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Sermon Notes - 08.06.17 Home » Member Resources » Sermon Archives » 08.06.17

Striving
Sermon By: Dr. Randy Hyde
Key Verses: Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21 listen onlinesave mp3sermon notes

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An age-old question… can a leopard change its spots? In other words, can long-established patterns or habits be cast aside when they prove to be detrimental to one’s best self? Can a long-time smoker truly quit? Can a chronic complainer learn how to be optimistic? Is it possible for a person prone to anger or selfishness to become more kind and thoughtful?

These questions came to mind as I considered, once again, this classic story from Genesis that we read a few moments ago, the account that tells of Jacob’s wrestling match on the banks of the river Jabbok. Chances are, many of you are familiar, not only with Jacob’s story, but with this particular part of it.

Long removed from the days when he tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, Jacob is returning home with God’s promise in his hand. “Return to the land of your ancestors,” God says to Jacob, “and to your kindred, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). Jacob has spent years in the labor of his father-in-law Laban. Having met his match somewhat in the ability to deceive and take advantage, Jcob has finally decided he has had enough of Laban’s deception and decides to take God up on his generous offer. In secrecy, Jacob leaves the place where he has lived – where he has accumulated, not only a large family but a great deal of wealth as well – to go back to his brother and beg forgiveness. He figures that enduring the wrath of Esau will be minor compared to having to put up one more day with Laban and his trickery.

The question is, can he pull it off? Is Jacob capable of asking forgiveness? Can he be contrite? After all, he has been quite a scalawag in his time. Once you’ve established certain personality or behavioral traits in yourself, it’s very difficult to shed them quickly or automatically. Can Jacob do it? Has he matured enough over the years to put his past behind him and establish himself as a new kind of person? Will he be different this time around? Can this old leopard change his spots? That’s one question.

Another question… can Jacob go home again?

It’s a dynamic I have witnessed myself. Many of the people who comprised the membership of our congregation in Baltimore had journeyed to the Crescent City during or after World War II to work in the industrial plants which surrounded the church… Martin Marietta, Bethlehem Steel, General Motors. They founded the church back in the 1940’s and stayed there many years. They raised their children there, saw their grandchildren come into the world, and in some cases their great-grandchildren. But when given the opportunity to go back home – usually to North Carolina or West Virginia – they didn’t think about it twice. They headed south as fast as their Oldsmobiles could take them.

I talked to some of them about it, and it was explained to me this way…Even though they would often leave offspring and other family members behind (after all, Baltimore was home to the younger generations spawned by these people), there was just something about being back where they were from that fulfilled their yearnings. They wanted to walk those hills again and get in touch with their roots. They wanted to go back home.

In a way, I understood. Those of you who weren’t around in 1996 when we first came here wouldn’t have any reason to know this, and the rest of you might not remember it. When we first came to this church, because Tim was finishing out his senior year of high school, we did a lot of commuting between Trumann, where we had lived for almost three years, and Little Rock. Tim played baseball, and for his last regular-season game several folks from our church went to Trumann to see him play… a really thoughtful thing for them to do. Three of our youth rode up in the car with me for the two-hour drive. Along the way I attempted to make the trip as interesting for them as possible. This was back in the day before there was a cell phone in the hands of every teenager, so they didn’t have that distraction to occupy their attention. So, they had to put up with me.

The closer we got to Trumann, the more they realized that we weren’t exactly crossing the border into the Garden of Eden. As I have often told people, the part of the state I grew up in – northeast Arkansas – isn’t just flat, it’s shallow. Yet, it’s home, and home always has a way of drawing us back, does it not? I can’t really explain it anymore than those folk who left Baltimore and headed back for the hills of North Carolina and West Virginia. That’s just where my roots are, and the memories are strong and good. And occasionally, over the years, when we lived on the other side of the Mississippi, I would feel this compulsion to go back and get in touch with all that.

Other than God’s promise, do you think that may have been something of what called Jacob back home? It would be no problem at all, of course, for him to leave Laban, that old pain-in-the-neck. And in an act of marital allegiance, Rachel, Jacob’s bride whom he truly loves, grabs up an armful of her father’s handmade gods as well, if for no other reason than to let the old goat know that he had been had. No, that old leopard named Jacob hadn’t changed all this spots, let me tell you. He was still, and would always remain, the trickster.

Not only that, but he knew that as long as he slept in the shadow of Laban’s tent, he would never fulfill his destiny as a patriarch of his own family. And as long as Jacob is in a position where he cannot claim that title, then he is helpless to live out the birthright he had taken from his brother Esau.

Still, I think there may have been something else involved, some other motivation that drove Jacob to leave in the middle of the night and head back home to the balm of Gilead. What do you think it might have been? Could it be that Jacob wanted to see Esau again?

They were nothing alike. Esau was hairy and loved being outdoors… a real man’s man, as some would say. Jacob, as a youth, had grown up, as the Bible puts it, dwelling in tents, and his skin was as smooth as his small talk. The two brothers couldn’t have possibly been any more different from one another. Still, they were twins. Whenever Jacob felt pain, could it be that he wondered if Esau felt it too? Or, if he was suddenly overcome with a strong feeling, whatever it might have been, perhaps he wondered if maybe the same feeling had come over his twin brother whom he hadn’t seen for many years. If any of you are twins, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? It happens. It really does.

