Updated: Oct 16
Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-30
There are stories in the Bible that seem so ancient and inaccessible that we hardly know what to do with them, and there are stories that are so immediately relatable that they could be stories from our own families. The story of Jacob and his brother Esau is a story that seems so familiar that even an only child like me can relate to it quite easily.
Sibling rivalry is something that we know quite well. The story in Genesis is that right before Jacob and Esau were born that Jacob tried to grab Esau’s heel to hold Esau behind so that Jacob could be born first. And so Jacob got the name Yacoub, which means heel grabber. Esau was born first anyway, and Esau seemed to have all the advantages that eluded Jacob.
He was good-looking, popular, an expert hunter, and as the first born he was destined to inherit his father’s fortune.
In the words of one preacher, “some people have it made, while others have to strive to make it happen, and Jacob and many of us are in that second group.” (Craig Barnes, from a 2005 sermon preached at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA. I’m in debt to Craig Barnes for the creative retelling of Jacob’s story throughout this story)
Like Jacob, we all have a twin. From the day we were kids, we began measuring ourselves against some Esau, some image of what we thought we should be. Esau is like you, but better. He’s the preferred image you have of yourself---smarter, better looking, more successful.
He’s the person you think you have to become before you can earn any blessings. This means that no matter what you accomplish, it’s never good enough, because you’re constantly evaluating yourself by this big, hairy twin that you drag behind you as a judgment. All of this is from Jacob’s perspective.
From Esau’s perspective, as we’re about to find out, Jacob comes across as a schemer and double crosser. Jacob is the kind who cheats and gets away with it. It’s said that the good are supposed to prosper and crime never pays, but Jacob is living proof that it doesn’t always work that way. Many people cheat through life, and maybe it eventually catches up with them, but many times it doesn’t. (insight from Frederick Buechner’s sermon “The Magnificent Defeat”)
When Isaac had grown old and blind and knew his days on earth were coming to an end, he summoned Esau, his favorite son who was out in the fields. It was time to pass the blessing on as Abraham had given it to him. But Isaac’s wife Rebekah heard her husband’s instructions and quickly summoned Jacob who was nearby. She dressed him up in Esau’s clothes and placed goat’s wool on Jacob’s neck and hands so he would feel like his hairy older brother. Then she told him to go in to Isaac, pretending he was Esau.
When Jacob entered his father’s tent, Isaac asked, “Who is there?”
Jacob said, “I am Esau.” It was a lie, of course, but only a partial lie. By this time Jacob has become so obsessed with Esau that when he said, I am Esau, he was almost telling the truth. But actually he was still only Jacob dressing up his life to resemble his preferred image.
So, Isaac blesses Jacob, and when Esau finally arrives at his father’s tent with his father’s favorite game, Isaac tearfully says that he has already given the blessing, and Esau is so furious he vows to kill Jacob. So Jacob flees. He settles in with his uncle Laban, his mother’s brother. He falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the older daughter Leah first, and eventually Jacob marries Rachel as well.
When Jacob had out-schemed his father-in-law one too many times, Jacob had to go on the run again. Jacob decides to run back home. When Esau learns of this, Esau gathers up four hundred men and races toward Jacob.
Jacob, ever brave (not really), sends all of his fortune and family ahead of him, in hopes of appeasing his angry older brother.
In the words of one preacher, Jacob is now stuck with Jacob. This is the great problem with hustling through life. We have to keep letting go of things in order to run to the next thing we think will make us happy. Eventually, we start to measure life not by the next achievement but by the blessings we have lost along the way. (Craig Barnes sermon)
That night a “man”—in quotes—comes to Jacob and begins to wrestle with him. The struggle is great and lasts until daybreak. Then Jacob realizes he has been wrestling with God. He has been wrestling with God all along.
All his life, Jacob has believed in God’s promise to bless him but he could never see how it would happen.
It’s the same with many of us. When you watch a child you raised in the church grow up to reject the faith, when you discover you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease, when you’ve lost your job and have no idea how you will pay your bills, these are all great struggles of faith.
If Jacob had no faith at all, he might fatalistically accept life as it is. But Jacob takes God far too seriously for that. So, Jacob holds on until he gets that blessing.
You might say, that he’s wrestling for that blessing.
But the blessing is not something you can wrestle for. It’s a gift. It can always only be received as a gift.
Jacob’s blessing is a new name—Israel—one who struggles with God. Jacob gets this name because he has struggled with God and prevailed.
Prevailed? How has this crippled, bankrupt, hustler prevailed?
He has learned to cling to God. That was the real blessing all along. It takes a few years and a whole lot of mistakes to learn this. But the blessings of life come not from what you are holding, but from realizing who is holding onto you.
Now, it’s time for a paradigm shift.
We never have to wrestle for the blessing.
But sometimes we are called to wrestle because we have been blessed.
Having been blessed by God, we are called to wrestle until this world looks more and more like the kingdom of heaven.
Think about the story of Susan B. Anthony. Someone could get a Ph.D. by calculating the number of rotten eggs and tomatoes that were thrown at her over the course of her public speaking career. The first breakthrough in her work for women’s rights came after twenty years when the State of New York finally allowed married women to control their own property. Her ultimate goal, met when women were granted the right to vote, came a hundred years after she was born and fourteen years after her death. (illustration from Jana Childers in the Connections commentary series)
And then there’s the quiet struggle of an African-American grandmother in the Deep South during the years of the Great Depression. She took in her 8-year-old granddaughter who had been sexually abused. The girl would not speak. Every morning for five years, as she braided the traumatized girl’s hair, the grandmother would whisper encouragement into the child’s ear. Finally the day came that the young Maya Angelou responded to her grandmother’s persistence and found her voice. (illustration from Jana Childers)
We never have to wrestle for the blessing, because we’ve already been blessed.
But because we have been blessed by God, God will grant us the strength and resilience to wrestle for all the good things in our life together that are truly worth wrestling for.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.