Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 6, 2017

Genesis 32:22-31 Commentary

God graciously meets and accepts God’s adopted sons and daughters wherever and whoever we are.  But God never just leaves us where we are.

That’s no less true of God’s 21st century adopted daughters and sons than it is of Jacob.  The first time God meets Jacob, he’s fleeing both his homeland and his twin’s wrath he has incurred by scamming him out of his father’s blessing.  In the second case, God meets Jacob as he’s on his way back to his homeland.  God meets the cheater, in other words, both going and coming.

However, Genesis 28 and 32 make it quite clear that Jacob is unprepared for both meetings with God.  In the first instance, after all, he’s sleeping.  In the second Jacob is preparing for a meeting, all right.  It’s just not God whom he’s getting ready to meet.

As our text unfolds, Jacob is, instead, preparing to meet his twin brother Esau.  Jacob had schemed to “buy” his brother’s birthright.  His mother and he wheeled and dealt their way to robbing Esau of his father’s blessing.  Jacob also lied to and swindled his Uncle Laban.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, on his way back home, he acts less like a saint than what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “a military general in a war room.”  Jacob is spitting out orders to divide his “troops” and their supplies.  That way if his brother overwhelms one convoy, at least the other can survive.  That strategy becomes especially important when Jacob learns that Esau is heading straight at him along with 400 men.

After all, Jacob can’t be sure whether Esau is coming to try to kill, just meet or welcome him.  So he does what generals have often done throughout history: he prays to his God.  Jacob thanks God for showing him the kind of mercy he hasn’t deserved.  However, he also basically tries to recruit God for his side in what he fears is his coming showdown with his brother Esau.

Yet as Hoezee also points out, Jacob hedges his bets by sending his brother gifts in stages.  Hoezee notes that he cleverly releases those gifts so that his brother receives a new gift about once an hour.  It strongly suggests that Jacob, while praying to God, still assumes he must take things into his own hands in order to deal with his brother.

It’s not some godly Jacob, but this conniving, wheeler-dealer Jacob whom God has promised to stay with until the very end.  This, not some spiritually cleansed saint, is the distrustful and untrustworthy Jacob that God has, in fact, promised to bless.  God, after all, accepts God’s people wherever and whoever we are.

So while on the night before Jacob’s showdown with his twin the scammer assumes he’s all alone, he’s, in fact, not.  God, after all, has promised to stay with him to the very end of his trip back home.  What’s more, as it turns out, there’s also another “man” at the Jabbok too.  Before he can reunite with his brother Esau, with whom he wrestled in his mom’s womb, Jacob must wrestle with this highly mysterious opponent with whom, as it turns out, he has, in a sense, wrestled all of his life.

While their “match” probably lasts a long time, Genesis 32’s account of it doesn’t.  It simply reports they “wrestled until daybreak.”  It must be a pretty even contest; the mysterious stranger isn’t able to overpower Jacob – even though the heel’s already 97 years old.  Yet maybe that shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, Jacob hasn’t just repeatedly proven to be a cheater.  He’s also persistently shown himself to be amazingly stubborn.  Just ask his Uncle Laban.

Because he can’t beat the aging, tenacious fugitive, Jacob’s mysterious opponent touches his hip, probably dislocating it.  He reduces Jacob to a physically broken man who can no longer fully defend himself – against either the wrestler or his brother Esau.

Jacob will have to limp not just toward his brother and his homeland, but also wherever he goes for the rest of his life.  God, after all, accepts God’s beloved wherever or whoever we are.  But God never just lets us stay the same.  God transforms God’s children, even if God must somehow break us to do so.  God will, indeed, stay with and bless Jacob, just as God had promised.  But it’s a God who sometimes breaks in order to heal who stays with broken Jacob.

Is that why a Jacob who’s newly physically disabled clings so desperately to the mysterious wrestler?  We sense that Jacob finally senses his sparring partner is no ordinary wrestler.  We also sense that he finally realizes that he can’t move forward, whether toward Esau or back home, under his own power. After all, he frantically clings to his opponent like he clung to his brother’s heel until the mysterious wrestler blesses him.

But why does Jacob beg for a blessing?  Why doesn’t he first ask with whom he’s been wrestling all night?  Or why the Wrestler attacked him in the first place?  Who, asks Hoezee, ends a wrestling match by asking for a blessing?  Jacob does.  He is, after all, as Ian Provan notes, a man obsessed with gaining blessings.  Jacob’s, in fact, so fixated on them that he was willing to swindle both his big brother and dying old father to get one.

