A sermon preached on October 27th, 2013, on the occasion of the baptism of Heather Ann Weiss and Charolette Rose Bryant, and based on Genesis 32:22 – 31.
In the story we just heard, Jacob is heading home for a reunion. It’s been twenty years since he’s set eyes on his brother Esau.
I’ve been thinking about reunions lately. It is that season of the year. Sarah recently went back to Ohio for a reunion of her college sorority. Karen Wilk was telling us about her excitement about attending her 50th high school reunion that she was going to last night. My 40th high school reunion was held two weeks ago – I choose to pass.
Whether we choose to go, or not to go, there is a certain emotional intensity to the very thought of attending a reunion, for it compels us to reflect on the larger journey of our lives: where we once were in our lives, where we are now, and where we are headed.
I chose not to go to my high school reunion in large part because, as is often the case, high school wasn’t a happy time in my life. The riot that is the swirl of teenage hormones inevitably make it a time of extreme self-consciousness – making it so difficult to get out of oneself.
For the most part during high school I felt awkward, insecure, unattractive, unlovable, and distinctly not in the “in crowd.” I got by, as I put underneath by yearbook picture, “with a little help from my friends,” a handful of close friends like David who helped hold me together in a difficult time. I was afraid that returning to my reunion would mean revisiting that miserable self-image.
But people who have had the courage to go back to their reunions have often described it being a grace filled time in which they marveled at encountering in people something recognizable from long ago mixed in with personalities that were transformed into something far greater than what they were in high school.
In the subsequent journey of their lives buried gifts unseen in high school had found the opportunity to come forth to the bless the world. Perhaps they had endured struggles in which character was formed, or simply found places along the way where they could feel safe and loved in a way that allowed their innate gifts to be expressed.
But of course people sometimes describe encompassing personalities strangely absent of grace. Perhaps these people were the cats meow in high school, the most popular, the ones with the good lucks who were football stars and cheer leaders and such. And now the good looks have faded and they seem strangely stuck in the past, miserable, resenting the fact that time has moved on, their personalities and characters sadly undeveloped, and unwilling to celebrate the transformation of the nobodies of high school into some bodies.
Jesus had a hard time at his high school reunion. He returned home to Nazareth after years of being away, and it started out well, but quickly turned very badly. The folks in Nazareth refused to believe that the Jesus they had known way back then had been transformed into someone far greater than themselves. They got so upset they tried to kill him.
Jacob is one of just a handful of characters in the Bible for whom we get their entire life story – the journey they took from birth to death, and as such it calls attention to the fact that you don’t fully know a person without knowing something of the larger story of their lives.
What, for instance, did this bizarre all-night wrestling match in which Jacob found himself forced to engage mean? It is hard to say for sure, but there is little hope for understanding what it all meant without knowing something of how it fits into the larger journey of his life.
And what is the significance of what we did this morning in baptizing Heather and Charolette? In a certain sense, we cannot say. It depends in large measure on what will follow on their journeys forward.
(There is that poignancy we encounter when someone dies, and we hear for the first time in the eulogy something of the larger arc of the person’s life, giving us a deeper appreciation of who that person was, and we wish we had had the opportunity to know something of that story while the person was still among us. Life rarely provides such opportunities, so we have to make them happen. )
In the eyes of the world, the significance of our journeys is found in our success making a place for ourselves in this world. And it’s true, that we have no choice to but to engage this great struggle.
But from the Christian point of view the meaning of our journeys is not found in the success we have in making a place for ourselves, but ultimately elsewhere:
First, the impact our lives have on others, which is a good thing to talk about, but not what I choose to address this morning. Rather, I want to focus on the second thing: the meaning of our lives is found in who it is we become in the course of our journeys. It about the life of our souls.
In this regard, while we’re in the journey, it’s hard to recognize fully the significance of what is happening at the present moment, because we can’t see the big picture — how it all fits together in the end.
For instance, in the journey of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, it would have been hard to recognize any meaning for the time the son spends in the far country, where he squandered his father’s inheritance, making terribly bad choices, self-centered and self-abusive choices.
But in the larger story of his life, this dark period takes on meaning by virtue of the fact that it set the stage for the son to learn what grace was all about.
Something like this happened in the life of John Wesley, who possessed one of the most, disciplined, hard-working, go-getter personalities the world has ever known, but his most blessed moment – the moment that provided him with the insight upon which his whole life found its meaning – happened as a result not of success but rather of defeat, at a time in which he was forced to face directly the darker parts of his personality. It was in defeat that he experienced the grace which strangely warmed his heart.
