Pentecost 21 – Year C

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled
with him until daybreak.
Genesis 32:24

The man wrestling with Jacob as he made his way home that lonely night was of course none other than the Living God. And Jacob clearly was terrified. He’d just gotten word that his brother Esau was coming out to meet him—Esau, the brother whom he had cheated out of his rightful inheritance–Esau, from whom he had fled years ago in fear for his life. Now Esau is coming—and he’s not alone! He has 400 men with him! Family members have long memories—you and I know that–they don’t easily forget hurts inflicted upon them! And Jacob is seized with guilt and fear as he thinks back to what he has done to his own twin brother.

But Jacob is still Jacob, the one who had hold of Esau’s heel when they were born. Jacob has always been the clever one, the schemer, who always got what he wanted at other people’s expense. His very name means “He supplants.” So, upon hearing the news of Esau’s approach, his agile mind has been at work. He has divided his people, his flocks and his herds into two companies, so that if his brother destroys one of them, at least the other will survive. And the intervening verses, omitted from today’s lesson, reveal that Jacob has also sent a large gift of several hundred animals to appease Esau. Maybe that will save him, he thinks. After all, God had come to Jacob long ago, in that famous dream about the ladder to heaven, and promised to be with him and care for him wherever he should go.

Now, once again, God comes to Jacob. He has sent his wives and children across the River Jabbok. But something has told him to stay behind. It’s late in the day. And Jacob is alone, at night, out in the darkness. And a man assaults him and wrestles with him through the night hours. On and on the struggle goes until the first rays of dawn penetrate the sky. Then, suddenly, the man wants to break loose. But Jacob holds on for dear life! Frightened as he is, he has not lost his mind; he has not lost the wit and resourcefulness which have won him his wealth and his family. So he hangs on frantically. He will not release his grip on this strange man. Finally, the man strikes Jacob on the hip socket and puts his hip out of joint. But still Jacob will not let go. He cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob is determined to draw upon the man’s divine power.

And that is the turning point for Jacob: As the new day dawns, God does something truly remarkable for this frightened, guilt-ridden, deeply flawed, yet somehow God-fearing, individual. God says to him, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” It is almost beyond belief: Jacob, of all people, is now Israel—the name which is to be bestowed upon the whole people of God! The very name Israel means “The one who strives with God!” Jacob is absolutely dumbstruck! How can this possibly be? “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved,” he exclaims. It can be because even though Jacob is Jacob, God is God! Even in this ancient story we behold God’s saving grace, making straight our crooked ways and redeeming our self-serving traits, to serve the Divine Plan!

So, are you and I to be like Jacob? Yes and no! Obviously Jacob’s conniving, manipulative, selfish ways earned him no favor with the Almighty. Neither, of course, do our own sins. Yet, somehow Jacob’s refusal to let go of that strange, heavenly challenger who wrestled with him in the dead of night was rewarded with divine favor. It was as though God saw in that bedrock determination to hold on through thick and thin the quality which would endear him to all generations and earn him the sacred name of Israel. In that sense of holding on, I believe you and I are indeed called to be like Jacob. We are to draw upon every grace which God holds in store for those who will persevere in faith and trust.

A week ago yesterday I officiated at an outdoor wedding, high up in the Blue Ridge, at an estate called Pharsalia, some twenty miles south of Wintergreen. Pharsalia consists of a huge colonial house, several outbuildings and an enormous expanse of lawn framed by mountain peaks. Under the crystal clear blue skies of that Saturday afternoon, against the backdrop of colorful fall foliage, I had the privilege of celebrating the marriage of a fine young couple named Elizabeth and Chris, both of them school teachers in Charlottesville. I had known Elizabeth as a little girl in Newport News and watched her grow up. She and her twin sister Cary and older brother Donald, and their parents Louise and Donny, were faithful members of St. Andrew’s Parish where I was rector. And as I conducted the rehearsal and wedding that weekend, and circulated among old friends at the dinner and reception, the memories of those earlier days came flooding back.

One of the most vivid memories involves a kind of modern-day wrestling with God. Elizabeth’s twin sister Cary went to the University of Georgia. As Cary was riding her bicycle one day through the busy streets of Athens, a bus passed her in the adjoining lane but came too close, and the side mirror caught Cary and slammed her to the pavement, causing a severe head injury. She was knocked unconscious, and remained unconscious for several months. After initial treatment in Athens, she was flown to Newport News to continue her care nearer home. And that’s where her mother began wrestling with God. The damage to Cary’s brain was extensive. None of the signs were good. Everything pointed to little more than a vegetative state, if that, for this bright, attractive young woman in the years to come. “Just keep her comfortable,” was the attitude of many.

But Cary’s mother Louise would have none of that! Louise was always a strong Christian and active at St. Andrew’s, but she began exercising her faith as never before. By this time I had become rector of All Saints in Richmond, and at first we received news only by phone. Then one day we heard that Cary had been transferred to Stuart Circle Hospital which at that time had a special program for head-injured patients. So began my experience with a woman who truly wrestled with God. Louise moved to Richmond herself and rented an apartment. And I marveled at the way she simply expected God to heal Cary. Whenever I or anyone else would come to see Cary, Louise would remind us that she would allow only positive, upbeat, trusting attitudes in her room. No matter how bad things were, that was the way it was to be. Nothing was to stand in the way of God’s grace.

I cannot recall exactly when it was that Cary woke up. But she did. And it was exciting. And success built upon success. It was agonizingly slow, but the faith and staying power which Louise displayed, and which she insisted upon with doctors, family, friends and ministers, was truly awesome. And Cary herself joined in and began to maximize every little advance she achieved. And so did her twin sister Elizabeth, still in college. I’ll never forget the scene in one of my visits of Elizabeth lying on the hospital bed with Cary, talking quietly to her and stroking her arm.

A week ago Saturday, up on the Blue Ridge at the wedding, some dozen years after that hospital visit, was when I saw the two sisters together again. Elizabeth was a beautiful bride. And there was Cary, her proud maid of honor, resplendent in her lovely dress, wreathed in smiles, walking haltingly but ever so trustingly down the grassy lawn into the sunshine, toward her family and friends, toward her future brother-in-law, and toward the eternal mountains of hope.

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