Sermon for Sunday 16 October 2022
Genesis 32.30: Jacob said, I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.
There is a time of night, about three thirty or four in the morning, when it gets grim if we can’t sleep. It’s too late to have a good night’s sleep, and it’s too early to get up. In the Bible, the night is a time of fear, and the great story of Jacob wrestling with God’s angel takes place at night. It derives from old stories of spirits and demons, who guarded particular places such as this stream Jabbok, but who are powerful only at night. The story has been reworked many times, and is now mysterious to us. In our modern literal way, we would say that the story is corrupt. But that’s our loss. St Paul writing to Timothy, reminds us today that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching. They weren’t credulous fools back then. A short story might not be literally true, but it can reveal truth. A poem can remain mysterious, yet bring clarity. The story of Jacob wrestling with God reveals to us our own struggle with religion, our lifelong battle to see God face to face. We could say that, like an icon, the story reads us.
I am not going through the story with you. That’s the classic sermon error. All we need to know is that Jacob is a treacherous man who cheated his brother Esau out of his father’s blessing. He has to cross this difficult stream, on his own, bringing him nearer to the day of reckoning with his brother. This is his 4 am moment. It’s a rite of passage, which all of us are called to make, from danger to safety, from night to day, from lonely outcast to the one who is blessed by God and given a new name. During the night Jacob does not know the name of the man with whom he wrestles. This is only revealed when day has broken, and Jacob can say, I have seen God face to face. This is our crisis, the human struggle with meaning and destiny, Weariness, confusion, anguish, common to every human life might well be part of our struggle with God, and our fear of the truth, but in the darkness we don’t know that. We just think God’s not there. But Christ saves us as we are, in our suffering, sorrow, and imperfection. When day breaks, Jacob is a changed man, expressed physically in the rather odd limp which he now has, but we know he’s changed because he has received God’s blessing and a new name, and is to be known as the founder of the nation Israel, the ones who have struggled.
There is one feature of this story which makes it, I believe, a story for our time. To the embarrassment of later commentators, Jacob wins. He defeats God or God’s angel in a wrestling match. The man who cheated his brother out of a blessing now forces a blessing out of God. Weren’t some of us brought up to believe in a God who always wins, who demands submission, the God of thou shalt not? If you wrestled with that God, you would lose. We won’t see him either. The agenda of that God is often set, not by God, but by his fundamentalist supporters. God says this, you do it willingly, or else. Which sounds fine, but the trouble is, as every Pharisee knows, external obedience – duty imposed on us – does not guarantee inner transformation. It is just as likely that external obedience and submission hides a steely determination to carry on as abnormal. Those of us who set great store by church tradition and the externals of worship, everything just so, have to watch that one. The walk must match the talk. Jesus often reveals his relationship with God, not in terms of submission, but in terms of struggle, as in the Passion narratives. It is in the struggle, in the dark times, God comes close to us; as we shall sing later this morning, I shall not fear the battle if Thou art by my side.
Jacob won his battle. So can we. In the story of Jacob wrestling at the ford of the Jabbok, we get a glimpse of the eternal God proclaimed by the Church down the centuries, the God who accompanies us through the night of doubt and sorrow, the God who is all-powerful but who comes down from heaven for our sake, the God glorious in defeat, the God whose natural relationship with us is one of blessing, the God whom we see face to face in Jesus. This was Jacob’s achievement over that terrible night, meeting that God, wrestling with him to the end. Jacob crossed from fear to faith. He entered a new dimension, a personal relationship built on a blessing, given to him despite his blasphemous theft of his brother’s blessing. His night was brought to an end, and he called the place Peniel, which means face of God. The effect of all this on his own life, we learn in the next chapter, and this is not just a story, it is a truth of religion being handed down the generations in story form to us. What Jacob most feared, the fear which kept him awake in the night, retribution from his brother, retribution he deserved, never happened. Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Meeting God leads to our forgiveness, and forgiveness allows reconciliation with each other. Remember that night at the ford of the Jabbok. “Say not the struggle naught availeth.” [Arthur Hugh Clough] As the sun rises in our lives again, we shall discover that the Divine Name is Love.
Fr. Julian Browning
Postscript. If I had had my wits about me, I would have pressed for the congregational singing of Charles Wesley’s great poem, Come O Thou Traveller Unknown. There are several versions in Methodist and Anglican hymnals. Here is just one of them: