Jacob, the focus of our reading today, is not a nice person. Jacob is a deceitful person. Jacob has been a liar and maybe will continue to do so. He’s just a real schmooze, always angling for getting something more. A cheater, a liar and a schmoozer who is always in a conflict with someone. He had arguments with his father-in-law, his wife, his brother and as we’ll see, with God. Jacob is one of those characters where it’s always something or other.
His biggest offense, or perhaps the most connected to our story today, is stealing his older brother Esau’s inheritance from their father. This wasn’t inheritance exactly like we know it today even though it did have some similarities. Inheritance went far beyond divvying up the assets when someone dies. It was the foundation for social order in naming who would carry on the family name, who would get the property and a double share of the assets. It was a big deal and being born first, like Jacob’s older brother Esau, was a good thing because you got the inheritance. Being born second, not so much. We still fight over this stuff today so imagine how much more contentious it was in Jacob’s time.
Jacob has cheated, lied and schmoozed to get his father Isaac to give him the inheritance. This, of course, didn’t set well with Esau and Esau wanted to kill Jacob over it. So Jacob has taken flight. He’s been in hiding about 20 years when it comes time to go back home to see his father Isaac. God is directing him to go back. Trouble is, Jacob has to go through Esau’s land to get home to his father’s place. This can’t be good and Jacob is a little fearful about it.
Jacob gets near Esau’s land and sees that Esau is there waiting. Waiting with what appears to be a small army. Jacob sends his wives and servants and everything he owns ahead to meet Esau. There was some bribing and offering going on in an attempt to buy Esau off from being angry. And Jacob was quite wealthy so it is no surprise that he was willing to send bribes and offerings ahead of his running into Esau. Why not buy someone off if it will save your life, right?
So far, so good. But then the story takes a rather bizarre twist and suddenly Jacob is wrestling with an unseen character of some sort. What’s that about?
The story kind of comes from out of nowhere but Jacob finds himself at a crossroads. A crossroads with his estranged brother Esau, who last Jacob knew wants to kill him and at a crossroads with God, who seems to want Jacob to encounter Esau.
Not only does the story seem to come from out of nowhere but it is intentionally vague and ambiguous. It doesn’t describe why the story is there, why it happens at night or who the stranger is. Only that Jacob is wrestling a stranger in the night.
I hate it when the Bible does that. I hate it when the Bible has a story that is intentionally vague and ambiguous. It is annoying but it has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? It has that familiar feeling where faith feels a bit vague and ambiguous at times?
We like things to be clear and black and white but faith isn’t quite so simple. And so we struggle with our faith sometimes. Some times everything seems pretty clear cut but there are other times where we wonder what God is up to. We wonder what God wants from us.
Authentic faith can be dangerous. In today’s story Jacob wrestled with God and got his hip dislocated. I dislocated my thumb playing football way back when and I still remember how that felt. I can’t imagine how it would feel to dislocate a hip.
So Jacob struggles with God and ends up a little roughed up. For us that isn’t really an exciting prospect perhaps especially in an age of ‘Santa Claus God’ where God’s sole purpose in creation is to answer our every desire so that we can be blessed and happy.
The thing is, we don’t encounter God without getting a little roughed up. I don’t mean physically beaten up. That isn’t God’s way with us. But it is difficult to encounter God authentically and not feel a little rough around the edges. It is our encounter with God in the Holy Spirit that we are changed, that we are transformed into new creations in Christ. Change rarely happens without a little roughing up. Transformation rarely happens without a little roughing up.
New carpet in this place is a very good thing. The old carpet got pretty ripe on warm and humid days that weren’t hot enough to keep the air on. This past week hasn’t exactly been a real treat. It was noisy and smelly as they chipped the old glue off and laid down new glue. And the double move everything carpet project was no treat either. But it all needed to happen if we were going to have new carpet. And we’re glad for the transformation even though there where some days it got a little rough around here.
Transformation rarely happens without a little roughing up.
God comes to us. Sometimes God meets us when we’re alone and our life feels like a desert. Sometimes God meets us when we’re in a crowd and everything feels like it is going perfectly. Meeting God can be a little confusing because it isn’t always crystal clear what God is up to and what God wants with us.
The one thing that we can be certain about is that God has come to us one and for all in Christ Jesus and in spite of how everything feels, God has and continues to forgive us because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
In our ongoing encounter with God in Christ Jesus the Holy Spirit works to change and transform us into the creation God desires each of us to be. That’s rarely the person we are right here and now and so our encounter with God likely draws us toward some change and transformation.
And just like Jacob getting a new name after wrestling with God, so too do we have a new name in Jesus Christ. We are, and will always be, a child of God.
That’s a good thing even when transformation rarely happens without a little roughing up.