Twenty-Second Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL)
October 15-16, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
May those who love us love us.
And those that don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn't turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we'll know them by their limping.
Jacob limped, ever after. ‘Made me think he should be the patron saint of those who need hip replacements!
But who was he before that night he spent wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok River? What else do you remember about Jacob?
· He was the second-born twin who stole his brother’s birthright.
· As the story goes he came into this world with a strangle-hold on his brother’s tiny heel. It’s as if he wanted to fight him for that position of firstborn and stop him from entering this world first. Jacob’s name therefore means “Supplanter” or “Grasper”: not very nice connotations.
· Esau was his older-by-a-split-second brother. Scripture says he “came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau” (Gen. 24:25), which means red.
· Jacob and Esau’s parents were Isaac (whose father Abraham had nearly sacrificed him) and Rebekah. Apparently it was no family secret that Isaac loved Esau better and Rebekah loved Jacob better. (If either of them tried to hide their preference, they didn’t succeed.) Isaac was a meat-eater, a carnivore from way back. He loved meat stew and chops and roasts. Esau was a hunter, and provided the meat for the family table. Maybe Isaac’s stomach was the way to his heart.
· We don’t know why Rebekah preferred Jacob, but she did. She was willing and wanting to help him get ahead in any way possible, at any cost. Who suggested to Jacob that he steal his brother’s birthright? I hate to say it, but his mother Rebekah was the mastermind of that terrible, inexcusable theft that left destruction and misery in its wake.
· Remember? The father Isaac was almost blind. Rebekah came up with what sounds like a cockamamey plan to throw an animal hide over Jacob’s hands, and on his neck, to fool his father into believing he was “hirsute” Esau. Butter up Isaac with a really great, savory, meat-laden stew, intoxicate him with wine, then ask him for his blessing. He was nearly blind but not stupid. He had a bad feeling, misgivings, and questioned the man in front of him, asked him outright, “Who are you, my son?” (Gen. 27:18) Jacob boldly lied, “I am Esau your firstborn.” (Gen. 27:19) And the father’s special blessing was given to Jacob rather than Esau.
· When Esau found out, he was beside himself, heartsick, enraged. He went to his father Isaac and asked, “’Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me also, father!’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.” (Gen. 27:38) There was good news and bad news. Isaac told Esau:
o “By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Gen 27:40)
· Not surprisingly, Jacob wasn’t happy with that. His mother overheard Esau saying, “I’m going to kill my brother!” So she advised Jacob to get out of town, flee to her brother Laban, until things cooled off.
Years passed. The story of Jacob wrestling through the night comes at the point where he is going back to his homeland, to face the music with his brother Esau who had threatened to kill him, ‘last time he saw him. No wonder he can’t sleep. No wonder he sent those 12 kids and 2 wives ahead to the other side of the river, so he could hear himself think and prepare for the next day, which would either bring reconciliation or death. He had a lot to wrestle with.
The people Jacob sent to the other side included his two wives, Leah and Rachel, his uncle Laban’s daughters. (In those days, just like you could have more than 1 wife, you could also marry your first cousins.) What goes ‘round, comes ‘round. Jacob had deceived his brother Esau in a big way. His uncle Laban deceived him in a big way, too. On his way to his uncle’s house for the very first time, Jacob had bumped into Rachel as she was watering the flock at a well. He fell immediately in love. He asked to marry her. His uncle said, “Fine, work for me for 7 years and she’s all yours.” But he thought to himself, “I have an older daughter who needs to be married first.” So at the end of 7 years there was a wedding. The bride was heavily veiled. Bride and groom spent the wedding night together. When the day dawned, Jacob realized he had just married and spent the night with Leah! “Hey, what’s going on??” he asked his uncle. “No big deal,” his uncle answered. “Work for me another 7 years and you can have Rachel, too.” And then one of the most romantic verses in all of Scripture: “So Jacob served 7 years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Gen. 29:20)
So all of this is some of the baggage Jacob carried with him as he went to reconcile with his brother Esau. He had deceived and he had been deceived aplenty…. He’s a man with a past, frightened as he looks back over his shoulder and terrified as he looks ahead toward the next day and the future.
