A New Name: Jacob --> Israel
Last week we talked about Abram and Sarai and the promise that God made to them to bless them and be their God and make their descendants more numerous than the stars. They had to wait a long time to see their promise begin to unfold with the birth of their son Isaac. And of course, to demonstrate waiting for God’s promises, I somehow promised 10,000 cookies to our children by the time they turn 16! And I’ll figure out how to make it work, because I’m convinced that God’s promises are dependable, and my children’s sermon won’t demonstrate much if I can’t even come through on some cookies as evidence of God’s faithfulness! In the meantime though, we see God’s promise continue to unfold as today we learn about some of Abraham’s descendants. Today, we’re talking about Jacob and Esau, twin grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah, sons of Isaac and Rebekah.
The story of Jacob and Esau spans several chapters in Genesis. I encourage you to read it, because we can’t look at in the full detail that I’d love to go into in one sermon. But here’s the Reader’s Digest version: When Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah gets a message from God that the older child will end up serving the younger. Any older siblings out there? How many of you would be excited about these words, and serving your baby sibling? Probably not many! Of course, in biblical times, male sibling birth order was even more significant. The firstborn son received a double portion of a family inheritance, and generally is considered the head of the family upon the father’s death. They are the leader. They have the authority. And they get more land and property and assets than anyone else. It’s the birthright of the firstborn. As the story is told, we get the idea that Esau, a twin, but still the firstborn of the two twins, doesn’t cherish his birthright as he should. We also learn that while Isaac is closest to Esau, Rebekah prefers Jacob. Eventually, Rebekah helps Jacob trick a frail and increasingly poor-of-sight Isaac into bestowing the firstborn blessing onto a disguised Jacob, rather than Esau.
Esau, naturally, is beyond mad at Jacob over his lost blessing. Once Isaac dies, he plans to kill Jacob as soon as the mourning period is over. So Rebekah sends Jacob away, hoping that Esau’s anger wanes so that she doesn’t lose either of her sons. Jacob heads out of town. In his travels, he has a vision of a great ladder, reaching to heaven, with God’s messengers going up and down between heaven and earth. And he hears the voice of God, drawing him into the promise, the covenant, first spoken to Abraham. God promises to be with him, and his offspring, saying that they will be like the dust of the earth. And God says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And when Jacob wakes, he says, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not realize it! How awesome is this place!” He decides that if God will be with him, he’ll claim God as his God, as his fore-parents had.
After this, Jacob spends many years in the house of his uncle Laban. Jacob, ever the trickster, figures out a way to care for his uncle’s flocks while setting aside the best of the flock for himself. But Laban, in turn, tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters in exchange for years of service in Laban’s house, instead of marrying just the younger daughter preferred by Jacob. Eventually, Jacob leaves Laban’s household, and is ready, finally, after decades have passed, to meet with Esau again. At the start of our reading for today, we find Jacob sending messengers to Esau indicating that he wants to come home. The messengers come back with distressing news: Esau is on his way to meet you – along with 400 men as his companions. The tone suggests that they aren’t coming as a friendly welcoming party. So Jacob does what he does best, and comes up with plan to make things go in his favor. He divides his family and property into two groups, so that if Esau destroys one group, the other might escape. And then, while Jacob lags behind, he sends ahead of him gift after gift to present to Esau, along with promises that Jacob is coming right behind. Jacob also does something else: he prays to God, saying, “You’ve made me this promise about my offspring being like the uncountable grains of sand. I’m not really worthy of your love and faithfulness, or of the blessings that I’ve accumulated. And I’m afraid. But you did mention that you would be with me.
And then Jacob spends the night at this place, sending even his wives and maids and children ahead of him across the stream, so that he is the last left. And suddenly, a man appears, and wrestles with Jacob all through the night. Neither seems to prevail, and the man injures Jacob’s hip. But when daybreak approaches, the man asks to be let go. And Jacob says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” The man asks for Jacob’s name, and when he gives it, the man replies, “You aren’t Jacob anymore. You’re Israel, because you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Israel means “May God prevail.” Jacob asks for the man’s name – but doesn’t get it. We read between the lines and see that this man was God’s messenger, an angel. Indeed, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” After our text closes, Jacob continues on his way, and meets Esau, who weeps with joy when he’s reunited with brother.
