a sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
by Rev. Thomas Hall
This lesson reminds me of a story about a monk who was being chased by a ferocious
tiger. The monk raced to the edge of the cliff, glanced back, and saw the tiger about to
spring. Just in time, the monk spotted a rope dangling over the edge of the cliff and
flung himself over the edge, grabbing the rope. Whew! Narrow escape, he thought. Taking
stock of his situation, the monk looked down only to see jagged rocks five hundred feet
below. "Cant go down," he said. So he looked up and saw the tiger poised
atop the cliff with bared claws. "Hmmm, cant go up, either." Just then two
little mice scurried out from their hole in the side of the cliff and began to nibble at
the rope. Not a very good situation-hanging between a tiger and a hard place!
Not a very good situation for Jacob, either. In our lesson he is stuck between danger
and death. On one side theres Laban. Though God has intimated that its
probably time to relocate, Jacob messes it up. While his boss is shearing sheep a couple
of pastures over, Jacob loads up his wives, concubines, servants, herds, flocks, and the
kitchen sink and heads out of town. Doesnt breathe a word to Laban. Just up and
leaves after working for the man for fourteen years. Would you do that? Especially after
marrying the bosss two daughters? Just up and leave without so much as a good-bye?
Well, Jacob does exactly that. Takes three days before Laban (who happens to be his boss
and father-in-law) finds out. A week later, Laban and his relatives-angry as a
tiger-finally catch up! The only thing that keeps Jacob off the obit page is a dream in
which God counsels Laban, "You keep your hands off Jacob." So he does-though
If Laban is the tiger, then Esau is the jagged rocks. Jacobs habit of ripping
off, bamboozling, and deceiving relatives has finally come back to haunt him. Ever met
someone whos nursed hatred for twenty years? Jacob, anticipating his own murder,
sends messengers with a letter:
This is Jacob, your servant; Ive been staying with Uncle Laban lately. Listen, I
know things have been a little rocky (like the time I bamboozled you out of your family
inheritance; and the time that I pulled the wool over dad and swindled you out of all of
the good things that you were supposed to get). But hey, whaddaya say, lets just
bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones.
Your bro, Jacob.
PS-Ive sent some presents to you. Hope they fit.
What would you do in a society in which revenge is a virtue? Esau probably begins by
sharpening his sword. He answers Jacobs letter with a small militia of four hundred
troops! "Yikes!" Jacob thinks. What he does next comes out of complete panic. He
prays. But not one of those nicely written, well-scripted prayers we hear on Sundays. No,
were in the panic zone here-more like, "God, this was your idea in the first
place-I would have stayed but you said go. Okay, I admit it-Ive been a
lousy, low-down dirty rotten scoundrel [ED grovel, grovel]. And yet you have blessed me.
Please God, just get me through this jam!"
However, if prayer doesnt work, maybe he can buy Esau off. So he sends Esau herds
from heaven-100 cows here, 50 camels there, 75 donkeys, etc. until the animals number 550!
Of course, the idea is that with each group of animals, Esaus deadly anger may
lighten. So as Esau comes upon each group of animals the gift tag is always the same: To:
my favorite Bro . . . From: Jacob, your servant.
Jacobs final order of business is to move the family further from camp. So again
in stages, he ferries his family across the river. He places Rachel, his most beloved
wife, the furthest away from danger, then Leah, his less loved wife a bit closer to the
camp and the concubines even closer still.
Jacob now returns to an empty camp on the eve of what he feels must be his last night
on earth. Jacob knows hes at the end of his rope and has little hope, few options,
and no escape. In that awful darkness, something chews on his rope, for someone in the
darkness blind-sides Jacob and wrestles him to the ground. Who is this wrestler? Maybe
Jacob thinks at first it is Esau. But on the other hand, it could be Laban who has crept
up behind him to end his life. The writer, however, does not want us to be in the dark
about the identity of this night visitor. God is the wrestler. And the two are locked in
struggle for a considerable time. At daybreak, God has not prevailed and so gives Jacob
quite a wallop in the thigh knocking it out of joint. That ends the wrestling match,
forever crippling Jacob. He will always be marked by this night. Yet even as God leaves
the ring, Jacob will not let go, will not concede defeat.
