That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Let us pray. O Lord, like all Israel, we wrestle with you. By sunrise, we come away with a blessing not of the triumphant fist pumpers, but of those who are limping and beloved. Open our hearts to where this story writhes in our lives. Amen.
Do you know this story? In the dead of night, by the Jabbok River, a cheek to jowl struggle rages between Jacob and this unknown other. The wrangling battle only ends when Jacob chokes out a blessing from the stranger just before daybreak. Jacob limps away, forever changed right down to his name. Israel, which translates to the God-wrestler.
This story is ‘epic’ – a word that is pretty overused these days. A hamburger or a playing Minecraft could be really great, but not really epic. An epic is the hero’s journey. And kind of like hero movies in our cynical age and the Marvel universe, the Jacob hero has major flaws that are the main things getting in his way.
This story was already old by the time of Abraham, some 4,000 years ago, and may be as old as humanity itself. If you don’t know this version in particular, I suspect you know a very personal version of it. The night you barely slept at all and confronted what might have been your biggest fear. How all your classic moves were bested, and all that remained was your white-knuckling need and a kind of muscular hope that you clung to like a drowning person. Struggle is too generic a word for this kind of wrestling match. It goes way beyond “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Maybe it’s more like what Kate Bowler said with a chuckle after many cancer treatments, “What doesn’t kill you diminishes you significantly.”
To understand the brilliant depth of this story, we have to know what led up to it. We have to go way upstream from the Jabbok, I guess, to when it was Jacob and Esau and a sibling rivalry for the ages. Jacob, the famous second born, was apparently grabbing on to his brother’s heel from birth trying to get ahead. The name, Jacob, actually means heel-grabber. Which is hilarious, until you think about the power of names, of reputations, how being labeled in your family affects you long term.
Regardless, we are to know that from the first, Jacob was a go-getter. The Bible said he life was in tents, meaning he literally stayed in the tent while his brother, Esau, who was outdoorsy, impulsive, and always sort of red, spent his days in the fields hunting. Esau’s name, get this, meant hairy. Esau was once was so hungry he traded his birthright for red lentil soup. Here are the mental images of opposites. I picture Jacob listening to indie rock and having strong opinions about coffee. I picture Esau with Cabela stickers on his truck and wearing camo. Can you see them? Are you one of them?
Their father, Isaac, had them when he was older. And one day, when Isaac’s skin was paper thin and his eyes were milky blind with cataracts, there was something important he couldn’t put off any longer. We might call it talking through the will, or handing over the family business, but in those days, that transaction required a special blessing. Once it was given, it couldn’t be undone. It was no secret that Isaac loved his big burly son, Esau, more, which always makes me sad to know, and probably Jacob too, but feelings aside, the time came to make things official. And Jacob sensed that moment coming before his brother did.
Jacob wasn’t a liar, per se. An opportunist? Probably. He was someone who had done the moral acrobatics and probably convinced himself that Esau wasn’t up to the responsibility of leadership, such a simpleton, so reckless. And his mother, Rebecca, agreed with him. That might have been rationale enough for him to do what he did, to answer to a name that wasn’t his. What harm was there in that? he wondered. Granted, donning fake arm hair, like he did, to make sure his blind father couldn’t tell the difference was completely shady, but it was strategic. It worked.
And somewhere in a hot tent that smelled of stew, Isaac passed along the blessing to the wrong son, to the trickster, the heel, the go-getter. There are no elevating, obvious and boring morals to be found here. Only two parents who don’t seem nearly as upset about this as their oldest son, Esau, was, who becomes murderously angry when he found out what has happened. I imagine barstools knocked over and the yell of someone who felt both hurt and foolish. And, that’s what led Jacob’s mom to tell him to go hide out for a while until Esau cooled off.
At this point, those who expect the Bible to be just a nice boring fable, assume Jacob will get what’s coming to him. Maybe Esau knocks his lights out or maybe someone in the hill country robs him blind. But no, that was when Jacob dreamt of the famous ladder stretching all the way to heaven, with angels descending. And rather than bellow down a warning, God offered another blessing. “I will be with you.” Up to this point, we see in Jacob a man who is type A, a cool-headed competitor in a cynical world who nevertheless wins. The one who has all the resources and quietly assumes he deserves them. The entitled one who starts to confuse wealth for wisdom. The one who mostly believes God’s presence with him is intended to bring him material and existential comfort.
When people throughout the centuries talk about the “God of Jacob,” we have to wonder… is that what they assume too? God as mascot of the winning team? Or even God as the trophy, hoisted by those who are doing great, and a big vacant place on the shelf when you lose. Many people passively believe this.
Well, wait for it. Many years passed, and life eventually did swindle the swindler, but that was not the interesting part. The interesting part was that eventually this cynical dog-eat-dog world forced Jacob to go back home. To face Esau. A kind of prodigal son 1.0, Jacob was forced live up to these blessings he had taken for granted and cross rivers now without the bridges he burned. And that was when this wrestling match happens. At the ford of the Jabbok river. After he had sent everyone else across, when there were no credit cards or higher ups around to vouch for him.
The questions that pound in Jacob’s brain on a dreamless night are the same big questions we all have: Can this old fight raging in every heart, every family, every country, every faith ever be fixed? If so, how? With an inspiring speech or lots of money? Will it come down intellectual maneuvering that Jacob would probably win or physical violence that he wouldn’t? And the answer is as surprising to Israel as it still is to us. The answer springs out in a dirt and sweat, dead of night, cheek-to-jowl battle. At first, the adversary lets Jacob think he is going to win this, lets him spend all his energy, lets him believe his own press, and then, with a touch to his hip, renders Jacob powerless in the dust, clinging to the adversary like a life preserver in the waves, demanding to know who this is, demanding a blessing because that’s all Jacob knows to do.
And of course, Jacob thinks he is going to see the face of someone awful, the punisher, some sweaty angry retaliator that he can loathe, but instead he sees the face not of death but of love, clear-eyed and fierce, scarred and yet slightly smiling, and it humbled him like love always does. And as he spit the dirt out of his mouth and wiped his lip, a blessing came that could not be grabbed by cunning nor wrenched by force but could only be received as a gift. It was the gift of a new name, a new identity, a new start. It was the evaporation of this big lie at the root of all his struggles, the idea that we could ever find peace through intellectual maneuvering or violence or money or pretending to be someone we’re not or hustling for our worth or blaming our enemies or blaming our past… A muscular kind of love squeezed him out of a breakdown and handed him a breakthrough.
Just before daybreak, the man said, “You are no longer the heel grabber. You are Israel, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.”
The God we encounter here is not boring or moralistic or interested in doling out rewards on one tribe. The God we encounter here is clear-eyed and fierce, older than the rivers and yet with us as we really are right now. God meets us in the struggle, pries open our hands, and gives us all these good things that never come through cunning or force… things like peace, joy, and love. And we greet the dawn limping and winded and yet grateful somehow.
It reminds me of something the poet Mary Oliver said, “Someone I once loved gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to realize that this too was a gift.”
This story pounces on me so often. When I realize I’m up to my old tricks again, Jacobing my way through the week, this story asks if I would even know what grace is if it grabbed me by the shoulders. When I see the hot conflict on the news, this story asks if perhaps we – our church, our country, our world – might be at a moment of a new identity, something more mature than the entitled lonely path we have been on for a long time. When I hear about someone I love who is really struggling, in dreamless nights of thudding disappointment and anxiety, this story stubbornly insists that God is there, real and loving whether we can choke out some creed or not.
The last we see of Jacob, now Israel, he is limping home against the red sunrise. It reminds me of Jesus who staggered out of the tomb, on broken feet and wounded hip, toward Easter morning, with hard-won love on his face and resurrection coursing through his veins. They lost and yet they won…. and that blessing has made its way all the way to us. Not a trophy for the shelf, but love itself that will not let us go.
 The frame of this sermon is deeply influenced by a sermon written by Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, May 1985. https://www.amazon.com/Magnificent-Defeat-Frederick-Buechner/dp/006061174X