Oscar Wilde once said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. In other words, no matter how good we may be, we’ve never been perfect and no matter how many mistakes we make, we’ve got a chance, with God’s grace, to try again. There are many great examples of this saying to be found in scripture and one of the best is the life of the star of our Old Testament lesson: Jacob. The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac and the father of the sons who will become leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob plays a significant role in the history of the people of God. However, Jacob was not always the upstanding fellow that such a place in history might make us think he must have been.
From the very beginning of his life he was grasping for the golden ring of success and trying to get ahead. Jacob had a twin brother, Esau, who was the first born of the two. Yet Jacob follows behind him so closely, trying to get ahead of him, he was even grabbing onto his brother’s heel. In fact, the name Jacob means ‘one who grasps’ or ‘trickster’. It’s an expression indicating one who tries to take another’s place.
Tricky Jake’s grasping didn’t stop there either. Years later, his impulsive brother Esau trades his birthright to him for a hot meal. Some time after that, Jacob tricks his father into giving him, the second born son, the blessing and inheritance that rightly belonged to the first born son by disguising himself as Esau and deceiving his elderly, blind father. Jacob is certainly not the most trustworthy guy.
Later on, Jacob meets his conniving match in his father in law who manages, in a kind of poetic justice, to trick Jacob by bait and switch tactics. Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel and he agrees to work for seven years in order to marry her. When the seven years are up, Jacob gets married and he discovers the next day that he was not given Rachel as his bride! It turns out that he has married her sister, Leah. Jacob must then work an additional seven years to get the wife he wanted. That was a pretty dirty trick he fell prey to, but we do not need to feel too sorry for Jacob because not only does he end up with twelve sons between these two wives, he also manages to manipulate a good deal of property out of the hands of his father in law. That was, of course, before had to leave and return to his father’s land because his shady dealings finally caught up with him. For some reason strange reason, his father in law was not particularly trusting of him.
God tells Jacob, it is time to go home. So he and his two wives and everyone in his household pack up and go.
It is interesting that, in spite of Jacob’s shady dealings, manipulation and grasping at success, God is still with him. Actually, Jacob has some very interesting experiences with God and divine things. Jacob prays, looks for God in many places and, in his own way, wants to be faithful.
Once, long before this text for today, when he is on the journey to find a wife, he has an amazing dream. In this dream he sees a ladder going up to heaven and angels going up and down this ladder. In this dream God speaks to him and says: I am the God of Abraham and Isaac. (That’s a title God uses that will one day become: I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.) The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendents; and your descendents shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your descendents. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you.
Sound familiar? It might because it is the same covenant promise that God made to Abraham. In this dream of Jacob’s God renews the covenant he once made with Jacob’s grandfather. This is quite a surprise because it means that God chose to bless all the families of the earth, all peoples, through a sneaky, manipulative, grasping, very flawed man.
So why does all this matter to us? Well, for several reasons really. For one thing, Jacob does end up with many sons, one of which is named Judah. Judah’s family becomes the tribe of Judah and, several generations later, Judah has a descendant named David. A little sheephearder who becomes king of the people of God. And again, a few generations later, David will have a descendant named Joshua. Many called him the Lion of the tribe of Judah. We know this man who was a direct descendant of Jacob by his Greek name: Jesus.
For another thing, we are like Jacob. Jacob was an inheritor of a promise from God; a promise that, among other things, includes the fact that God has a plan and a purpose for him and he will not leave him. We, too, are inheritors of that promise. In our baptism we are grafted onto that same promise. God says to each and every one of us: I have a plan and a purpose for your life and I will not leave you. We are also like Jacob in that, though God is always faithful to his promises, we often are not. We, too, grasp at things. We, too, manipulate. We, too, hurt the ones closest to us. We, too, do not always behave as honorably as we would like. For all, as the Apostle Paul writes, have sinned and fall short of God. And yet, like Jacob, God as he has promised, will not leave us.