"I wont let go until you bless me!" Jacob cries grasping Gods
toga as God drags him across the ring. So God faces this man, this desperate and pathetic
man, and changes his name from Jacob-The-Deceiver to Israel-The-One-Who-Strives-With-God.
What do you make of this strange story? What might this story tell us about God and our
First, God chooses to get into the ring with us. What is so amazing about this story is
that God takes on human form and stoops to encounter Jacob at his own level. This is no
cat and mouse game-God actually commits to entering deeply into the struggle with Jacob in
a way that doesnt overpower him.
Do you believe in the God we worship on Sunday mornings who stoops to encounter us? One
who chooses self-limitations in order to get very close to us human beings? Thats
what our faith tells us about God . . .
Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made
himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form . . 
Secondly, God chooses to bless us for Gods purposes no matter how undeserving we
are. Jacob was a scoundrel-the guy who deceived his father, bamboozled his brother,
deadbeat his uncle, and favored one wife over another. Hes not a great religious
model for our children. Yet God blessed Jacob. How many of us just dont give more of
our lives to God because we just dont feel good enough for God to use us? Either by
character flaw or lack of skill? We think we
arent gifted enough . . .
would rather die than address a crowd of three.
arent wealthy enough.
cant sing worth a plugged
havent read the Bible,
cant give up my Marlboros,
etcetera ad nauseam.
This story forever puts to rest the ungospel of excuses for our lack of pizzazz in the
Kingdom of God. God has more riding on our lives than just our personalities and
giftedness. God blesses us for Gods larger purposes.
One Hispanic woman recently became a Christian at Times Square Church in NYC. She spoke
no English and was unskilled; she had nothing to give, nothing to offer her church. So
they put her on one of the church buses. "Now Rosa, you just sit there on the bus
every Sunday and encourage the kids." She did. Soon she singled out one little boy.
Hed never speak. Not once. But every Sunday, she would hold him on her lap and say
to him, "Jesus love you. Jesus love you and I love you." That went on for weeks.
But he never said a word-until one Sunday morning. She said, "Jesus love you and I
love you." And suddenly he said, "I love you." Those were the last words
she would ever hear from him. Last words that probably anyone ever heard from him. He
became another statistic, another victim of domestic violence. But Rosa was his one link,
his only Jesus who held him during those hateful and violent times if only to say
"Jesus love you and I love you." Rosa is convinced she made a difference-with
just three words. Let God bless you for larger purposes.
Finally, God gives us a new name. Did you know that "Israel," Jacobs
new name, is a double entendre? Could mean, "Jacob strives," but it could just
as easily be translated, "God rules." God stoops to Jacobs level, changes
his name, and Jacob limps away, aware of one thing: that God the wrestler will be at his
side. "If God be for us," Paul says, "who can be against us?"
When we are baptized dont we also receive a new name? Culture calls us a lot of
things: "hey, you!" is my favorite title. And with each name comes with a
plethora of products to fit the label. Thousands have bought into these names and other
conflicting and confusing labels. And maybe weve forgotten who we are.
Who are you? The Church says, "You are Christian, thats who you are."
At every baptism we speak that name out: "This one is ours. This one belongs to us.
God has a lot of promise riding on this one. This one is Gods. Weve calling
this one Christian." We are named and owned by the God who stoops to enter our
struggle and to be at our side as walk into the future.
So remember next time you are chased by a tiger and youre dangling over the side
of cliff with jagged rocks five hundred feet below with two mice gnawing at your rope.
Remember to pick the strawberry thats growing within arms reach, as the little
monk did. He munched it and said, "thats the best strawberry that Ive
ever tasted in my entire life!" For when God enters into our struggle, changes our
name and blesses us for Gods larger purpose, we truly enjoy the present and walk
confidently into the future with God the wrestler at our side. Amen.
 Philippians 2:5-11 in New Living Translation.