Genesis 32:3-31

“I Wrestled With God By The Jabbok And All I Got Was This Lousy Limp”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  110731SermonPodcast

If you’ve been following along with me these past few weeks, charting the course of this one, amazing man, Jacob, you will no doubt realize I’ve been wrestling with one of the most familiar and yet complex concepts of Christendom: the blessing.  For the third week in a row, the fourth if we had begun with the lectionary readings a tad bit earlier, we have been confronted directly with this patriarch’s yearning, desire, longing – no, Jacob’s desperate hunger for blessings.  He craved the blessing of his father and the blessing of God directly, and the blessing of his father-in-law, his wives, and now, his brother, Esau, indirectly.


Jacob Wrestling With The Angel by Rembrandt

Blessings are in a strange category.  “Alex, I’ll take ‘things we want but don’t really understand.’ for $500, please.”  We toss the word “blessing” around like we know exactly what it means.  When we get ready to eat we say blessings at meals.  When we hear of someone’s misfortune, we ask God to “Bless her heart!”  When we finish off a letter or an e-mail, we write in “God Bless” before we sign off on it.  We ask for blessings for everything from our pets, our homes, and our country.  But what is a blessing?


As I pointed out last week, blessing in a biblical sense seems to be the invocation of God’s favor in order to cause someone or something to prosper and be abundant. I struggle with that.  A lot.  In large part because I don’t see evidence of that happening, either in the lives of the biblical characters nor in the lives of good men and women I know and have known.  Simply invoking God’s blessings on someone doesn’t seem to make them more prosperous nor their lives more abundant.  The Jacob saga seems to make this point week after week, as the result of being “blessed,” has caused his father to suffer, has enraged his brother, has forced Jacob to wander in the wilderness with enormous anxiety, to work twice as hard for the love for which he longs, and, in today’s text, wrestle with a divine messenger from God only to gain a permanent limp.  You can almost see Jacob putting on the t-shirt that reads: “I Wrestled With God By The Jabbok And All I Got Was This Lousy Limp!”


If this is what it means to be “blessed,” I’m not sure I want any part of it!  Deception, anxiety, desperation, depression, hard labor, and actual physical injury?  I could do without all of that!  Forget the blessings, just leave me alone, God!  And it’s not just crusty, conniving Jacob who experiences the paradoxical benefits of blessings!  Follow the path from Eve and Adam, to Noah, to Abraham & Sara, through Jacob, to Moses, David, the prophets (Oh, the Prophets!!!), to Mary & Joseph, the disciples, and the Apostle Paul.  Being blessed by God hardly seems to bring abundance and prosperity like it appears.  It looks more like a death-wish!  “God Bless You!”  “Arrrrgggh!!! Noooooooo!”


Even if we look more closely just at this part of the story, the prosperity and abundance that is promised to Jacob (echoing the very same promise of his grandfather, Abraham), is that he will be the forbearer of a great and mighty nation.  Remember, Jacob will be renamed “Israel” by the end of this very story.  Even then, history does not reflect kindly on the “chosen people,” bestowing on it everything from slavery, warfare, deportations and exiles in the biblical story, to demonizing, holocausts, and perpetual conflict throughout history.  Jacob-become-Israel’s blessing seems to be a mixed bag, at best, and a curse, at worst.

Vision Of The Sermon: Jacob Wrestling With The Angel by Paul Gaugin


So.  Where does that leave us.  Do we simply stop asking for God’s blessings, or do we dig a little deeper into what blessing might actually mean? I think we dig deeper, because, you see, I don’t think this question is an irrelevant point to you.  Time and time again I have witnessed you, the good people of this church and neighborhood, do what is right and good and worthy, and say the words that are gracious and kind and life-giving, only to have the heel of history crush at your existence, or the fickle hand of fate deal you a tragic hand.  We ask for a lot of blessings around here, and yet “prosperity” and “abundance” seem to be in short supply.  Even so, we go on asking for God’s blessings constantly and give and receive each other’s blessings like they were precious gold bullion.  Why?


Perhaps because we have read the rest of the story of Jacob.  We know that he knew he had to go back home, back to that hard place where his shenanigans and mistakes were made, in order to make amends, ask for forgiveness, seek his own healing and peace.  Jacob had come to know that part of the blessing is the hard work of facing up to where we may have prevented the blessings due someone else.


Now, Jacob was still Jacob.  He had a plan. The trip back to his home, with his brother, Esau, holding fort, was fraught with anxiety for ol’ Jacob, for he assumed the equation for his future was based on human mathematics.  Jacob had disrespected his brother + Jacob had stolen what was rightfully his = Jacob assumed his brother would kill him.  It’s how we humans work, right?  So Jacob divided up his property to ensure some of it might escape Esau’s marauding servants.  Then he sent on ahead of their caravan flocks of cattle, in separate groups, to gradually soften up his brother.  That’s our Jacob!


But then he did something that would doom him to eternal blessedness.  He stopped just long enough to pray.  He lifted up to God his perfect awareness of his imperfections, of the situation, and his complete and almost comfortable conviction that his brother would most likely (and rightfully) attack and kill him.  He was ready for death.  But he echoed the blessing, the promise, the covenant that God had whispered in his ear again and again, “Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do your good, and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which cannot be numbered…”

Jacob And The Angel by Jacob Epstein


Having prayed, Jacob slept.  Sometime in the night, a man, who Jacob would know as God’s own messenger, began to wrestle him.  And we, if we are honest with God about our faults and failures, places where our actions or words have limited or prevented the blessings of life to flow to someone else… And if we remember and believe in the blessing that was promised to us from God… we might, just might, finally receive the true blessing of God.  But it won’t be the prosperity and abundance we thought it might be.  It will be, in fact, the peace of heart and mind that comes from asking for forgiveness, offering forgiveness, and receiving forgiveness.


But this kind of peace, this true blessedness, does not come without a price.  We must be prepared to die.  Likewise, if we are as honest about our shortcomings as we are about our entitlements, we may walk away with a limp.  Jacob did.  If we finally face up to both the confessions we need to make as well as the forgiveness with which we are destined to be gifted, then the blessings of serenity and contentment are ours, even if we are wounded in the process.


And isn’t this the kind of blessedness for which Jesus taught, lived, and died?  When Jesus rattled off those beatitudes on the mount, he wasn’t just blowing smoke.  He knew that true blessedness was less, much less, about wanting and having and getting, and more about honesty, openness, and giving and receiving.  Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart…  Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…  Hardly the stuff that comes to mind when we hear that “blessings” are about “prosperity” and “abundance.”


But we, like Jacob, have been to the river and wrestled with God, and we know, now that it IS about prosperity and abundance!  Just not prosperity in material things nor abundance in the benefits of the world.  Jesus taught us that being blessed is all about prospering the work of God (comfort, righteousness, mercy, faith, hope, love) and about the abundance of peace that comes from confession, repentance, and forgiveness. We must be prepared to die.  He was.  And in realizing this, we are wounded.


We are wounded, because he was wounded.  Isaiah would say it well:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

   crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

   and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)


And may God bless us, one and all.  Amen.


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