Proper 13A

July 28, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 14: 13-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 32:22-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Sample Sermon


    This week, for a change of pace, I present an entire sermon I once wrote on this Old Testament Year A Lectionary passage.  I hope it sparks something in you should you be preparing to preach on this same well-known story in Genesis.   ~ Scott Hoezee ~


    And so it has come to this. Jacob, the heel-grasper, the schemer, the wheeler and dealer, the sneak, the crook, the lie, the cheat: he’s coming home. Deception and wheedling stand on either side of the last twenty years, like bookends on Jacob’s life. He fled Canaan having deceived his old father, Isaac, and having robbed his twin brother Esau of the all-important paternal blessing. It had been an ugly little scheme, quite literally cooked up by Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, with Jacob’s sly complicity and help naturally. Esau wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and Isaac had been rendered vulnerable by old age and the bad eyesight that can accompany one’s later years. Both were easy marks for people as deviously clever as Jacob and his mother.


    All it took to make Isaac think that Jacob was Esau was a little musk, a little goat fur, and the willingness to tell a bold-faced lie. It worked, of course. With palsied, trembling hands, old Isaac had reached out and fluttered his ancient fingers over Jacob’s treacherous head, giving him the blessing that belonged rightfully to Esau. Jacob got the blessing but he lost his home in the bargain. Esau’s fury was real and raw, and so before she would let her elder son turn her beloved younger boy into mincemeat, Rebekah sent Jacob packing.


    Now Jacob is coming back home but he’s still running. Lately it had been Uncle Laban, now also Jacob’s father-in-law, whom Jacob had fleeced in a multitude of ways the last two decades. Of course, old Laban wasn’t exactly innocent–it seems as if pulling dirty tricks was something of a family tradition in this clan, and so Laban had scammed Jacob at least as often as Jacob had scammed Laban. But now, having recently wriggled out of a noose Laban had dangled in front of Jacob, this now wealthy man was coming home.


    But what about Esau? Did he still bear a grudge? Had Esau whiled away his time the last two decades fantasizing ever-more creative ways to murder his younger brother (if only he could ever find him again)? Jacob would hardly blame Esau if this proved to be the case. Even so, however, Jacob figured that he could just possibly trick Esau out of even his desires for revenge. Jacob may have fled years earlier with nothing but the clothes on his back, but he was returning with vast flocks and herds. Jacob was convinced he could talk his way out of just about anything, and if you combined his slick rhetoric with a hefty bribe, why maybe it would all be enough to extinguish the fires of Esau’s rage.


    Jacob is a man of conflict. He lived by his wits. He got ahead by scratching and clawing his way to the top, and he was by no means adverse to let the ends justify the means. He was an ancient Machievelli sort of fellow who would do whatever was necessary to feather his own nest, save his own hide, and outsmart his every opponent. He had gotten the best of Esau years earlier without even breaking a sweat. Somehow or another he’d figure out a way to get the best of him now, too. He was not about to die on the banks of the River Jabbok, impaled on the tip of some spear Esau had been sharpening for twenty years for just this occasion.


    So as Genesis 32 opens, Jacob is like a military general in a war room. He’s got maps on the wall with pins stuck in them, schematics rolled out on a table in front of him. With a cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, Jacob starts to spit out orders to his soldiers and hired hands. “OK, we’ll divide up the whole clan into two groups. If one gets attacked, the other at least can survive by outflanking Esau while he’s distracted by the battle.” Meanwhile, one of his reconnaissance servants comes in from the field with some intelligence. “My lord,” the man says breathlessly, “we’ve scouted up ahead and Esau is heading straight this way with an army of no less than 400 men!”


    Jacob gets a little green around the gills. “Time to pray, lads!” he exclaims. And so he goes before Yahweh in prayer, thanking him for his mercies in enriching Jacob in recent years but also recruiting Yahweh to his side of the conflict. “Don’t forget, O God, that you gave me a kind of blank-check promise back at Bethel years ago. You said you’d protect and prosper me, remember! Well, I’m cashing the check! Save me from Esau’s wrath!”


    Having now prayed, it was back to the war room for General Jacob. He calls in five of his best herdsmen, assigns each of them to take a herd of animals, and then to proceed, in staggered formation, directly toward Esau. “When you see Esau, tell him that I am coming along, too, but that in the meanwhile, this herd of cattle is a gift.” Jacob very cleverly released these five groups such that for the better part of a day, Esau would receive yet another gift about once every hour or so. The idea seems to have been that he would steadily bombard Esau with goodness and so in this way, hopefully, chip away at any lingering anger Esau may have been harboring.


