Genesis 32: 22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27 So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28 Then the man[b] said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[c] for you have striven with God and with humans,[d] and have prevailed.’ 29 Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[e] saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is[b] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Luke 18: 1-8
Then Jesus[a] told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’[b] 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Jacob is one of my favourite characters in the Hebrew Scriptures. Today’s reading from Genesis comes at a turning point in his life, or rather the night before the crucial encounter.
Jacob settles his large family and retinue on the other side of the stream – his Rubicon – and then returns alone, for the night. There we are told he wrestles with a man: we are not told who he is, he refuses to identify himself. There is no winner. Jacob emerges with a damaged hip and a new name.
A dark, mysterious episode. Perhaps, like in many stories through the ages, an internal drama is conjured through an outward scene – is the man some sort of alter ego? We don’t know.
Jacob has been wrestling, struggling his whole life. Even before he is born, he wrestles in Rebekah’s womb with his twin brother, Esau – who would be born a few minutes before him.
Jacob’s constant struggle is borne of a kind of restless energy. In good times this comes across as wit, trickery and inventiveness. He tricks his ageing father, Isaac and his slow-witted hunter brother Esau out of Esau’s birthright, first with stew and then with disguise. He tricks his uncle Laban, and is tricked back in return, back and forth until they agree an honourable draw. All these stories about Jacob are a feast of celebration of his cleverness, his nous, he is the joker, the monkey king, with Rachel, the love of his life, also his assistant trickster.
But there is a shadow side to his restless energy. The name Jacob means the usurper. He is the one without natural inheritance, with no foundation, alienating others out of a deeper anxiety, he can be needlessly adversarial and clumsy in his relationships. So he tries to gain a secure future by stealing what is not his. And then Esau swears he will kill Jacob, and the young boy runs for his life. He grows up in a foreign land, with his uncle, Laban, a land where he does not belong. He has no home.
Two decades pass, he grows into middle age. His wits have matured into shrewd business sense, and he has a profitable concern, from which to support his large family. But he has no freehold, he is underneath it all still a migrant. And Laban’s sons grow jealous of him. He sees where this could lead, and so concludes he must move on. Where to? Common sense would suggest somewhere new, a safe distance away from both his uncle Laban and his cheated brother, Esau.
And here we become aware that, below the surface, he feels a longing to go back, to find again his childhood place. This is folly in the extreme, his practical side can see this clearly. If he goes back, Esau will have the opportunity, the means and surely the desire for revenge. There is also a huge economic incentive, in that were Jacob to exercise that stolen birthright, then he, Esau, would see his livelihood dismantled.
For Jacob home has a spiritual dimension. For as he fled from Esau as a young man, he was met by God in a vision, and God offered him promises, which in his youthful cockiness he did not take up. But he placed a pillar there, at Bethel, and that is the place to which he will return.
So to the dawning of a new day, when, despite all his better judgement, he will go to meet Esau again, either to die at his hand or to live in God’s promises.
The writer of Genesis now weaves the two strands of Jacob’s character more brightly than ever. All his astute and worldly skills are deployed. He sends waves of gifts, only to hear that Esau is approaching at the head of 400 warriors. In fear he divides his company, so that perhaps one half may survive. Finally, he places his family in line, himself in front and his precious Rachel and her child Joseph at the very back.
The meeting with Esau is one of the most moving in the Bible. Esau has put away his spear. He shows only love. They embrace, weeping. Jacob receives a blessing of forgivenss and of grace which washes away the stolen birthright. It is a miracle, expressed in humanity.
All this week the words of last Sunday’s collect have been in my mind: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” At last, Jacob’s heart has found rest.
Jacob returns to Bethel, to set up an altar, he says, “to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” And there God speaks to him in a vision and gives him the name whispered by his mystery opponent: Israel. He is no longer the usurper.
The name Israel has several possible meanings, of which perhaps the most immediate is he who struggles, he who persists.
Israel could also mean the God who struggles. The grace which Jacob receives runs against the natural order. So there is a disruptive quality to Jacob’s God and his blessing. A theme of reversal of the settled order runs through the Jacob story, a premonition, perhaps of the radical words of Jesus: “the last shall be first.”
It rings true for me that the rest Jacob finds in his brother’s arms and with his God in Bethel does not last, even though he is changed by it. Troubles return and he moves on again, and in the next chapter, the love of his life, Rachel, dies giving birth to their second son, Benjamin.
If you are interested, I invite you this week to read on in Jacob’s story as he becomes old. Read especially the story of Joseph and his dreamcoat. But read it from Jacob’s perspective. He remains both difficult and astute. But it is underneath a story of losing and then surrendering those he loves most, only to receive them back again.
And for all that he mellows with age, there is, of course, a rebellious twist at the very end!