Jacob is preparing to cross the ford of the Jabbok river. He has sent his family and all his possessions ahead of him, and he remains on the near side to camp out alone for the night before crossing by himself. We didn’t hear the whole background this morning, but somewhere behind Jacob is his crooked father-in-law Laban, now estranged to the point that they brought in the lawyers. Somewhere ahead of him is his successful brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his birthright, also estranged. Jacob is not good at relationships.
So Jacob lies there in the dark, and with no introduction or explanation we get this brief sentence: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Especially if we have been reading about all Jacob’s family conflicts, we might initially guess that this man is his estranged father-in-law Laban or his estranged brother Esau, ambushing Jacob under cover of darkness to take revenge for how he treated them, but the text is going to tell us something else.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." This mysterious man has begun what turns into a protracted wrestling match. Jacob will not give, even when a precise blow puts his hip out of joint, a little reminder of human weakness. How long does Jacob fight the man? Six hours? Eight?
But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.
In Hebrew culture your name is, and manifests, your identity. Jacob is what his name means --supplanter, trickster. And if we haven’t figured out yet, the man is God. He hints at it in saying Jacob has striven with God, but he makes it even clearer in declining to voice his Holy Name in which is the power of a thousand suns. If we’ve read the Bible, we might even remember, now, that a few chapters ago Jacob was also camping out in the dark alone, and God came to him then too, and spoke to him about his destiny. And here God ambushes him again.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Peniel and Penuel are merely spelling variants of one town, by the way, so don’t get confused. This moment confirms the man’s identity again. Jacob has not just seen God, but he has held God, manhandled God, resisted and tried to overcome him, but nevertheless been blessed because God is just that full of unalloyed goodness. We don’t hear what happens to the man, but off Jacob walks, limping, as the sun comes up.
Now if you have been hanging around the church for awhile, I will bet that you have mostly heard this story referred to as Jacob wrestling with God, or in the words of the old U2 song, that “Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome.” And you’ve probably heard the image used to describe people deciding to hash through a problem they have and pray about it. But as I’ve already mentioned, and as is pointed out by the Anglican scholar John Goldingay, the Scripture actually says that the man wrestled Jacob. Same thing with the new name, Israel, that God gives him; yes, it’s about striving, but it actually means something more like “God strives, God persists” – Jacob’s not the subject of the sentence here either. God started the encounter, just as he started the previous encounter when Jacob was camping in the dark the last time.
But wait a minute: If this man is God, how on earth can Jacob not immediately be overcome by him? Isn’t God omnipotent? Surely he’s far stronger than we are. Well, of course. But this is the thing: God strives and persists, just as he has been doing with Jacob, to make us his own and to set us on the path of discipleship. But he will not do that against our will. He could. He could force us to believe in him. His Holy Name has the power of a thousand suns. The touch that dislocated Jacob’s hip could have completely obliterated him. But it doesn’t, because the God who has revealed himself to us is not like that. He respects us too much for that. He gave us free will and he will never violate it. He waits for us to yield, to let ourselves be overcome, to say yes.
And that’s what Jacob just won’t do. He fights all night to avoid doing it. He gets his blessing, but in the very next chapter he fakes a reconciliation with Esau, agrees to meet him again in a few days, and then runs off to a completely different city. God does not violate Jacob’s free will and he will not violate yours. He aims to win you, not force you. He wants your freely given love and obedience.
Humans constitutionally are like Jacob here. We constitutionally resist God. I think way more of us do it in passive-aggressive ways, rather than Jacob’s full body resistance. We get to the ford of the river and the mysterious man comes at us, but rather than let him engage us, we look the other way and keep walking. We politely say, “How interesting” and turn our backs. We just ignore God, over and over, in favor of keeping our sense of control and staying with something more familiar and comforting.
Some of you are probably in this situation right now as we go through this month of focusing on generosity with our theme of More Than Enough. I am sure that there are households at Emmanuel that God has been attempting to engage with over several pledge seasons so he can make them freer, more generous, and happier people. Which is why we really encourage you to pray before you fill out your card or your online form, to make sure you aren’t ignoring God’s voice, to help you reframe giving as an act of love and obedience to him, not something rote or institutional.
I am in this kind of situation right now too, by the way. I have 3 Sundays left as your rector, and the temptation is to look away from the man by the river I have to cross, waiting to take initiative with me about what I need to be doing spiritually right now. I can’t avoid crossing the river: All Saints Sunday is going to come, and the moving truck is going to show up. But I could, if I were not careful, avoid letting God engage me the way he wants to over this process and complain to him that I just have too much work to do right now!
This parish, too, will have probably more than one opportunity to say yes to God in the next several months. I hope you will try not to be passive-aggressive with him or to ignore him. As Bishop Burgess urged you a couple weeks ago, let God engage you in the interim period and let him win. Each of you. As he said, if you’ve been coming to Mass twice a month, make it three. If you go to one daily office, make it two. In this period of standing at the ford of the Jabbok, waiting to cross, when the mysterious holy stranger gives you a chance to engage him, take him in your arms and engage. Don’t accept the complacency that says, “Let’s avoid God and stay right here.”
Don’t get me wrong, right here is good. You are in a strong place as a parish with seasoned leadership. The work we did together last summer that created a new structure for two key ministries, Intergenerational Formation and Sacred Spaces, has produced more fruit and more new lay involvement than I hoped. You’ve welcomed so many households over the past, maybe five years. We’ve increased our amounts pledged by nearly 25%. The physical plant has had improvement after improvement. The music program has strengthened and stayed strong, and you have a superb staff in place. Things are going well. I don’t think God would have released me to retire if they weren’t and if it wasn’t an appropriate time to pass the baton. But churches don’t pass the baton in order to keep everything the same, they pass a baton to continue running the race.
At any rate: It’s the same in a systemic transition like this, it is the same in all the various calls God puts into our individual lives, it is the same in our own basic choice to belong to ourselves or belong to him. Whenever we like Jacob, come up to the fords of the Jabbok, we can ignore God and defend ourselves. God leaves us free to do that, and he will even bless us in spite of the ways we say no to his love. He is just that good. So sure, we can do that. Or we can come up to the fords of the Jabbok, and when we find ourselves met by a God who will not force us but wants to win us, we can open our arms, tell him yes, and cross the river.