So who does he fight through the night?? It’s a very ancient story with some primitive aspects, like the opponent’s plea that he be released before the sun rose (reminiscent of The Hobbit when the trolls are turned to stone as dawn appears).
o A river demon?
o Esau’s guardian angel, tiring him out before the confrontation the next day, so Esau will have the advantage?
o Jacob’s guardian angel?
o Jacob’s conscience?
If it’s his conscience, and we’re honest, we can probably all admit there are times our conscience has made sleep impossible, too. There’s a story that when Jacob asked Leah, after their wedding night, “Why didn’t you tell me you were Leah, not Rachel?” she responded, “When your father asked you, why didn’t you tell him you were Jacob, not Esau?” Zing!
I attended a Holocaust Symposium up at Faith Lutheran in New Providence these past couple Saturdays. This week we heard about a Dutch man named Koert (sp.?) who was a teenager when the Nazis invaded Holland and began to persecute the Jews. Koert had a young Jewish friend who took his own life rather than suffer those indignities and live with the fear of what was to come. Koert felt pangs of conscience, believing that if he had only done something, anything, to protest the injustices against the Jews, his friend might not have despaired. As the Jews’ situation worsened and their lives were hanging in the balance, Koert approached his father and said, “We have to do something.” His father agreed. They came up with a list of 80-some family members and friends they felt they could trust and enlist to help. The first one they approached was Koert’s uncle, his father’s brother, a successful businessman with a huge home, a wife and one child. Surely they could afford to offer refuge to one or more of the Jews in such dire straits. But the answer was: “No. It is too dangerous.” Koert, his father and fellow Resistance members proceeded to do what they could, regardless of the risk to themselves. Koert’s specialty was the preparation of false identity papers. Sometime in 1944 he and his father were caught and sent to a concentration camp. Thankfully they survived the war and returned home afterwards. Koert couldn’t help but notice that his uncle’s wife, his aunt, gave him the cold shoulder subsequently. Years later he learned from another family member that his aunt blamed Koert and his father for her husband’s sleeplessness. From the end of the war on, his conscience hadn’t allowed him to get a decent night’s sleep….
When our conscience speaks to us, we should listen, closely. We shouldn’t drug it with substances or drown it out with crazy levels of activity. We should accept that our true conscience is the voice of the Holy Spirit within us. This story of Jacob wrestling through the night and of Koert’s uncle is a good reminder that not all guilt is neurotic! We should seriously consider when and where we fall short of the glory of God. (Remember last week’s story about Sr. Viv, doing her examination of conscience, looking at the photo of herself, clutching sunglasses, physically shrinking from the people with leprosy?)
When we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us honestly about our sin, about our weakness when we are called to be strong, about our deceit when we are called to speak the truth, about our denial that we’ve screwed up, when we rue our less-than-optimal decisions and ask the Lord for forgiveness, we receive forgiveness. We receive a clean slate, a new beginning, a new name, so to speak, like Jacob, the trickster, who became Israel, who “has striven with God” and not run away from Him.
After this encounter, Jacob is amazed he has seen the face of God and lived. We live, too, after our conscience confronts us head on, after our encounters with the Holy. It’s the old self, the selfish self, the self-in-denial, that dies when faced with the living God. That’s the gift we received in holy Baptism: grace to die to sin and rise to new life, every day.
I’ve always thought Jesus wants us to take a page from the book of the “importunate” (won’t-take-no-for-an-answer, indefatigable) widow in today’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8). She represents us, when we remember and act on our “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” (Luke 18:1) In light of the story about Jacob the wrestler, though, now I’m thinking she doesn’t only represent us. She represents God, too, the relentless, tireless God who gets in our face, whispers to us or shouts at us, via the voice of our conscience, and who won’t be silenced:
Rev. 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.”
That’s a profound, lifegiving invitation; that’s a pounding-on-the-door that’s not-to-be-ignored.
Let’s hear the following Welsh poem as the Holy Trinity’s blessing upon us, a bookend to the Irish one with which we began:
Hail, guest, we ask not what thou art.
If friend, we greet thee, hand and heart.
If stranger, such no longer be,
If foe, our love shall conquer thee.
That’s a love that’s apt to set us dancing, not send us away limping! Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham