Genesis 32:1-32 & Matthew 16:13-20

Presence, identity, blessing, limping

So Jacob is on his way home again. After years in exile, during which he has worked for his uncle Laban, been tricked into marrying Leah, and then having to work on to marry Rachael. Then having got caught up in disputes over his wages. In it all God has kept the promise to be with him and to protect him, and now it is time for the fulfilment of the promise to bring him home. So, after a last fall out with Laban he begins the trek home. At first he is confident. The angels are camped with him, protecting him, a demonstration of God’s protection and love. But, then he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with a group of four hundred men. That sounds a lot like an army, and Jacob’s confidence and faith flow into the dust. He is afraid.

So he prays, he reminds God of the promise made to him, and he makes some practical arrangements to pacify Esau. Look brother, I may have stolen your blessing, but look here is the fruit of it that I will give you. Please don’t hurt me.

Having made all the arrangements, sent off the sweeteners, he is left with just his family. Finally he sends them ahead, over the river, and he is left alone in the world, just as he set out, so he returns. Stripped of all that has been added to him in his time away. Alone, in the night time.

I find that it can be difficult when reading a familiar story like this to forget the ending at the beginning. In the pew Bibles, it’s even more difficult, because this section is headed, “Jacob wrestles with God.” But just imagine that that isn’t there, and that you’d never read this story before, and take it slowly. What does it actually say?

“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”

At this stage we do not know who the man is. From the context, and Jacob’s preoccupation with the potential meeting with Esau, we might think that it is Esau, come to meet him, having circumvented the preparations that Jacob had made. We don’t know, and it is clear from the later verses that Jacob didn’t know either. He was beset in the darkness by an unknown assailant and is wrestling for his life. The combat goes on all night, they are evenly matched, neither can prevail or overcome. As the eastern sky begins to lighten, the man has had enough and puts Jacob’s hip out of joint. Even though he can’t stand, Jacob clings on – he will not be defeated.

Finally the man speaks, “Let me go, for it is daybreak”. Jacob responds, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. What is it about blessing that Jacob puts so much importance on it. His father’s blessing was so important to him that he was willing to deceive, trick, lie, put all his family relationships at risk, in order to receive it. This stranger’s blessing is so important to him that he continues to strive for it, despite being crippled by the strife. I wonder sometimes if we have lost sight of the significance of blessing.

The man doesn’t answer directly, but goes off on a different tack, “What is your name.” “Jacob” “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome.”

A change of name. Jacob, literally the one who grasps the heel, and figuratively, the deceiver, the trickster, the supplanter becomes Israel – one who wrestles and overcomes. The old has gone and the new has come. There is a stripping of the old ways of being and of identity and an opening up of a new way of being and of identity. Is what seemed like a tangent actually a response to the request for blessing? Quite possibly. What we also have here is the first clue as to the identity of the stranger, who says that Jacob has struggled with God. When has this happened, except that night?

It seems to me that Jacob picks up that hint with his response, “please tell me your name” But he gets no response. In fact the whole episode tails off, leaving more questions. We are told that the stranger does bless Jacob, but we are given no content of the blessing, which is unusual for Old Testament blessings. We are not given what happens next – presumably Jacob lets him go, but how does the conversation end, does he just disappear, or wander of into the sunrise?

Jacob, however, is in no doubt. He believes that he has seen and wrestled with God. He renames the place, “face of God” He has been in God’s presence and lived, something that was a blessing in itself, but he would always walk with a limp. He was marked by his struggles with God, a humbling permanent reminder of where his blessings came from perhaps?

So, what do we see in this night time struggling? A dawning recognition of the presence of God. A change in name. A blessing and a commission. A man limping away.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Jesus and the disciples are on another road trip, and one evening around the camp fire he sounds out the team on what the gossip is about him. Who is this mysterious man who is healing people and bringing teaching that has such authority. The reports are varied – John the baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.

“But what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

As Simon has been with Jesus, has seen the things that have happened, has wrestled with getting his head round Jesus’ teaching, has nearly drowned getting out of a perfectly good boat in the middle of a lake, so a dawning realisation has come to him as to who this man is. This is God’s chosen one, in fact God’s son himself, come to earth to deliver the people. And what follows this dawning recognition of the presence of God? A change in name.

“You are Peter, the rock”. Actually, to be careful with scripture, this isn’t a change in name. It does seem that Peter was one of Simon’s nicknames before this, and may even have predated his meeting with Jesus, but I think that we can say at least that Jesus gives it new meaning in this conversation. It’s almost as if up to know Simon was known by some of his mates as “Rocky” – perhaps to do with this physique, but now Jesus gives that nickname new significance – he is to be the rock on which the church is to be built. There is a new identity, a new way of being to walk into.

Peter has been blessed by the revelation by God of the presence of God, and now receives the blessing of authority to bind and lose, a blessing of authority that is invested in the church, the gathered people of God, which was built on the foundations of the prophets and apostles, and on the revelation of the presence of God with humanity in Christ.

What do we see here? A dawning recognition of the presence of God. A change in name. A blessing and a commission. But what about the man limping away?

If we read on in the chapter, we see the foreshadowing of the event that will cause Peter to limp for the rest of his days. He tries to persuade Jesus not to go to the cross, and is rebuked by Jesus. He is still wrestling with what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. That wrestling reaches its climax in a courtyard outside the house where Jesus is on trial for his life, and Peter denies even knowing him, and as a cock crows, as Jesus had predicted, so Peter collapses in realisation as his whole being is put out of joint. A man limping away.
So, what of us?

How aware are we of the presence of God? Since the curtain was torn in the temple as Jesus was crucified, we have had free access to the presence of God. Since Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on all believers, the presence of God is with us, in our hearts, where ever we are. I wonder sometimes if I take it for granted, I have lost my wonder at this precious gift. I fail to recognise it, and live in the reality of it.

What about our identity? Many people around the world, when they are baptised, take on new names. I heard of one man in Tanzania whose name meant “Funeral” on baptism he took the name “Christopher”. We’ve lost that tradition in this country, but there is a reality that is still with us. In Christ we have a new identity, a new way of being. It emerges as we continue to walk with Jesus. There is a lot of talk in the media and society today about identity, and one of the problems with all this is that identities are being formed around secondary characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, race, or nationality, rather than the primary characteristic of who people are in God’s sight. It is God who names us and tells us who we are. There is great freedom in this, if we will submit to it.

What of our blessing and commission? Well there are many, but just to pick up that theme of blessing from earlier, when we speak and pray blessing on people and situations, in agreement with other Christians, we speak with the authority of God. This is an authority that we have. Jacob went to all kinds of lengths to secure blessings, and we have the authority to give them. Let us exercise this gift and authority wisely and generously, blessing each other and those around us prayerfully and diligently.

Finally, the limp. I’ve heard it said that you should never trust a person who doesn’t walk with a limp. There is a perhaps a bit of a paradox here. We talk about God being our healing, celebrate Jesus as one who brings wholeness and healing to people, and we pray for healing for each other. On Ash Wednesday evening we will be bringing to God some of things that cause us to limp and laying them down. And yet, we see value in a limp. There is something about the humanity and humility of being reminded that we are not God, that we are dependant. There is something about God’s opportunities to work power through weakness. Perhaps this is something for us to continue to wrestle with.

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