Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 2, 2020
“A Wideness in God’s Welcome”
Genesis 32: 22-31 – Common English Bible
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[c] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[d] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
He’s a liar. He’s a cheat, even cheating members of his own family. He’s a deceiving dirty-tricks-scoundrel willing to stoop lower than anyone could imagine, stealing whatever he wants – especially money and power.
And yet Jacob is a patriarch of our faith, of three religions. He’s a man who demonstrates how unbelievably far God will go to show undeserved grace. There is a wideness of mercy in the One we call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How do we know? Because Jacob is one of the greatest dirty-trickster scoundrels in the Bible.
Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah and a twin with Esau. It took Rebekah 19 years to get pregnant and then had a difficult pregnancy. Her sons were constantly fighting in the womb and when they emerged, although Esau came first, Jacob was clutching his ankle as though he was trying to hold him back. But because Esau came out a few seconds earlier – he was the first born. Which meant Esau would inherit everything.
They were twins, but Jacob and Esau were nothing alike. Esau was a big brute covered in red hair who loved hunting – and he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. Jacob was smaller, quieter, “the brains” who preferred staying among the tents. Their father Isaac preferred Esau because he hunted for his favorite wild game – venison. On the other hand, Jacob was his mother’s favorite.
Jacob could never get over how a brute like Esau would inherit the family fortune, so he came up with a way to trick Esau out his birthright. One day Esau came home from a long, unsuccessful hunt. He was starving. Jacob just “happened” to be cooking a batch of lentil stew that Esau could smell as he came near. Esau demanded some, but Jacob said not unless Esau swore an oath to give up his birthright. Esau agreed. He reasoned that a birthright would mean nothing if he had starved to death. When he later realized he had been tricked, Esau was enraged, but an oath was an oath. And so, Jacob will inherit the family fortune.
But Jacob wanted more. More important than the birthright, he wanted the power that came from being named the leader of the tribe. That comes in the form of a blessing conferred on a father’s deathbed. Without that blessing, Jacob may have gotten the money, but Esau, as the firstborn, would still have the power.
As Isaac lay on what he thought was his death bed, Esau wanted to make sure he didn’t get tricked out of this one. So, to seal the deal, he told his dad he would go hunting and bring back some venison. Rebekah overheard their conversation and conspired with Jacob to trick Isaac.
Isaac was blind, so while Esau was out on his hunt, Rebekah told Jacob to slaughter a goat and she would cook it to taste like venison. They dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and put goatskin on his hands and neck so Jacob would feel hairy like his brother. Isaac ate the fake venison, felt the hairy goat skin when they embraced, but he was curious that his voice sounded like Jacob’s. He asked if that was really Esau. Jacob lied and said yes. And so, Isaac conferred upon Jacob the irrevocable blessing intended for Esau. Esau returned home and realized he had been tricked again. This time he vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah sent Jacob away to live with her brother Laban.
While living with Uncle Laban, Jacob fell in love with his daughter Rachel – yes, his first cousin, but at the time not forbidden. His uncle agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel if he worked for Laban for seven years. Seven years later, Jacob and his new wife consummated the marriage, but when the bridal veil was lifted the first time, Jacob discovered he had just slept with Rachel’s sister Leah. Enraged, he asked why he had been tricked. In a little comeuppance, Laban said that it would have been wrong for the younger sister to be married before the older. But, if Jacob worked for his uncle for another seven years, he could also marry his beloved Rachel. Jacob did, but in the meantime, he also ran a scheme against his uncle to steal his best sheep. Can you say dysfunctional family?
Jacob and Laban lived with an uneasy peace for another six years. One day, Jacob decided it was time to leave and reunite with his estranged brother Esau – the one he had tricked out of both his birthright and blessing. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell Uncle Laban he was leaving, so while Laban was away, Jacob packed everything and everyone up, including Laban’s daughters. When Laban came home, he was angry that Jacob had simply left, but he was even more upset when he realized Jacob had stolen all the household gods. When Laban caught up with the traveling band, he demanded his idols back, but beloved Rachel sat on them to hide them and proclaimed it was her time of the month so they couldn’t touch her. I guess that a family that steals together stays together.
Jacob and Laban made a sort of peace with each other at a spot known as Mizpah: “May Yahweh keep watch between you and me while we are away from each other.” You may be familiar with this “Mizpah blessing,” but it’s kind of funny because it’s really a warning. “I can’t keep my eye on you, but God will know what you’re up to!” Uncle Laban went back home, without his idols. Or his best sheep.
