Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
The Thrill of Defeat
Genesis 32: 22-31
Jacob has “striven with God and human beings and has prevailed.” What could that line of scripture mean – “strive with God, and human beings, and prevail?” Just the idea of engaging in a wrestling match with God might stretch some of our minds beyond themselves. But encountering God, wrestling with Him, and prevailing?! And, if in this case the scripture tells us Jacob prevailed, does that mean God lost?
When we join Jacob this morning, he is returning to his homeland. He is very frightened of his brother Esau. How will Esau receive the brother who deceived him out of birthright and blessing? Worst case scenario? Jacob fears he might be attacked and killed upon crossing the border into what has become, by the default that has been his twenty year absence, Esau’s land. The depth of Esau’s anger is what prompted Jacob’s mother to encourage him to skip town for a while in the first place. Leave the county in search of a wife among her people. Rebekah thought Esau needed some time to cool down. But, even now, twenty years later, Jacob fears Esau may be still mad as a hornet.
The night before Jacob crosses the river Jabbok to expose himself to this potential danger, Jacob fights with an angel of God. We are not told who confronts whom first. Nor are we given details of how the initial confrontation turns physical. We can imagine how it might have been. Jacob, alone, in the dark, pondering how it is that his life has been reduced to this; the powerful and wealthy man he has become over his twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban forced to grovel before his older brother for the right to live peacefully in his own hometown. Anticipating that very scene surely puts Jacob on edge. He is not in control. At last, he has become acutely and painfully aware of the truth. Human beings are not lords of our own destiny; even though we often delude ourselves into thinking we are. The night of Jacob’s “come to Jesus”, he realizes that whatever success he has found in the past has been gift, and that the power to guarantee his future lies in other hands than his own.
This is the realization that begins many a human wrestling match with the Lord. Often, the loss of control has led to fear, grief or anger even before the bell calls us into the ring. But that is not what the Lord wants. God wants us to trust God’s power, the power to bring life from death. But we have a hard time doing that.
Haven’t we all been in situations that make us want to call the Creator of it all to account? In my experience, we come to Peniel any time we sit on the cusps that are the big turning points in our lives, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Will we get the job? Should we chuck the old? Will the treatment work? Is the challenge to change from a loved one a manipulative trap or a sincere invitation? Will the risk we take to repair a relationship bring us new life, or just more of the same old disappointment and grief the person with whom we are trying to reconcile has caused us before? All these questions, and the stress tied up in their asking, can put us very on edge. Put us as on edge as Jacob was.
In that state, when Jacob senses a stranger in the vicinity, someone he can’t quite make out given in the darkness, he challenges immediately. “Who goes there?” No answer. So Jacob, aware of his vulnerability and resorting to all the more bluster to cover it up, gets more confrontational. “I said,” we can imagine him repeating loudly, “who are you and what do you want? What are you doing here? I’ve got enough trouble as it is. So, I’m not going looking for it. But, I’ll defend myself if you force me…. “
When that much fear’s involved, a mere eye twitch might trigger the aggression. Perhaps the strange night visitor ambushed Jacob, thinking it was about time he came face to face with who he was under God. Or, maybe the angel just hesitated a moment too long before inviting Jacob to sit with him on a log by the river’s edge where they could have a long friendly chat about all that had gotten Jacob into this particular fix. What the text tells us for sure is that a fight breaks out; a fight that ends in a draw. Jacob escapes with his life, but is not left unscarred. As the dawn breaks, the angel has determined the man with whom he is in such a struggle is in desperate need of a deeper understanding of whom he is and whom his opponent really is. So, the angel touches Jacob’s thigh, and it comes undone.
Clearly, Veni, vidi, vinci – he came, he saw, he conquered – the pure unadulterated victory of Jacob over God – was not what happened at Peniel. Nor, was Jacob’s pure triumph over Esau what happens later on in the morning. He appeases his brother with gifts sent ahead. Then, when they finally come together, Jacob walks out alone to receive Esau’s judgment of him or on him, for good or for ill. In that context, winning, outright submission of Esau to Jacob’s prowess, could not possibly be what “prevail” as the NRSV translates the Hebrew means.
So, we’re back where we started. What is the message this scripture means to convey about what it means to struggle with God and human beings and prevail? Could it be that our reading this morning is defining our primary struggle as being not between us and others, or even between us and God, but between us and well, us? Could it be telling us that person needing to be defeated, the one only God can help us see aright, the one only God can help us love without illusions, looks at us every morning in the mirror? And that God’s discipline, all the blows we receive in the wrestling matches we have with God’s angels, are never for the purpose of wounding us unto death? But, instead, they are for the purpose of drawing us to God? Everything, even life’s most difficult battles can be used for the purpose of teaching that God is not against us – God is for us. That God is striving in and through all things, all things!, to enable us, in Him, to overcome the separation between he and us that is the root cause of all our woundedness and pain. All things can be used for that purpose, if we get to that blessed place, in Christ, from which our pride and the grief, anger and fear it causes, can be moved out of the way.
Maybe, I am saying, there are not actually three different kinds of struggles in which Jacob has been engaged over the course of our sojourn with him in Genesis; struggles with human beings, struggles with God and struggles with himself. Instead, there is only one. And so, we can extrapolate, there are not those struggles we have with God, those we have with others, and those we have with ourselves. The struggles we have with all three are birthed from one source, human alienation from God. In this context, to prevail is not to become masters of the universe, or masters of other people. It is, by the grace of God, to start to learn how to become masters of ourselves. Prevailing, by the grace of God, is learning that submission to the ground of our being which finally sets us free.
At the river Jabbok, Jacob turns a corner in his learning of the lesson of all our lifetimes, the lesson that God’s Holy Spirit eternally teaches, for our sakes. Power, success, happiness as the world knows them, they can be his who will fight for them hard enough; who is willing to make them priority above any other. But, that hierarchy of values comes at the cost of our relationship with God, at the cost of our humanity. If we are willing to sacrifice it, we end up sacrificing ourselves on the altar of self-love, which does not really mean love of self, others and God (another Holy Trinity), it means sacrificing ourselves on the altar of misguided human pride. We end up using dry bones to build higher our monument to the illusion of our control of our own destiny.
Author and preacher Frederick Beuchner writes eloquently about our passage today. Peace, love, joy, the fruits of the Spirit, the eternal things? They are only from God. And God is the enemy Jacob fought there by the river. The enemy who, in one way or another, we all of us fight – God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, she demands of us everything; before giving us life that is life indeed, she demands our lives, ourselves, our wills, our treasure. Beuchner goes on, “Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.”
Only remember the last glimpse we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. And remember too Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory. The magnificent defeat, the delivery of the human soul into the hands of God.” [Frederick Beuchner. The Magnificent Defeat. The Seabury Press, New York. 1966. Page 18]
To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.