Bound to God

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's, Stone Harbor
Proper 24C - October 21, 2007

Last Monday night at our Journey in Faith class, we discussed a fictitious scenario - Joe’s dilemma. The story went like this:

“As assistant department manager, Joe has become aware that his boss, the department manager, has recently been submitting to the divisional general manager monthly reports that “stretch the truth” so as to make the department’s cost performance record look better than it is. Joe disapproves, but is not in a position to protest, so he keeps silent. Then his boss is sent away for two months on temporary assignment to another city, and Joe takes over as acting manager. If Joe submits a 100% accurate report for the months he manages the department, it will make his performance look poor and hinder his chances for promotion. He will also have to account to his boss upon her return. Such a report could stimulate an investigation from above that would reveal his boss’s tampering with the truth, but blame placed upon her might rub off on Joe, her right hand man. On the other hand, Joe doesn’t feel right about following precedent and deliberately distorting the truth.”[1]
Most of us would be quick to jump in with advice for Joe; in our experience we know just the thing he should do to get himself out of this tricky situation. And some of us, when we have a dilemma of our own, are grateful when our friends quickly jump in with their suggestions and clear solutions to a situation which seems to baffle us.

In some ways, it can be comforting, I suppose, to know that your dilemma has an easy answer – that you were just too close to the conflict to see the clear way out. And, as I read the story of Jacob this week, having the discussion of Joe’s dilemma still in my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jacob hoped for just such a helpful friend to come along – someone who could tell him how best to ensure a successful outcome for his upcoming meeting with his brother Esau who is coming to meet him with 400 of his men.

You may recall that Jacob and Esau have a troubled past. From before their birth, the Lord told their mother Rebekah “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.”[2] The twin boys could not have been any different from one another – Esau, we are told, “was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.”[3] Now, as Esau was the firstborn of the twins - the eldest - he was entitled to certain birthrights. One day he came in from the fields and was hungry. Jacob, who had been cooking, offered to give Esau some of the food he was preparing in exchange for those birthrights and Esau agreed.[4] Later, when their father “Isaac was old ad his eyes were dim so that he could not see,” asked Esau to go out and bring back some choice meat for his father so that he could receive his father’s blessing before he died. Rebekah, having overhead this request, has Jacob kill a lamb from their flock so that he can trick Isaac and receive the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob, therefore, receives his father’s blessing through trickery and deceit. Now, for Esau, this is the final straw in their ongoing conflict and he vows to kill Jacob at the first opportunity he gets. Hearing of this, Rebekah warns Jacob and Jacob leaves home and goes to her brother .[5]

And this is the last encounter between Esau and Jacob for the next 20 years – where today’s reading picks up.[6] As Jacob returns to the land where Esau has been living, it is for very good reason that he is fearful. Even sending his messengers ahead with the news of his wealth which he is presumably willing to share with Esau may not be enough to heal the brokenness between these two brothers and so Jacob, understandably “was greatly afraid and distressed.”[7] After ensuring his family’s safety – by sending them across the stream at Jabbok – Jacob “was left alone.”[8] With all of this history, you can perhaps imagine Jacob lying there on the banks of the Jabbok praying for someone to come along to tell him just what he should do to ensure the meeting with his brother Esau goes well or, if not well, then to tell him what strategy would ensure he would come out on top in any battle. But that is not what happens. Instead, God appears, as a man, and together they wrestle until daybreak.[9]

One might ask, “What kind of answer to prayer is this?” You might even wonder, “Is it an answer at all?” Terence Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, has this to say about the encounter: “Jacob prays for deliverance from Esau; [but instead] God delivers Jacob from God.”[10] In the morning, Jacob will still need to face his brother Esau for that conflict has not been resolved in this all-night struggle with God; and so, on the surface, we might presume that Jacob’s situation has not changed. But this, I believe, is the gift of this reading. Because it gives us an example of one of the ways in which God is with us, wants to be with us. Jacob has always played by his rules – trickery and deceit – and, to date, those rules have served him well. But Jacob’s fear comes precisely at a time when he doubts that his quick thinking is going to be enough in the face of Esau’s approach with 400 men. Jacob is vulnerable. And it is in this moment of vulnerability that God comes to him – not to solve the problem, but to wrestle with him, to remind Jacob that they are bound to one another. Think of that wonderful image of Jacob, literally holding onto God, refusing to let go of him unless he receives a blessing. Jacob alone has the power to release God – because God has chosen to be human in this encounter; yet God alone has the power to grant a blessing. Thus they are bound together. This is a God who does not want to swoop down from heaven and make everything better for us. This is, instead a God who wants us to be mature in our faith, and promises to wrestle with us until dawn as we struggle to determine the right course of action. And it is a God who ultimately promises us that whatever decision we make and whatever the outcome, the bind between us and God is secure.

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn based on this story called “Wrestling Jacob.” I’d like to close with just a few of its verses:

COME, O Thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see,
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee,
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

Yield to me now – for I am weak;
But confident in self-despair:
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquer’d by my instant prayer,
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me, if thy name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I,
On Thee alone for strength depend,
Nor have I power, from Thee, to move;
Thy nature, and thy name is Love.[11]

God promises us that whatever decisions we make and whatever the outcomes, the bind between us and God is secure.

[1] Setting Our Hearts: Progressive Faith for a New Era, Teachers’ Manual, edited by Kathleen Pakos, (Cambridge, MA: The Center for Progressive Christianity, 1998), p. 42.
[2] Genesis 25:23a.
[3] Genesis 25:27.
[4]Genesis 25:29-34.
[5] Genesis 27:1-28:2.
[6] Genesis 31:38.
[7] Genesis 32:7.
[8] Genesis 32:22-23.
[9] Genesis 32:24.
[10] Terence E. Fretheim, “Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. I, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 569.
[11] Charles Wesley, “Wrestling Jacob,” The Oxford Book of English Verse accessed online at Digital Poets Society, on October 20, 2007.