**SPECIAL THANKS GOES OUT IN THE WRITING OF THIS SERMON TO THE REFINING CYBORG THEOLOGY GROUP WHO WRESTLES WITH GOD RIGHT ALONG SIDE ME EVERY DAY.**
Jacob was all alone in the camp. He had divided out his possessions and servants and sent them in droves to appease his brother Esau. Oxen, donkeys, and flocks, male and female slaves–he sent them all, wave after wave. When the last goat was on its way he then sent along his wife, his household maids, and his own children. Jacob put all he had between him and his burly brother, who just happened to be coming Jacob’s way with 400 strapping men. Upon learning of his brother’s coming Jacob had totally freaked. He prayed to God these words of terror, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.” So having petitioned the divine, in the moment of danger, with back against the wall, Jacob hedged his bet by using his own wife and children as human shields. Here, you go first!
In his mind he had to, the last he heard his brother Esau was seeking his life, and for good reason. Jacob had swindled Esau out of his birth right and his father’s blessing. In short, Jacob was a class ‘A’ jerk—a pesky, conniving, spoiled rotten, younger brother. And Jacob was sure that it finally had all caught up to him. What was he going to do when big brother Esau lowered the hammer and took his revenge? The appeasement strategy was a last ditch effort to fend off disastrous retribution. Would it work? Who knows?
It did mean that Jacob for the first time since earning his wife Leah, and later his wife Rachel, and acquiring a wealth of livestock from his brother Laban, was entirely by himself–just a lonely and isolated man sitting nervously in the shadows of a flickering camp fire. That is, until he showed up. We don’t know anything about him. That’s the truth—nothing. Genesis simply calls him ‘a man.’ We have no idea why he was there. We have no idea what he was trying to accomplish. What we do know is that the moment after he is introduced in Genesis 32 he locks arms with our man Jacob and the two begin an epic struggle for survival in a no-holds-barred, extended duration wrestling match.
As the story goes, the two men were equally matched. Jacob must have bulked up some during his time at Laban’s; early reports had him pegged as a softy. Whatever the case, he holds his own against his attacker. When the mysterious man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob he struck him on the hip. One wonders why this wasn’t the attackers first move. If you had a special means of rendering your victim lame, why not go for it immediately. It is hard to say, perhaps there was some etiquette to a fair fight—perhaps there was a need for the grappling match to be prolonged.
Whatever the case, when Jacob receives his wound he grabs hold of his attacker for dear life. I picture in my head two boxers who have punched long into the later rounds, and are now in the middle of the ring holding on to one another from pure exhaustion. The attacker attempts to break free. Jacob will have none of it. He holds on for all he is worth. The attacker demands his release. And then Jacob does a peculiar thing. He refuses to release the man until he receives a blessing.
I confess that I do not understand this. If my attacker wanted to flee, and I was wounded, why would I hold on? If my attacker desired to make a quick exit, why would I want to keep him around? I am prone to let go of the things that hurt me, and send them away. I want to cast them off, and to have my life back before there was pain. Jacob, however, in his sordid life of trickery and fractured relationships, in the moment of danger, with his back against the wall, for some unknown reason, holds on to the source of pain, and demands from it a blessing.
And a blessing he receives. The man asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob tells the man. The man replies, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” We immediately recognize this new name, for it will become the name of the promised line of descendents coming from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the people of Yahweh—the holy nation of Israel–‘Israel’, meaning “the one who strives with God.”
The giving of a name changes the genre of our story. No longer are we simply telling a curious tale about a nomad’s strange encounter with an evening adversary. This is now an ‘origins’ story. It is given to help explain the formation of the people Israel. This story reached its final form likely during the exilic period, when Israel found itself captors in a foreign land, and questioned God’s omnipotence and benevolence. It was then, facing a great crisis, that this narrative was given the people, to help them understand their identity.
You, Israel, are Jacob. You are a pesky, conniving, spoiled rotten younger brother. You worshipped me with your lips, but your hearts were far from me. You demanded adherence to the cult, but had no social witness, and did not lift a finger for the oppressed, the infirmed, and the lonely. You prayed for deliverance and then hedged your bet by petitioning the nations that surrounded you for protection, and tried to placate the approaching armies by sending along your tribute. And then they came, with 400 strapping men. And now you are wrestling through the night with an unknown adversary—you are conflicted, you are unsure, you are afraid. Now you are Israel, the one who strives with God and with humans.
It is a strange benediction—to be given a new name. Jacob responds, “Please tell me your name.” The man replies, “Why it is that you ask me my name?” We could spend long hours here. For all of us make the same request, and receive the same response. It seems natural, having just been asked his own name, for Jacob to inquire about the name of his adversary. The man’s response, however, feels anything but natural: “Why is it that you ask me my name?” Again we imagine this story coming to Israel in captivity as they wrestle in the night, tired, weary and afraid. They call out to God, “Who are you? Are you kind? Are you good? Are you real? Are you present? Do you have power to save us?” Identify yourself. What is your name?” And for reasons never fully explained to us, the startling response returns, “Why is it that you ask me my name?” Why this unnatural response? Is it because Jacob (Israel) of all people should already know the name of his God? Is it that God is so transcendent that God is never fully known? Is it that God is the one and only God, and therefore needs no distinction, no particularity, no name. Is it a punishment that God remain aloof—a passive aggressive cosmic version of the silent treatment?