As Jacob and his two wives and all his many possessions he had gathered over his time in service to his father in law headed back to his homeland, they must have made quite a sight. It was a large family traveling across the country: a dozen or so sons and daughters, two wives, various handmaids and servants, livestock of various kinds and other possessions. But with every step home, Jacob became more and more anxious. Every step he and his large family made homeward was a step back into all the mistakes he had made as a young man; perhaps most importantly, his deception of his father and brazen theft from his brother. He sent a messenger ahead to his brother and receives a message in return: Esau is coming to meet you and he has four hundred men with him. Jacob was afraid, and with good reason.
Falling back on his skills of deception and manipulation, he decides to divide all his family and possessions in half so that if Esau comes to destroy him, perhaps it will be only half of everything rather than all. Additionally, he sends a large gift of many animals to his brother to sort of smooth things over.
But he also prays: Oh God, he says, I’ve come home just as you said. I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to me. When I left home, I had nothing and now just look at all I have. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all. Yet you have said, I will be with you.
This is where we are in today’s Old Testament lesson. Jacob remains behind and sends the rest of his family on ahead of him to meet his brother.
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
It is here, alone, in the middle of the night when Jacob meets a man in the middle of the road. If he thought his encounter with his brother was going to be difficult, it was nothing compared to this. All night long this man wrestles with Jacob. It is clear this is no ordinary man who has come to challenge him. But Jacob does not give up and when it becomes evident that things are at a deadlock, the mysterious man strikes Jacob on his hip, throwing it out of joint. A blow that should have ended the struggle, and yet, still Jacob will not yield. It seems that he has other gifts besides just his ability to manipulate and deceive. He is also tenacious, strong willed and does not give up.
Let me go, the man tells Jacob. I won’t until you bless me, Jacob says. What is your name? the man asks. And there, in the middle of the road, after the fight of his life, looking at likely death just around the corner at the hands of his justifiably vengeful brother, likely knowing at that moment all the consequences of his actions, he tells the man his name: Jacob. Jacob, the trickster. Jacob, the grasper of heels. Jacob, the liar. Jacob, the deceiver. Jacob, the one who takes what does not belong to him.
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
And the man tells him that is his name no longer. You shall be called Israel, he tells Jacob, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.
Jacob asks for the man’s name and he responds: why do you ask for my name? Perhaps he was saying, do you even need to ask? Then the man blesses Jacob and so ends his the wrestling match with God. Jacob, now named Israel, limps away from this encounter and names the place Peniel which means “face of God”.
The final part of this story is not in our text for today but, as always, every encounter with God causes not only us to be different but also our relationships with others as well. When he meets his brother, Esau, it does not go as he had assumed it would. Esau runs to Jacob, not to attack him or kill him but to hug him like the long lost brother he is. He treats the brother who had tricked him and stolen from him with tremendous grace and Jacob tells him, for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.
Much has been written about Jacob’s new name, Israel. Receiving a new name from God is an important thing and marks a significant change in the life of the recipient. It is much like the point in our baptismal service when the pastor recites our full name, just before pouring the water on our heads in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The name Israel becomes not only the name of the man but the name of the people. When God gives the new name to Jacob he says it is because Jacob has struggled with God and with humans and prevailed. Israel literally means God struggles.
But there is something else important in that name. It not only means that Jacob struggles with God but also that God struggles with Jacob.
This, too, is something we have in common with Jacob. We, too, struggle. With others, with ourselves, with God. And God never ceases to struggle with us because he has promised he will never leave us. That also means that he will not leave us as we are, either. God finds us on our dark roads, when we feel lost. lonely and afraid and unable to face what lies ahead, perhaps unable to face obstacles of our own making, and he wrestles with us. He does not do so to destroy or punish us. He could have easily done so to Jacob but he did not. God does so because God comes to claim us as his own, to name us, to bless us and to remind us that we do not ever go alone. Not because we are worthy saints but because he has promised us he would.
For God knows, every saint has a past, but God also knows every sinner has a future.