“Face time… out of joint”
When Tessa graduated last year, we all gathered at St. Mary’s College to witness and celebrate. All of us, that is, except Mitch. He was in Colorado. Except… He was also at St. Mary’s by virtue of Tyler’s cell phone, using an application called “FaceTime.” This “app” allows you not just to talk over the phone, but also to see each other as you talk. Thus, with phone held high, Mitch was able to witness his little sister processing down the center aisle as the orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance.” He could also wish her well after the ceremony.
There is hardly a lot of “Pomp and Circumstance” in the Genesis story of Jacob. This Bible character begins his life grasping for a place in this world, the second-born son – and thus last in line for family wealth and blessing – of the patriarch Isaac and his wife, Rebekah. In his first face-to-face encounter (as remembered in Genesis) with his older-by-a-few-seconds brother, Esau, he tricks his twin with some soup (Genesis 25:29-34). Later, face-to-face with his blind father as the latter lay dying, Jacob manages to trick his dad into thinking he is Esau, and thus receive the first-born’s blessing (27:1-40). Rather than face the music of his brother’s anger, Jacob then runs away to find a wife among his parent’s people (27:41-28:5). Are you following me?
Along the way he has a dream of a stairway to heaven, and the morning after he takes some baby steps toward a mature faith in his father’s God. “If you will get me through the path ahead and bring me home safely,” he bargains with the unseen Almighty, “then you will be my God.” (28:10-22) … Well, it’s a start … Jacob’s journey leads him to the tent of his mother’s brother, where he is smitten by Laban’s daughter, Rachel. He agrees to work seven years for Laban in exchange for the hand of Rachel in marriage (Genesis 29:1-20). However, Laban has a few tricks up his sleeve, and sends Rachel’s older, unmarried sister, Leah, into the nighttime dark of bridal tent once those seven years are finished. Can you imagine Jacob’s surprise in the morning when he wakes up face-to-face with someone not the object of his desire? (29:21-25) Are you hearing a few common themes as we travel quickly through this old, old story?
Having met his match in uncle Laban, Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel (29:26-30). Along the way, however, he manages to trick his in-laws out of flocks and other possessions, and runs away once again, this time toward home (30:25-31:21). Mind you, there’s a lot I am leaving out in this brief re-telling, like the birth of eleven sons, only one of them to his beloved Rachel (29:31-30:24). Father and son-in-law do meet face-to-face on the way home, and Laban squeezes a promise out of Jacob to treat his daughters and grandchildren well (31:22-55). While this isn’t exactly a reconciliation, it is an agreement between Laban and Jacob to leave each other alone. From this covenant, we have derived this benediction: “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other” (31:49). It is here a preventative watching, making sure we don’t harm each other. Are you still following me? I know, it’s a long story.
Thus we approach this morning’s episode. Jacob, along with his wives, children, servants, flocks, possessions, are headed back to his parents and brother. Now, I know that I said Isaac was on his deathbed earlier, but apparently that took a bit longer than expected. His death is not for three more chapters (35:27-29). What is immediately in front of Jacob however, is facing his brother, Esau. They had not parted well. There was no “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.” Many years had passed. Was Esau’s anger still hot? Did his vow to kill Jacob still stand? That’s the fear behind this episode. Word made it to Jacob that Esau was on his way to him with four hundred men (32:6). “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord,” he prayed, “deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother … for I am afraid of him (32:9, 11).
To appease his brother, Jacob sent his wealth and his family ahead of him. Thus, he is alone beside the Jabbok river. There is no dream of a stairway to heaven on this night, no angels ascending and descending, just a man to meet Jacob face to face. Who is this man? We are tempted to think this man represents the demons of Jacob’s life: his dishonesty, his tendency to trick his way along, his fears. He has been running away for too long. Does he even know how not to run? This man may represent all of this. Jacob may be wrestling himself beside the Jabbok. Just like we wrestle our own failings.
