Proper 24 • Genesis 32:22–33 • October 17, 2010
by David Schmitt
The lectionary unfortunately isolates this text from its literary context and there- by masks its climactic nature. As the climax of Jacob’s larger story, this text contains surprising reversals:
- Jacob, who has demonstrated his strength by deception, is now wounded in a deceptive struggle (the one who, at first, appears to be a man, is revealed to be more than that when wounding Jacob with a touch, 32:25);
- Jacob, who has lied about his name in order to receive a blessing (“I am Esau,” 27:19), now speaks honestly about himself (“Jacob,” 32:27) and receives God’s blessing and a new name (“Israel,” 32:28); and
- God, who has revealed himself to Jacob in a dream as Jacob slept at night (28:10–17) and in angels as Jacob journeyed during the day (32:1–2), now hides himself from Jacob in a night of sleepless struggle (32:24) and in an angel who disappears at dawn (32:26).
At the heart of these reversals lies a mystery: God works graciously in the midst of struggle. On the one hand, though Jacob struggles with people and with God (32:28), he receives God’s blessing freely by grace (32:29–30). On the other hand, though Jacob receives God’s blessing, his life continues to be one of striving (e.g., later, Jacob, the deceiver, is deceived by his children about his beloved son Joseph and then discovers, in a struggle for food in a time of famine, not only Joseph but also the gra- cious blessing and provision of God).
In light of these climactic reversals, one could preach on this paradox in the text: God’s blessing is known in the midst of gracious struggle.
Offer an opening example revealing how people can believe that something is wrong with their faith since they are undergoing a struggle. Then lead from that opening example to a statement of the paradox of the sermon.
“Something must be wrong with my faith. It’s just so difficult. If God loves me so much, why is life so hard?” Perhaps you have heard these words from others. Perhaps you have said them yourself, outside a hospital room or late into a sleepless night.
Somewhere along the way, we have learned to associate grace with an experience of ease and faith with a life without struggle. When struggle does enter our life, when things do not go as planned, when belief in God does not magically produce the American dream, we begin to question whether or not we truly believe and, sometimes, we wonder whether or not this God is one we want to believe in.
This struggle is nothing new. Our Lord himself prepared his disciples for a life- time of struggle. You see it in our gospel reading, as he encourages them to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). You hear it in his offer of rest to those who follow him (Mt 11:30). Faith involves living in a paradox. Following Christ means bearing an easy yoke, carrying a light burden, dying to live, and living in a gracious struggle.
In our Old Testament reading, we catch a glimpse of this paradox, buried deep within the history of God’s people. Here, we meet Jacob, soon to be named “Israel,” because he strove with God. As we reflect on his experience, we will learn to live in the tension of this paradox: faith means living in a gracious struggle.
Body of the Sermon
The body of the sermon will explore the tension of this paradox, by revealing how we tend to emphasize one side of the paradox over the other. Each time, the story of the text and the proclamation of the gospel bring the hearers back to the paradoxical tension.
- A Gracious Struggle:
- Overemphasis upon Struggle: This world’s wisdom says, “Everything comes at a price.” Sometimes, we are tempted to believe that our efforts to follow the way of Jesus, our hours in prayer, our dollars in donation, our years of Bible study, and our lifetime of service somehow earn us the gracious favor of God. (Offer an example of such belief.)
- Proclamation of a Gracious Struggle: In our text, Jacob’s struggle with the angel does not earn him God’s blessing. In fact, Jacob has lost everything at this moment. He is left alone on this side of the river (32:24); God’s angels are gone (32:1–2); his possessions are gone (sent ahead as a way of earning his brother’s blessing); and his family is gone. Ultimately, the deceit with which he gained his father’s blessing is gone, as Jacob names himself before God and, in that moment of confession, receives God’s blessing and a new name. So, too, our salvation lies not in our works or our efforts but in the will of God and the work of his only Son, Jesus Christ, who died on our behalf (Jn 1:13).
- A Gracious Struggle:
- Overemphasis upon Grace: Being saved by grace alone can sometimes deceive people into believing that the life of faith is easy. To believe is to be delivered from suffering in this life and to have faith is to name and claim your blessing from God. (Offer an example, perhaps from televangelists, of such belief.)
- Proclamation of a Gracious Struggle: Yet, such was not the life our Lord envisioned as he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers live not in glory now, but in suffering, carrying the cross. This life of gracious struggle is not new to God’s people. In fact, it lies at the heart of their name, Israel. In our text, Jacob experiences God’s blessing, but only in the midst of great struggle. His vision of God comes slowly, painfully, and mysteriously. After a long night’s struggle, the man who assaulted Jacob is slowly revealed to be more than a man. With a dislocated hip, Jacob painfully holds on, crying out for blessing. Even after God’s blessing, Jacob is named “Israel” and continues to live in a gracious struggle with God. Though Jacob has seen God, God still remains a mystery (Jacob’s request to know his name is never answered) and this God becomes known as the God of Israel, as Jacob builds an altar to the God of those who struggle (33:20).
Return to the opening example and help the hearers see how the tension of a gracious struggle is not evidence that something is wrong with our faith but rather the manifestation of an active faith, a life of gracious struggle before God.
Here, contemporary stories of our gracious struggles in faith can be placed alongside Jacob and other biblical figures (e.g., the Canaanite woman in Mt 15:21–28, the apostle Paul in 2 Cor 12:7–10) so that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and “run with endurance” the life of faith (Heb 12:1–2).