We all know those kind of people . . . you know the ones. They always come out on top; they’re the Teflon-coated lucky ones, the exact opposites of those poor souls who can’t get a break.
Out of all the characters in the Hebrew scripture there’s no one more slippery than Jacob. While Abraham is revered as the father of a nation, we mostly remember Jacob for stealing things and, repeatedly, getting away with it.
By the time we catch up with Jacob today he’s improbably made his way out of yet another sticky situation and is ready to sail into the Promised Land to claim his birthright.
Remember last week, Jacob had finally arrived in the camp of his uncle Laban and fallen in love with the beautiful Rachel.
Well, now, 20 years later, Jacob is married to both Rachel and her sister Leah . . . he has two concubines in addition, and thirteen children altogether. Golden boy that he is, he’s emerged from his forced labor a wealthy man.
But wealth and children aside, Jacob knows full well that he’ll never be top dog as long as he hangs around Laban’s camp. And, anyway, don’t forget he had the birthright—the blessing of his father Isaac, taken out from under the nose of his brother Esau.
So Jacob decided it was time to pack up all he’d amassed and set out back to the promised land, back to claim the birthright that was rightfully, or deceitfully, rather, his.
But it’s no small thing to break apart a desert community like Laban’s camp. Jacob’s departure meant a huge hit for the whole community, and Laban was not happy in the least. Here he’d had a son in law bound by familial duty to work for him, helping Laban to become a very wealthy man indeed. With Jacob and all of Jacob’s flocks and herds and servants gone, well, Laban’s status would diminish as well.
Laban and Jacob, you see, were cut out of the same cloth. They were each deeply committed to their own success, and not afraid to do whatever it would take to get it. You could say they deserved each other, but Lot was still mad that Jacob had left.
You can just hear him now: “After everything I’ve done for him . . . !” And Laban ran after Jacob and his whole caravan, determined to get them back.
But when we come upon Jacob today he has, once again, skillfully slipped out of this sticky situation. After some negotiation, a little bit of posturing and a whole lot of sneakiness (too much to even detail here!) Laban and Jacob come to a truce, promise to be nice to each other, and Jacob turns to go on his way . . .
. . . only to get word that more trouble awaits him across the Jabbok river. Jacob’s brother Esau, remember the one he tricked out of his inheritance? He’s over on the other side, quickly advancing to meet Jacob, word is with 400 men.
True to form, our hero—his character marked by a distinct lack of integrity—decides the best way to triumphantly return to the promised land, embrace God’s blessing for his family and claim his stolen birthright is to send his kids and his wives in ahead of him while he hangs back and waited to see if Esau is still mad about that whole little birthright misunderstanding they’d had so long ago.
It’s summer and you know what that means: family reunions.
I went to one myself this summer—how many of you have gone to some kind of family reunion?
My family is known for large gatherings of folks from far-flung places, but the term “family reunion” took on a whole new meaning when I met Harold Ritchie five years ago. Everybody who knows Harold knows that every two years in July he will be headed to: the Ritchie Family Reunion.
This, my friends, is unlike any family reunion you have ever been to in your life.
Harold, many of you may not know, is the youngest of 10 children, and over 20 years ago he and his brothers and sisters noticed that the family was only getting together for funerals anymore. They hatched a plan to hold the first-ever Ritchie Family Reunion, to which over 150 people came that first time.
Harold just got back from the latest one, held in West Virginia this year. If you ask him, he’ll show you the picture of the whole crew, taken by a professional photographer at each reunion on the second day of the four-day extravaganza.
The weekend, you see, starts with a Thursday night meet and greet, where you can check in to the reunion hotel and pick up your welcome packet, program book and t-shirt. You’ll have signed up ahead of time for leisure activities like scrabble or golf or fishing on Friday, and show up to join whatever group you choose on Friday morning. Friday night is the formal Ritchie banquet, with a full program and entertainment. Pack your dressy clothes! And then Saturday there’s the family picnic and family picture.
Sunday it’s worship, and this year the Ritchies got up and attended the church in which they grew up, providing from among them (as you can imagine if you know Harold!) all the music for the service.
