The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Jacob was a heel. No…really, he was. In truth, that’s what the name Jacob means. The root of the Hebrew name “Jacob” means to “supplant, circumvent, assail and overreach.” It also means “heel.” What’s more, remember that Jacob was born grasping the heel of his brother Esau. Jacob was a heel.
Here’s a bit of background, before we get to the Old Testament lesson for this morning. Jacob (at least up until this point in the Bible) has been pretty-much an unrelenting scoundrel. You may recall that he swindled his brother, Esau, for his birthright, then cheated him out of his blessing. Upon his brother’s howls of grief and anger, he fled and finds himself face-to-face, with his equally devious uncle Laban, whereupon the two squabble and double-deal over everything from wives to livestock, until once again, Jacob is on the run. This time, however, he is not empty-handed. Jacob carries with him his family, servants and all the wealth he can haul off. And this is where we find him today.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you may be quietly rejoicing, anticipating that Jacob is finally going to receive his long earned comeuppance. And, not surprisingly, he’s terrified. He’s got an angry Uncle pursuing him as well as a brother who is looming in the not so far off distance with 400 men. I’d be scared too.
But, Jacob is also resourceful. He devises a plan—and in typical Jacob-fashion, it is a cunning way to mollify the anger of his pursuers and protect his family and flocks and—if he is fortunate, preserve his own life as well. He divides his family and animals into two groups in the hope of saving at least half of what he has in the event of an attack from his righteously aggrieved brother. Then he sends gifts to Esau, timed so they arrive before Jacob does, spaced out in a way calculated to win Esau’s favor and maybe even impress him with Jacob’s wealth and power. Then Jacob sends his family and the rest of his possessions over the brook to serve as something of a shield between himself and Esau. Not surprisingly, by now he’s tired. He goes to sleep.
Oh, and there’s one more thing that Jacob does. The most crucial thing—and something we don’t see him do very much of, if at all up until this point. In the middle of all this scheming, he prays. And it’s a good prayer.
You see, Jacob is in a foxhole of sorts—where they say even atheists learn to pray. Jacob, the self-serving, the young man who once, in speaking to his father Isaac referred to God as “Your God” admits that he needs help.
Here it is (in a version taking from The Message translation of the Bible): “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—
two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said (to my ancestor Abraham) ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.’”
As I said, it’s a good prayer. Here, Jacob pours out his fears to God. He admits the truth—he’s not worthy, and he acknowledges that God has stood by him the whole time. And he calls God on what he knows to be true: “You are the one who told me to go home…You are the one who told me you would do well for me…You are the one who told me that you would give me so many descendants that I won’t be able to count them.
Here’s another reason it is such a good prayer. It avoids the pleading, begging and deal making prayers we hear so much of. It’s short on self-inflicted brow beating, hand-wringing and wheedling and, what’s more, its bold. Jacob was honest, he knows he’s been a heel—and, what’s more, he calls on God’s character, and God’s promises to help. He speaks of what he knows to be true of God.
And, so when he gets up from that prayer, he is ready to face anything that comes his way: Laban, Esau and his 400 men---or an angel.
Notice, if you will, God doesn’t simply answer Jacob’s prayer and bless this progeny of Abraham. He attacks him in the dark of night. And the two of them wrestle. It’s quite a fight, and Jacob doesn’t give up. Finally, the angel cripples Jacob with a blow to his hip. Even so, Jacob still does not let go—after all, grasping is his nature. Jacob clings tight and demands a blessing.
And here it gets truly interesting. Because sometime during this wrestling match Jacob seems to have become aware that the one thing he needs, more than anything else, is God’s blessing. And the angel responds with a question: “What is your name?”
Now, that sounds irrelevant until we see what God is doing. The blessing is the new name. Israel, which means (One who wrestles (or strives) with God). This name, it’s an act of generosity and grace. It’s the promise of a new future, one better than the past Jacob is leaving behind. And now, we are told, Jacob limps away. And here is yet another lesson and another sermon: you don’t tussle with the Almighty and expect to leave unscathed.
Here are a few “take aways” from today’s lesson. Recall the fix that Jacob finds himself in? Well, I don’t think it takes much imagination to see that we, living in the COVID-19 era as we are, are also in a bind of sorts. Like Jacob, we know anxiety. A glance at the news feeds us with fear morning, noon and night. We’re threatened by everything from disease, to global warming, to hurricanes and crime, to seeds from China sent to us in the mail. Pick your poison…there’s more than enough to go around.
Perhaps today’s reading may form something of a lesson for us as to how to pray to God in times of distress. To remember and call upon the attributes of God—reminding ourselves of who God is, and who we are, as we ask for what it is we need to get through this challenging time. Like Jacob’s prayer, let yours be filled with boldness and clarity, speaking clearly of the promises of God. Perhaps we might find ourselves like Jacob (who has now become Israel), ready to face whatever it is that is coming our way and to seek in it a blessing from God, to find our lives changed and enhanced and given a future filled with promise and hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.