Yet while Jacob was in control of those earlier situations, he’s not in control on Jabbok’s banks.  In order to get a blessing from this Mysterious Stranger, he’ll have to give up something.  He must surrender his name that links him to all the cheating he’s done up to this point in his life.  His name that, as he says it, is a kind of confession of his dishonest ways.

God, after all, accepts God’s adopted sons and daughters wherever and whoever we are.  But God will never let us just stay the way we are.  God always transforms God’s people in order to make us more and more like God.  So God gives Jacob a new name: “Israel,” because he has struggled with God.

Yet perhaps it’s not just that he has struggled with God.  We generally translate verse 32 as meaning Jacob has “overcome.”  But the same word can mean he “understood.”  So perhaps Jacob’s new name Israel also at least suggests God has given him a new, better understanding of who his God is.

While we don’t often attach much importance to either names or changes to them, a person’s name in the Scriptures isn’t just her “label” or his “handle.”  It also reflects that person’s character.  So God doesn’t just change God’s sparring partner’s name.  God also changes his very nature.  God graciously begins Israel’s transformation that will make him more and more like himself.

Some preachers and devotionals apply the lessons of Jacob’s wrestling match to our own struggles with God over God’s plans and sometimes-mysterious ways.  Yet this wrestling match starts with verse 24’s report that “a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.”  So maybe it’s more appropriate to think of Genesis 32 as pointing to God’s wrestling with our flawed ways and selves.

Genesis 32’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us may have some ideas of how God may be wrestling with them right now.   So it might be worth exploring what sorts of disobedience and unfaithfulness God is trying to displace.  Perhaps it’s in God’s people’s families and circles of friends, or workplaces or places of recreation.  Maybe God is dislocating something in the way we manage our finances or personal health.

When God dislocates those things, God’s adopted children sometimes feel like we’re left limping.  It may leave us feeling vulnerable to the assaults of our own Esau’s or mysterious strangers.  But limp forward God’s people do, toward the dawn that is not just the new heaven and earth, but also the sunrise that is God’s good and loving purposes for us.  Limping with both the new name and character God gives us: beloved, adopted child of God.

Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s 7/23/2017 CEP Gospel Sermon Commentary)

‘In my neck of the Reformed woods, an English professor named Stanley Wiersma used to delight folks with his Garrison Keillor-like musings on life in Iowa and in the churches of Iowa in particular, all written under the nom de plume of Sietze Buining.  In one of his more indelible portraits in the book Purpaleanie and other Permutations, we meet a man named “Benny” in a poem titled “Excommunication.”

‘Benny Ploegster is an alcoholic who regularly attended church.  For three years Benny had been under discipline: first a silent censure, then a more public censure that initially left his name out of the matter.  Later it was announced publicly that it was indeed Benny who was under scrutiny.  Three years is a long time to work with someone, and so finally Benny’s persistent struggle with the bottle led the church (and God too, apparently) to run out of patience.  So a deadline was set, and when Benny was unable to meet that deadline by cleaning up his act and repenting of his wicked, boozy ways, a date was set for the public excommunication.

‘[But] Benny attended his excommunication.

‘He even stood in the midst of the congregation while the pastor solemnly read the standard form that designated Benny a “Gentile and a publican” with whom the church was to have no further association.  Benny stood there and heard it all.  As Wiersma put it, “It was not in protest, although the dominie [pastor] thought so, and it was not in stupidity, although the congregation thought so, that Benny stood up for excommunication and until he died of cirrhosis attended as regularly as before.  He did not partake of communion.

‘Like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ our Benny was wrestling with us and with God.  Though he lacked Jacob’s talent for articulation, his standing said as explicitly as its verbal equivalent: I will not be cut off as though I do not exist. I am God’s child, all right, God’s naughty child, but still God’s child: Benny.

‘And what of us who attended church regularly out of custom and superstition and without much desire and without any questioning that we had a right to be there?  What of us who had never wrestled like Benny?  Though he did not intend it, by standing up to be excommunicated, was Benny excommunicating us?  The church is gone now, the lumber used for a cattle shed, but in memory the place where Benny stood is forever holy ground.  Was Benny excommunicating me?”

Sietze Buining, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.


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