“Crossing the Jabbok”
The Sanctuary Sermon for 7/26/20
The Sanctuary Sermon for 7/26/20
“Crossing the Jabbok” Genesis 32:22-31
We’re back in Genesis with Jacob today. He’s burned all kinds of bridges when he left, but now he’s trying to get back home. And as we all know, there’s no place like home. We’re all trying to get back home. I tried to recall how many times I’ve moved in my life from the time I left ‘home’ to go to Mt. Vernon. From the time I left, I counted 14 moves in 20 years. That’s a lot of boxes and when you’re moving your ‘stuff’, boxes become a hot commodity. I finally unpacked them all and landed on Pyle Rd. in Amherst where I’ve been for the last 23 years. Seinfeld has a good take on how important boxes are when you’re moving.
He says, “When you’re moving, your whole world becomes boxes. All you think about is boxes. Boxes, where are there boxes? You just wander down the street going in and out of stores. Are there boxes here? Have you seen any boxes? I mean it’s all you think about. You can’t even talk to people because you can’t concentrate. Shut up, I’m looking for boxes. Just after a while you become like really into it and you can smell them. You walk into a store. There’s boxes here. Don’t tell me you don’t have boxes. Dammit, I can smell them. I’m like, I’m obsessed…You could be at a funeral. Everyone’s mourning, crying around, and you’re looking at the casket. That’s a nice box. Does anyone know where that guy got that box? When he’s done with it do you think I could get that? It’s got some nice handles on it.
And that’s what death is really. It’s the last big move of your life. The hearse is like the moving van. The pale bearers are your close friends, the only ones you could ask to help you with a big move like that. The casket is that great, perfect box you’ve been waiting for your whole life. The only problem is, once you find it, you’re in it.” Hmmmph.
Okay. We better find our text.
22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. 23 After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions.
24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. 25 When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 “What is your name?” the man asked.
He replied, “Jacob.”
28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”
29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.
“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip.
At some point we all leave home. In a sense we become homeless. We leave behind the way life was. We move out of the familiar ways and places that once housed our lives. Sometime this is a welcome move and other times, not so much. Some of this homelessness is a natural part of life. Growing up or growing old are both a process of leaving home.
Often, the circumstances of life dictate a move. It could be a hurricane or a tornado, a wedding, a death of some sort, a career opportunity, or going off to school or the military. Faithfulness led Abram and Sarai to leave their home for a new land and a new identity. They became Abraham and Sarah. Disobedience caused Adam and Eve to leave their garden paradise to scratch out a living. Sadly, we inherited their identity and have been scratching out ever since.
While leaving home involves physical or geographical changes, it’s equally a spiritual condition, it’s a movement and change deep within our soul. Regardless of how or why it happens, our wandering disrupts life and leaves us longing to return home. Everyone wants to go home and that requires boxes. After all, as Dorthy reminded us, there’s no place like home.
Some say you can never go back home. I think that’s right. I remember coming back ‘home’ to visit mom and dad after one of my umpteenth moves. We always had good visits, they were never bad, just different. Once we leave home it won’t ever be like it was before. We can’t undo the past or turn back the clock, we can’t keep things or people the way they used to be. Yet, we are not destined to be homeless. That’s never been God’s intention.
In a paradoxical way, we leave home so that we might return home. We never go back as the same person we were when we left. The journey home changes us. T.S. Elliott expresses it beautifully in the fourth quarter (back nine) of his final poem, Little Gidding:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Over and over throughout the Old Testament God promises to bring his people home; to a new land, the promised land. You and I are heirs to that promise. Jacob is an heir to that promise, a promise that was first made to his grandfather, Abraham. Sometimes that promise may be all that sustains us in our homeless wanderings.
The fulfillment of God’s promise is our journey home. This new home, however, the promised land, is more than a physical place or a geographical location. It’s a spiritual home of wholeness, healing, and peace. That doesn’t mean that the journey home is necessarily easy or without struggle. To the contrary, the journey home always brings us to the River Jabbok.
That’s where Jacob found himself at high noon, or more aptly at midnight. He ran away from home after buying his brother Esau’s inheritance and stealing the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the firstborn son. He then worked 14 years for his uncle Laban to get two wives, one of whom he didn’t even really want. Now Jacob wants to go home as he stands at the last river to cross. The way home always brings us to the ford of the Jabbok. We each have our own Jabbok that we must cross.
Jacob sends his wives, his maids, his sons and boxes on across the river. He, however, stays behind. Always the schemer, he sends messengers with gifts to Esau to pave the way home, and with good reason. Esau was planning to kill Jacob when Jacob high tailed it out. The messengers return but the news is not good. Esau is on his way to meet Jacob and he has four hundred men with him.
Jacob cannot buy his way out this time. He’s stuck. In front of him is Esau. Behind him is his past; the lies, the deception, the stolen blessing; the home he left behind. It’s the midnight hour and Jacob is alone on the banks of the Jabbok. It’s a lonely place, a dark place, a place of struggle and wrestling.
And so, all night long Jacob wrestled with a being. Who was it? Was it God? An angel? Esau? Was it his uncle, Laban? Maybe it was Leah. Hmmmph. Was it Isaac, his father? Was Jacob wrestling with himself? Was he wrestling with his past? His future? His identity? His faith? Perhaps the best and maybe the only answer to those questions is, “Yes. Yes, that’s who it was.” Regardless, it was a face to face meeting with God. An actual come to Jesus moment.
In this nighttime wrestling Jacob is both wounded and blessed. The two always seem to go together, blessings and wounds. His old life and identity as Jacob, the heel grabber, however, served him well. He held on to this man of the night long enough to receive a real blessing, not a stolen blessing, but one through which the promises of God will be fulfilled, and Jacob will be changed.
Daybreak comes and Jacob is no longer Jacob, the deceiver and the supplanter. He has been renamed and reborn. He is now Israel, the one who struggles with and prevails against God. Jacob does not defeat God. He prevails. He stays in the struggle until a new day dawns and he receives the blessing that was always his. That is faithfulness. That’s the way home. That is our work at our own Jabbok—to just stay with it.
By now we know that Jabbok is not a place unique to Jacob. It’s a place most of us know well. Jabbok can be the struggle with an addiction or the proverbial thorn that’s never removed. It’s #Melastrong. It’s getting up every morning to grief and loss that are unbearable. It is tossing and turning through the night trying to figure out what to do next. It’s visiting day after day at the bedside of a loved one who is losing instead of gaining. It’s faithfulness in the routine ordinariness of life, work, family, and maintaining relationships. It’s a week, a year, a lifetime of prayer and doing what’s right but not ever seeing the final result.
The River Jabbok is experienced in a thousand different ways. It is the nighttime of our lives and the way home. It’s the place where we are wounded, renamed, blessed, and made a new person. It is a holy place. That’s why Jacob renames Jabbok. He now calls it Peniel, the place where we see God and our life is preserved. We’ve seen the Lord and he’s alive.
We each have our own story of standing on the banks of the Jabbok at midnight. We can probably quickly name the wounds we’ve received there and describe how we now limp through life. In the midst of the struggle and the pain of being wounded it’s hard to see or trust the presence of a blessing. Sometimes it’s too dark to see.
But whatever you do, don’t let go. Hold on. Jabbok will soon give way to Peniel. A new day is dawning and there is a blessing for you. It doesn’t mean life is magically fixed or that we go back to the old familiar place. It means God is faithful. It means we can now move forward. We are blessed, renamed, and made a new person; free to cross over, and go home.
And we all want to go home. Let’s all click our heels, after all, there’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
We don’t need no stinking boxes.
This is the Word of the Lord for the day.