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Seeing God’s Face, August 6, 2017

Seeing God’s Face

I’m going to continue thinking with you about these wonderful stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The stories about Israel’s patriarchs are stories about Israel’s origins.

Now if you’re anything like me, you probably grew up thinking that these Bible stories are salutary tales about Biblical heroes—you know like, David and Goliath, or today’s story about Jacob wrestling with God. I was taught that these heroes could inspire us with their example.

I no longer think that way. The characters in the Bible are flawed human beings like you and me. They get some things right. Much more often, however, they screw up.

These stories also show us that theology is not tidy. It is worked out in the day to day lives of God’s people. Theology is a living thing for us.

Last week, I was sitting in the choir, and Joel said, “That story about Jacob being tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah, and then finally marrying Rachel as well, and fathering children by both of them, as well as their maids … that story feels a lot like what’s been happening in the courts here with Bountiful.”

He was right. These Bible stories feel very contemporary. They are very similar to the stories of our lives. The names and the places change, but the stories are much the same, because we too are trying to figure out how God is present in our lives.

So let me remind you of two important things as we read these stories.

First of all, they are stories. They didn’t start as “Holy Scripture”. They likely started as stories told around the fires at night as ancient Israelites remembered their ancestors. These are family stories.

The second very important thing is that these stories are not about what God actually said and did; they are stories about what Israel believed God said and did. They are theological stories, and we tell these stories over and over again as a way of remembering that the same God continues to be active in the life of God’s people. That’s why these stories have such a contemporary feel. They are as much about us as they are about our ancestors.

So let’s dive into the story about Jacob.

Jacob’s not a nice guy. Even his name means “heel” or “cheater”. Jacob goes through life depending on his own wits. He doesn’t care who he steps on to get ahead. He is a liar, a cheat, a con man, a trickster. In short, Jacob is a jerk.

He was born a twin, behind Esau. The story is that he grabbed Esau’s heel in the birth canal, as if to get out first. When they were young men, he stole Esau’s birthright. His mother Rebekah helped him trick his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. As you can imagine, Esau was royally ticked off, and threatened to kill Jacob, so he ran away. What a guy!

He stayed with uncle Laban’s family. He fell in love with Rachel, and agreed to work 7 years to marry her. At the end of the 7 years of labour, Laban tricked him and substituted Rachel’s older sister Leah. Jacob had to work another 7 years for Rachel. As you might imagine, the two wives didn’t get along; on top of it, Rachel couldn’t bear children, and Leah lorded it over her.

The short story is that Jacob fathered 11 sons and one daughter by three women—Leah, her maid, and Rachel’s maid. It really does sound a lot like Bountiful!

So far, it’s a rollicking good story. You can imagine the fun Jacob’s descendants would have as they told this story around their fires at night. This is the man who started it all! This is their ancestor! What a guy!

Jacob grew rich, mostly at his uncle Laban’s expense. He juggled the accounts, breeding the flocks in such a way that Jacob’s herds grew and Laban’s herds declined. What a guy!

Jacob has made another enemy; it’s time to run away again, but he finds himself between a rock and a hard place: Laban? Or Esau?

He decides to go home. On the way, Jacob sends a servant to scout out the terrain ahead; the servant reports that Esau is coming with 400 men. Afraid for his life, Jacob sends his family and all he has ahead, placing them between Esau and himself. It’s a real act of courage, don’t you think? What a guy!

And now he’s left all alone. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he is jumped by a man who wrestles with him the whole night long.

Now, many interpreters say that the anonymous wrestler is God. But the text never actually says that. “A man wrestled with him until daybreak.” So who is this man? Is it really God? Or is it someone else?

After all, Jacob has made lots of enemies—Esau and Laban, to begin with. Given Jacob’s behaviour, there were likely more than a few other enemies.

Or is this a story about Jacob wrestling with himself, with his own demons, with his own grasping and malicious way of being? All have been suggested. The text doesn’t make it clear; it only says “a man”.

The wrestling match continues all night. Just as the sun is about to rise, the man cheats. He strikes Jacob in the hip, ripping the socket out of joint. Forever after, Jacob will have a limp.

The man asks Jacob to let him go, since it is almost daybreak; but Jacob refuses unless the man gives him a blessing.

Jacob gets his blessing, and his name is changed to Israel because “you have striven with God and humans and you have prevailed.” For the first time, God is named in the story. And Jacob names the place “Peniel” which means, “I have seen God face–to–face and lived to tell the story.”

Jacob is the one who names this wrestler as God. But after everything he has done, do we believe him? Can we really believe this liar, this cheat, this con man?

Nevertheless, Jacob has won. He has his blessing. He claims to have seen the face of God and lived to tell the tale.

But here’s the interesting thing. It’s not included in the little snippet we read, but when Esau and Jacob finally meet, Esau has forgotten all about what Jacob did to him. He doesn’t hold a grudge. The two brothers embrace and weep with joy, and Jacob says to Esau, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Seeing the face of God. There’s that phrase again. Where do we see the face of God in this story? In the wrestling match where Jacob prevailed? Or in the face of his brother whom he wronged so long ago who took him into his embrace?

For me, here is the good news in this story. We see the face of God in the face of our family, our neighbours, our friends. More to the point, we see the face of God in the least of these.

It sounds very close to what Jesus taught us. We see the face of God in each other. We see God in “the least of these our brothers and sisters”.

It is what Jesus taught, but let’s be quite clear about this. It’s not always easy to see God in our neighbours. It’s hard sometimes to look past their faults, or the way they have hurt us or betrayed us. It’s hard to love our neighbours sometimes.

Maybe that’s why we keep telling this story of Jacob wrestling, and then continuing on to meet Esau after 20 years. We need to learn again and again to look for the face of God in the face of those whom we meet day in and day out. In a sense, loving our neighbours is a lot like struggling with God.

That’s why we pass the peace in worship. It’s not a time to gossip or to catch up with each other. We pass the peace as a sign of reconciliation, a sign that Christ is present with us, that God is there in the form of the person beside you, in front of you, behind you. We pass the peace, hoping to catch a glimpse of the face of God in the faces of our neighbours. We reach out in hope that somehow God is present in these very ordinary people. We look at each other and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” We recognize God in each other. We seek the face of Jesus in everyone we meet. We pray that they may also see the face of Jesus in us.

I suspect Jacob had to wrestle that night so that he would be able to see the face of God in Esau. I suspect that as we continue to tell this story, we learn to define ourselves as a people who refuse to let go of God until we learn to see God in each other.

We will fight with God and demand that God bless us. As we do so, we will be changed. As we are transformed, we may be damaged. But that transformation will also lead to our healing.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

August 6, 2017 (9th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18)

Genesis 32: 22–31

Romans 9: 1–5

Matthew 14: 22–33