As the sun rose upon Penuel, Jacob crossed back over the Jabbok River, collected his two wives, two maids, and eleven children, and continued on his way home, limping back toward the Promised Land, repeating his new name over and over in his head: Israel, Israel, Israel. He knew that his brother Esau – with whom he had a bad history – was waiting for him somewhere along the way with an army reported to be 400-strong. Jacob had every reason to believe that Esau was holding a grudge and had amassed the army with the express purpose of getting even with his twin brother after all these years.
On the one hand, Jacob was feeling pretty good about himself. After all, he had just spent the night wrestling with someone who he strongly suspected was the angel of God – or maybe even God himself (though how such a thing could be was, frankly, beyond Jacob’s imagination). He had spent the night entwined in conflict – a conflict, he knew, that was about something bigger, something beyond himself, something deeply existential - and he had prevailed. And even after he’d been injured in the wrestling match, Jacob had held on to the angel (or whoever it was), and refused to let go without a blessing from him. And the blessing he received was an affirmation of his fortitude, and more than that, an affirmation of his destiny: it was his new name, Israel, and the explanation that the angel gave with it (“you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”). So, on the one hand, he had been tested by God and had done well, so well that he’d been given a new name as a reward.
On the other hand, he was limping badly, because the angel had struck him in the hip socket and put his hip out of joint. And the resulting limp tended to take a little bit of the shine off of the victory of the divine wrestling match, and also made him a slightly less formidable opponent for his brother, whose anger would have been seething for years in anticipation of the meeting that was about to occur.
This well-known episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel (or God himself) takes up about the last third of the 32nd chapter of the Book of Genesis, and goes to the end of the chapter. But for reasons at which I can easily guess, the Episcopal Church has omitted the last verse of the chapter from our reading this morning. It’s a verse that follows the description of Jacob limping away because of his hip, and it says this: “Therefore to this day Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.”
Now, I assume that we do not read this verse because almost no Episcopalians these days keep kosher.
Were I to delve into my understanding of kashrut, the kosher laws, I wouldn’t get very far, so I should be careful here. But my research leads me to understand that, indeed, the prohibition against eating the thigh muscle of an animal is still in force amongst Jews who keep kosher. In fact the rules require such a complicated preparation of the meat from this area of a cow, and so few people possess the knowledge and skill to perform it, that the hind-quarter of the cow is often simply sent off by kosher butchers to be sold to Episcopalians and other Gentiles. Be that as it may, what remains in the consciousness of at least a certain set of Jews who forego eating the meat from the thigh muscle is a tangible link to the lingering memory of Jacob’s test under the stars beside the Jabbok River, when he was all alone, about to face the music for his past dishonesty with his brother, worried for the lives of his wives and his children, and he didn’t really know what lay ahead of him.
The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is a little mysterious, a little complicated, and full of interesting details. It has many possible points, many possible morals, many possible conclusions to be reached, including the possibility that Jews should no longer indulge in rump roasts. Asking what is the singular point of this story is a little bit like asking what’s the most important color in a kaleidoscope? But if I have to choose, today I’d say the most important points of the story are these:
…that God tests people – it is a regular feature of the way he deals with those he calls into relationship with him.
…and that the community of faith is given a blessing through the tangible links of the lingering memories of our encounters with God.
It is commonplace these days for people to reject the idea of God because getting to know God is not so easy. Part and parcel of the difficulty of getting to know God is God’s tendency to test people. Abraham was tested by being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac; Noah was tested just by being asked to build the ark; Moses was tested by being asked to confront Pharaoh; David was tested in his confrontation with Goliath; the prophets were constantly being tested; Jesus himself was tested during his forty days of fasting in the wilderness. God tests those he calls into relationship with him.
It is important to see that God does this testing not for his own benefit (God already knows the outcome) but for the benefit of the one being tested. This tendency of God’s offends modern sensibilities, since today we think that God ought to be selling us on himself, and all this testing really is off-putting. But Jacob would never have become Israel without his test. Not because God needed him to pass the test, but because Jacob needed it himself. Jacob needed to know that he could prevail, not through trickery or deceit, but through his own determination and fortitude. Jacob needed to know that he could prevail on his own. Jacob needed to overcome his own self-doubt. Jacob needed to know that God wished to be entangled with him. God already knew all these things. But Jacob only discovered them in his test by the Jabbok River.
And, of course, Jacob needed to be ready to receive a new name, to take on an identity bigger than his own, to become the third patriarch of God’s chosen people. Jacob needed to become Israel. And the moment that Jacob does become Israel is commemorated for him by his injury, and by the limp that impedes his footsteps as he crosses back over the river, toward both his past and his future, and toward the destiny that God has in store for him. Jacob’s destiny was to become Israel and to return home to the Promised Land.
So Israel adopted the commemoration of the limp by refusing to eat the meat of the thigh muscle of the hip socket in order to remember all that Jacob learned in his test, in order to fix that memory to the daily routines of their lives, in order to have a constant reminder that even if you must do so limping, you should follow God’s call back to his Promised Land.
