(For more information on this series, see the Introduction.)
Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on August 6, 2017 at Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Coker, AL, just west of Tuscaloosa. (As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places.) I had the privilege of preaching here several times last year as they are currently without a pastor. I had not been back since December, and it was very good to worship with this faithful congregation again.
Image credit: Edward Knippers
“What is Your Name?”
Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32
Have you ever had a “dark night of the soul”? I’m sure for some of you, the question itself instantly takes you to a vivid memory of a particular time in your life. Maybe it happened for a whole season of your life. Maybe it was an actual night of your life, a night filled with anything and everything but sleep, a night where the dawn never seemed to come.
I’ve known a few nights like this – and, yes, pastors are by no means immune! There’s one night in particular I remember (and I won’t belabor the details now) from my time in Afghanistan as a company commander that I felt particularly anxious, and depressed, and completely alone. Those of us who have been around long enough have had one in some form or another. Maybe it was a long night spent at a hospital with a family member or a friend. Maybe it was a particular time when some sins you had kept secret finally caught up with you – and you were about to have to face some consequences. Maybe it was the night before a particular trial you kew you had to face the next day. Maybe it was a particular moment of doubt or frustration or even anger at God for some circumstance or other you had found yourself.
At the beginning of our passage today, Jacob is experiencing a dark night of the soul. It’s a night that begins with him full of anxiety, fearful that the consequences of his past actions will come to destroy him and his family. It’s a night that begins with him nervous about a particular event that he knew would happen the next day or at least very soon. It’s a night that begins with the stinging pain over a broken relationship with a family member – his own brother! – and the fear that comes with the uncertainty of how this relationship could possibly be restored – if it could be restored at all.
It is a night that ends with Jacob limping; he is permanently wounded from what would take place this night. But it is also a night that ends with Jacob receiving a blessing from God. It is a night that ends in triumph, not over God but with God. It is a night that ends in survival. And it is a night that ends with Jacob receiving a better name, a name that would mark the people of God forever.
Before his new name, Jacob was a trickster, even from birth. His mother, Rebekah, was giving birth to twins and Jacob’s brother, Esau, was coming out first. But Jacob reached out and grabbed his brother by the heel. And that’s what his name literally means, “he takes by the heel,” an idiom that means, “he deceives.” He supplants. He cheats! And almost every Genesis story of Jacob’s life in from his birth up to the scene in our text for today is about how he is able to trick or outsmart someone else, especially to the disadvantage of his brother, Esau. Even though they were twins and Jacob pulled him back, Esau was the older brother and heir since he was coming out of the womb first. But Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright for “a bowl of pottage” – some plain lintel stew. Later, Jacob tricks his own father, Isaac, on his deathbed! He pretends to be Esau in order to receive a blessing from his dying father and gain the inheritance that should be Esau’s.
After this episode, Esau is understandably upset! On the advice of his mother, Jacob flees to work for his uncle (and future father-in-law), Laban. Laban tricks Jacob, Jacob tricks Laban, and Jacob has to flee again. Though Laban does overtake Jacob on the road and they are able to be reconciled as family, there is one looming problem Jacob knows he must face as he journeys back home.
Esau is waiting for him.
Esau is waiting for him with a small army. And Jacob does not know if Esau – even years later – is still mad enough to kill him. And it’s not just Jacob alone anymore; it’s Jacob and his wives and his children and the great amount of wealth he’s acquired by working for Laban. Jacob devises one of his tricks to try to persuade Esau to forgive him, or at least spare him. But even Jacob knows this is not enough. He prays to the God of his father, the one true God, who has promised to bless him and who has made a covenant with Jacob (the continuation of the same covenant God made with Jacob’s father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham). Jacob prays to the only One who can help him in his time of anxiety, the One who would meet him in his “dark night of the soul”:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
Jacob sends his family on ahead of him, and he remains there to pray. Alone.
And God answers his prayer by wrestling with him!
It’s okay for us to point out strangeness of this passage we’re looking at today. There are certainly some aspects of this passage that will make us ask questions, questions for which it is very hard to get satisfactory answers. Here God acts in ways I don’t think many of us expect him to act. We often talk about how God acts in mysterious ways – ways we can’t comprehend or know or understand – but in this passage, God acts very strangely. One of the things that’s particularly frustrating in our dark nights of the soul is our lack of understanding of what in the world God is doing! Why is God doing what he is doing or allowing what he is allowing? Why does God seem to be fighting me?
The strangeness of passages like this are reminders of the strangeness of God himself. The word we have for that is “holy.” God is completely other. God is God and we are not. (Thank God!) And while the knowledge that God is holy may not be comforting in and of itself . . . (Quite the opposite, actually! Jacob is amazed that he sees God face to face – and lives!) . . . when we put this knowledge that God is holy up against something else that we know, the result is deeply comforting. God is indeed completely other, completely holy. But God in Jesus Christ is completely human as well. God is holy, but God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us? Indeed, even in the things God does that seem strange to us, can only be for our benefit. Because God in Jesus Christ has shown us that God does not look at our dark nights of the soul from a distance, like a dad watching his kid’s wrestling match from the bleachers. In Jesus Christ God meets us, gets dirty with us, endures suffering and trials with us…
…And even wrestles with us!
