A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on July 31, 2011.
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel on the bank of the Jabbok River is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. It’s an ancient story that resonates in the experience of our own souls where we hear it innately (we hear it in our bones, we might say) rather than in our fact-based, objective brain that has difficulty struggling with our visceral response to this story.
By the time Jacob reached this river just north and east of the Dead Sea, he knew that Esau was on his way to meet him from the east and was struck numb with an old fear buried deep within him 20 years earlier. The report was that Esau was coming to greet him with 400 men and Jacob believed Esau was coming to exact an old revenge. Jacob believed Esau was coming to balance the books after all these years and his heart brimmed full of a cold, dark fear he hadn’t felt for a long while.
Then as now, family disputes often linger for decades unresolved. Old wounds fester just below the surface ready to break out as fresh as when they were first buried.
Jacob rightly feared Esau. Twenty years earlier, he tricked his older brother out of the blessing that was rightly his through family tradition. He fled his home to escape his brother’s anger and nothing had been done in all those years to resolve the problem. So Jacob sent his entourage ahead as a peace offering. First the herds, then the women and children … all sent to soften Esau’s anger. Jacob escorted them across the river and then he alone crossed back to the far shore to sleep alone.
Jacob crossed back to the far side of the river after bedding down his herds and family. But he was hit in the middle of the river by a mysterious attacker who assaulted him in the inky darkness. Caught off guard and never fully knowing his attacker’s identity, Jacob fought fiercely. For all he knew, it was Esau himself. Silently they battled one another in a desperate fight for survival. The only sounds they made were guttural, never words, grunts expelled as their bodies slammed to the ground. And they battled fiercely hour after hour through the night until dawn came.
Life is seldom lived according to some ideal plan. Jacob’s life is a good example of a life lived “off the map.” There was nothing ordinary about it. He was ambitious and conniving and willing to twist the story as it pleased him and suited his needs. But there was a price to be paid for such a strategy.
Early in the innocence of our lives we may think of life like the notes of a major chord. Each note fits nicely with the others and the sound that is made is strong and vibrant. They are the building blocks on which a solid, respectful life is made. Life is held together predictably and we move from having less to having more. There is more of everything it seems. More possessions and more joy. Deeper relationships and a stronger sense that life will continue like this forever.
But the notes that form that major chord can also turn into an experience of loss. Maybe a child dies unexpectedly or the spouse that you thought would love you “until death do you part” tells you he or she don’t love you after all. Maybe you lose your job or all your possessions. Perhaps you even lose the goodness of your name. Sometimes what we’re really experiencing is the loss of a younger, untested certainty.
Browning Ware was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas, for a good number of years. During his ministry there, he was a regular columnist for The Austin American-Statesman. Here’s a piece he wrote of the despair of discovering that life is often lived out in a minor key of uncertainty and ambiguity. It reminds us always to hold life and faith gently with respect to the immensity of all those truths we claim to know but only know in part.
Browning held truth gently and with respect with these words:
“When younger, I thought there was an answer to every problem. And for a time, I knew many of the answers. I knew about parenting until I had children. I knew about divorce until I got one. I knew about suicide until three of my friends took their lives in the same year. I knew about the death of a child until my child died.
I’m not as impressed with answers as once I was. Answers seem so pallid, sucked dry of blood and void of life. Knowing answers seduces us into making pronouncements. I still have a few friends or acquaintances who are 100% sure on most anything, and are ready to make pronouncements on homosexuality, AIDS, marriage problems, teenage pregnancies, abortion, sex education or whatever is coming down the pike. But when we get shoved into our valley of the shadow, a pronouncement is the last thing we need.
I’m discovering that wisdom and adversity replace cocksure ignorance with thoughtful uncertainty. More important and satisfying than answers is the Answerer.
‘Thou art with me’ …that’s what we crave. There may or may not be answers, but the Eternal One would like very much to be our companion.”
