A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 3, 2014
Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Matthew 14:13-21; Romans 9:1-5
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel on the bank of the Jabbok River is a bone-crushing story that resonates in the experience of our own souls where we hear it innately (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 the river (just north of the Dead Sea), he heard that Esau was coming out to meet him and was struck numb with a fear buried deep within him 20 years earlier. Esau was coming to greet him with 400 men and Jacob feared Esau was coming to exact an old revenge. Jacob believed Esau was coming to balance the books after all these years.
Then as now, family disputes often linger for decades unresolved. Old family wounds fester just beneath the surface ready to break out as fresh as the day 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 to escape his brother’s anger and nothing had been done 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 but then retreated back to the far shore to sleep alone.
As Jacob crossed back to the far side of the river after bedding down his herds and family, 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 the ground.
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. (Pianist plays the notes to 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. (Pianist plays Mozart in major key)
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 shift in an unexpected experience of loss. (Pianist plays a minor chord) Maybe a child dies unexpectedly or the spouse that you thought would love you “until death do you part” tells you that they don’t love you after all. (Pianist plays Mozart in a minor key) 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. (Pianist stops playing)
Jacob’s limp is more than the result of a broken bone. This isn’t an old football injury from his youth recalled fondly in his old age. It’s a scar he carries every step reminding him of a hard-fought battle with a heavenly messenger.
Frederick Buechner called 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 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 he limped for the remaining days of his life.
All of us limp from painful experiences 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 are an unmarked tablet on which the stories of our lives are written. It doesn’t take long to get our first bloody knee 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 spirit. We have all been wounded emotionally or psychologically and we bear a scar for every wound. Throughout our lives, first there’s experience, then there’s reflection. I believe that life always moves back and forth between these two processes. Some of those experiences we are successful in capturing something useful out of the experience and we 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.
John Claypool spoke honestly when he observed that “that it was the nature of God to speak to us in the language of events.” No matter the experience, we can be assured 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.
Jacob spent the remainder of his days seeking 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, totally 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 utterly 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.
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 is out of God’s unlimited storehouse of love and grace, God is ready to bless you.
 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, New York: Seabury, 1966
 John Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, How to Handle Grief, Waco: Word Books, 1974, 26
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).