    Again, Jacob is living by his wits. He has prayed to God but he has also very much taken matters into his own hands to see if he can concoct a way out of what was increasingly looking like a dangerous military encounter. Once these plans were all activated, all Jacob could do was wait. He felt the need to be alone, and anyway was desperate to save the lives of his wives and children. So he sends them on ahead while he stays at the River Jabbok, contemplating his life and his fate on what could just possibly be the last night of his life.


    That’s when it happened: from out of the shadows of the night (which is another way of saying, from out of nowhere) a strange and strong man jumps Jacob. Was it Esau? A vagrant robber? A demon? Whoever it was was plenty strong. Jacob threw his best punches and wrestled the man to the ground more than once, but each time he wriggled free and sent Jacob flying back into the mud and the muck of the river bank. It went on like this for who knows how long but it was surely hours (and it seemed like forever). As the eastern horizon started to pink up with the first hints of dawn, Jacob’s hair was matted with blood and mud and sweat. His muscles ached and screamed for rest and relief. But he wasn’t about to be defeated. Yet just as he is getting ready to slug the man yet again, the man simply brushes his hand over Jacob’s hip, and immediately Jacob feels a searing, wrenching pain. His hip has been dislocated just like that, popped right out of its socket–he heard it go. Even still he doesn’t let the stranger go. But then the man at long last cries “Let me go before the sun comes up!” But Jacob says, “No. Not unless you bless me.”


    What did Jacob mean by that exactly? Why ask for a blessing? You’d expect him to ask, “Who in the world are you, fella!?” You’d expect him to say, “If I let you go, do you promise to get out of here and leave me alone?” You’d expect him to ask, “Why did you attack me to begin with?” All such comments or questions seem logical. But a blessing? Who ends a wrestling match that way? Jacob does. Even in this encounter with this dark stranger, Jacob doesn’t want to come out empty handed. It wouldn’t be enough to pummel this man unconscious and so win the match. No, he wants something to take away from all this, something he can, as it were, put in the bank. And anyway, after that thing with his hip, Jacob was starting to wonder just who it was he had pinned to the riverbank here.


    But he doesn’t get a blessing, at least not immediately. Instead the stranger asks, “What’s your name?” “Jacob.” “Well,” the man says, spitting a bit of sand out of his mouth, “not anymore. From now on your name is ‘Israel,’ the one who struggles with God.” “Who are you?” Jacob pleads. “What is your name?” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replies, which seems to be his way of saying, “I think you know full well who I am.” Indeed, Jacob does. This is God he’s been rolling around in the dirt with these past hours. Far from being upset by this rather gruff treatment, God winks at Jacob, says, “Bless you, lad,” and then disappears from underneath Jacob, leaving Jacob face down in the muck with one whale of a sore hip.


    “Peniel,” Jacob says as he slowly picks himself up off the ground. “Peniel–I’ll call this place ‘God’s Face’ because I think I just saw God face to face and yet I’m still alive!” Hard as it was to believe after all this drama, Jacob had other business that was still pressing in on him. Esau was surely getting close by now, and so Jacob cleans himself up as best he can and then hobbles off toward the rising sun. He’s got a lifelong limp that would remind him of this bizarre encounter. With every step he took from that time forward Jacob would remember the night that forever put him in his place.


    Because, you see, God waited until just about the moment Jacob thought he had won. God waited until Jacob was nearly certain that his own wits and strength had once again prevailed. God could have wrenched Jacob’s hip out of joint the moment he first leapt at him from the shadows. But he didn’t. He let this wrestling match go on for hours. He let Jacob think he was winning. And then, only then, did he defeat Jacob.


    You know, it’s one thing to be defeated but quite another to lose after you had already started to savor the sweet smell of victory. If your basketball team loses a game by a score of 76 to 32, that’s a bummer of course but at least you saw it coming the whole game. But if your team leads by a comfortable margin the whole game only to suddenly lose the thing quite literally in the last two minutes, well, that’s when you see basketball players sitting on the bench looking not just defeated but dazed. They were so sure they had this one in the bag. In their minds, they had already won. “We can’t lose,” the players had been thinking for four whole quarters of play. And then they lose anyway, and it seems somehow worse than an ordinary defeat.


    Jacob was like that. About the time he thought he had come out on top yet again, bam! He lost. And he lost in such a way that he knew the whole thing had been rigged from the start. He never had a chance. Not all the cunning, wits, brawn, and craftiness in the world could have won this match. And so Jacob is dazed by how easily he lost after all, dazed that it was God himself who did all this, dazed that even so, he got blessed.


    He got the best blessing ever (far more important than the blessing he had snookered his father out of years before) not by earning it, not by capturing it, not by scamming it. He got the best blessing ever by grace. By getting defeated, he somehow won after all. This was, in Frederick Buechner’s memorable phrase, a “magnificent defeat” because by losing he won. By getting defeated, he realized that the best things in life are gifts of grace. And if he had to limp the rest of his life to keep on recalling that with each lurching step he took, that was OK. The lesson of grace was not something he wanted to forget in any event.