All of which might or might not be interesting to you and to me. But that is not the question. The question is this: Have you ever felt tempted to reject God because of a night, or a season of torment? Have you grappled with God, found him difficult, confrontational, maybe even wounding to you in some way, and concluded that God is not worth the angst, not worth the struggle, not worth the injury?
Jacob limps toward you to beg you to consider otherwise; to remind you that the struggle was not for God’s benefit, but for his own; to tell you that he wouldn’t even know who he was, had it not been for his night of testing by the Jabbok River. And he wants you to know that he wouldn’t trade his limp – by which the memory of that night of wrestling is brought constantly to mind – for anything!
Where God is concerned, sometimes we need to embrace the struggle, to refuse to let go of it until God gives us the blessing that is meant to come from it. Our tendency to think that religion ought to deliver Nirvana on demand from a standstill is naïve, childish, and has little basis in the human experience. But of course, it’s what we all want!
Is God testing you? Don’t let go of him! Don’t give up on him! And don’t assume that the test has no purpose. You have no more idea what God is going to show you than Jacob did. For all you know God may have a new name to give you! Hold on to God, and demand from him the blessing you seek.
It’s true that Episcopalians are not so good at keeping kosher. But we are quite good at rehearsing the tangible link of our lingering memories of our encounters with God. If you let your imagination go for a minute, you can see how the Mass is its own little set of dietary laws – controlling only these two ingredients: bread and wine. Why do we fuss with them so? Bread is baked into little, crumb-less wafers. Wine is poured into elaborate chalices. They are carried into the church, just so. We dress up in this out-moded gear when we gather this way. We ring bells, sing hymns, and then pronounce the prayers – the same old prayers, time and time again – just for this Bread, just for this Wine. But we do not remember Jacob, wrestling with angel. We remember Jesus. And with these tangible links – the Bread, the Wine, the words he used, the bells, and the smoke, and the gathered people - our memory comes alive, so that Jesus is really with us, right here among us.
And maybe last night was a night of struggle for some of us. Maybe you felt alone, entangled in conflict. Maybe you feel separated from everyone you love; maybe they have crossed over to the other side of the river, but you have had to stay on your side alone. Maybe you are feeling unimpressed by God, who has not been doing a very good job of selling himself to you lately. Maybe you suspect that, in fact, all this God talk is just so much talk about angels and rivers, but that it doesn’t make much difference in your life. Maybe there is an old enmity – with your brother, or your sister, or your parents, or your spouse, for which you feel angry, or guilty, or both, and that has dogged you for years. Maybe you fear that inevitable confrontation lies ahead of you tomorrow, and you just wish you could get away from it. And maybe all this has happened before, and you have been left limping – but to what end and for what purpose? Maybe God is testing you - I don’t know why, it’s just the way God does things.
But remember that God is not testing you because he does not know how things will work out for you; God is testing you to teach you how things will work out for you.
In the story of Jacob wrestling the angel, it is not entirely clear that Jacob has won the match when the sun begins to rise over the Jabbok River. What is clear is that Jacob refuses to let go. Even when injured by the angel, he refuses to let go. Even when the angel will not answer his question, politely asked (“Please tell me your name.”) he will not let go. He will not let go until the blessing comes. And he is right to hang on, for the angel blesses him; God blesses him right there, in the place of his loneliness, his anxiety, and his struggle, God blesses him.
And Jacob gets up, limping badly. But there is a joyfulness to his step, nonetheless, as he limps across the Jabbok, reciting his new name over and over, and collects his two wives, and his two maids, and his eleven children. And, knowing that his angry brother Esau awaits him, he sends gifts ahead - camels and flocks and herds - acting with generosity toward his brother for perhaps the first time. And Esau tells his men to stand down, and embraces his brother instead of attacking him. And they part company, and Jacob continues on his way home, toward the Promised Land he’d left behind, teaching everyone to pronounce his new name: Israel, Israel, Israel.
God tests his people from time to time – not because God needs to, but because we generally do need to be tested, though it is highly frustrating, and sometimes much worse than that.
And God has given us a living memory of the gift of salvation – he gives us his Body and his Blood over and over again, to bring to mind the journey he calls us all to make: across the river, past all our fears and doubts, and all our enemies, and all our old failures, probably limping as we go.
And there is a name has given to each of us – a new name that he hopes we will keep repeating in our heads till we have learned what it means: Christian, Christian, Christian. Which reminds us of the new name he gave to Jacob, when he called him Israel, and of the Promised Land that we are so ready to forget, because we left it far behind so long ago.
And it turns out that the test is mostly this: to see if we are willing to keep limping toward the Promised Land that God is building in our hearts. This is our destiny, if only we will refuse to let go of God till he has given us his blessing, which he will surely do, as surely as the sun rises over the river. And we give thanks to Jacob, we give thanks to Israel, for teaching us over and over again that important lesson in our struggle with God: that the most important thing to do is to refuse to let go to be confident of the blessing, to hang on till you receive it…
… and then to go limping toward the Promised Land with your new name rolling around in your head: Christian, Christian, Christian.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
20 October 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia