By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
July 31, 2011
Last week we heard about Jacob falling in love with Rachel and working 7 years to be able to marry her – if you didn’t know the whole story, you might think Laban was the only scoundrel in the story. Up until today’s story from Genesis’ chapter 32, Jacob has pretty much been an unrelenting scoundrel — swindling his brother, Esau, for his birthright and then cheating him of his blessing, Jacob fled his home to the backdrop of his brother’s howls of grief and anger. Then, for the next fifteen odd years or so, he went head-to-head with his equally devious uncle Laban, squabbling and double-dealing over everything from wives to livestock, until he is once again on the run, this time bringing with him his family, servants, and all the wealth he can carry. This is where today’s reading picks up, as just verses before those appointed for today, Jacob receives about the worst news he could imagine: Esau his brother is coming to meet him…with an army of 400 men.
If you know Jacob’s story you may quietly rejoice, anticipating what probably seems his overdue and proper comeuppance, but Jacob is terrified. True to his nature, Jacob sends ahead of him gifts to bribe his brother’s favor. After that he sends his wives and children, perhaps hoping that even if his brother can’t be bribed, he will at least take pity on him. With everyone across the river, he paces its muddy bank, contemplating his dicey future. And then it happens: he is set upon by what must seem like a demon. They struggle all night, until as the sun comes up and the creature’s strength ebbs it reaches out and dislocates Jacob’s hip. And then Jacob knows — he is the presence of something supernatural, and so he asks for a blessing.
It’s at this point that the story takes what may seem a strange twist, as Jacob’s opponent demands to know Jacob’s name before he will bless him. But names in the ancient world are never simply names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character. And Jacob’s name — literally, “heel” — is no exception. For he was the one who was grasping at his twin brother’s heel as they were born. And he’s been grasping ever since — living from his wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every step of the game. So when this man, who turns out to be the Lord, demands that Jacob confess — confess his ill-gotten gains and checkered past, his fears and failures, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions — he is asking Jacob to die. For nothing is more terrifying to the cheat and scoundrel than having to come clean, tell the truth, ‘fess up.
Once he does, though, an extraordinary thing happens: the Lord refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow that Jacob’s name is all there is to him. Indeed, the Lord gives Jacob a new name — Israel — the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed. It is an act of generosity and grace, as Jacob has wrestled but hardly prevailed. Yet with this new name, Jacob enters into a new future, and passes his name, faith, and future on to his descendants, who bear that name even unto this day.
A way to understand that God wants us to put our sins aside is to imagine a host who has opened his home to you. Imagine further that while staying in that person’s home, you knock over a priceless vase, a family heirloom that cannot be replaced. Probably you did it accidentally, but maybe you did it purposely, in a moment of anger. In either case, it shatters on the floor, and now you know you cannot begin to pay for it.
Feeling regret, you turn to your host with an apology. Your host, though saddened by the loss of the object, nonetheless is gracious and says in response, “I accept your apology. Now don’t worry about it.” Not only that, but your host urges you to stay, even though there are a number of other priceless objects about, and knowing that, clumsy and bad tempered as you are, you could still break more of them.
Even despite his generous attitude, you continue to feel uneasy, however, nervous that you might break something else. What’s more, you are convinced that behind the kind words, your host must be very upset over the vase. In time, however, you begin to understand that he really values you over the objects, and you finally understand that he really wants you to stay, and not as his guest, but as a member of his family. He values the relationship. That’s why he offers the forgiveness. The relationship is more important than the sin
And so, we are called, like Jacob, to share our fears and our failures, our setbacks and disappointments, our resentments and regrets. We are called to confess so that we might hear God’s response, “No. This is not the whole story. You are more than you can believe. In fact, to me you are my beloved child”.
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