(sermon note: 09-24 sermon note)
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.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a Missouri farmer who got in his pickup one day and drove to his neighbor’s farmhouse and knocked at the door. A boy, about 9, opened the door. “Is your Dad home?” asked the farmer. “No sir, he isn’t. He went to town.” Persistent, the farmer asked the boy, “Well, is your Mother here?” “No sir, she went to town with Dad.” Growing frustrated, the farmer asked, “How about your brother, Howard? Is he here?” “No sir, he went with Mom and Dad.” The farmer stood there for a minute, shifting from one foot to the other and mumbling to himself. “Is there anything I can do for you, mister? I know where all the tools are, if you want to borrow one, or I can give dad a message for ya.” said the boy. “Well,” said the rancher uncomfortably, “I really wanted to talk to your Dad. It’s about your brother Howard getting my daughter, Suzie, pregnant.” The boy thought for a moment and said, “You would have to talk to Dad about that. I know he charges $500 for the bull and $50 for the hog. But, I don’t know how much he charges for Howard.”
That old farmer just had to persist in seeking an answer for why his daughter got pregnant! I doubt he expected to be charged for such a service! But a farm’s a farm and sometimes breeding is the income generator. Can’t blame that boy for considering Howard’s deed as a possible source of income. A very practical response from a farm boy, I suppose. But it goes to show that persistence can lead a person to some pretty odd situations…
Not unlike the situation that Jacob found himself in in today’s reading. Of all the stories in the Bible, this one stands out as a powerful illustration of the reward for persistence. And not all people would consider the outcome of Jacob’s persistent wrestling as a reward. We heard how he spent the whole night wrestling with a man, presumably God or an angel of God but never outright defined as such, and what does he get for his struggle? A blown hip joint and a name change. He was probably never able to wrestle again, forever walking with a limp, and we’re supposed to consider that as a “reward?!” Well, some of us wouldn’t consider that much of a reward. Of course, some of us would consider it a battle scar reflecting a battle well-fought. Hard to know how Jacob felt about it but the limp no doubt conveyed to the world that he was in a battle, regardless of Jacob’s performance in it. And his name changed to Israel, or “fighter of God,” suggested that it was a battle Jacob probably couldn’t have won anyways. No one wins in wrestling with God. The best any of us can expect from wrestling with God IS a scar to show we were bold enough to do it. Jacob earned that scar but did he deserve it? It wasn’t as if he started the wrestling match with God, at least according to the text. We don’t know who started the match but ultimately it really doesn’t matter. Jacob persisted in wrestling with God through the night, something many of us wouldn’t do. We’d get tired or lose our hope in ever possibly winning so we’d just give in and give up. But not Jacob. No, Jacob kept wrestling with God and it was God who eventually ended the match with a blown hip and a name change. Perhaps God rewards persistence rather than personality after all.
Heaven knows Jacob had a far-from-rewardable personality! Recall how Jacob had cleverly stolen his father, Isaac’s, blessing from his older brother, Esau. As the oldest son, Esau deserved Isaac’s blessing and all the wealth and stature that came with it. But Jacob tricked Isaac into bestowing the blessing on him instead. Poor old Isaac couldn’t see who he was bestowing the blessing on and inadvertently gave it to Jacob. So Jacob was hated and despised by his brother, Esau, and he and his wives and children had to run away and hide from Esau. It was while Jacob and his family were on the lam that God came to wrestle with Jacob. So he’d already stolen the birthright from his brother and he had the tenacity to wrestle with a man, albeit God or an angel of God, throughout the night. Certainly not someone you’d expect God to wrestle with, let alone bless. But isn’t this exactly the type of person God blesses throughout Scripture?! The broken, the morally questionable, the barren, the weak, the inexperienced…these are the type of people that God blesses…that God uses. Jacob’s character and morality was broken and yet God came and wrestled with him. Maybe to put his ego and his pride in its proper place. Maybe to pull out the subverted morality and character. Probably both. Nonetheless, God used yet another unlikely person to reveal his power and grace.
But God rewarding the non-rewardable is secondary to his rewarding persistence. We are all called to be persistent in our walk of faith. We are all called to wrestle with God and cling to him through all the trials and tribulations of life in this world. God DOES reward persistence in faith! Maybe not with rewards we expect or think we deserve but with blessings nonetheless. The apostle Paul understood this all too well. In his letter to the Galatians, he tells us, “so let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (6:9) And in his letter to the Philippians, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:14) And finally in his first letter to the Corinthians, “therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (15:58) Friends, Paul understood the value of persistence and so we ought to as well. God rewards persistence with great reward and blessing. Heck, He rewarded that angry old farmer with a little perspective from a precocious 9-year-old boy! So let us give thanks for his blessings. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.