PENTECOST XIX, Sunday October 20, 2019
Gracious and loving God
You call us to be stewards of your
Abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us
Help us always to use your gifts wisely
And teach us to share them generously
Send the Holy Spirit to work through us
Bringing your message to those we serve
May our faithful stewardship bear
Witness to the love of Jesus Christ in our lives
We pray with grateful hearts in Jesus name.
I think most of us can agree, this morning’s lesson from Genesis is one of the most famous, and most confusing stories of the Bible. I think it’s one of those stories that is so strange because it breaks our pre-conceived notions about what people are like in the Bible, and how we are able to find ourselves in the Biblical story. If we spend just a couple of minutes with a text like this one, we can start asking all sorts of great questions: who is it that Jacob wrestled? What’s up with the name change? Why wouldn’t that figure tell Jacob his name? And it’s true that the Scriptures themselves seem to delight in being vague at this juncture. But I submit, that while the questions we asked of the text are great and worthy, the question that the Scripture does answer is much more important to us than we might have guessed.
But before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk a little bit about this Jacob character. Before I actually read through the Bible, I would have assumed that the founding people of Israelite identity would be noble, pure, and heroic. But it turns out that as heroes go, somebody like Jacob was not a prime candidate at first. Jacob’s early life seems to have been as a listless homebody. His brother Esau was the strong hunting type, which their father Isaac liked quite a lot. Jacob was not particularly interested in working super hard, but he did covet Esau’s status as first-born. After all, Esau had rights to the family’s wealth as measured by the standards of that ancient time. On several pivotal occasions, Jacob conned Esau out of that birthright: one time he exchanged some stew with a famished Esau for his birthright. Another time, Jacob conspired with his mother, Rebekah to fool a sleepy Isaac into thinking that Jacob was Esau in order to basically steal and usurp Esau’s claim to Isaac’s wealth and lands.
And that’s all within three chapters of meeting him. And as we see, Jacob was not a super saintly dude even after that. And yet, God promised his forebear, Abraham, that He would use his family to work out great things for the world, even if Abraham’s descendents are kind of the worst. We actually see God acknowledge that promise when Jacob had a dream while basically on the run from Esau in Genesis 28. In the dream, God said,
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.”
By the time Jacob entered into Ancient Near-Eastern Wrestlemania, Jacob had endured messes of his own making as well as having been messed up by other folks. And thus, this kind of scraggly, sort of ne’er do well dude enters into single combat with some kind of divine being. And he gets beat up a bit; but doesn’t die. And even receives a blessing at the end of the altercation.
What I think we are seeing is one of the most human, and one of the most divine moments in the Bible. This passage makes our attempts at systematic theology spin in place, but really, deep down I bet we know what its like to not really fit the mould for perfect holiness just as we know what its like to wrestle with God in our own ways. And, if we’re careful to be still and listen for God’s voice in our hearts and minds, we might even come to know that He richly blesses us in spite of our own wrestling with him.
But rather than some consolation prize for showing up to a fight we can’t possibly win, we are blessed with a chance to participate in the promise given to Abraham which is fulfilled in Christ: to be a blessing to all nations. The question that this Scripture answers really is, “What if I’m not exactly the holiest person and decide to contend with God?” And the answer is surprising. I’d imagine the answer being subject to a divine suplex or perhaps even immediate vaporization. But actually, God wants to work with, in, and through us to enact His purposes. That fact helped animate Paul as he commends the faithful reading and teaching of Scripture and that fact animated Jesus’ parable about staying prayerful in discouragement. God is faithful; we can be faithful, we should be, but we aren’t always. But God never wavers.
And that’s one of the great things about church, honestly. Here we get a chance to wrestle with God while aiming at faithfulness. We can rest in God’s promises, and we can enjoy His rich blessings, even as He patiently moves us closer and closer into union with His Christ. So if you are out in the congregation, wrestling with God in your own way, be mindful of Jesus’ encouragement to take heart and pray. And if you are feeling like you don’t measure up, like you’re the last person God would help or even love, take heart and pray to the God that desperately wants you to know that He loves you and is ready to help you. God is ready to receive us, to bless us, and to use us to enact his promise of Salvation for the life of the world. Heading into the week, I pray that each of us would rest in God’s faithfulness, keeping in mind the concluding words of the 121st Psalm:
The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.
To Him be all Glory; from age to age. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
1603 E Winter Park Rd.
Orlando, FL 32803