A sermon based on Genesis 32:1-13, and 32:22-31 preached on March 1st, 2105
When I was a resident chaplain at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, I was strolling the hallways of the 11th floor Neurosurgery unit one morning, just taking care of my daily rounds, moving from room to room, bed to bed, saying good morning to some of my regular patients and introducing myself to any new faces I saw.
It was not uncommon for patients to spend months, perhaps even years living on the Neurosurgery Unit. There were patients there who have had profound brain surgeries that left them needing intense monitoring for years on end, and patients with MS whose bodies were failing them more and more with each passing week.
That particular morning, I walked into the room of a man who was recovering from brain surgery. There was a scar that ran from then front of his head to the back. His hair was beginning to re-grow around it.
He and I exchanged small-talk that morning, nothing of note at all—in fact, I could tell from the way we was responding to my questions—his short, disinterested answers and his lack of eye contact, that he didn’t want me there at all. I got the message and I started walking out of the room. I had almost made my way to the door when he shouted at me,
Why do you walk with a limp?
Is it an old sports injury?
Once he asked that, maybe I should have stopped and walked back to him and used his question to start up a conversation, but I didn’t. I just said
No, not a sports injury.
In my head, I had thought of a much more sarcastic response:
Yes, it’s a old football injury from my days as a college linebacker. If it wasn’t for this hip injury, I would have gone pro.
I thought that, but I’m glad I chose not to say it aloud.
I often wonder what got in the way of me turning around and having a conversation with him about why I walked with a limp. Maybe if I had taken the time to do so, he would have felt comfortable opening up to me about his brain injury and his recent surgery, and how he felt about it.
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had, have been with friends and mentors when we somehow began sharing with one another the stories of how we got our scars, and scabs, our birthmarks, and our limps.
I wonder if you’ve ever had a conversation like that, where suddenly everyone becomes comfortable enough to literally uncover their imperfections (as long as they’re in shareable places, of course), and they move from scab to scar telling the tales of each one, moving from top to toe on their bodies.
Every single one of our blemishes, stretch marks, and birthmarks has a sacred story behind it. We are each living, and moving, and breathing testimonies, aren’t we? And our very bodies tell the tale for us. And sharing those stories can be transformational, and sometimes even healing.
Jacob’s story spans the last half of the book of Genesis. It’s way too long to read, or to even summarize, here in worship this morning. It is a story of a man moving from brokenness to healing.
Jacob, as you might recall, had a twin named Esau. Esau was older by just a couple seconds.
As the story goes, Jacob was born holding into his older brother’s ankle. In fact the name “Jacob” means “grabber.” And as Jacob grows up, things don’t change all that much. He becomes a greedy man with a shoddy character. He’s a scroundrel, a fraud, a liar, and a cheat. He’s easy to hate because he weasels his way through life and becomes rich and successful by duping others—grabbing everything for himself —ensuring his own wellbeing even if it’s at the expense of another’s.
But as we get to this point in the story, Jacob becomes intensely afraid that all his swindling has finally caught up to him, because the next morning he will see his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. And there’s no one on earth who realizes just how much of a dishonest a person Jacob is than his brother Esau. And Jacob is terrified.
Take a look at the cover of your bulletin this morning.
This is one artist’s take on Jacob wrestling with God—this mysterious presence that he tangled with all night long.
Jacob is alone at this point—his whole family, his servants, and all of his possessions have been sent ahead of him, to greet Esau and his family and servants—and Jacob is left to himself that night. He sets up camp at the River Jabbok.
It was that night that Jacob wrestled with God. All night long until dawn broke. Look at the chaos of each line in this drawing. Can you see the struggle that both figures are making as they fight one another? Can you see the anxiety of that night? The tension and confusion of it all. It’s there in the text too. This is the very first Wrestle Mania.
There’s a poem about this passage that I’d like to read. It’s by a man named Michael Dickel, and it’s called…
They’ve all gone ahead, those I loved,
those I cared for but did not love—
arrayed and ranked, walking toward doom
or reunion. This bank, this river I have crossed before—
this creek, this life, this wreck on this shore—
all too familiar, all too fresh, all too unknown, all too new.
Now a shadow over the moon, or
perhaps my own doubt
forms as I ford the stream.
Now I wrestle with myself,
with this messenger,
this something of nothingness.
Now the moon fades—
darkness less dark—
what is my name?
Now I limp away
from this tangled life
of deception and counter-deception—
to losses, deaths, uncertainty,
a favorite son sold to the gypsies—
Who will redeem us?
Soon my brother and I will embrace
but keep our defended distance.
Soon nothing will be the same.
Now, I wrestle with God.
Before the sun rose on that long, long night, Jacob and this mysterious presence, this divine messenger—perhaps even the very being of God—they confront one another, and they wrestle to a draw. There’s no clear winner—each gives up something of themselves before they part ways. On Jacob’s part, he refuses to let go until he can wrestle a blessing out of this divine presence. And his mysterious and divine opponent will not let him go unscathed. Before the night is through, God strikes Jacob on his hip—leaving him from that moment on, for the rest of his days, to walk with a limp. Permanently marked.
But a limp isn’t the only thing Jacob walks away with. He also walks away with a new name. Before God lets Jacob go, God gives him a brand new identity: Now, he’s “Israel,” which means “he who wrestles with God.”
See, there’s no way to meet God without being altogether changed. Whenever we have an experience with the divine, we become different people. Our very identities are changed. The hip, though, that’s the very center of our balance. When God strikes Jacob on his hip, God throws Jacob off his balance. Whenever we meet God, we get thrown off our center.
Encountering God permanently changes our stance. When we meet the living God, we will never walk the same way again. Encounters with God change the way we move through the world. This is how Israel is formed: the man, as well as the nation born from him. Israel comes into being by an assault from God.
This Lent, we are being invited by God to explore the dark corners of ourselves, to do our part to wrestle with the dim places inside of us. Just like Jacob, that might mean wrestling with God Himself. That might mean confronting God, mixing it up with God.
This story, as well as the story of Israel throughout the Old Testament, is about a faithful people who, just like Jacob that night by the Jabbok River, stubbornly refuse to let go of God. The bible is filled with poetry and prayers and petitions that demand that God show up and do something, say something, change something in people’s lives.
I think that’s what faith is. Faith is the stubborn refusal to let go of God, to say to God,
I’m going to wrestle with you until you do something here, God—until you show me something new or until you bless me.
That might sound like a scary way to think about faith: confronting God and refusing to let go until God speaks, but that’s exactly what Jacob did that night by the Jabbok River, and if God wasn’t interested in wrestling with Jacob, He wouldn’t have done so in the first place.
I think a healthy faith is one that dares things from God. I think a perfected faith is not about the pursuit of a perfected life. I think a perfected faith is one that dares to ask God, just like Jacob did, to meet us right where we are—in the midst of our chaotic, and blemished, and bruised lives—and bless us. A perfected faith is one that knows both the wrestle and the embrace inherent in loving God and loving one another.
I would like to tell you that from that day on, Jacob’s life was turned around—that he started to act like less of a selfish idiot—but that wouldn’t be true. What is true is that he was changed, in small ways. What is also true is that from that point on Jacob never moved through life the same way. He walked away from his encounter with God with a permanent limp. But he also walked away with a deeper knowledge and a deeper relationship with God.
Most importantly though, Jacob walked away with a new name: Israel. And as he walked away, limp and scars and all—little did he know he would become the forefather of an entire nation of people: Israel: Those who refuse to let go of God.
This lent, I urge you to wrestle your own blessing from God, and see what happens. God might change the very way you walk through this life!
All praises to the One who made it all finds it beautiful!