However, that’s not really how the story goes. He wrestles all night long with this man. Neither prevailed. Jacob will not let him go, even after the man struck his hip and put it out of joint…
Now, the ball of Jacob’s hip was not pushed through the socket by this wrestling man, but it was put painfully out of joint. Still, Jacob stubbornly persisted. “Let me go,” the man said. “No!” Jacob replied, “not unless you bless me.” We begin to think that something more is going on here in the story. “What is your name?” the man asks. “Jacob.” And then this wrestling man changes Jacob’s name. “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven, you have contended, you have wrestled with God and humans, and have prevailed.” Wrestled with God? Wait a minute. Who exactly is this man, anyway? That’s what Jacob wants to know, also. “Please tell me your name.” “Why?,” the man asks, and then blesses him, right then and there.
Jacob called that place Peniel, which means “face of God.” - “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” So, then, this man was God? There beside the Jabbok? And Jacob wrestled him to a draw? …
That also seems to be the case with Jacob. His legs are still intact, though he walks now with a limp – which is a reminder of this night, not only for Jacob himself, but for his offspring, who would henceforth be known as the children of Israel. Of course, the story continues. Are you still following me? The next day, Jacob (also known as Israel) meets his brother face to face. But instead of doing what Jacob feared he would do, Esau runs to him and embraces him (33:1-17).
Jesus told a story (Luke 15:11-32) about two brothers, one of whom – the younger one – left home for a far country. When he returned home penniless, this prodigal son is welcomed home with open arms by his waiting father. The older brother, however, remains lost in his anger, and the parable ends unresolved. I wonder if Jesus had Jacob and Esau in mind when he spoke this story. No, Jacob did not squander his inheritance in “prodigal living.” He came home with a great deal of wealth, along with 2 wives and 11 sons. Still this scene from Genesis, of brother embracing brother, is how I want that parable Jesus told to end. How about you?
Speaking of Jesus, our other Bible story this morning begins with a bit of wrestling, also. News of the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12) reached Jesus. This cousin was an important forerunner of our Lord. He prepared the way by his teaching. He even baptized Jesus, even though he did not feel worthy to do so. John spoke truth to power. He reminded the king that God would not be mocked by Herod’s behavior. And so John literally lost his head, killed by the king. Jesus needed to get away from the crowds in order to deal with that news (Matthew 14:13a). His own road would lead to death, just like John’s Did he know it” Scripture says he did, but at what point? That’s something to wrestle through in a deserted place. Like those 40 days and nights following his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11). Alone, wrestling with what? Temptations? Fears? The Evil One? … With God?
That was Jesus’ intention when he stepped into a boat to get away. However, the crowds followed him. They were there when he stepped ashore. Was his time in the boat enough? It doesn’t say. Once on land, his compassion wrestled with the needs of the crowd (Matthew 14:14). I like that image: 'compassion wrestling with human need.' As followers of Jesus, that is our calling, is it not? “You feed them,” Jesus later told his disciples, who wanted to send the crowds on their way. “Feed them,” he said. Have we romanticized this Bible story so much that we fail to see the disciples wrestling with their calling?
Yes, good things happen when we step into what Jesus calls us to do. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. “We’re just a small church,” we often say. Those are some of our wrestling words, as modern-day children of Israel. “What can I do? I’m just one man. I’m just one woman. I’m just a child. I’m just….” There’s only so many loaves and fishes – which stand in for whatever it is we tell ourselves is in our pile of “ONLY.” We’ve got to wrestle with it. There are no easy answers, even if – in the end – things work out, sometimes abundantly. On this side of working it out lie our own fears and inadequacies, our own brokenness and lack of faith. There is no other path than the one that leads beside our own Jabbok, our Peniel, where we discover that we are really wrestling with God. And this, actually, is good news, even if it puts us out of joint.
Let me close by telling you about a camp, a predecessor to Shepherd Spring. By the way, in two weeks we’ll again hear some camp stories from our young people. In 1933, youth in our district expressed interest in a camping program. Land was purchased along Big Hunting Creek near Thurmont, MD. Do you know the name they gave this camp? Peniel. Of course, other camps followed, like Woodbrook and Mardela and Shiloh, and later Shepherd’s Spring. But Camp Peniel was the first… In 1964, the property was bought by the federal government. It became part of Camp David, a presidential retreat. It was a place where, in September of 1978, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin spent 12 days wrestling out their differences, and finally signed a peace accord.
Let’s sing to the One who will not
let us go as we wrestle through our faith: ...
“O love that will not let me go”