The Tale of Jacob and the Mysterious Man

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, August 2, 2020.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

I really like our story from Genesis today because it evokes mystery and intrigue. Who doesn’t like a good mystery? The setting is scary. There is a mysterious figure in the story and what happens between him and Jacob is questionable, unclear to the reader. We can surmise that Jacob, heir to the promise, the founder of the nation of Israel, is in danger of his life, but we don’t know for certain what really happens and how we are to interpret it. The reason for this confusion is because it is a pre-Israelite story that has been massaged over the years, you know, embellished like any good story. The original story resembles pagan, animalistic tales of spirits or demons guarding particular places such as streams, who attack travelers at night (Barton & Muddiman, 2001). In other words, Jacob’s story is similar to a folk tale, passed down from generation to generation, with each iteration slightly different from the one before.

Our version of the story takes place near a ford over the stream of Jabbok, which rises in the mountains east of the Jordon and descends swiftly to flow into the Jordon, making it a place difficult to cross on foot. There is danger just in the location of the story. I believe Carrie and Ted Pryor and Audrey Schaus, avid hikers from our community, might related to a story with difficult trails and crossings in their journeys across the country and world. I encountered a difficult trail with Lucy Rinaldi right down the road at Babcock Preserve where we had to either jump over or crawl under logs and streams to continue on our path while handling energetic dogs. Thank goodness, the streams were only a trickle. Rightly so, I am now suspicious of parishioners who ask me to take a walk with them in the woods.

To add even more intrigue to Jacob’s story is wordplay on the names of Jacob, “ya’aqob,” the river Jabbok, “yabboq,” and the rare Hebrew verb in the story, “wayye’abeq,” which means to “wrestle” (Barton & Muddiman, 2001). Our story writer is leaving us clues so we can try to interpret the plot. Hence, we can surmise that the story is about a wrestling match between Jacob and this mysterious figure. But who is this mysterious figure? There are clues that Jacob is wrestling with a divine opponent because of the unique circumstances. Who else would the “heir to the promise” be wrestling with during the middle of the night and in a dangerous place? Jacob is winning the match until the divine opponent pulls Jacob’s hip out of joint. Now, I am not a wrestling referee but I imagine in today’s arena, a whistle would have blown and the divine opponent penalized. But this is a divine figure and ordinary rules don’t apply. Isn’t it comical when the divine figure tells Jacob to let him go because the sun is rising and we all know that these things can’t happen in daylight, they needed to be wrapped up before the sun shines. Boldly, Jacob says, I am not going to let you go until you bless me. Now really, who is in control here? Jacob’s has a bum hip yet he has managed to keep his grip on a divine figure. I don’t know about you all but this is really an incredulous story.

The divine figure suddenly says to Jacob, what’s your name? Amazingly, the two of them politely introduce themselves to each other. Jacob tells him his name and the divine figure tells him that because he has “striven with God and other humans” (Genesis 32:28), you shall have a new name. Now before we go any further, we need to remember that Jacob, a twin, came out of his mother’s womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob”(Genesis 26:26), meaning, he takes by the heel or he supplants. It seems our character Jacob has been involved in wrestling maneuvers since birth. Now that Jacob has wrestled with divinity, his new name is Israel, which probably originally meant “El rules” with El interpreted as one who strives with God. Jacob is no longer a “supplanter” but a new person. Unbelievably, after being given the name Israel, and knowing the significance of this new name, he asks the divine figure his name. It’s like Jacob needed verification that he actually had wrestled all night with God. The divine figure looks at Jacob and probably thinks, “really, man.” I just gave you the name Israel, “one who strives with God” and we wrestled all night, and now you want to know my name. The divine figure acquiesces to Jacob’s request and blesses him. As in almost every biblical situation when a character sees or interacts with God, the place is renamed, and in this case, the new name is Penuel, meaning “face of El.”

What an amazing story. If I were to give this story a name, I would call it the “Tale of Jacob and the Mysterious Man.” What is the significance of this story to our lives today, you know, in our time? I can think of three practical implications to this story. First, the heir to the promise encountered some difficult terrain. How many of us have encountered difficult life situations, especially since March of this year? How many of us have missed being with our loved ones or regrettably, lost our loved ones and were unable to see them before their death or to bury them surrounded by family and friends in a church? How many of us have had our personal and professional lives altered because of the Covid-19 pandemic? How many of us have had to postpone celebratory plans (weddings, holidays, birthdays, etc.) because of the pandemic? How many of us have worried about the safety of our family members as they engage in a world amid a devastating and deadly virus. We’ve all been affected by the pandemic and we also have been awaked by racial injustice over the past few months. We may feel unsure of ourselves and be filled with complex emotions. My question for all of us to consider is this: Have I wrestled with God during my lifetime and been changed because of it?

My dear friends, I have wrestled with God many times in my life. I wrestled with God when my mother died tragically. I wrestled with God when my son, Sean, was hit by a SUV fleeing from an attacker in Brazil (Thanks be to God that he is fine today). I wrestled with God when my daughter who is gay shared with me the times in her life, she felt ostracized because of her sexual orientation. I have wrestled with God when I have listened to my parishioners share their heart aches, their sadness, their struggles in life. And my dear friends, I have felt a heaviness in my heart after listening to their stories. It may not have been a hip issue, but it was a heaviness that affected my gait, my joviality. The first practical implication from this story is that there has been and will always been difficult crossings in our lives, and we may bear the scars of such pain.

The second practical implication is that God is in the midst of these difficult times. We may not know God is present, but rest assured, God is smack dab in the middle of our heartache. Just as Jacob didn’t realize he was wrestling with God, so often we don’t think God is present with us when we encounter difficult crossings or are in pain. The amazing part of the Jacob’s encounter with this mysterious figure is that he realizes after being given a new name, that he in fact, was in the presence of God during the strife. And, God blessed him. Yes, you heard me right. God blessed Jacob during this time. As we encounter obstacles in our life, look around you and see the blessings that God has bestowed on you. Look for these blessings and you will surely find them. Oscar Wilde writes, “What seems to us bitter trials are often blessings in disguise. C.S. Lewis writes, “When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly given in its place.” We are promised in Isaiah 43:19, that God is making a way in the wilderness and steams in the wasteland.”

Finally, after Jacob wrestles with God, he is changed, he is a new person. The mysterious figure, God, changes Jacob’s name to Israel to demonstrate that he is no longer the person he was before wrestling with God. I don’t believe anyone, young or older, will be able to say they were not changed because of what is going on in the world. Everyone has been changed. We have learned how to live in a new reality. The days of old, are gone, and there is a fresh new beginning right in front of us. Every time I have endured an obstacle, a difficult time in my life, I have emerged a different person. In a phone call to one of our homebound parishioners, the elderly woman shared with me that in the midst of her isolation, aloneness, she found joy in the love she felt from her church community. She shared that she has received phone calls, cards and notes from members of our parish and she felt truly loved. “I am happy because my family, my Christ Church family, loves me. I didn’t know that until I was alone.” My dear friends, sometimes we have to encounter darkness to see the great light. Sometimes we have to experience a difficult life crossing to know the beauty and holiness of the other side.

I began this sermon sharing a mystery story in Scripture that has practical implications in our lives today. Now, let me leave with you, some powerful words from Joshua (1:9). Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord you God will be with you wherever you go. Amen.