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Sermon for Proper 14/Ordinary 31 Year C Wrestling Jacob

October 1, 2016


In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world! – words from the Fourth Gospel

In he name…

Do you remember sermons? They say it’ ok not to. You don’t remember each meal you ate; every menu, every recipe. What matters is that you were fed and nourished.

Well I remember a sermon from 1972. John White, Junior Anglican chaplain at Leeds University preached on Jacob Wrestling with God and he used the refrain from John Donne’s poem which is a pun on the poet’s name:

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

44 years later, here’s my take on it.

In the world you will have tribulation. Life involves a continuous process of change, endings and new beginnings, death and rebirth, loss, and even pointlessness, may later lead to a sense of new life gradually taking shape. But we cannot escape prematurely from the passages of life itself. Our body cells die and are replaced all the time. Puberty and adolescence are inescapable, the natural process of ageing, how­ever much we nowadays seek to hide it, struggles at work, with illness and bereavement, none of us seems to be very good at change!  We are better at clinging to the safe and known

But we don’t know all the answers. We live with a lack of final clarity most of the time.

Gregory of Nyssa reckoned that we never come to a time when we can stand sill and say that we have finally made it: that ascent constantly expands as one progresses ….his truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. …one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more…. no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit …can be found nor is the increasing of desire ….brought to an end because it is satisfied.

 When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Jacob’s whole life is one of struggle and conflict.  Beginning even before he is born. He struggles with his twin Esau in Rebekah’s womb Gen 25.22 The struggle continues in the light of day when he gets the better of him and steals his blessing and birthright.

Then there’s the struggle in our reading. His attacker is unnamed, mysterious. He is simply ‘a man’. Later, the word translated ‘God’ is plural in form. It can mean ‘gods’, or ‘divine or supernatural beings’, including river demons and evil spirits of the night.

Is it folklore? Stories abounded of attacks in the night, spirit-powers that jealously guarded fords, heroes who grappled with gods. In The Three Billy-goats Gruff, the goats are attacked by a troll as they cross a river,  through their cunning and the brute strength of the biggest of them, they overcome their assailant and complete the crossing to the lush pasture on the other side.

Is it aetiology? A story to explain the origin of names, customs, places. Jacob’s wrestling explained the name ‘Israel’, and the place-name ‘Penuel’, and why this was a holy place. It also explained the name of the river: in Hebrew the words for the river jabbok’, ‘wrestled’, and ‘Jacob’ echo each other. The story also offered an explanation of why Jews never eat the nerve of an animal that passes over the socket of the hip, as the end of the chapter itself states. And Jacob’s limping may have explained a limping dance in Penuel’s worship  Interpreted by Love – J. Eaton p.37,39

Jacob is wounded. As he prays, he is troubled, partly from fear, partly from guilt. His prayer begins with the naming of God, reminding God of his promises in the past:  God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac. v. 9

 Jacob is undergoing strenuous “night-time work.” “During the day, he is able to manage and take the initiative. But at night, as for all of us, Jacob turns out to be vulnerable, and things rush powerfully beyond his control. His night is peopled by those uninvited and unwelcomed in his life. But they are the very ones with whom he has to come to terms, if he is to go home peaceably.”

The spiritual dimension of letting go and of major transitions was described as  ‘the dark night of the soul’ by S. John of the Cross

“We are tempted to remain daytime people, knowing and in control. The story bears witness that the crucial transformations in our identity and our faith happen when we are vulnerable recipients.” Brueggemann in Bill Moyers’ “Talking about Genesis

Human desire can be interpreted as a permanent openness to what is other than ourselves, to what is beyond our bound­aries. Desire is a sense of incompleteness, our openness to the ‘always more’, the infinite. God always comes to us from our futures. The God who is at the heart of change always ultimately eludes us. For R. S. Thomas ‘He is such a fast God,/ always before us and/ leaving as we arrive’

There is always a new aspect to this God: every definition we arrive at sends us back to square one. We are ever having to begin the journey again with God. Though we are always tempted to turn aside from the vision that feeds our insatiable desire and to settle for one seemingly comforting aspect of God. We try to capture the moment and turn it into a commodity.

The French thinker, Michel de Certeau said that mystical experience is to be caught up in ‘an eternity without shores’.  Because God has no shoreline, the desiring of our hearts will also prove to be of infinite extent and duration. One cannot stay there nor be content with that. Desire creates an excess. Places are exceeded, passed, lost behind it. It makes one go further, elsewhere. It lives nowhere. Befriending our desires –P. Sheldrake pp. 108f

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Jacob must go beyond his familiar, limited sense of himself and find a way to incorporate his shadow, the disavowed and disowned parts of himself that he has projected onto his brother, Esau.

In many stories of contests, each contestant struggles to learn the identity of the other. He who has the other’s name will have him in his power. The last time somebody (Isaac) asked him for his name, he lied. He now had to admit that he was not someone else, but was a “heel catcher;” a supplanter.  He was someone who would use deceit to get whatever he wanted. Before we can be changed, we must admit first who we truly are, and sometimes this is difficult (it can even leave us emotionally limping).

He struggles with God, and finally God speaks with him, asks him his name and then tells him that he will have a new name, Israel, and from his family a mighty nation will be born. Out of that struggle, comes a stronger, newer, better relationship with God Dr. Ravi Zacharias

And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

And I think I am done too.

In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!

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