In order to engage this text we have to be serious about conflict. Jacob is in deep. Three Sundays ago we read Genesis 25. After twenty years of waiting, Isaac and Rebekah are pregnant with twins. On the appointed day, Esau, the first son is born, and right behind him, his brother Jacob. Jacob is literally gripping his older brother’s heel, his name meaning “he who holds by the heel,” or – isn’t this rich? – “he who supplants”. Esau and Jacob grow up differently, with different gifts, which lead to very different relationships with their parents.
The conflict grows as Jacob talks Esau out of his birthright and then, the height of deception, lies to their father, Isaac. Isaac is at the end of his life, weak, blind, and Jacob comes in, puts animal skins on his arms to seem hairy like his brother, smelling of the fields, deepens his voice. Isaac, thinking Jacob is Esau, offers the blessing traditionally given to the eldest son, the blessing intended for Esau, with all of the wealth and honor that comes. Jacob cheated his brother out of it, and Esau is so angry that he threatens, in Genesis 27:41: “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” I will kill my brother Jacob.
I pray you’ve never had this kind of hurt in the heart of your family. But maybe you have. Maybe someone you love has said something that wounded you deeply. Maybe someone you really trusted has betrayed that trust. Maybe someone you thought was a friend turned the tables and left you behind, leaving you feeling discarded. This is as painful as it gets, betrayal and anger and deception. Throw in a chance at an inheritance, an aging parent, a history of relationships where some in the family are closer to others. We’ll, he’s always been her favorite anyway. She is never on board with the rest of us. He’s in it for the money, you know.
This conflict, and Esau’s threat, hangs over this story like a cloud. But the other thing that hangs over the narrative is the blessing, God’s blessing, God’s promise. God’s promise is unpredictable and persistent. Even AFTER Isaac has given Jacob the blessing intended for Esau, after Esau discovers it in fury, Isaac, the father who had been lied to, draws Jacob to himself at the beginning of chapter 28. He sends him to his wife’s family – you will be safe, my son. As he travels he dreams of a ladder up to the heavens. He marries Leah, then Rachel, the trickster Jacob fooled by his father-in-law Laban. And now, after 15 years, of the threat of the hurt, Jacob must face his brother. He sends a message to Esau, and gets one back – Esau and 400 men will meet you in the morning. Jacob is frantic, dividing up his flocks and family, assuming that Esau and his 400 men were coming to kill them.
It is all of this, the hurt, the threat, 15 years, facing maybe death in the morning. All of this is with Jacob, in his gut, as this text begins. The same night, that night, he got up. He took his family and crossed the ford of the river, leaving everything he had. He knows he must face his brother alone. The text doesn’t say Jacob is filled with remorse or guilt, but Jacob seems to know he’s not innocent either. Jacob was left alone. He comes upon a man, and they wrestle to daybreak. The text never says who the man is. Oddly, we don’t know anything else about the wrestling except it was all night. That’s the point, I think. Physical, heart pounding, shoulders aching. Grasping against a powerful and unknown person in the dark.
As the grey of morning came, the man saw he did not prevail – Jacob, we have learned, is persistent. The one who grasped his brother’s heel still won’t let go. The man – we, Jacob doesn’t know who he is – strikes him on the hip, Jacob’s hip put out of joint. Jacob STILL DOESN’T let go. The man asks for release; Jacob won’t until he blesses him. The man then steps into the stronger position – what is your name? “Jacob.” “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel – which, as best we can tell, means something resembling “one who strives with God.” You have striven, wrestled with God and with humans, and have prevailed. And there he blessed him. There Jacob names the place, Peniel, Penuel later, face of God, as the place where he had seen God face to face and lived. He had encountered the Almighty, the holder and keeper of the promise, the One who gives all blessings, and lived.
I wonder if there’s something you are wrestling with, something that you contend with with the strength of Jacob, fighting. Maybe it is, like the one who was then called Israel, a conflict within your family. Maybe someone is sick and you all aren’t sure what to do. Maybe it’s a wrestling within your marriage, seeking to be faithful to the promises you have made as life throws new things at you. Maybe it’s a friendship that is ending. Maybe there’s someone in your neighborhood or at work that you just have a tough time with and don’t know what to do.
It seems to me that we, as a society, are wrestling with how we might be community to each other. We wrestle with how to engage people who are different from us, from different languages or backgrounds or nations. We too often blame and demonize others. That is one reason why I am so glad our brothers and sisters in Christ from La Nueva Jerusalén are here with us, as we work to get to know you all better. I am so grateful for your faithfulness and for our partnership. It means a lot. We wrestle with issues of race, painful parts of our own history that we are unwilling to face. We wrestle with issues of politics in this divided partisan age. We are suspicious of each other. I heard a wonderful interview this past Sunday on the radio with Arthur Brooks, CEO of the American Enterprise Institute, trying to push us beyond issues of tolerance. He studies what is called political motive asymmetry. It is when we assume that your own ideology is based in love but your opponent’s is based in hate. This is common in violent world conflicts. But he cited a study that said that a vast majority of politically motivated Americans are convinced that their side is motivated by love, and the other side is motivated by hate. We love. They hate. You can’t do anything as a society. BUT, Brooks says, there also lies our strength. That rich diversity gives us so many strengths, the capacity, if we are to utilize it, to do so many things, solve so many problems. We need to not just tolerate people who are different. We need to need people who are not like us. Only when we do will we move toward the kind of unity we crave.
It would have been easier for Jacob to run away. I imagine it would have been easier for God to let Jacob go. But God’s promise WILL NOT let us all go. And we are called into the wrestling, with God and with each other. For longer than we’d prefer, with a God who is even more mysterious and powerful and persistent even than Jacob. This God keeps after us. Not so that the most important things go pleasantly and we are never troubled. But so that we are troubled on purpose, inspired by God’s kingdom, by God’s vision of a community of blessing for all, connecting with each other, listening more than we’d prefer, knowing that we NEED each other. In the text right after this Jacob and Esau meet and embrace, and eventually are reconciled. They were committed to the HARD work of real relationship, of deep community, which is tough, and inconvenient, and often forces us to face parts of ourselves we don’t want to face. We all have to listen, and we all have to give, and we all – and this is the part that is toughest for me, I don’t know about you – we all have to face that we all aren’t right all the time. And we come away with a limp, a scar, proof that we have met God face to face, and lived.
God calls us into the wrestling. If we can’t model it here how in the world can we expect it anywhere else? As we wrestle with each other, and God, limping forward together, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God as best we can. We’ll come to the table here in a moment, walking, maybe limping forward, bringing all of ourselves. We’ll bring everything we are wrestling with to it, and be fed by the One, Jesus Christ, who refuses to let us go. All praise be to God. Amen.
 I am grateful to the language notes in The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), page 35.