Sermon: “Just Barely Hanging On”
I have spent the last couple days at Cross Wind, one of our American Baptist camping and conference centers. At our region’s annual gathering, I have heard some amazing testimonies from missionaries working near and far. I have learned of some of the creative ways other ABC churches are partnering in God’s mission in this world. I have witnessed folks stepping up in amazing ways as we challenged one another with this simple truth: “You can’t out-give God.”
And this morning, I am dog tired.
Nearly two months ago, as I sketched out the bones for this sermon, I had no idea how prophetic the sermon title was going to be today: “Just barely hanging on.”
Thankfully, we all have the promise of God expressed by the apostle Paul in 2Cor 12:10: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Jacob knows what it’s like to be just barely hanging on. This story falls in the middle of one of those times in his life. It’s one of those “when it rains it pours” kind of things, as life goes from bad to worse before we even realize what has happened.
The story I read a moment ago is also one of those rare stories in the bible that happen within other stories. It’s like in Luke 8, where Jesus is on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter, but is stopped in his tracks by a woman so desperate for healing and so full of faith that she is certain even touching the muddy hem of his clothes will bring her relief. There are several such interrupting stories, and they all demand our deep reflection and consideration of the ways God often interrupts our own lives and stories.
Here in Genesis, the broader context of this morning’s reading is a bit like the OT version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Jacob is no role model; his life is one of conflict from beginning to end—much of it on account of his own doing. At the point where our story picks up in Genesis 32, Jacob has twice taken advantage of his slightly older twin brother, with the result of stealing his inheritance. He has connived with his mother, in order to deceive his own father, in order to take the only thing his brother really had left. This, of course, succeeds in further driving a wedge in the already-broken marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. In fact, this conspiracy of theirs so completely destroys the family that Jacob has had to go on the lam to prevent his brother from killing him in angry revenge.
But while in a land abroad, Jacob meets another trickster—Laban—whose beautiful daughter Jacob falls in love with. But Laban gets the best of Jacob, deceiving him into working many years and marrying not one but two of his daughters. Jacob—the master con man he sees himself—cannot bear to have been himself swindled, so he works up a bamboozle of massive proportions—one that pilfers almost all of Laban’s wealth. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Laban’s own heirs, so once again Jacob is forced to run away in order to save his own skin.
But even back then, Murphy’s Law prevailed. For Jacob painted himself into a corner. He has burned so many bridges (perhaps even literally) that he has to pass through his brother Esau’s territory. Steeling himself, Jacob prepares for the immanent confrontation. He sends ahead gifts to soften Esau’s heart, signs of Jacob’s wealth to impress him, and Jacob’s own family members (perhaps to protect them)—leaving Jacob himself all alone by the River Jabbok.
I already told you this is sort of the OT version of the parable of the Prodigal Son. When in chapter 33 Esau sees his no-good scoundrel of a brother Jacob, he (like the father in the parable) runs “to meet him. He embraced Jacob, kissed his neck, and they both cried” (Gen 33:4 VOICE). Jacob (like the prodigal son) expresses the hope he will find favor in his relative’s eyes, and Esau (like the loving father) continues to insist that forgiveness existed long, long already.
Jacob’s Dark Night of the Soul
But today—this morning—right here and right now—we are not there yet. Before the sun rises and togetherness and forgiveness rule the day, Jacob must have his dark night of the soul. This story must be interrupted.
Jacob is alone, afraid, guilty, and realizes he may not live another day. He is expecting a fight, and when a figure suddenly appears out of the shadows, Jacob most certainly believes it to be Esau come to kill him. He lashes out at the figure in the dark, and when he too late realizes this is not his brother, he is locked in a battle he may not win.
Here too, Jacob exhibits tremendous strength, even in weakness. After some time, his opponent manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip—yet even with the excruciating pain of that injury, Jacob does not let go. The unearthly being with whom Jacob wrestles cannot break free.
And once again, when down and out, Jacob schemes a way to come out ahead. He may never walk right again, but by golly he’s going to ensure something good comes of this. A blessing is offered. A new name—a new life—is given. And Jacob and his family will never be the same.
That’s the way it always is when we wrestle with God. Wrestling with God always—always—leaves a mark. But it also brings about blessings and life we cannot conceive of.
You Should See the Other Guy
Even though it’s not recorded in the Bible, I imagine when Jacob and Esau finally meet again, once the tension is broken and tears begin to dry up at last; when Esau finally gets a good look at Jacob, he asks him: “What on earth happened to you?” And Jacob—in that Hollywood way that surrounds so much of his life—he almost has to respond: “You should see the other guy.”
I watch people, and I listen to stories; and there are so many around us right now who are just barely hanging on. Maybe we’ve gotten the raw end of the deal over and over again in life; or maybe we (like Jacob) just can’t stop sabotaging ourselves. Most of us who struggle have experienced a fair share of both. We’re down and out. We feel weak. Empty. Afraid. Ashamed.
One way or another we’ve been painted into this corner of existence and we just can’t find another way. Maybe we too are in the middle of a dark night. Maybe we too have (ourselves) been darkened by the long shadows of the valley of the shadow of death.
Sometimes, in these moments, when God comes to us, he seems like one more adversary. We’ve been kicked and beaten down so often that we instinctually swing and kick back when God grabs our arm to tend our wounds. We don’t know who we’re fighting or why we’re fighting—only that life has always been a fight.
Sometimes, in these moments, the ones we fight the hardest are the ones who love us the most.
A Better Man?
You know, one of the things I find interesting here is that if we just pulled our scripture reading out of context and showed it to the average, unfamiliar person, I don’t believe they would think Jacob was any better off at the end. He got the crap beaten out of him and he will now walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and all for what? A nickname and some kind words?
Of course, those of us familiar with these stories know the rest of the story, as the late great Paul Harvey would say. Jacob receives much more than a blessing and a nickname—he receives a destiny, and it’s one that Jacob successfully lives into.
This, I believe, is the moment where Jacob truly becomes a believer in God. This is the moment when the faith of his parents becomes his own, when the God he has worshipped becomes the God he trusts.
Even all these years later, this is still the way that many come to faith.
They find themselves down and out—just barely hanging on.
Some sort of someone emerges out of the shadows—perhaps even getting attacked themselves in the process—yet they also won’t give up: they love too much.
In the face of fear and shame is spoken the resurrection message of love and life, of blessing and destiny where none could have even been imagined.
A new day then dawns as yet another believer limps into the light, forever changed by this encounter with our persistent and transforming God.
Does Jacob end up better off? Oh yes! And so are we who follow in the way of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
There was a day—many years ago—when Jesus was himself just barely hanging on. He was barely hanging onto life as he was most certainly hanging on a cross.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—that is what he said, both about those present, and (I believe) about you and me (Lk 23:34). We too have been hopelessly deceived into sin, unable to break free from the bonds of death and the destruction around us.
But our God makes a way where there is no way—Jesus proves to be the key that opens every door—and we (even sinful, violent, selfish, lazy we) have the chance to emerge into the bright dawn of the new day of God’s Kingdom.
To God be the glory. Amen.