So let’s review the story of Jacob’s life. When he was born, Jacob came into the world as part of a set of twins. His brother Esau came out first, which was no small thing in those days. It meant Esau would receive the greatly enhanced status and inheritance that came with being the first born. But something of Jacob’s personality was revealed in his birth: he came out clutching his brothers’ heel, as if he were trying to pull his brother back so that he could take his place. This in turn inspired his name: “Jacob”, which means the supplanter, the usurper. His name will become a significant detail to our story.
Lacking the physical strength of his brother, Jacob quickly learned to rely on his wits. True to his name, he wheels and deals, cons and manipulates. He takes advantage of a moment of weakness in which his brother was famished after an unsuccessful hunting trip to get Esau to hand over his birthright as the first born in exchange for hot bowl of lentil stew.
Later, as his father was nearing the end of his life, and his eyesight fading, encouraged by his mother, Jacob comes to his father’s bedside disguised as his brother Esau, successfully conning his father into giving him the final blessing that was intended for the first born.
When Esau found out about the fast one Jacob had pulled, he was furious and rightfully so, and swore he’d kill his brother. So Jacob fled, travelling far from home, ending up at the home of his mother’s brother, his Uncle Laban. He arrived there with nothing, but over the course of the next twenty years Jacob successfully matches wits with his uncle, in the end coming out on top. When finally Jacob departs to return home, he does so with two of Laban’s daughters for wives, eleven children, two concubines and a large flock of cattle, several servants and a sizable amount of valuable treasure, much of which has been essentially stolen from his uncle.
And so Jacob heads home, feeling deep inside himself a need to return home, back to the land promised to his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and now as the next link in chain, to himself.
As he approaches his home, however, he receives word that his brother has come out to meet him, but he has with him an army of 400. It appears that Jacob finally may have coming to him what he deserves; finally he will be brought down from his high horse.
Jacob comes to the River Jabbok on the far side of which is his homeland. Once more he wheels and deals, sending across the river half of his accumulated wealth as a peace offering with which he hopes to appease his brother wrath, and then, as a follow up, he sends ahead of himself all of his wives and children and everything else he possesses, hoping somehow to soften his brother’s heart.
And so Jacob is left alone on the banks of the Jabbok as the sun sets and the darkness descends.
Suddenly a man leaps at him from out of the deep darkness, and they proceed to wrestle through the night. This mysterious adversary is powerful and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he is some sort of angel, an instrument of God. And yet, Jacob is relentless, he holds tightly, refusing to be defeated. With the night nearing an end, and Jacob unrelenting, the adversary reaches into the hollow of his hip, and suddenly Jacob’s hip is put out of joint, as though the adversary had been holding back his power, allowing the struggle to go on – allowing Jacob to exert all that is within him. But, even with his hip dislocated, Jacob refuses to loosen his grip.
With the sun about to rise, the adversary commands Jacob to let him go. But Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The adversary responds by asking Jacob, “What is your name?”
What this all about — this strange, strange story? Who knows for sure? but surely it expresses some serious soul-searching. Jacob who has been a success in the things of this world, but he has been a fraudulent in terms of the life of the soul. And now he is compelled to look inward — to face the darkness within. He has to own up to all the deceptions and betrayals that have marked his climb up the ladder of success.
In Jacob’s culture, names were believed to reveal one’s essential character and sometimes their destiny. To know a person’s name was to gain a certain power over that person. And so in asking Jacob his name, the angel is asking him to come clean. Who are you, really?
And so Jacob confesses his name: I am Jacob, the supplanter, the usurper, the fraud, the charlatan, the scoundrel, the cheat.
That’s who I am.
This is, in a strange sense, a story of baptism. “Jacob” the deceiver is who he has been, but that is not what he will be. The angel gives Jacob a new name. “From now on you will be called Israel.” “Israel” means – the one who strives with God. The one who perseveres to know the truth, the deepest reality beyond all that is fraudulent. That’s who you are moving forward. In that dark night of the soul, the Jacob’s old self dies, and a new self rises.
And so as the sun rises, Israel, once known as Jacob, limps forth from the Jabbok with new found humility and inner peace, embracing his fundamental frailty, ready to meet his brother without fraudulence and deceit.
Here in the Church, it is not our past that defines us, but rather our future. That’s what baptism is about. That old self, perhaps that one we knew so well back in high school, so self-involved and self-abusive – that self that has haunted us through the years ever since, is put to death, and a new self rises from to live moving forward — a self set free to love as Christ loves, for Christ lives within us.
The old self may repeatedly rise up its head. But it is the new self we are becoming that ultimately matters. The new self won’t fully emerge in all likelihood until the moment of our death, but nonetheless it is the one moving forward that truly matters – a child of God in whom God delights, who can walk humbly but confidently in this world as a blessing of peace, mercy and compassion.