Renamed & Renewed
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Aug. 3, 2014
Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
This summer we have been spending time with our ancestors, getting to know the forebears of our faith a little bit more intimately perhaps than when we were first introduced to them in Sunday School, which is for some of us many years ago now. We are now visiting with the third generation – the grandchildren of Father Abraham; these are Isaac’s kids – the twins – Jacob and Esau. They are the Danny DeVito/Arnold Swartzennegger kind of twins — couldn’t be more different. Physically, Jacob is slight, stays close to home and depends on his wits to get by; Esau is strong and muscular and loves hunting and the outdoors. Their personalities are different too – Jacob is calculating, always looking for the advantage, planning ahead and not adverse to manipulation and cheating to get what he wants; and Esau is blunt, straightforward, quick tempered, and pretty much lives in the moment without thinking of the consequences.
Because their parents played favorites, the boys grew up estranged. Jacob swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. And later, he connived with his mother Rebekah to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father, Isaac. When Esau threatened to murder him for this betrayal, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham and his mother Rebekah had departed from years before. In the twenty or so years Jacob lived there, he married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah.
In a kind of poetic justice, Jacob met his match in his father in law Laban, who was as much of a trickster and conniver as Jacob was. Finally, it seemed best to leave his tense situation with his father-in-law and head back home. They had conned each other one time too many over the years, and their relationship was fast deteriorating. The only fly in the ointment to returning home, was his long lost and embittered brother Esau, who when last heard of was threatening murder.
Jacob sends greetings ahead to Esau, and the response is swift; Esau approaches with 400 men. Jacob is terrified, and prays to God for help for the first time in his life, but also hedges his bets in perfect Jacob style, sending gifts, or more realistically, bribes, hopefully to pacify his brother. As night was falling, he even sends the women and children and the rest of his caravan on across the river Jabbok so that they will be between him and the advancing Esau. Finally he collapses into a deep sleep, alone, powerless, and anxious – caught in the middle between Laban behind him, and Esau before him – no place to go, no place to run, no place to hide.
The last time Jacob was alone was when he was escaping from Esau’s wrath, and he dreamed of angel messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from the sky, and God gave him assurance that God’s intention was to use and bless Jacob’s life. I wonder if he even remembered that dream; it had happened so long ago. But God did not come to him in a bright dream this time. God came as an intruder, a heavenly stranger, who wrestles with him throughout the night until daybreak, at which point, the stranger cripples Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life.
To his credit, Jacob didn’t wimp out in the middle of the struggle! He fought the stranger all night long, and near the end demanded that the stranger bless him. Instead, the stranger asks him his name. And here is the real crux of the story. Names in the ancient world are not simply names, they are descriptors, indicators of one’s character and nature. And Jacob’s name – literally means “heel” or “grasper” because he was the one who was grasping at Esau’s heel as they were being born. And he’d been grasping ever since – living by his wits, trusting no one, and proving himself untrustworthy over and over again. So when the stranger asks him his name, he is really asking him to confess – confess who he really is – confess his failures, his shifty deals, his compromised integrity, his shoddy character, his selfish misuse of his life and the lives of others all to get what he wants regardless of the cost. It is time for Jacob to come clean; time for him to confess who he really is – that he is a cheat and a scoundrel.
But once he does, an extraordinary thing happens. God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow his name to be all there is to him. And instead, God gives him a new name – Israel – which has been interpreted to mean “the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed.” And with this new name God then blesses Jacob and sends him limping into a new future, marked almost immediately by the arrival of his brother Esau, who runs toward him not to kill him but to embrace him and to welcome him home.
For Jacob, this encounter is something like the encounter he has just had at the Jabbok. And he says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10). Jacob is a changed man – the young Jacob was a deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. Now he is the one who has wrestled with God and come to terms with who he is in God’s eyes. He could have sung, as the choir did earlier, “All is right that once was wrong; I’m finally home.” He can see God in the face of the one who was once his enemy, whom he fled so long ago in fear for his life.
Walter Bruggeman has commented that the healing and reconciling work of God happens in both vertical and horizontal directions.[i] The love of God alters our understanding of who God is and who we are; it changes our understanding of our core identity and causes us to realize finally that we are beloved children of God. And when that happens, something also changes in our relationships with other people. A new kind of love can flow through us. And the more we give ourselves to God the more we are able to perceive other people differently and value them differently.
One of the beliefs we have as Christians is, as Paul expressed in 2Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (vv.16-18). And we remember this every time we gather together at the communion table, as we do today. Like Jacob, we say aloud our sins and shortcomings – and we are given a new name – forgiven, beloved child of God. And then we participate together in the meal of fellowship that Jesus instituted to remind us God’s reconciling work in Christ and encourage us to go forth to become reconcilers. It doesn’t mean that henceforth everything will be perfect; it certainly wasn’t for Jacob, as we will see next week. But it does mean that the God of Second Chances and New Beginnings goes with us, and will offer us opportunities again and again to find renewal, refreshment and reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 272.