The weekend wouldn’t be complete, of course, without a business meeting, where the whole gang meets to talk about where the next reunion will be held, and who exactly would be serving on the organizing committee that will make it happen.
Harold says that after the first reunion they all wondered whether or not the younger generations would want to continue having reunions, but twenty years later there are lots of Ritichies lined up to head committees to make the reunions happen.
It’s a lot of work for one weekend, but the rewards are worth it.
When else could you see all those folks gathered in one place, kiss all those babies and tell the family stories over again? There’s something about coming home to the place you belong with the people you come from that makes all the craziness worth it . . . when you look out over the whole crowd and think about the many ways in which your life has been blessed and blessed and blessed again.
And, so, technically speaking, Jacob was on his way to a family reunion. This was the promise . . . the real blessing . . . he’d been working toward his whole life. Twenty years after he’d left under the cover of darkness, sneaking away with his father’s blessing, he was on his way back to see Esau, hoping there was some way he could sail into the promise even after all the pain of the past.
But this imminent family reunion must have been weighing on Jacob’s mind, which explains a little more about what happens next. We’re told Jacob doesn’t get any rest at all that night in his campground next to the Jabbok. A stranger interrupts his sleep, and all night long they wrestle in the darkness, neither one quite able to overcome the other.
Scholars don’t know for sure who this person was who wrestled with Jacob all night long. All we know for sure is that Jacob has a habit of encountering God in the middle of the night, so whoever that person was—an angel, Yahweh himself—we know that Jacob left that campsite on the edge of the Jabbok the next day having had some kind of encounter with the divine.
But it’s not what you’d expect from an encounter with God.
Far from a comforting visit, the whole experience turns out to be one big struggle, a big wrestling match with the divine, and experience that leaves Jacob scarred for life.
Jacob is a man, you see, who has managed his whole life to wrestle the blessing out of any situation. He’s a scheming, conniving manipulator. But in the middle of the night, when there’s nobody around, Jacob has to face his deepest fears of powerlessness, darkness, vulnerability and pain.
Jacob doesn’t know it yet, but . . . he’s been trying to live his life as if it wasn’t true . . . . There’s no embracing the promise, you see, without facing the pain.
What would it take, I wonder, for you and me to face the truth of our lives? Not the truth that everyone else sees, but the truth that’s right there out in the open when everyone else is gone, night has fallen, and it’s just me and God?
I can’t think of anything more scary, to be honest.
But at the end of the day, it’s going to take facing the truth, it’s going to take going to the mat and wrestling with the hard reality of who we are for us to fully live into the promise God has for us.
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Jacob tried for years to do it his way . . . he stole and connived, he manipulated and deceived . . . and to be perfectly honest, he did pretty well for himself. There came a point, though, when he was on the edge of reunion, heading back to take possession of the promise God had made to Abraham, to fill the world with his descendents and establish his name forever, when God insisted that Jacob face the truth and wrestle with God like his life depended on it.
There was no way he could embrace the promise, you see, without facing the pain.
There will come a time, if there hasn’t already, in your life and my life when we are going to have to face the painful truth about our lives, all the little secrets and failures that nobody else can see if we want to go any further toward the promise of who we are. And when that time comes, when we find ourselves on the mat, up all night wrestling with God, this we know: it’s not our decisions or our posturing or our plans that determine the future. It’s God . . . who, no matter what mistakes we’ve made, will not abandon us to our own devices.
No, God will wrestle us down, over and over and over again, all night long if that’s what it takes, demand that we surrender everything about who we are and who we hope to be, until the sun rises and we’re ready to face the truth and we grab the hand of God to pull us up and we limp toward the promise of our lives.
As we gather around the table together today, we might as well lay down all the baggage and pain we carry, give up the struggle and surrender to God’s love.
At God’s invitation we are invited to come with all the pain of who we are. Like God did for Jacob, God will not leave us to our own devices, no matter how successful they appear to be. God will meet us in the reality of who we are, wrestle us down, and lead us to the promise of everything we were created to be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.