For whatever reason, Jacob, knowing full well the danger involved, set out for home. But he didn’t go it alone. He took quite an entourage with him. It really must have been something to behold… hundreds of cattle, oxen, camels, sheep, and goats; wives and concubines, children and slaves. There was one thing for sure: Jacob wasn’t planning on sneaking up on anybody.

Esau may not have been as smart or shrewd as his barely-younger brother, but he evidently had a good memory. Hearing that Jacob is coming back home, he marshals a force of four hundred men to attack them. After all these years his anger is still as hot as the day he was duped out of what was rightfully his. And now, he figures that if Jacob is stupid enough to return, he is still angry enough to get even.

Word gets back to Jacob that he is in a real fix. Evidently, Esau isn’t very sentimental about homecomings, so Jacob establishes a plan. It would have been much easier just to turn around and go back, but Jacob is intent on going home. So, like a general in battle, which is what he really is, Jacob divides his livestock and people into two companies. In the event of an onslaught, perhaps at least one group would survive. Then, he dispatches wave after wave of animals and attendants to Esau with instructions that they were his as gifts from his wayward and penitent brother and servant Jacob.

As night falls, and the welfare of his family and himself hangs precariously in the balance, Jacob sends his wives and other family members across the ford of the Jabbok River. He remains there by himself on the far side, camped overnight to think through what is about to happen. And Jacob, as any of us would probably do under those circumstances, spends a great deal of time in prayer and supplication to God. That’s when “The Visitor” arrives – a stranger sent from God. Or maybe it was God himself. He hasn’t come to talk, however, he’s come to wrestle… to wrestle with Jacob.

I find that very interesting, don’t you? All his life, Jacob has been a trickster. He tricked his brother Esau and father Isaac out of the family blessing. He mentally wrestled with his father-in-law Laban to get the woman he loved and the fortune he thought he deserved. All his life he was a wrestler, except he had always wrestled with his wits. Now he finds himself literally wrestling with God, flesh against flesh, sweat flying, bodies grappling. And look who it is that is administering the hammerlock… you guessed it, Jacob! All these years had taught him an important lesson: if you want something bad enough, hang on!… even if it means putting a “Half Nelson” on God, for that’s exactly what Jacob did that night on the bank of the river Jabbok.

As the sun is about to rise, the visitor from God asks Jacob to release him, and Jacob – never completely able to overcome his raw nature, never able to fulfill that strong urge to be blessed, to be accepted… the leopard who finds it so difficult to change his spots – says to him, “Not unless you bless me.”

“What is your name?” asks the stranger, as if doesn’t already know.

“Jacob,” he answered.

“Not anymore,” says the stranger. “From now on, you shall be called Israel…” which means, “May God prevail.”

Jacob tries to get the stranger’s name, but just as quickly as he had come, he is now gone. And that’s when it dawns on Jacob, who was now named Israel, what has happened. “I have seen God face to face,” he says. “I have seen God face to face.”

Does that fascinating and mysterious story tell you anything? Here is a man who has spent his whole life looking out for Number One, who has built a fortune and established a dynasty, who has everything he could possibly need or want… but is restless because he knows there is something more that he doesn’t have and there is absolutely no way he can have it by doing what he has always done to get what he wants. He can’t get it by tricking it out of anyone because what he wants is something that only God can give, and that is the One person he can’t trick in order to get it.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the shadowy wrestler says to him, “but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

What does that mean, that he has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed? I confess, I’m not sure. And if any preachers tell you they know what it means, don’t listen to them! Frederick Buechner asks the same question. “And let us not assume,” he says, “that it means anything very neat or very edifying.”1

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take something from it, something very real and meaningful.

In this story we read earlier, for some truly unknown reason, Jacob’s wrestling opponent doesn’t plan to stick around once the sun begins to rise. So he resorts to a bit of trickery himself, not bothering to play by the rules. Having blessed Jacob, he lets him know that blessings from God are not always pain-free. He strikes Jacob on the hip socket, throwing it out of joint.

You call that a blessing?! There are several hip replacements represented here this morning. Ask them. You call that a blessing?! Well, consider this, if you will. If there has ever been anyone who walked on this earth and deserved the blessing of God, don’t you think it would be the One God calls his Son? I remind you of the words Jesus says to his disciples as he breaks bread with them the night before he died on the cross… “This is my body which is broken – broken – for you.”

“Remember the last glimpse we have of Jacob,” Buechner says, “limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat that is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”2

The one thing we cannot allow to be broken is not our hip or our feet. It is our heart. “Let not your hearts be troubled (or broken),” Jesus says. “Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). In our striving in this thing we call life, there is not one of us that will come out of it unscathed, unbroken in some meaningful way. Whether it is grief in the way we normally think of it or by means of some other fashion, there are none of us who will live this life fully without being broken in some way. But in a very real sense, even in our brokenness, we will be whole… whole in a way that only God can explain. So I would encourage you to leave your life in God’s hands, trusting that even in the pain of it we shall overcome.

“Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you,” God says to Jacob. That promise still holds, no matter what happens to you in the journey along the way.

Lord, we find ourselves sometimes wrestling with the circumstances that come our way. In truth, there are those occasions, even, when we wrestle with you. The effort is worth it, though, because Jesus has promised always to be by our side. It is in his name we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 2.

2Ibid, p. 8.

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