A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Jacob is a dreamer. No, he’s not one of those misty-eyed dreamers who sees life through rose-colored glasses and imagines a future that is all sweetness and light. He’s not one of those fellows who talks to the trees and looks forward to magical solutions to life’s challenges. He’s not prone to rubbing lanterns or singing about the “big rock candy mountain.” In fact, I imagine Jacob is something of a reluctant dreamer.
He may not have had much choice, though. Dreams and their interpretation were embedded in his cultural reality. They were more important to his way of life than they are to ours, so that he is not as much surprised by his dreams as he is irritated or disturbed by them. Jacob lived in a time and place where it was not uncommon for the holy to appear to the human in dreams, so he does recognize angles and spirits when they appear. However, it is pretty clear that he has clearly not summoned them.
Jacob is a practical man, at least in the sense that his whole life seems to be about making his way in the world, squeezing all he can from life, even if he must use cunning and deceit. Amy Merrill Willis writes that “Throughout the stories of Genesis 25- 31, we have seen Jacob con, cheat, deceive, and manipulate virtually every member of his family and then run off when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. The fact that Jacob seems to get away with this bad behavior and also garner promises, wives, children and household goods in the process only increases the reader’s ambivalence about this ancestor of Israel” (Amy Merrill Willis, “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31, August 3, 2014, workingpreacher.org). Not our prototype of a dreamer or a hero.
And yet, Yahweh keeps coming to him. Clearly the Holy One wants something from him, has expectations for him whether or not Jacob sees things the same way or wants what God wants for him. I imagine that this might be said about most of us at one time or another – our agenda for our lives did not square with God’s and we were sure we knew better. Remember last week we considered Jacob’s technicolor vision of the stairway to heaven, complete with God’s assurance of accompaniment, blessing, progeny and homecoming? And remember I suggested that Jacob only understood a small portion of what was revealed to him? We looked at how the schemer bargained with God to get the most advantageous terms for himself from the covenant God was offering. Then he concluded, “If you really do what you say you will, then I will take you as my God, worshiping and serving you.” He may have been shoulder to shoulder with the great God of the universe, who had created all that is and yet had chosen to sit side by side with this human scoundrel, but he was not ready for any great repentance or transformation.
We also speculated that this might be as far as Jacob was capable of going on this day. Each of us in his or her own way must learn to walk in the dark and grow into spiritual maturity in our time and way. At least, by the time Jacob left Bethel, God has gotten his attention. Over the next twenty years Jacob schemes and claws his way to wealth and power, largely at the expense of his uncle and father-in-law, Laban. Once more we find he has worn out his welcome. It is time for him to leave Haran before he’s driven out of town, when conveniently he has another dream. “Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ ‘I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth’” (Genesis 31:11, 13). God had promised a homecoming and the time had come.
The catch is, he still has a brother at home. You remember Esau, the one he had conned and cheated of his inheritance? There had been no word from home that Esau had calmed down or wouldn’t want his revenge the minute his duplicitous younger brother appeared on the horizon. The dilemma was that God was sending Jacob back but Jacob was afraid to go home. Have you ever felt that kind of fear, afraid to go home and face whatever mess you might have made with family and friends? Like the Prodigal Son you knew you’d be better off at home and yet you really had to hit bottom before you could confront your insecurities and fears and become vulnerable enough to take the risk.
Well, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He gathers together his wives, servants and worldly goods and decides to take a chance on home. “Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’” (Genesis 32:1-2a). Again Jacob is affirmed in a dream. He kneels and prays, “O God of my father Abraham and my mother Sarah, God of my father Isaac and mother Rebekah, O Holy One 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’“ (Genesis 32:9-13).
What do you think? Does it sound like the prayer of one who is truly repentant and willing to turn his life over to the Holy One, to ask forgiveness and make amends? Again it seems like Jacob is making progress toward spiritual maturity but he’s still bargaining. Maybe that’s just ingrained in his nature and will always be there. He’s quick to remind God of all that God has promised him. It’s like he’s calling in every possible asset he can think of to ensure his safety. Still, he lets a bit of humility creep into his prayer, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…” He has come to see that all he has has not been gotten by his own hand. Maybe he does owe God a debt of gratitude.
Whether he deserved them or not, God’s promises proved true. Still, true to character, Jacob decides to cover his odds by sending some significant gifts ahead to Esau in hopes of bribing his forgiveness and good will.
Finally, we find Jacob on the eve of the great confrontation with his brother. At the point of today’s text, we don’t know what the outcome will be. Jacob has made every preparation he can think of. Now he is alone on the banks of the Jabbok. Once more he is lonely, cold and afraid, only this time he is not running away. In his physical and, perhaps spiritual, journey he has chosen to turn around and head home. He will take the chance that’s God promise is genuine. Has he learned his lesson? We don’t yet know.
Close your eyes for a minute. Sit on the bank of your own river Jabbok. What might be looming before you – unknown, unfinished, unforgiven, threatening, confusing, painful? Feel the darkness, the dampness, the chill, the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear. Now I’m not suggesting that each of us lives with the distress that Jacob experienced that night. Our concerns may seem very small compared to Jacob’s. But surely each of us knows something of being afraid, of not wanting to sit or walk in the dark, of facing unwanted, unexamined unfriendly challenges in our lives. We can a find a bit of Jacob’s story in ours.
These are the moments God shows up. And I imagine that God shows up in just the form we most need. A lot of the liturgy in today’s service appeals to the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. For those who have put their trust in God, it makes sense that God would come to us as Nan Merrill’s “Beloved.” But it is not always so. Some of us need to wrestle with God before we come to our senses, and, after the wrestling, we may find ourselves limping ahead.
All night Jacob has to wrestle with his fears, with his failures, with his inadequacies, with the harm he has done and the hurt he has caused. This is a tough, no-holds-barred wrestling match. No WWF hype or orderly Olympic format. This is a down-in-the-mud struggle for Jacob’s soul. As daylight dawns, Jacob seems to have held his own. I take this to mean that his spirit is not broken. God has not and will not strip him of his humanity. But Jacob limps ahead. His humanity is re-shaped by his fierce encounter with the living God. I assume it took all this to get Jacob’s attention and move him along home. I don’t assume that each of us will experience such a dark night of the soul, but we may. Barbara Brown Taylor keeps reminding us that we might yet benefit from picking up our fears and learning to walk in the dark, rather than letting them control and condemn our lives.
In his commentary, Carl Gregg suggests that “The God who wrestles with us in the mess of our lives and leaves us ‘limping, but blessed’ is good news for us today.” Is that so? Do you find God news in a God who will come side by side with you and wrestle for your soul? Carl concludes, “As Christians, we know the God, whose ‘thoughts are higher than our thoughts and ways are higher than our ways’ (Isaiah 55:8-9); but,” he says, “we also know the God, who wrestles with us on our level — a God will to wrestle with us until daybreak” (Carl Gregg, “A God Who Will Wrestle with You till Daybreak,” July 27, 2011, patheos.com). Steadfast love and faithfulness even in their fiercest forms – what more can we ask? It’s enough to save our very souls and keep us limping ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.