So, all that drama aside, Jacob now focused on getting into his brother’s good graces. Jacob hoped he could pacify Esau with a grand gesture and sent him hundreds of sheep and goats and huge herds of cattle and camels. And a message seeking reconciliation. Esau responded back through a messenger that he was sending 400 men to greet him. But Jacob panicked, thinking that meant Esau was sending an army of 400 against him. That night Jacob sent everyone else across the river and he stayed back alone. And, as the story goes, Jacob wrestled all night long.
Got the picture? It was that night, after everything that had happened in his life, ready to finally face his brother, Jacob was alone. And a man came and wrestled with him all night long. A man or perhaps an angel or a demon. Or, I wonder, perhaps his conscience. This lying, cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel was about to reunite with the brother. I wouldn’t be able to sleep either.
But the story doesn’t say he wrestled in a dream. For Jacob it was all very real. So real that he limped away from the encounter with a torn thigh muscle, or as some translations say, his hip deliberately jammed out of socket. At daybreak, Jacob wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. He demanded a blessing. And in the end was given a new name.
I’ve always liked this story as a metaphor. I can relate with wrestling in the night – perhaps a question of faith, perhaps a struggle before having to make a big decision. Or perhaps a question of conscience and how to make things right. Have you ever wrestled with questions like that in the night?
Lately, a lot of us have had difficulty sleeping. That’s why I now watch re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore as the last thing I see before going to bed instead of Rachel Maddow. That’s why I try to avoid “doom scrolling” before bed. Doom scrolling is checking the news feed on our phone to see what new outrageous thing has been done to destroy democracy. But that just leaves me rolling around the bed, tossing and turning, angry and wrestling with the question – what can we possibly do? How much worse it is going to get? Feeling helpless and hopeless is not a good way to fall asleep.
It would make sense that Jacob wrestled all night worrying about how Esau would greet him. But to his amazement, Esau came running to greet Jacob with affection and invited him to settle down on the same land with Esau’s clan. He welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms.
In the past I’ve always thought that the man wrestling with Jacob in the night was a representation of our struggle with faith. Or as I said, questions of conscience, priorities, decisions… And that’s one way to look at it. However, I hadn’t previously paid attention to Esau’s response. Something about that spoke to me. And so, as I wrestled with the text this time, I thought of parallels with the story of the prodigal son. Remember, in the end, the father of the prodigal son didn’t focus on what his son had done wrong. Instead, he welcomed him home with open arms. That upset his older son. But the father asked, should I be more upset for what was done or grateful that he is back? The one I once thought was dead is alive.
It’s a wideness of mercy, like Esau. Like God. A God of undeserved grace. A God who despite all the worst we have done comes running out to greet us with affection and invites us to settle down together. But of course, that brings up its own set of questions. What about accountability? What about the need for justice before reconciliation?
And that’s what I’m wrestling with today. As our nation descends further into dystopia, I keep coming back to the question of how and what we are going to do to start healing our country, whether six months from now or, God-forbid, after four more years. Esau welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms. Of course, I also have to remember that Esau had a couple of decades to think about their reunion before seeing Jacob again. It may take us 20 years to even explain the era in which we are living, let alone heal from it. And yet it is our hopes and dreams for healing and reconciliation that will help us move forward. I don’t want to forever live with a grudge or a chip on my shoulder.
When all is said and done, what will be more important? Focusing on what was done wrong or what we can build right together? I am not talking about accepting abuse – to forgive the abuser. I’m not suggesting we tell victims of white supremacy and violence against women and transphobia and asylum seekers, “Let’s all just get along.” Give up your demands for justice so we can have some peace. No.
And I’m not suggesting we ignore the actions of governors whose fealty to the president is enabling waves of infections and needless deaths. And those who are demanding that children be packed into schools, to see if it will work out OK. Just like they ripped children from their mother’s arms and packed them into cages. I’m not suggesting we disregard the actions of cabinet secretaries wantonly dismantling every regulation that protects our water and reduces pollution in the air. Half of the dirty tricks scoundrels in the administration should be put in jail to be held accountable for their enabling of a man only interested in amassing more money and power for himself. But then what?
There is a national reckoning to come. But in the meantime, what about our neighbor? What about my cousin whose Facebook posts get under my skin so much I have a hard time sleeping… should I forever hold that against him or should I hope for and be ready and grateful for the day when we can greet one another again as family.
And what about the consequences of my own bad behavior? The anger and hatred I’ve held in my heart? Will that forever be held against me? Will we be forgiven for our participation in incivility?
But as an old hymn says,
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There's a kindness in God's justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind.
At the end of our dystopian nightmare, I pray to be more grateful for our reunion than stuck on the reason we were divided.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world