Seventh Sunday After Pentecost A
July 31, 2011
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’
There's a song by Alanis Morrisette called "Everything." This came out long after her ginormous success with her "Jagged Little Pill" album, but the song is no less powerful. The song starts off with a shocking statement: "I can be a a**h**e of the grandest kind." It starts off basically saying that the person in the song can be a big jerk and they know it.
After that shocking opening, the chorus then moves on:
You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything to which you can't relate
And you're still here
And you're still here. Amazing.
Jacob is wrestling with some unknown person. It's a big time in his life; he's getting ready to meet his estranged brother Esau, who is not that happy to see him. Jacob had tricked his dear brother, stealing both the birthright and their father's blessing. Jacob is stressed about meeting his brother and the night before the big meeting, he ends up having to wrestle.
For whatever reason, these two wrestle all night. At some point the unknown man struck Jacob's hip causing it to go out of joint. The man might have thought that should be the end of that, but Jacob held on. Finally, the man asked for Jacob to let go. But Jacob wants a blessing. The man asks for Jacob's name and Jacob gives it. The man then gives Jacob a new name: Israel.
It was in this scene that Jacob's past and future meet. Jacob was basically a cheat. He cheated his brother, he cheated his father-in-law, he tricked his father. Jacob was not an upstanding person.
Kathryn Schifferdecker explains:
My colleague, David Lose, says, "Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It's about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, (and) our sins. And then we hear the good and gracious news about God's response to our condition, for Christ's sake, no matter what."
David uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of "telling the truth twice." God asks Jacob's name, and he says "Jacob." (The name "Jacob" is derived from the Hebrew word for "heel" and has the connotation of "supplanting" or "cheating.") And that name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been—a supplanter, a cheater, a liar, one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother's blessing, one who had to run for his life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being deceived. That's the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.
But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the callow youth he once was.
I think we like to think of this passage one where Jacob (and the rest of us) wrestle with God. But what if this is also about how God wrestles with us?
God knew who Jacob was. God knew Jacob's less then stellar past. And yet, God blesses Jacob and gives him a new name. God was still there.
God would continue to wrestle with Israel, not just the man, but the nation that bared his name. But God remained, staying in love with God's people even when they spurned God.
The point to remember here is that God is continually wrestling with us. God knows of our own less-than-stellar past. And yet God is still there with us, blessing us and loving us.
And you're still here. Amazing.
Go and be church.