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August 6, 2017

“gLIMPses of God”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 17.1-7, 15

Genesis 32.22-31

August 6, 2017

            Last week we took a break from the Abraham family saga, but today we pick it up again. We began with Abraham taking his son, Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him, per God’s instructions. An angel appeared and told Abraham a sacrifice would appear, and so Isaac was saved, but the ram wasn’t so lucky. We then fast forwarded to Isaac’s blind date, where Abraham sent a servant to Haran, his hometown, to find a spouse for Isaac. We skip over the details of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage and jumped right into the birth of their twins, Jacob and Esau. In that passage we learned a bit about the personalities of these brothers, and how Jacob convinced Esau to trade his birthright for some chunky soup. Much later, after Jacob is running away from his brother (once again) he stopped to rest, had a magnificent dream where God spoke to him, and he placed a rock in that place and called it Bethel, or House of God, for he met God in that place.

            Jacob has played a key role in the past few scripture passages, yet we may feel conflicted about him. He struggles with his brother, he struggles with his brother-in-law, and today we hear that he struggles with this complete stranger. He is the protagonist in our stories, but I’m not sure we always want to cheer him on. What do we do with him? We may not know how to respond, but God blesses him over and over again.

            Today we know that Jacob is traveling once again. He is now married and on his way to Esau. They have approached the Jabbok river, and Jacob sends his family across, staying back. Why doesn’t he cross, too? What keeps him there? We keep trying to understand why Jacob does the things he does – why does God keep blessing him? Where is justice? He is a mysterious figure.

            Jacob begins fighting or wrestling this unknown, unnamed person. Once more, he has found himself in a kerfuffle with someone – how will he escape this time? There are many explanations for who this unidentified person might be. Some have said it must be God, as he is blessed at the end. Perhaps it isn’t. Since this creature is afraid of the daylight and appears to be rushing off when the sun rises, some have deemed it a night demon.[1] Can a demon bless? This also sounds strangely familiar to some of the lore that was told in the ancient near east about pagan creatures that would protect the river.[2] If there was some sort of being protecting the river, why were the women and children allowed to cross? Why choose Jacob?

            Jacob insists that the being reveal its name, but we never learn it. This is a good indication it might have been demonic because when one knew the name of a demon, the demon could be controlled.[3] Just like the children’s story Rumplestilskin, where the small being that turns straw into gold places a bet with the woman to guess his name. He has control over the situation until she learns who he is and what he is called. Think of your friends and family – those who know your name have more connection with you than those you pass on the street. Those who know you have more influence.

            Perhaps the creature is not named because of this power struggle, perhaps the name isn’t important. Maybe you’re wondering why any of this matters, because demons aren’t real beings, anyway, you say. What is a demon? Can someone be demonic? The beings in this struggle aren’t necessarily the point, but the struggle itself is very important. How often we struggle with something and we might not be able to name what it is, or take control over it, but we battle internally – sometimes without telling anyone else. A good friend of mine has had anxiety all her life – but she wasn’t diagnosed until her thirties. She said that naming that feeling inside her was important – it set her free in many ways because she could identify what was going on within her. She still battles with anxiety and sees a counselor, but that first step of identifying was so important. Think of a time you’ve had an internal battle with someone else – either when you’ve held a grudge or you think someone else is mad at you. We can sit and stew over it in our minds, making ourselves sick, or we can identify it and talk to the person. Sometimes it isn’t easy, but when that awkward tension is identified, often we are set free from those struggles.

            Not knowing who this being is, Jacob demands a blessing. He is persistent and wants to leave here blessed. Jacob has that childish manner about him in his arguments, so I envision this fight being somewhat childish. I imagine him putting this being in a headlock, maybe giving him noogies and saying, “I want a blessing!!”

            Even though we do not know the name of the being he fights, the being changes Jacob’s name, which is always very significant in the Bible. The names have meaning and it separates a timeline. Here, Jacob is now called “Israel,” or “strives with God.”[4] This perhaps gives a time when someone actually fought back with Jacob – pushing back and challenging him to face himself and his childish ways. Eventually, Jacob is blessed and he says he has seen God’s face here, and names the spot Peniel, or God’s face. He doesn’t say that God is the one he struggles with, but that he has viewed God. When we struggle with others, we may see God, too. It doesn’t mean that God is that person, but that we have seen how God worked through that struggle.

            Jacob also came out of this fight with a permanent injury. The being struck his hip and he still limps afterwards. This impairment is a blessing.[5] As the pain shoots up his leg, he will remember this fight and that God has blessed him. The timing of this passage is interesting, as it falls in the midst of our conversations about inclusivity and disabilities. Rather than seeing a disability as a curse or a punishment, we can see it as a blessing, being a limp of God. We all have scars and wounds in life. Sometimes they are painful reminders, and sometimes they are mementos of our life journeys. We can embrace those disabilities because they make us who we are, who God created us to be.

            The Psalmist asks for a blessing, much like Jacob.  The psalmists were excellent at pleading their cases before God, asking for help and a blessing. The psalmist lays out the situation and asks for God to listen – to respond. “Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit. 2 From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right.” We don’t know what struggle the psalmist faces. We don’t know the struggle many face. Though we know that we all go through them, and that God hears us. Sometimes we wrestle with ourselves, sometimes we wrestle with others, sometimes we battle God. In the end, we seek a blessing – a reassurance that God is with us and we are not alone.

            There is a tale about struggle including two bats. Both creatures fell into a vat of milk and had difficulty escaping. The first bat gave up, assuming he would never escape, and didn’t want to be exhausted only to inevitably die, so he sank to the bottom and died without a fight. The second bat wasn’t willing to give up and decided to die trying. She struggled until she passed out. When she awoke hours later, she was resting nicely on a big log of butter.[6] Her struggles saved her and amounted to a key ingredient in cinnamon rolls.

            Do not be afraid to stand up and demand a blessing. Do not be afraid to face God and call out. God is listening. Though, when you do, be prepared – because you may come out of the struggle limping. Amen.


[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 385.

[2] R. N. Whybray, “Genesis” in The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 59.

[3] Craddock, et. al, 385.

[4] Pauline A. Viviano, Genesis (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985), 98.

[5]Michael S. Beates, Disability and the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway , 2012), 28.

[6] Elias Chacour, We Belong to the Land (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 144.