God's Story, Our Story: The Blessing & The Limp
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Genesis 32:22-30
Part One: Getting Caught Up in the Story
The Bible is God’s Story, and it is our story. We find ourselves in God’s Story.
We heard the beginning of God’s Story a couple weeks ago, when God created the heavens and the earth. We heard about how, through Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden, sin enters the story and makes a mess of things. “Paradise is lost,” to quote the famous poet John Milton. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be.
But God stays in the story. God does not give up on his creation and leave the world to its own devices. God is on a mission to rescue the world and restore all things to God’s design. How will God do this? God calls Abraham and Sarah, a nomadic couple, and makes a promise to them. Their offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and through this family all the families of the earth will be blessed. Abraham and Sarah will be the parents of a great nation who will serve as a light to all the nations.
We heard this part of the story last week. Sarah was barren, but eventually God fulfills his promise to this couple. When it finally happens, Sarah laughs out loud (and so does Abraham) because they are so old in age. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
And so Isaac is born, whose name means “laughter.” He is the carrier of God’s blessing, and he grows up and marries Rebekah. Like her mother-in-law, Rebekah also turns out to be barren. But unlike her mother-in-law, God answers Rebekah’s prayer to conceive while she is still young. And also unlike her mother-in-law, there is not one child growing in her womb but two: twin boys.
The first comes out red and hairy, so they named him Esau (which means “hairy”). The second tumbles out gripping his brother’s heal, so they name him Jacob (which means “heal grabber”). When the boys grow up, they are as different as night and day. Esau is simple minded and a skillful hunter. But Jacob is clever and resourceful, and he much prefers staying home and helping with domestic chores to his brother’s hunting expeditions. Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
One day Jacob dupes his simple minded brother into selling his birthright for nothing more than a bowl of lentil soup. But that isn’t the worst of it. When it comes time for Isaac, now old and blind, to give his blessing to the eldest son, Jacob gets some coaching from his mother and deceives his father. He puts goat skin on his arms and tricks his father into thinking he is Esau. So Isaac passes on the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. And this is really the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Esau is spitting’ mad, and can you blame him? More than anything he wants to get his big hands around Jacob’s scrawny neck and snap it like a twig. So Jacob flees for his life. He runs off to the land of his Uncle Laban. He gets married to Rachel and Leah (that’s another story!), and has lots of children. Jacob does really well for himself.
But after twenty years of living as a fugitive, Jacob decides it’s time to come home. He’s coming home a rich man—with a large family, servants, and enough livestock to sponsor his own county fair. But he’s also coming home a fearful man. Fearful because he’s caught word that his brother Esau is marching to meet him with an army of four hundred men.
When they arrive to the Jabbok River, Jacob sends his family and servants ahead of him and he remains behind to keep the darkness company for what might be the last night of his life. Come tomorrow, Esau may strike him dead on the spot. Well, in a very real sense, it would be the last night of Jacob’s life. But not because of Esau. Someone else would get to Jacob first. Listen to this story from the book of Genesis chapter 32, beginning at verse 22.
Part Two: the Blessing and the Limp
The Hebrews were master storytellers. And like any good storyteller, they don’t tell too much. We don’t get all the specific details. Instead, we are invited to enter the story, to fill in the gaps ourselves. We’re invited to wonder what it was like for Jacob to wrestle so intimately with God--a wrestling match that lasted all through the night.
This morning I want to help you use your imagination and enter the story by sharing with you one of my favorite contemporary storytellers—a writer who has a knack for filling in the gaps. His name is Frederick Buechner. And what I am about to share with you comes from his book titled Son of Laughter. What happened that night by the river? If Jacob were here to speak for himself, perhaps he would tell the story something like this.
Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.
He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
“Let me go,” He said, “for the day is breaking.”
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.
I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.
“Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
He said, “Who are you?”
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair. My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”
“It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.
I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it.
“Why do you ask my name?”
We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky.
I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but only that I dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.
The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok. Bands of gold fanned across the sky. I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep with each new step and my head bobbing. It is the way I have walked ever since.
From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with the new name the Face of light gave me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.
When he gave me his blessing… and crippled me.
