The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Yahweh Jumps Jacob at the Jabbok”
Genesis 32: 22-31
Sunday, October 16, 2016 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jacob was coming home after years and years of being away.
If you remember the story, Jacob was a scoundrel. He was the second of twins; Esau was his brother. Jacob was not in line to be #1, as in #1 to receive the lion’s share of the family inheritance. Esau, due to be the first born, was supposed to have his name placed prominently in neon atop the family tent. But, as I just mentioned, Jacob was a scoundrel. Never satisfied with being second in the chain of command, he grabbed his brother Esau’s heel on the way from mommy’s womb and slipped out in first place at what he mistakenly thought to be the finish line.
There was much more to come for Jacob. In fact, things started going downhill soon after he received his shiny gold medal in the birthing room. Like all who achieve their success through skullduggery, Jacob was dogged by controversy and by those who despised him. He was chockfull of braggadocio, boasting about his riches, his power, and his cunning. Jacob even hoodwinked his elderly father Isaac into giving him the prized family blessing.
As the years went by, Esau never became any cheerier about his roguish brother Jacob. When he heard that he was coming home after all those years away, he immediately went out to meet him with 400 men in tow.
Jacob was scared to death of what his brother might do so he sent gifts—goats, ewes and rams, camels, cows, bulls—and lots of them. Even with that, Jacob, as so often happens to tricksters when their shenanigans catch up with them, was petrified by what his brother might do, even though, for appearance sake, he oozed substantial bluster.
When Jacob finally arrived at the river Jabbok and was almost home, he sent his family ahead. That means, of course, he was all alone and empty-handed: no army to defend him; no Xanax to soothe his nerves; no therapist to ease his terror. It was now just Jacob the conniving scoundrel at the Jabbok.
Suddenly, rather than deliberating about what Esau might do to him, Jacob started pondering the mess he had made of his life. Quiet moments will do that when we have time to consider what we have done. As I said, Jacob was all alone, just him and his guilty conscience.
And then, out of the blue, Yahweh jumped Jacob at the Jabbok.
It is a stunning story. Jacob and the unknown assailant wrestled fiercely throughout the night till daybreak.
Jacob was exhausted and his hip was knocked out of joint in the frantic skirmish; nevertheless, he refused to give up. Ever the haughty one, Jacob demanded that the stranger at the Jabbok bless him. And it was there that the stranger, God, said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
As a result of that desperate struggle, Jacob limped the rest of his life and yet, somehow, it was a good limp because, rascal though he was, God was with him and brought him down to size in the process.
Who knows exactly what happened that night when Yahweh jumped Jacob at the Jabbok but I’ll bet you can guess because you have been at that river, alone in the darkness, your mind racing as you frantically paced back and forth on the riverbank. You have recalled the occasions when you hurt your brother, lied to your mother, betrayed your beloved. You have been petrified and heartbroken.
My experience is that the finest people of faith are those who have scraped their knees and nursed guilty consciences; quite simply, they limp. When they comfort others who are struggling, rarely, if ever, do they offer easy answers: they know better than that because, well, they don’t have perfect answers. They, too, have sought God in the dark night of the soul. Often, what they do provide is a damaged shoulder for another suffering person to cry on; they tell that person to wait until God provides for them. They know it will be a wrestling match much like the one Jacob had with Yahweh at the Jabbok and they are not afraid to admit it.
Churches are remarkably similar to people because, of course, they are made up of people. Holy Trinity is the fifth church I have served during my thirty-nine years of ministry. Each congregation has been different and each, though blessed like Jacob, has had a limp. They have all had their shortcomings—as have I, by the way. The best congregations, though, just like faithful people, are well aware that they are imperfect and thus their greatest blessing is that, though they limp, they are always found waiting on the Lord.
But who am I to tell you. You know that. You love your family and yet you know your family is imperfect. It is said that a dysfunctional family is where there is more than one person in it. The church is no different. We began our worship this morning confessing our sins; actually the confession came even before we began. In those moments, we wrestled with God and our own consciences and then, out of the blue, God blessed us by saying, “I forgive all yours sins.” We walked away from that moment limping but with a new spring in our step. Only then did the organ begin to play, the procession move forward, and we start singing to the rafters, “Glory to God in the highest!”
That is Jacob’s story and it is ours as well. After every lonely and restless night and after every battle with those we love, we have noticed we are limping but also, as they say, blessed.
The limping ones make for the finest people and the richest communities. They have their foibles, confusions, and faults, of course they do. And yet, as Leonard Cohen reminds us:
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And that light, of course, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.