What do we make of this text? In many ways, I find it frustrating. For those of us who have generally been “rule followers,” not getting in trouble very often, doing good, it’s really hard to see someone like Jacob, playing tricks at every turn, get rewarded. He seems a bit like an arrogant jerk, doesn’t he? And he gets to trick Esau, trick Laban, escape death, demand a blessing from God, and come out on top! It’s so not fair! Here’s the thing about this God we follow, though. God isn’t fair. We’ll be learning more about that in our research group in the weeks ahead. God shows favoritism, in fact, much of the time – to the poor, the outcast, those on the fringes, those everyone else has rejected. God isn’t fair. Instead, God is full of grace.
I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. In our baptismal liturgies we talk about grace being God’s gift “offered to us without price.” Grace is God's gift of love to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions! – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! We believe in grace as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace. We are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. We imagine that life is about working hard enough to get God’s blessings. Still, we know from our own human experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? Can it be that God truly offers love to all of us? Do we believe in grace?
Well, when we’re upset at the blessings God gives to Jacob, the trickster, the deceiver, the con-man, it suggests that we still think that God’s gift of grace should be given to deserving candidates, not just anyone. Our gut-reaction to Jacob’s story reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. But grace is a gift, not a prize. Repeat that with me: Grace is a gift, not a prize. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward! But there’s a big difference between reward and gift. Grace is a gift, not a reward. God doesn’t mean for us to be good so that grace is the payment, the prize that we receive at the end. Instead, because of grace, because we have received and can trust in, can count on God’s grace and unconditional love – even though we, no matter how much better than Jacob we think we are, fail to love one another and to love God as we’ve been commanded to do – because of grace we are freed up to follow God with all our hearts. We aren’t supposed to work hard enough so that God will love us. Instead, we’re supposed to be inspired by our trust in God’s love and grace to follow God – so that others will know and experience God’s grace too.
Here’s what I think happens at Peniel: Finally, Jacob realizes that God is inexplicably with him, even though he doesn’t deserve it. He realizes that God doesn’t play fair. God instead plays Giver-of-unwarranted-grace, which is God’s favorite game. And so Jacob prays his most honest prayer: I don’t deserve it, but please be with me anyway. And God and Jacob wrestle, and finally, Jacob – Israel – decides that God will be the leader from now on instead of Jacob. Pastor Edward F. Markquart writes, “God could … if [God] wanted to, with all [God’s] power … pin us down so very quickly. God could pin us within the blink of an eye, slam us to the floor and stomp on us. If God wanted to, God could pin us down and make us believe and obey. But that isn’t the way God wrestles. God wrestles in such a way that we slowly surrender our lives . . . We put our hands in [God’s] hands, and God begins to lead us on a path of righteousness, of right relationships. That is the way that God wrestles with us. God does not bash our hands down with . . . mighty power and pin us. Rather, God allows us to put our hands in [God’s] and we begin a walk together. That is the way God wrestles with us. We all go through that fundamental transition in life. The issue is this; whether or not I will continue to be a self-centered, cheating, cunning, manipulative person or whether I will finally let God rule. Who will rule in my life? Jacob or God?” (1)
God has offered grace to Jacob over and over again. And after a good wrestling match, Jacob, who knows he doesn’t deserve it, says thank you and accepts the gift. Look, Jacob isn’t perfect from here on out. None of us are, even when we finally receive the gift God keeps trying to give us, really receive it. But Jacob, from this point on, seems to stop trying to demand his blessings in life. He doesn’t trick or deceive or try to pull one over on people anymore. And he especially doesn’t try to pull one over on God.
What is your struggle with God? What are you wrestling over? Control of your life? Obedience to God rather than an addiction, or consumerism, or appearances, or what the world thinks is valuable? A direction God wants you to go, but you don’t want to? Here’s the thing about wrestling with God. If we feel like we’ve got the upper hand and demand a blessing – God will give it – love and grace, ours for the receiving! And if we feel like we’ve finally submitted to God, and God gets God’s way – well, God’s way is to give us love and grace, without price, ours for the receiving! And at the end of the struggle, hand in hand, maybe we can journey with God who leads us into life. Amen.