A blessing…and a limp. In these nine verses we are given a picture of God that is very different than most of us are used to. A picture that sounds almost scary. What are we to make of a picture of God who comes at Jacob like an adversary in the middle of the night?
Jacob liked having God’s presence and blessing on his terms. So long as God fit into his agenda, took care of him in the ways he wanted to be taken care of, then he would claim this God as his own. And we too tend to be more attracted to a God who is like a genie in a lamp--a God who magically grants us wishes at our command rather than a God who is the Ruler of the Universe. A God we can bargain with and manipulate. A God we can control by rubbing the lamp when we need something, only to send him back into the lamp when he’s served our purpose.
But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no genie in a lamp. And that’s a good thing. This is a God who has made a covenant with us and is set on having a relationship with us. But it will be on God’s terms, not ours. This is a God who has a plan and a purpose for our lives and for the world that is far greater than our personal agendas.
I want to suggest that this is really a story about grace. “Grace?” you might ask, “How is this a story about grace? Granted, it is not the grace that we tend to envision—that sweet amazing grace that nudges us along “softly and tenderly.” We like that kind of grace. It’s unobtrusive and it’s not too demanding. It’s the kind of grace that makes us feel safe and comfortable.
But the grace that grabbed a hold of Jacob is a fierce, rough and tumbling kind of grace. It’s a grace that pursues us and wrestles us to the ground, locking us in its wounding hold. What am I talking about here? I’m talking about grace that comes disguised in the form of unwelcome intrusions in our life—disruptions, struggles and disappointments. Things that blind side us and knock us flat on our back, fighting for our life. This is a grace that hurts--a grace that leaves us limping. But it also leaves us blessed. Changed. And that makes it amazing grace nonetheless.
More often than not, this is the kind of grace it takes for God to lay a hold of our lives and to shape us and mold us according to his purpose. This is the kind of grace it takes for God to free us from the illusion that we are in control—that we ever were really in control. Elizabeth Achtemeier, a Biblical scholar and preacher, says it like this:
“God engages us in battle in Jesus Christ because he wants to make us new men and women, just as he fought with Jacob to make him a new and different man. …God wrested with Jacob to give him that blessing and to lock him into his purpose. So, too, God in Christ wrestles with us to rule over our lives, to pull us into the good purpose that he is working out on this earth. It is not always a pleasant experience. God can grab us and fight us and jerk us all the way round, to walk a new path that we had not dreamed of taking…it costs us something to have him hammer away at us until we reflect his will.
I think Achtemeier is right. Being molded and shaped by God’s hands is not always a pleasant experience. Often it is painful and it is costly. It costs us our very lives. Jesus said “Whoever wants to find life must lose it—let it go--for my sake.” The heart of the gospel is a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus. And when you’re carrying a cross, you will walk in a way that his different from the world. You will walk with a limp. A glorious limp.
I’m not suggesting that God is behind every experience of struggle in our lives. That would be to oversimplify things and it trivializes the real pain of those suffering. And sometimes the struggle is a result of our own bad choices. What I am suggesting is that God is in every experience of struggle. God is present with us, his arms holding us; even when we can’t see him or feel his presence. We can limp away with the assurance that by God’s grace, even this experience—as dark as it may seem at the time—can be used for God’s glory and his good purposes.
And so here is the wonderful irony of Jacob’s story: Jacob, whose name means “heel-grabber,” is grasped by the grace of a God who had something in store for him that was far more than he could have ever bargained for. When Jacob finally crossed the Jabbok that next morning, on his way to face his brother Esau, he was a changed man with a new name and a new limp to prove it. He was now Israel, “he who strives with God and with humans and prevails.” But this prevailing isn’t the type of prevailing the world thinks of. This is a prevailing that comes only in defeat, only in letting go of ourselves—our own plans, agendas, illusions—and clinging to God. It is a prevailing that comes only by way of surrender.
As we wrestle with a God whose presence in our midst is much too close for comfort, let us cling to God for dear life and for dear death. And let us cry out these beautiful words of surrender, spoken first by the prophet Isaiah:
Take my life, O Lord! We are the clay, you are the potter; and we are but the work of your hand! (Is. 64:8).
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.