Even though we don’t argue with the extent of Jacob’s injury, his limp was much more significant than the breaking of a bone. This wasn’t an old football injury of some glorious time from the carefree days of his youth recalled fondly in his old age. It was a scar he carried in every subsequent step that constantly reminded him he had waged a hard-fought battle with a heavenly messenger.
Frederick Buechner calls this struggle, The Magnificent Defeat, because Jacob’s crippling injury signified both his defeat and his victory. It was magnificent because it was a Promethean struggle for his life. Jacob fought the angelic being throughout the night until the early light of dawn was ready to break. Even though the attacker begged to be released, Jacob refused to let him go until he received a blessing. In this battle, Jacob was re-enacting his first struggle to be first, the “heel grabber” hung on to the angel as if his very life depended upon it.
The battle was also a defeat, however, because Jacob was forever physically marked with a telling, permanent limp. While he had fought magnificently beyond what might have been expected from him considering his heavenly foe, he bore in his body the lasting effects of his struggle and the Bible tells us that he limped for the remaining days of his life.
All of us limp from some painful experience in life. Most of us start out in life with one of God’s greatest blessings, a physical body brimming with hope and promise. Our bodies become an unmarked tablet on which the stories of our lives are written. It doesn’t take long for our first bloody knee on the playground to understand that those marvelous bodies given by God in our creation are also vulnerable. Throughout life our bodies are marked by the scars of both our victories and our defeats.
But our scars are not all physical. Everyone here bears a scar of the psyche or a scar of the spirit. We have all been wounded emotionally or psychologically and we bear a scar for every wound.
Throughout our lives there’s experience, then there’s reflection. I believe life always moves back and forth between these two processes. In some of those experiences we successfully capture something useful out of the experience and retain a sense of wisdom from them. Some experiences remain unresolved and we wonder why they happened and carry doubts in our minds about them.
The Bible tells us plainly, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45b, NRSV). That’s the Bible’s way of telling us that we do not live hothouse lives. None of us are sheltered from the bumps and wounds of life. All human beings, no matter how strong their relationship to God, live in a world of experience that’s on the whole equal amounts good and bad.
John Claypool speaks honestly when he observes, “That it was the nature of God to speak to us in the language of events.” No matter the experience, we can be assured that God is trying to say something to us of ultimate importance in the unfolding events of our lives if we’ll only listen. Thus, what follows our experiences is a time of reflection. In that time, we ask questions about meaning. We seek to understand what has happened to us. We try to see if the experience can fit into the larger scheme of what we understand about the world.
With every limping step, Jacob sought to understand what happened that dark night when he wrestled with the angel. He had been given a new name signifying his struggle and he was again given the promise of blessing just as he had all those years earlier. But his life was also marked by the touch of God in his hip.
When Jacob picked himself up from the ground exhausted from his struggle with the angelic messenger, he had within him a new sense of belonging to God. He was given a new name and the promise of the blessing in his heart.
He took his first step and winced at the pain. He hobbled as he led his family towards his first meeting with Esau since he stole his blessing. But he didn’t hobble in fear any more. The fear had been taken from him. For the first time in his life, he was broken. His pride and his vanity and his bones had been crushed under the Lord’s harsh battle with him and he limped all the way home.
In his novel, Report to Grecos, Nikos Kazantzakis tells of an earnest young man, who visited a saintly old monk on Mount Athos and asked him, “Do you still wrestle with the Devil, Father?” The old man thought for a moment and replied, “Not any longer, my child; I have grown old and he has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength … now I wrestle with God.” “With God!” exclaimed the young man, wide-eyed with astonishment. “Do you hope to win?” “Oh no, my son, I hope to lose.” 
We all have our battles with God. Some of you have been fighting with God for a long, long time. But in the light of the coming dawn, after fighting with God through the night and all you can do is hold your own, what you discover out of God’s unlimited storehouse of love and grace, God is ready to bless you.
 Browning Ware, column written for The Austin American-Statesman, date unknown
 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, New York: Seabury, 1966, 10-18
 John Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, How to Handle Grief, Waco: Word Books, 1974, 26
 Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, translated by Peter A. Bien, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).