The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday August 2, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We are continuing our Genesis series this evening but the lectionary picks and chooses which pieces of the story to highlight so I’m going to start by filling in some of those blanks.

Last week we had the story of how Jacob married Leah and Rachel. This is followed by the stories of how his family continued to grow to include enslaved people, children, and livestock.  By the time we get to tonight’s reading, Jacob has become a wealthy man.

As his wealth and power increase, his relationship with his father in law Laban becomes more contentious and Jacob decides it is time to move.

These stories take place over about 20 years. Although we don’t get a long interior monologue detailing Jacob’s thoughts,  we know that he hasn’t forgotten his family of origin and in particular, his brother Esau.  Jacob chooses to return home, but he knows he cannot assume his return will be viewed as a good thing.

Nevertheless, Jacob decides to pack up his household and go home. This is not a simple journey or a simple reunion. Jacob left his home – fled actually – because his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. (27:41)  And Esau had good reason to want Jacob dead. Jacob had tricked him, stolen from him, and then fled.  Has Esau’s hurt and anger cooled over the course of those two decades? Or has it increased? Jacob has no way of knowing.  And now Jacob has to consider not only his own personal safety, but the safety of his entire household.

Amy Merrill Willis points out that pilgrimage stories, stories about journeys, are often stories of character transformation. Stories where the pilgrim is changed by the pilgrimage. How does Jacob change in this story? Does Jacob change in this story?

Jacob’s preparations to meet his brother Esau can be divided into four steps. At first we don’t see clear signs of transformation, we see signs of a man who is skilled in deceit and manipulation using those skills to protect himself.  But a hint of a change can be seen in the fact that Jacob is preparing to return home at all, he is moving towards conflict, not away from it.

First Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau of his plans to return and when the messengers return they inform Jacob that Esau is coming and he is not alone, he has four hundred men with him. Four hundred men. Esau is coming with an army. (6)

Upon hearing this news we are told that Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed” which makes a lot of sense to me. (7) If I was Jacob hearing that Esau was coming with an army my anxiety would be through the roof. This sounds like all his worst fears are coming true, and Jacob begins to prepare for the worst case scenario.

Jacob divides his household into two groups in the hopes that at least one group will survive. (7-8)

Then he prays to God saying, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.  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. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  (9-12)

I am always interested when a person’s prayers are recorded in scripture because they provide insight into that person’s relationship with God.

In this prayer, Jacob reminds God of the promises God has made.  You are the God of my family. You are the God who told me to return home. You are the God who said “I will surely do you good…” You are the God who made these promises to me and my family. Do not forget them, do not let me down.

Jacob also tells God that he is not worthy of God’s love and these blessings. He confesses that he is afraid and asks God to protect him and his entire household.

Jacob seems to understand that God’s promises and blessings are not contingent on how good a person Jacob has chosen to be. Jacob, a man who has both deceived others and been deceived, may feel shaky in his own worthiness, but he still has the confidence to ask God to keep God’s promises.

Jacob also seems to understand that God’s promises are not a force field that will automatically protect him from harm.  It is possible that God can keep these promises and that Esau will kill Jacob.  Jacob is afraid and he does not hide his fear from God.

After he prays,  Jacob selects an extravagant number of livestock and has some of his enslaved people take them to Esau as a gift in advance of his arrival.  (13-16) This is a gift meant to soften Esau’s anger but it’s not just a gift it’s a tactic. Jacob orders his enslaved people to divide the animals into groups with space in between each group and to take the animals out ahead of the rest of the household. They are like a series of shields. If Esau does not accept these gifts and still wants to kill Jacob, he will have to hack his way through all of those people and animals first.

After making all these preparations, Jacob sends his household ahead of him across the Jabbok, which marks their entry into Jacob’s homeland. He stays behind planning to spend the night alone.  (4-22)

Or at least I think his plan was to spend the night alone, but, as we learned in today’s reading, that’s not what happens.

But before we look at what happened to Jacob that night, I want to point out that Jacob’s decision to include a night of solitude and preparation is a wise practice, one that is good for us to emulate.

Too often we can get so wrapped up in the busyness of our lives, in the excitement and energy of preparing for an event, that we forget to prepare our own hearts. We forget to stop long enough to reflect on what has happened.

Too often we rush from one experience to the next without taking the time to stop and reflect on our experience. To internalize it, to learn from it, and to take that hard earned wisdom with us as we continue on our journey.

Building in time to stop and reflect is a good practice, but it won’t just happen. You have to work to intentionally build time to pause and reflect into your life.

In Jacob’s prayer that I referenced earlier, he says “for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”  “Two companies” refers to the two groups he has divided his household into in the hopes if one group is attacked, the other will be able to flee.

So much has happened since Jacob fled his home and first came to this place. Rather than rushing ahead, Jacob hits the pause button to reflect on all those experiences.

It is a good thing to do, but that’s not how Jacob winds up spending this night.

Rather than spending a quiet night alone preparing to meet his brother, Jacob encounters a stranger – the man is not identified – and the two wrestle until dawn.

We are not told who the person is, how he came to be there, or why he chooses to wrestle with Jacob.

Eventually, when he realizes he cannot defeat Jacob, the man damages Jacob’s hip and asks to be released from Jacob’s grip. Jacob has had a stubborn streak and a strong grip his entire life. You may recall that Esau and Jacob were twins and Jacob, who was born second, came into the world holding onto his brother’s heel. His name actually means “heel grabber.”

But Jacob’s stubborn choice to wrestle this man throughout the night, to grab hold and refuse to let go also strikes me as a sign of character growth.  Jacob has not typically chosen to deal with difficult things directly.  His tendency has been to avoid them by running away  or to deal with them in a deceitful way, approaching problems from the side instead of head on.

Jacob agrees to let go, but only if the man agrees to give him a blessing.

Then the man renames Jacob Israel.   The heel grabber has become “the one who wrestles with God.”  This new name, Israel,  is the name that one of the great nations promised to Abraham will use to identify themselves. They will become the “people of Israel” or “the Israelites.”

Then Jacob turns to this man who has wrestled with him all night, damaged his hip, and given him a new name and asks ever so politely, “Please tell me your name.” (29)

The man does not tell Jacob, now Israel, his name, but gives him a blessing instead and disappears.

Israel then names this place Peniel which means “the face of God” revealing that he knows that the person he wrestled with all night was God.

It’s an odd little story but it has so many resonances with our own lives.  I suspect that most, if not all of us, know what it is like to spend a sleepless night wrestling with a problem or wrestling with God.

Or maybe you were taught that it’s not OK to wrestle with God. Maybe you were taught to believe that your job was to submissively obey God without question. Be gentle with yourself if that’s how you were raised, but I hope you see in this story the good news that it is OK to wrestle with God and to refuse to let go until God gives you a blessing.

Amy Merrill Willis explains that, “The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. God does not punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but challenges it and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which according to verse 29 means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and personalities, even those who appear to be unconventional or irreverent by our standards.

Finally – Merrill Willis continues -, the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” Jacob came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping—a man permanently marked. It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, even it reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.”

What are you wrestling with this week? What blessing do you want to receive from God?  It is good to wrestle with God, it is good to refuse to let go until you receive a blessing.

But as you do be prepared to be changed. You cannot wrestle with God and stay the same. You will emerge from those encounters a different person – perhaps a person with a new name and a blessing, but also a limp.

Jacob now Israel limps away from this encounter with God a changed man. But those are stories for another time.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.