hearts know a shadow side, the inky darkness in our lives that longs for a new dawn. And into this space, God sends someone to interrupt us and never let us go, not when we’re ready but because we are unworthy. And this is no stranger but Christ Jesus, God’s own face, who bears our wounds with us and then blesses us with his own lasting life.
To meet God here, in this way, for a blessing, is not due to our prowess or achievement. It’s instead God’s pure gift on this new day—before our seeking, without our earning, beyond our deserving. God knows our deepest wounds and names us a beloved people even so. And so Jacob’s story becomes our own, a word to share beyond this space in every place of danger and darkness. We each have part of a sermon that interrupts the usual expectations. It speaks of a God who will meet us face-to-face in struggle, with hope. And such a sermon doesn’t really end. Instead, in ways that could still surprise you, it’s only just begun.