“People of the Limp”
by Rev. Justin Nickel
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010
Genesis 32:22-3122 The same night (Jacob) got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28 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." 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
One of my starkest memories from childhood involves sitting in the large Sunday school room at the west end of St. John’s Lutheran Church, the light pouring in through stained glass windows and the slightly sour smell of the room providing an unexpected comfort. We would gather there, as children, to sing songs led by my mother and to close in prayer. Now the prayer time always felt like it was on the verge of spinning entirely out of control. After offering an introductory word of thanksgiving, my mother would ask us what we would like to pray for, and it was in the asking of that question that the danger existed. For we as children, delightfully free of filters or concern about social convention, would pray for just about anything, though I remember that the welfare of various pets always seemed a central concern.
Now there is a temptation here to wax sentimental about situations like this, especially when the gentle care of one’s mother is involved, to say nothing of the adorable and unexpected things that come out of the mouths of babes. However, this sort of sentimentality, no matter its goodness and nobility, is not the reason we have brought up such a story, in fact, quite the opposite. Rather, I think that what is instructive in this brief anecdote is the intensely honest concern with which these children prayed. There was not a process by which one assessed what was appropriate to reveal to God in prayer. Instead, the needs of this little community of faith were voiced with an unvarnished honesty. I mean, from the vantage point of adulthood, with all its seriousness and concern, there is something undoubtedly precious about a child praying for her dog, but from the perspective of that same child, one wonders if there could a more candid and vulnerable petition.
It is this same honesty, this same vulnerability in the life of prayer, that makes our first reading so incredible. If we learn anything from Jacob, it is that our encounters with God are not tame, tidy affairs, nor should we expect them to be so. We meet Jacob, that legendary scoundrel of the Old Testament, as he is returning home to his brother Esau, the one from whom he stole the family fortune, if you will recall the story. He is rightly terrified that his brother will kill him, and so with impressive cunning and calculation, he sends processions of gifts ahead of himself to both appease his brother and gauge Esau’s level of anger. It is, one must admit, a pretty brilliant plan. If Esau is persuaded by the gifts, then Jacob can make his return home without the fear of losing his life. If Esau’s anger still consumes him and he lashes out in violence, then Jacob will have fair warning and enough time to make a hasty escape.
So with his household out in front of him, Jacob, with his fear as his only companion, is startled out of his sleep by God who begins a wrestling match with him, and how deep this match actually is. There is an incredible intimacy that is here occurring between God and Jacob, one that probably makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. For when this divine stranger asks Jacob what his name is, there is more going on here than mere identification. Instead, because the name Jacob in Hebrew also means “trickster” or “over-reacher” to which we might add schemer, the God with whom Jacob is now in an intimate struggle has asked for Jacob to confess all that he is, all that he has done, including cheating his brother and his father-in-law. This is God asking “who are you, really, who are you?” What is remarkable, then, is that Jacob has the out and out audacity to, in the midst of this struggle with God, to ask for a blessing, even as he is being asked this most profound question about what his life really means. The blessing that Jacob receives is not delivered apart from the struggle, from the pain, of striving with God and with humanity. And just what, then, is meant by this word “striving?” Perhaps we can say that this striving is an act of honestly reckoning with one’s past, present and future, of gathering all that one is, all that one fears, all that one wishes to be and throwing that whole mess into one’s relationship with God. Jacob, you see, while by no means a paragon of virtue or ethical behavior, has incredible courage in his relationship to God, and far from being reprimanded for this courage, far from God telling Jacob that it is inappropriate for him to ask for such a blessing, God grants Jacob the blessing for which he has been striving.
But this is, without a doubt, a costly endeavor for Jacob. By the time that the day breaks, Jacob will be blessed, true enough, but he will also be exhausted and wounded, his bruised and tender hip a testimony to what it means to be in relationship with the living God. Yes, Jacob has been blessed, and that blessing comes to him through a struggle with the God whose love is a dangerous and mysterious force. Yes, the blessing and the wound are inseparable, and both are delivered by the God who encounters Jacob as he really exists. One could even say that the blessing which Jacob receives is a sort of death, though not a death for its own end, but rather a death that gives way to the new life that results from this divine confrontation. For Jacob does not leave this struggle the same man; he has quite literally undergone an ordeal that changes his life’s trajectory, and part of that trajectory is realizing what will and will not be revealed. God you see, does not grant Jacob the whole of his request. In spite of the excruciating intimacy of this encounter, God will not reveal the whole of God’s being to Jacob, regardless of Jacob’s request. And maybe, just maybe, this is the first lesson that Jacob is to learn. That what has occurred in this encounter is of more significance than Jacob’s specific request being granted. For Jacob, what God has already done is enough.
While it would probably be fair to say that none of us have had a spiritual experience of this intensity, Jacob’s encounter, nonetheless, provides a sort blue print for the course our own prayer lives may take. Yes, we often come to the act of prayer assuming that we must offer to God some idealized version of ourselves, ignoring our pains and fears, our brokenness and our anger, but that sort of prayer is, if I may be so bold, unbiblical. For genuine prayer to the God of Scripture is an act of relationship in which God responds to our lives as they actually are, including all the pain and messiness that surrounds us. Genuine prayer is an act of giving our whole selves to the God who appears in the most unlikely of places, be it the sleeplessness of a lonely night or on a cross outside the city limits. Because this God, in Jesus Christ, has taken the estrangement and brokenness of this old world into God’s own being, we need not fear bringing our whole selves to God. I dare say that is precisely what God wants of us in prayer. Indeed, prayer, in the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki is “not the place for pretended piety; prayer is the place for getting down to brass tacks.” And when we come to this God in prayer, we can expect to be confronted in a way similar to Jacob; we will be blessed, but that blessing might just come as a wound to our pride or our despair, as a fatal blow to our myths of self-sufficiency. We might not receive an exact or immediate response to our request, but we will most assuredly be given the presence of the God who can sustain us until all questions are answered. Yes, we will probably walk away limping, and that, dearly beloved, is a blessing. In Jesus’ name, amen.