Is it that we can never really know who it is we are wrestling with? Is it really God? If we can just know this one answer! If it is, then at least God exists. If it is then at least we have certainty. In the midst of the turmoil, and the anxiety, and the fear, at least give us certainty. Tell us your name! But we are given no name. All we are given is Jacob’s (Israel’s) response, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”
This is not to say that the man was God. The man himself is purposefully ambiguous in his own self identification. “You have striven with God and with humans” the man says to Jacob. We should not make the mistake of assuming that God is the one that attacks us, or that God is not. Let us not decide if it is God, or if it is another human who causes pain. What Jacob does affirm is that in the prolonged conflict he saw God’s face. It is enough to know that God is present, somehow, in the night’s struggle. And so he called that place Peniel.
I will tell you, it is not easy to call a place Peniel. It is not easy, when you ask for a name, and you are given none, to believe that you stared into the face of God, and God stared back. It is not easy to receive a wound, and while limping away to affirm your faith.
I bet this story preached to those Israelites in captivity. Can you imagine? Here is your patriarch, the one who gives you your name, he is the one who had great failings, he is the one who faced a life threatening crisis, he was the one who fought through the night, he was the one who received a wound, he was the one who refused to let go, and demanded a blessing, he was the one who asked for a name and received none, and he was the one who in the end believed he stared into the very face of God and survived.
The application is there. The ‘what if’ bubbles right to the surface: ‘What if’ Jacob let go? What if he let the man flee into the morning twilight? What if, having received the wound, he just gave up? I am prone to let go of the things that hurt me, and send them away. I want to cast them off, and to have my life back before there was pain. The answer to the ‘what if’ is simple, and all those people in captivity knew it immediately. If Jacob let go there would be no Israel. Jacob would remain Jacob—a pesky, conniving, spoiled rotten younger brother. Jacob would remain Jacob—a man who takes advantage of a blind father to get ahead, a man who hides behind his own wife and children. So Israel, as you face captivity, and the dark night of your soul, the night the adversary visits you, what will you do—will you let go? If you do, know that there will no longer be any Israel. Blessing comes from holding on. The blessing comes to the prevailing struggler, not the one who wins, or to the one who loses. The one, who in the heat of the battle, holds on and demands a blessing is the one who limps away with a new name.
I think it is the limp that offends us. We are raised on a narcissistic faith. We do not stare at the face of God, we stare at our own reflection. God is a God that does stuff for us—God gets us out of tight jams with angry burly brothers. God gives us a home and wealth. God provides our nation with freedom, and sovereignty. And when the crisis hits we cry foul! God where were you when I needed you the most? Why have you attacked me in the night?
I’m tired of this kind of faith. It is insatiable; for we can be delivered from one hundred captivities and still not be satisfied. God will come right into our Egypt of bondage and demand ‘Let my people go!’ and he will lead us out, and miraculously part the red sea and let us cross on dry land, all to have us complain about out lack of meat in the wilderness. Somewhere the gods that bear our image will come up short of our expectations. The gods we stare at, and that we give names to we inevitably defeat with our own appetites for more. Those are the gods of Jacob. Those are the idols of a class ‘A’ jerk.
Have you defeated any of those gods? I have—I have been so disappointed by my idols, and I have cried out against them. I have cast them off, thinking I was casting God off. The irony is that when I cast off my idols, thinking they were gods, I was the whole time growing in my theology. I was taking what the ancients called the via negativa, the wrong way. I was learning what God is, by learning what God is not.
I recently ran across a quote by Philip Gulley that sums up a different faith and a different way to interpret perceived shortcomings, “God is no longer able to do for me, at least in my mind, what I once thought him capable of. Consequently, instead of viewing God as one who helps me accomplish my purposes, it is now my joy to help God accomplish the divine purpose–seeking the best for others and seeking the growth of the beloved, which is to say everyone.”
There is my God, and I do not know that God’s name. But I am changed. I have wrestled all night to see this God. And I am limping away into the morning light. But I do not fear my Esau. Do you hear me? Esau, so large and powerful, does not burden me at all. And I am holding on to that which has hurt me, for I want to see God face to face. I don’t want what is in it for me. I want to accomplish the divine purpose seeking the best for others and seeking the growth of the beloved. I am holding on for a blessing. I know you are too. If we do not, then there is no Israel, no people of God—for the people of God are not the ones who love God, or the ones who believe in God, or the ones who obey God, but they are the children of Israel, the ones who wrestle long into the night, the ones who strive with God.