Symbols of a Relentless Grace

by Paul Hooker

A sermon preached at University Presbyterian Church
Austin, TX
3 August 2014

Genesis 32:22-32
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Yr A.

By now, you know the story of Jacob: you’ve listened to it read weekly from this pulpit this summer. You know how Jacob was the younger of twins, issuing from Rebekah’s womb holding the heel of his older-by-a-minute brother, Esau, trying to pull him back and get out ahead. A prescient moment, that; Jacob will spend his whole life trying to get ahead. With slick talk and shrewd dealing, Jacob conned his dim-witted brother out of his right to inherit their father’s property in exchange for a pot of porridge. He duped blind old Isaac into thinking that Jacob was Esau, so that Isaac pronounced upon Jacob the ancestral blessed meant for Esau. And when the ruse was discovered, Jacob had to run for his life, ahead of Isaac’s stunned disappointment and Esau’s murderous wrath. How perfectly Jacob’s name fit his personality—Ya’aqob, from the Hebrew verb, aqb, meaning “to uproot.” Probably a reference to Jacob’s effort to uproot his brother at birth, the name has come to mean “usurper” or even “trickster”—one who acquires by stealth what is not rightfully his. Jacob had the soul of a con man.

And con man he was. Leaving Canaan, Jacob went to Haran, the home of his uncle Laban to labor and live. Jacob tended Laban’s vast flocks of sheep, and in time he married Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob even managed to become a wealthy man in his own right during the twenty years he worked for Laban. But when the time came to leave, Jacob couldn’t resist one last con. By means of a scam worthy of that old TV series, Leverage, Jacob stole a large portion of Laban’s flock, and just for good measure, stole the statues of Laban’s gods, as well. It didn’t take long for Laban to discover the dirty deed, and he set out in pursuit of his son-in-law. Laban overtook Jacob at a place called Mizpah, where for a while the two of them flung threats and epithets at each other, until they agreed to keep their distance from one another. “May God watch between me and you, while we are absent one from the other,” says Laban to Jacob. That’s the famous “Mizpah Benediction” that church youth groups used to recite, holding hands, all misty-eyed at the end of a retreat. Only it’s not a blessing but a threat. Laban is warning Jacob that his own God is keeping an eye on Jacob, and if Jacob ever sets foot in Haran again, even God won’t protect him.

With Laban behind him, frothing at the mouth with frustrated rage, Jacob had nowhere to go but back to Canaan, back to the place where Esau was waiting—the same Esau who twenty years before had howled his bloody intentions at the back of his fleeing brother. As they neared the Jordan River, the eastern boundary of Canaan, Jacob sent some of his servants ahead of him to scout out the passage. They returned with devastating news: Esau had mustered a force of four hundred armed men and had already crossed the Jordan. He was waiting just south of the Jabbok, a small tributary stream that drained the hills to the east of the Jordan, waiting to settle at long last their ancient score. Jacob’s brain must have raced to find a way out, or at least a way to buy time. He gathered all his possessions—all his servants and animals, all his sheep both stolen and earned, and even his wives and children—and sent them on ahead across the Jabbok and into Esau’s hands. They are a gift, he told Esau, hoping somehow to trade his way out of trouble. As the last ox-cart rose dripping up the far bank of the river and rumbled out of sight, Jacob sat down beside the stream—to think, to watch, to hope, and perhaps even to pray. And darkness fell on him there, sitting in silence beside the ford of the Jabbok.

Part of what I love about the Bible is its symbols and images, moments rich with metaphor that explain who we are and how it is with us. For me, the image of Jacob sitting in the dark beside the Jabbok is among the most powerful of those symbols. Jacob is us and we are Jacob, on the run from our misdeeds, dreading our dwindling prospects, and caught in the middle with the blood of broken relationships on our hearts if not on our hands. Our fathers, brothers, and uncles—or our mothers, sisters, and aunts—may live in Tel Aviv or the Gaza Strip, or across the street or in the same pew or on the other side of the bed, but the grievances that divide us from one another are the same ones Jacob contemplated that night as he sat alone by the river. How can we face them—the Esaus of our lives? And if we cannot face each other, how can we ever face God?

I’ve been thinking about that a good deal, lately. As you know, relationships within our beloved Presbyterian Church are torn and tormented. Depending on where you stand on one issue or another, the church has either sought to address itself creatively to issues of the day, like the conflict in the Middle East or human sexuality, or it has abandoned the teachings of the Bible and caved in to societal pressure. As the tensions mount, so has the temperature of the rhetoric, until conservative and liberal, progressive and traditionalist stand on either side of the theological currents dividing us and fling epithets at each other. All the anger and divisiveness seems easy enough to understand in the clear light of day: after all, we’re right and they’re wrong. But when the silent darkness falls and we are left alone with our doubts and brokenness, I wonder: if we cannot find ways to sit in peace with one another, will we ever be able to stand in the presence of God?

