Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies,
So he spent that night there, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’“ The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 17, 2016) on Genesis 32:3,6-7,13-18,22-30. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
So even after my children’s sermon, even after the props, the bottles, and the grapes, I’m still having a hard time visualizing what today’s gospel reading actually looks like. It’s really overwhelming. The servants lug these six large stone jars to Jesus and, without so much as a rolling up of his sleeves, Jesus turns the water into the best wine they’ve ever had. On the 3rd day of a wedding filled with family, friends, neighbors, and probably random folks looking to dance, Jesus does the impossible. He takes basic H20 and, without a press, or barrels, or grapes, or time - Jesus does a supernatural thing. But the gospel writer John doesn’t call it a miracle. That’s a word John never uses. Jesus’ act isn’t a miracle - it’s a sign pointing to who God is. God is someone who shows up to parties, who does the unexpected, and, even when only a few bottles are needed, God instead creates too much. This gift isn’t saved for just the couple getting married or their families. This gift - this overabundance - this grace - is for everyone.
Now, This gift is the first sign that Jesus does in the gospel according to John. This is his first act of public ministry. Jesus starts his journey by showing that something new, something exciting, something extravagant and over-the-top is happening. His hour hasn’t come but God’s love is here - and God’s love can only be abundant.
Which is why, I think, Jesus’ story and our story from Genesis 32 fit. Last week we heard the promise that God made to Abram. God tells Abram that he’ll have descendants that will outnumber the stars. So, today, we’re watching as two of those descendants - his grandchildren - are having a fight. Esau and Jacob are twins - and they don’t get along. Ever since day one, they’ve been opposites. Esau loves the outdoors, he’s a hunter, he’s impulsive, and he doesn’t really think about what’s going to happen next. Jacob, however, is a homebody. He’s patient, observant, manipulative, and will play a few tricks on others when he can. At one point, Jacob pretends to be his brother so his father, who is basically blind, accidentally gives Jacob the blessing and the inheritance meant for Esau. Before Esau can try and get revenge on Jacob, Jacob skips town and stays with his uncle for 14 years. While there he marries, has children, and grows wealthy. But now is the time to come home. So Jacob, after a few run-ins with his uncle, heads towards home. He knows that Esau is out there. He knows he has to deal with his twin brother who he’s tricked, betrayed, and who probably wants to get even. Jacob’s afraid. So Jacob does the only thing he can think of: he tries to put everyone and everything he has between himself and his brother.
Jacob’s traveling in a large caravan so he splits the group in two. But like all of us when we’re facing an unknown future, he overthinks. He overanalyzes. He really has no idea what his impulsive brother will do so he tries to buy him off with three large and extravagant presents. But, after thinking about it some more, Jacob realizes that might not be enough. He knows that life, eventually, will catch up with him. He knows that our past, our present, what we’ve done, and what we’ve failed to do will, eventually, need to be dealt with. His history with his brother needs to be reckoned with. So Jacob takes all that he has - people, wives, even his children - and puts them between himself and this unknown future, barreling down on him. He’s trying to delay the unavoidable. He’s trying to stop the future from coming. He strips himself of all that he has, of all that he is connected to, and of all that he pretends to be. Soon, he’s all he has left. He’s alone. But it’s then, right then, when God grabs him. It’s here when the man wrestles with him. Jacob’s alone, in the dark, with no one to protect him, and no one to manipulate or trick. And that’s when God’s grace make itself known to Jacob. This is when God starts a brand new thing with him. Jacob is in the grip of something he doesn’t understand - but he doesn’t let go.
Now, I don’t know why Jacob holds on. I don’t know who told him to not let go. When an unknown future is about to unfold - when we’re up in the middle of the night, playing out all the scenarios we can possibly think of in our head over and over again, it’s usually the anxiety that doesn’t let us go. A dreaded meeting with our boss. That second opinion from a doctor. That text message we got from our partner saying that we need to talk. It’s not hard to be afraid of the future. Being anxious about the future - worried about things we can’t control - that’s a very human thing to do. Jacob’s worried too. But when his anxiety gripped him, grabbed him, drove everything he had away from him - when something new showed up, he didn’t let go. He didn’t try to overcome. When this man came to wrestle Jacob, the text doesn’t say that Jacob tried to put him in a half-nelson or try some move he saw on some pro-wrestling show to try and take this man out. No, Jacob doesn’t try to defeat the man who came to wrestle him. Instead, he doesn’t let the man defeat him. Everything Jacob has is gone. Everything that defined him as a wealthy person, as an important person, as somehow who could outwit and out trick those next to him - all of that is gone. Jacob only has himself - only has his God - but that’s enough. That’s enough to not lose. In the dark night of his soul, he meets God, and finds a way to survive until morning. And when the sun finally does rise, something’s changed. Now, Jacob’s situation is still exactly the same. His brother is still coming with 400 men and Jacob still has no idea how Esau is going to react. His unknown future is still there, exactly as it was before. But that anxiety, that unknowing, that reckoning with his past - no longer defines him. He belongs to God - and that’s enough to face whatever is about to come.
God’s grace can sometimes look like 1 ton of grapes in 908 bottles piled 2 miles up in sky. But God’s grace can also be just making it into a new day. God isn’t only in the party, only in the celebration - only in those large gathering that go on for days. God’s also in the late nights, those times when we’re staring up at the ceiling, not knowing what the next day will bring. In our struggle, God struggles. In our wrestling, God wrestles too. Jesus isn’t afraid of our dark nights because Jesus knows that the dawn will come. The sun will rise. Our fears and our anxiety cannot overcome our reality that we belong to God and God belongs to us. A party 3 days long or a night that feels twice that long - there’s no where Jesus won’t go because that’s what grace looks like. That’s what abundant grace feels like. That’s why Jesus begins his story with a sign. Grace upon grace, love upon love. That’s the first thing that Jesus does. It’s also the second, third, fourth and fifth thing too. Because that’s the kind of love that God gives. That’s the kind of love that the world needs. It’s the kind of love that meets Jacob as Jacob is: alone and scared in the middle of the night. It’s a love that, when the morning came, helped him take a few steps forward - towards what’s about to come. He’s no longer hiding, no longer keeping his slaves and servants and family between him and his brother. Jacob didn’t know what was about to happen. But, with God, he was ready to face whatever might come.
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