For Jacob this is quite literal. Even though the text is written in the third person, the perspective is not from some narrator. The scene unfolds as if we, the readers, are Jacob. Completely alone, this mysterious man approaches Jacob, and starts fighting him! They fight all night long, which is a bout of endurance and stamina that would put Rocky Balboa to shame! The man sees that he cannot prevail – Jacob is too stubborn to give in. So the man, whom we will soon learn is God in some mysterious way, touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of socket. He does not strike – the word here doesn’t mean that. He touches. It could even be translated, “he barely touches.” The man could not overcome Jacob, but the man could displace a hip with his finger! Yet, even injured, Jacob continues the fight. He will not let go of the man. This mysterious man wants his identity to remain a secret, so he demands to be let go before the rising sun can show his face. And Jacob, knowing that he is fighting a man who is somehow more than a man, asks for a blessing.
In the narrative of Genesis, this makes perfect sense, but to us this might seem like a strange thing to ask. In the time of Genesis, a blessing meant something. (Now, it’s a hashtag on social media!) In the time of Genesis, to receive a blessing – always from someone superior to you – meant some type of material or spiritual gain for you. And in the context of this passage, that meaning might seem a little pretentious for some of us – I confess it does a little for me. In a lot of our churches we react so strongly (and rightly) against the prosperity gospel, so strongly against things that proclaim only the “good news” of health and wealth, that the idea of asking someone – especially God! – for a blessing seems maybe a little self-centered.
But here it is a marker of Jacob’s faith.
Jacob does not give up, he does not turn away, but continues to wrestle this man – continues to wrestle with God! – until he receives the blessing. The blessing he receives is not what the health and wealth gospel preaches. It is a blessing of life-long obedience that requires persistent faith. It’s a kind of faith that Eugene Peterson would call, as he does in his book on discipleship, “a long obedience in the same direction.” It is what we Cumberland Presbyterians – and other members of the Reformed tradition – call the perseverance of the saints.
Anyone who has ever participated in some kind of fighting sport – or even been in a real fight! – can tell you that only a few minutes of fighting are exhausting. That’s why these sports separate these confrontations into rounds with breaks in between. Jacob fought all night long and still did not turn aside. How is it Jacob prevailed over God? He did not abandon God but stayed tightly latched to God – even in the pain of a dislocated hip.
And in a strange way, I am convinced that the only way he could do this was because God was with him. They were fighting, certainly with one another, but the fight was also a fight together. The circumstances of Jacob’s worry, the prospect of Esau coming to kill him, faded away in the midst of this wrestling match with God.
The psalms are prayers to God that say some things that would make a good Christian blush. They express the depths of human anger, worry, depression, anxiety, and fear in a profoundly blunt way. And they are inspired by the exact same Holy Spirit that inspired the rest of Scripture. When in the depths of our human suffering it does us no good to pretend, to hide our emotions, and to act like everything is fine. That is a recipe for self-destruction. The psalms teach us – and even Jacob’s fight with God teach us – that we must turn those emotions upward and trust that God is strong enough to take it! Because he is. And though it may seem like we are struggling with God, God is not angry at us, but remains for us.
Because the real wrestling match between God and human beings was finished by the fully-human, fully-God Jesus Christ. He is God in the flesh, come to earth to help us in the dark night with the consequences of our sin came riding toward us like Esau’s army. And when we fought him and tried to kill him, he laid down his life for us willingly.
And he rose for us triumphantly.
When Jacob fought God and prevailed through his persistence, he was blessed. He was no longer named Jacob – “he deceives.” He was named Israel, “he struggles with God.” The place is renamed Peniel, “the face of God.” Because Jacob had seen God face to face and lived.
Brothers and sisters, we have seen the holy God face to face in Jesus Christ – and lived. Like Jacob, he has given us a new name. The spelling of our names may be the same, but Jesus Christ has changed forever who we are. In Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ, this holy God calls us, “Child!” In Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit of God himself in us we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
When the dark nights come, we can cry to our Father out of the depths. He has given us new hearts, new selves, new names. And though we may walk with a limp after those dark nights (and, indeed, may never lose our limps in this lifetime) we know that we are faster limping with God than we are sprinting on our own strength.
And when the dark nights come, we know that Jesus Christ, our savior and our Lord, has limped there ahead of us. Even in triumph over the grave, he still shows the wounds and scares of his wrestling with humanity. And if he names us his friend, and he does, we can know that no night – no matter how dark – will last forever. He remains here beside us, strengthening us to endure, so that we can see the blessing he has promised to give us in the morning. Amen.