The story tells us that, in the middle of the night, God comes to Jacob. “Jacob was left alone,” says the text, “and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.” What a strange sentence that is, how tight-lipped and terse and reluctant to divulge details. Behind those fifteen words, shrouded in darkness beside the Jabbok, lie the elements of the drama: how Jacob expects a conflict, but on the morrow, not at midnight; how the two combatants fought for hour after dark hour, holding on with gritted teeth and white knuckles until the first rays of dawn; how neither Jacob nor the benighted attacker seems willing to knuckle under. All these details—each one itself a tantalizing question—are cloaked in darkness. We are told only that finally his attacker succeeded in dislocating Jacob’s hip—a measure of how violent the fight must have been. Yet even this does not end the ordeal. Jacob will not let go. Somehow this fight is more than a mugging, and Jacob’s goal is not to get free. Somewhere in the darkness reality has shifted, and Jacob is now the one on the attack, holding on and struggling, as if his whole life were summed up in the effort, as it to lose this one battle in the darkness would mean to lose everything he had ever done or been or dreamed. “Let me go,” says the dark assailant, “for the day is breaking.”

“Not until you bless me,” responds Jacob. What a strange response! What a bizarre thing to say to one who attacks in the dark. Who is this one cloaked in mystery, to whom Jacob clings for dear life, and why is his blessing the prize?

He is a man, some say; others that he is angel or demon. But the truth is that, by the end of the fight, Jacob himself identifies his attacker, and he is God. “I have seen the face of God,” says Jacob, “and lived.” That image is a hard one to swallow; God as a mugger in the darkness. But the text leaves us no other options. God comes to Jacob in Jacob’s moment of crisis, but hardly looks or acts like God. God comes to Jacob, but not to comfort or cosset. Rather, God comes in the darkness, full of fight and struggle. What are we to make of a God like that?

I want to suggest that here we stumble upon another of the text’s symbols. Jacob’s nightlong struggle—no, more accurately, his lifelong struggle—with all the people who have populated his life—Isaac and Esau, Laban, Leah and Rachel—is in the end a struggle with God. He holds on with such desperation because he knows that only blessing can heal his brokenness. If he loses this midnight fight, if God escapes without blessing him, then all is lost and there is no tomorrow.

Is it any different with us? I suggest that nothing less is true of our own struggles with each other, especially our struggles in our common life in the church. The longer we wage holy war on each other, launching proof-texts like cruise missiles from the cover of our like-minded communities and aimed at the heart of each other’s beliefs, the longer we claim a truth we do not possess and assert a righteousness we do not deserve, the more desperate is our quest for the blessing that is the remedy for our brokenness. Without that word of divine approbation, all is lost and there is no tomorrow. And so we fight, white knuckles and gritted teeth, holding on to the hope of blessing. To fight with each other is to fight with God. “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

“What is your name?” The Dark One’s question is another of the story’s surprises. Does God not already know Jacob’s name? Surely, God knows. And just as surely, Jacob’s name is the key to meaning. Jacob answers, for once in his long, self-deceptive life, with the truth: I am Jacob, the Uprooter, the Usurper, the one who takes what is not his own.

“Then your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” And at last we come to the heart of the matter. Jacob’s new name is another of the text’s symbols. Israel derives from a Hebrew verb that means “to struggle,” “to persevere,” “to persist.” The story gives us the meaning. Jacob is Israel, the one who refuses to yield, even in extremity, even when the dawn is breaking, even when it is God who insists on being released. Jacob is Israel, the one who struggles with God. And that is his blessing. It is as though God were saying, I bless your struggle, your dogged persistence, your refusal to abandon the quest and settle for less than the truth. God blesses the struggler for the sake of the struggle.

But there is more here, if we linger a bit. You see, there is another way to understand the name, Israel. It may refer to Jacob’s struggles, but it may also refer to God’s. The name can mean—indeed, I think more likely means—“God struggles,” “God perseveres,” “God persists.” It can surely refer to Jacob’s grip on God; it can just as surely refer to God’s grip on Jacob. As dogged and persistent as Jacob is, no less dogged and persistent is the God who, from now on, will be known as the God of Israel, The God of the Fight.

And once again, the story is offering us a symbol. God and Jacob, God and Israel—God and we—are locked in a struggle that lasts the long night of human life until the dawn of God’s bright morning. We are locked in a struggle, but we are locked together, each gripping the other so tightly so that we cannot be separated. We hold onto each other in this dance of faith and fight. We live in a relentless quest for blessing; God comes in relentless grace. It is a grace that never loses its grip, never gives up or gives in, never abandons us as unimportant, never concludes that it would be better to part company and go our separate ways. That relentless grace comes to us in the dark of night, an unexpected assault from an unanticipated assailant. It invades our sublime self-confidence, it forces us into relationship with those we most fear. It exposes the inconvenient truths that undermine our most sacred conclusions. It is most often the very opposite of the sweet peace and clarity of purpose we most crave. But it comes, this relentless grace. The profoundest truth of this story is that God’s blessing is not the end of the struggle; it is the struggle. God lays hold on the church—the whole Church, left and right, conservative and liberal, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, supportive of same-gender marriage and opposed—lays hold of all of us in the midst of our dark divisions, and will not let us go, until the light of God’s bright morning dawns, and we see that we cannot let go of one another because to let go of each other is to let go of God.

One last symbol. As dawn broke full above the Jabbok, Jacob arose and went across the river to meet Esau and the future. He went with a new name and a new understanding of himself and his God. And he went, says the text, limping. He limped because his hip was out of joint. He limped because it is no easy thing to be blessed by God. He limped as a sign that the blessing of God is not a reward for the righteous, but a scar for struggler. He limped, says the text, for the rest of his life.

My friends, God’s people are always limping. We limp because we struggle—with each other, with ourselves, and with God. We limp because those who struggle are wounded in the fight. We limp as a sign to the world that we are blessed. If we are very fortunate, we will limp for the rest of our lives. May the God of the Fight so bless us all.