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limp.gif (2297 bytes)Limping With Grace
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. "Can’t go down," he said. So he looked up and saw the tiger poised atop the cliff with bared claws. "Hmmm, can’t 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 there’s Laban. Though God has intimated that it’s 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. Doesn’t 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 boss’s 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 reluctantly.

If Laban is the tiger, then Esau is the jagged rocks. Jacob’s habit of ripping off, bamboozling, and deceiving relatives has finally come back to haunt him. Ever met someone who’s nursed hatred for twenty years? Jacob, anticipating his own murder, sends messengers with a letter:


Dear Esau,


This is Jacob, your servant; I’ve 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, let’s just bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones.

Your bro, Jacob.

PS-I’ve 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 Jacob’s 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, we’re 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-I’ve 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 doesn’t 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, Esau’s 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.

Jacob’s 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 he’s 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 won’t let go until you bless me!" Jacob cries grasping God’s 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 own lives?

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 doesn’t 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? That’s 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 . . [1] .

Secondly, God chooses to bless us for God’s 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. He’s not a great religious model for our children. Yet God blessed Jacob. How many of us just don’t give more of our lives to God because we just don’t feel good enough for God to use us? Either by character flaw or lack of skill? We think we

aren’t gifted enough . . .

would rather die than address a crowd of three.

aren’t wealthy enough.

          can’t sing worth a plugged nickel,

     haven’t read the Bible,

can’t 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 God’s 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. He’d 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," Jacob’s new name, is a double entendre? Could mean, "Jacob strives," but it could just as easily be translated, "God rules." God stoops to Jacob’s 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 don’t 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 we’ve forgotten who we are.

Who are you? The Church says, "You are Christian, that’s 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 God’s. We’ve 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 you’re 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 that’s growing within arm’s reach, as the little monk did. He munched it and said, "that’s the best strawberry that I’ve ever tasted in my entire life!" For when God enters into our struggle, changes our name and blesses us for God’s larger purpose, we truly enjoy the present and walk confidently into the future with God the wrestler at our side. Amen.

[1] Philippians 2:5-11 in New Living Translation.