One thing for sure, Jacob is persistent, just like the widow in Luke’s gospel who continually bugs the unjust judge for justice, until he gives in! They’re both relentless. They have a dream, a vision, a passion, they won’t let go of until they get it.
Our vision is to be an urban green space, welcoming everyone into a holy encounter where we are changed, that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us. And we continue to pursue it with a passion. We do it both collectively together, and individually on our own, like Jacob.
Jacob, you see, one of the Patriarch’s, is more than a personality. He represents the whole nation, a rather incredible character. And so, not surprisingly, at Theology on Tap last Wednesday, we talked a lot about Jacob. Not everyone remembers his story. Who really is he? Soap opera fans will actually understand it much more easily than history buffs, I’d guess. This is the stuff made of legends. One thing it’s not about is raising up a moral character for Israel and Christianity. Jacob is a conniver, a cheat, a trickster – he steals, and he is a polygamist. And, at the same time, he’s one of the founding fathers of the faith! Is he real, embellished, or imagined? Hero, or goat? Individual person or the whole people?
Jacob is at a crossroads on this night at Penuel. He is about to meet with his older twin brother Esau for the first time in a very long time. Jacob and Esau, opposites as any twins could be, have been at odds ever since birth, when Esau, emerging first, was followed by Jacob, who it is said, was grabbing hold of Esau’s heel! Esau grew in his father’s eyes because he was big and strong, a hunter and farmer. Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favorite, a quiet, introspective home-body, who liked to cook, and apparently absorbed ‘the book’ about relationships, and how to manipulate them, from mom!
Then there is their growing up together as brothers’ story. It happened when Jacob had been in the tent cooking lentil stew one day. Esau came in from the field famished from his sweaty work. And Jacob calmly extorted his brother, using the meal he’d concocted, as leverage to steal his first-born brother Esau’s birthright! ‘Promise me,’ Jacob says, before serving it up. And Esau, deciding that feeding his face was worth the trade, at least in that impulsive moment, swore to Jacob his birthright: a double portion or more of the family’s wealth, when father Isaac died.
But by tradition, it would have to be confirmed by their father. And so, with Rebekah’s help, that’s just what they do! When Isaac is literally on his deathbed – I told you it was like a soap opera! – Rebekah and Jacob get busy scheming. Esau is out hunting for the meal his father requested for his last supper, before blessing him. But Jacob quickly brings his mom some tender veal, to prepare, just as Isaac likes it. Then she takes some of the sheep skins to wrap on Jacob’s arms, in case old Isaac, who is blind, wants confirmation he’s giving the blessing to his older son, Esau, the hairy one. Jacob the smooth skinned, “smooth operator” equipped now with roast veal and Esau-like manly arms, goes into the chamber and successfully cheats his brother once again.
Once it’s done, not even father Isaac can take the Blessing back. And when Esau returns from the hunt, his gift no longer needed, he lets out a primal scream, enraged at his brother Jacob, and plans to take revenge and kill him. But, in the days Esau dutifully observes the mourning of his father, Jacob escapes.
At the urging of his parents, Jacob goes on to marry Uncle Laban’s daughters. But then in a brilliant get rich scheme, Jacob tricks his uncle by setting up what is probably the 1st gene manipulation for profit scheme ever, with his uncle’s sheep! And soon Jacob is on the run again, having alienated another family member, leaving Laban with the weakened sheep, as he absconds with the super strong ones.
Which brings us back to today’s story, the night before Jacob and Esau meet again. So, there’s a lot of water under the bridge with Esau, and Jacob has gotten tired of running. He plans to come home and make up, if that’s possible. He has already mended fences with Uncle Laban, and now, perhaps a bit older and wiser, he wishes for the same with Esau. First he decides to send lavish gifts to appease his brother, a sign he is coming, and a good will gesture, by the ‘smooth operator,’ hoping it may smooth over past hurts.
So, that night, by the Jabbok river, Jacob wrestles a man until daybreak. Was Jacob just dreaming? His whole life is flashing before his eyes, perhaps, as he fears the morning, and meeting his brother again. The wrestling match is a primordial one. Neither can prevail, so “the man strikes Jacob on the hip socket; and puts it out of joint.” But still, Jacob won’t let go – he is persistent. Not until he blesses him. That’s when the man, with the power of God, renames him: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Not bad! Jacob has wrestled, and has prevailed, with God. But for Jacob, that’s still not enough! “Please tell me your name,” Jacob asks him? But he replies, “Why is it that you ask my name?” This question goes unanswered, but continues to echo down to us, today. As we wrestle with who we are, with siblings and jobs, with friends and every kind of oppression, we strive to figure out, who we are, as creatures of God? Jacob names the place, Penuel, which translates roughly, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
So, as Jacob, now Israel, limps away, oddly, he is better prepared to see his brother Esau. He breathes more easily, confident the face of his brother is not his worst fear, having wrestled with, and seen the face of God! Jacob has endured the hardest thing, just like the experience of baptism for us. In the waters of baptism, we know we are drowned of all our past human failings, and we come up out of the waters with Christ, from death to life, having nothing more to fear, because God has given us a blessing. This is how Jacob, limping along, pensive, but not fearful any longer, crosses the Jabbok River to finally face his brother.
Still, as with any of our difficult encounters with one another, Jacob cannot know what will happen next. But walking toward each other, it is Esau who runs out to meet him, just like the father does for the Prodigal Son, and he embraces Jacob and they fall all over each other weeping. When Esau politely declines the gifts Jacob had brought, Jacob insists, because, “to see your face,” he says, “is like seeing the face of God.” “Truly, God has dealt graciously with me.” Jacob is able to see God in the gracious gift of forgiveness from his brother.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and later, the stories of Jacob’s son Joseph, are the stories of Israel’s Patriarchs. And, of all of them, it is Jacob who is central, the one who God continues to love, and who God renames, Israel. Jacob is representative of the whole nation of Israel. Jacob's life of contentiousness, is Israel's stormy history with God. His refusal to let God go in that midnight wrestling match, is the people of Israel clinging to the covenant of Moses. And God's blessing to him, is the Chosen People’s very existence!
We are Israel too, of course. Not literally, not of the same tribe as the Hebrews. But as a Gentile people, a people born of the spirit, we too are a people whose faith comes from Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah. We too are wrestlers! We are persistent like Jacob, and the widow, demanding justice.
Have you ever been contentious or conniving at times, jealous of your brothers and sisters, and willing to use the nuclear-option for your own gain. Have you hurt your sibling or best friend? Cheated them? Or, maybe they’ve hurt you? Do you not talk anymore? How can you reconcile? Do you wrestle with yourself on how that might happen? What risk are you willing to take to find peace?
Jacob teaches us to not let go, even at the cost of a limp, or other scars. Because of the faithfulness of Jesus, and the promise of our baptisms’, we know God will not let us go either. God’s blessing, is our very existence.
Let us gather at the table of blessing, light a candle in thanksgiving, and receive the oil of healing – that in all our wrestling’s, we may be assured of grace and love, from the font of forgiveness.