    The Lectionary ends this famous story here, as do most considerations of it.    But it would be a crying shame to not peer ahead into Genesis 33 to see the utterly moving, grace-filled, spectacular event that takes place next when Jacob encounters Esau at long last.   As usual, Jacob begins with his wits, with careful posturing.    And so he puts his wife and children up front, hoping that maybe even a completely furious Esau would think twice about slaughtering mothers and kids. Then Jacob himself steps forward, bows down to the ground again and again, and begins to speak in his very well-practiced, long-term habit of ingratiating, oily speech. He calls Esau his “lord” and reminds him of all the gifts Jacob sent on ahead.


    But like his struggles with God the night before, so with Esau: all this posturing was for naught. It was unnecessary. The twin brother Jacob faced was not angry, was not bent on revenge, and had not come out to slaughter his brother or anyone else. He had long since forgiven his brother. He had even missed the squirrely little guy over the years. And so he greets Jacob not with a balled-up fist but with open arms; not with fiery eyes and sneering lips but with tear-filled eyes and laughing lips. They hug. They weep. And Esau says, “I don’t want your gifts. I don’t need your flocks or herds. It’s you I want back in my life, dear brother. Just you.”


    And that’s when Jacob says it. He looks at Esau: ruddy, hairy, gap-toothed Esau. He looks at his brother: still not the brightest light you’d ever meet, a bit of a bumpkin, truth be told. He looks at Esau: good old Hairy, red hair and beard flying all over the place as though the man had never heard of a comb. He looks at Esau, this Esau, this man, this brother, and says, “To look at you is to see the face of God.” Jacob had just come from a place he named “God’s Face” and now, using identical words in Hebrew, he meets up with his brother and once again says, “God’s Face! You have God’s Face,” and considering what he had just been through, you get the feeling that Jacob knew what he was talking about in applying this lovely label to Esau!


    Because what did he see in Esau that reminded him of what he had just seen at the River Jabbok, at Peniel? Grace. Mercy. Goodness. Jacob had spent days preparing for this encounter, making all kinds of plans and expending all kinds of nervous energy, just as he had done the night before in wrestling hour after hour with the stranger in the dark. But as with that stranger, so now with Esau: it had all been finally unnecessary. The grace of God and the grace of Esau meant that striving was unnecessary, cunning was of no use. Jacob couldn’t get the best thing in life by striving for it. He just had to receive it as a gift of grace.


    The nation that would ultimately bear the new name God gave Jacob, Israel, would struggle to remember this in the coming centuries. The temptation to get ahead by one’s own power and wits is always real. We face it, too. And let’s just admit that when it comes to the goodies of this life–wealth, fame, power, prestige, glamour–the mentality behind the phrase, “the early bird catches the worm” works pretty well. If you’re willing to fight for them, you just maybe can get “happiness” and success the way the world defines those things. But love, joy, and peace at the last . . . well, those are gifts of God that all issue from the one font of grace. As our passage from this morning reminded us, you need to lose your life first to get that life back again from the hand of God–from the nail-pierced hand of the Savior. We need to be crucified with Christ, defeated with Jesus. But it’s a magnificent defeat. It’s a defeat as the world defines it but a victory as God and God’s gospel define it.


    The face of God. It’s the face of grace, and it can be spied by us in all kinds of places. Sometimes it’s the mud-encrusted visage of the one we’ve struggled with our whole lives. Sometimes it’s the gap-toothed, silly grin of an Esau-type who doesn’t give us what we have coming to us for the dumb things we’ve done but who instead loves us and forgives us anyway. But mostly it’s that face framed by a crown of thorns with, as the old hymn says, “sorrow and love flowing mingled down.” That’s the truest face of God.


    By the grace of this Savior, Peniel is where you and I live every day. Because even as one day Jacob hobbled away on a bum hip, limping into the sunrise of a new day dawning, so on another morning a most wonderful man limped into the Easter dawn, walking gingerly on still-pierced feet. He bore on his raised body the marks of this world’s defeat, changed by the alchemy of grace into our most glorious victory. In the face of what he did, we are all of us undone. We can’t do what he did but can only receive by grace what he gives. It’s the gospel way: the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of a loving God–the one defeat that alone gives victory.


    (I acknowledge Frederick Buechner’s sermon, “The Magnificent Defeat” from the sermon collection by the same name, for some of the imagery and language, especially in the closing few paragraphs.)

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 17: 1-7, 15

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 9: 1-5

    Author: Stan Mast