Transcribed from the audio
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Psalm 121, which you heard earlier, is one of the most well-known and beloved Psalms in all of the Psalter, and for good reason. The psalmist is clear and certain about the centrality of God, not just in the psalmist’s life, but in all of our lives. It’s clear. Listen again to the words of Psalm 121. “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills and where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord—the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in from this time forth, forever more.”
For me, Psalm 121 is the theological anchor for all of the Scriptures that we have heard today. But perhaps even more importantly, I would posit the view that Psalm 121 is our grounding, is our hope, is our direction as a people of faith—and particularly at this disheartening time in our country and abroad—because it reminds us that God is with us, not just today, not just tomorrow, but forever. And that God is as near as our next breath.
I’d like to explore this with you for a few moments this morning and to do so initially from the lens of the story you heard of Jacob in Genesis. Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible because in it our patriarchs and matriarchs and our heroes and heroines of the faith are portrayed as they are: flawed human beings. Despite that, God achieves God’s purposes through them, making it clear that despite our failings and our faults and our fickleness God is with us. I don’t know about you, but that’s good news for me and, I would presume, for you as well, and certainly for Jacob.
Jacob’s story is too complex and nuanced for me to give you every detail, so I’m going to do a quick sprint “Reader’s Digest” version of Jacob’s life and encourage you to go to Genesis to read it in full. As you may recall, Jacob is a twin. His brother Esau is born first and he’s named for the fact that he is red and hairy. In many places, particularly in Hebrew Scriptures, names have meanings and it’s certainly the case with Esau and his brother Jacob. Jacob, the second born, comes out grabbing his brother’s heel, hence the name Jacob, for grabber—a preview of coming events. When the twins are in Rebecca’s womb she hears from God that that struggling is two nations struggling in her womb, and that the younger son will oversee his older brother, which was totally against tradition at that time.
Well, moving on in the story, when they are adolescents, Esau is out in the field hunting and Jacob was a quiet man who dwelled in tents. When Esau comes in famished from his hunt, he asks his younger brother to share some of his lentil stew. Jacob the grabber is also one of those smooth talking slick deceptive types, known by many as trickster. So he convinces his brother Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Esau is often portrayed in the Bible as somewhat of a dimwitted oaf; and here’s your first example of that.
They move on, and later in the story, at a time when Isaac, the father, is old and blind, Rebecca hears him saying that he is prepared to bestow the fatherly blessing on Esau. Rebecca, wanting her favored son Jacob to get that blessing, connives a plan to dupe Isaac. Jacob puts on his brother’s clothes so he smells like his brother; puts on an animal skin so if his father touches his arms, he’s hairy like his brother; and he lies to him about who he is. And Isaac bestows the blessing that would rightfully be Esau’s on Jacob. When Esau learns what has happened, he is furious and vows to murder his brother. Rebecca tells her son Jacob to flee, to go to another country where her brother Laban and his family live. So Jacob flees: a fugitive, a man on the run, the trickster who has managed to get two blessings, but is now threatened with his very life.
On the way he falls asleep and in a dream God tells him that He will be with him and that He will watch over him and stay with him until God’s promise is fulfilled. Now this is really important because you’ll recall that God made a covenant, a promise with Abraham, his grandfather, that God would be Abraham’s God and that his people would be God’s people and that he would be the father of many generations and many nations. His generations and offspring would be as numerous as the sands and the stars and that he would inhabit the Promised Land, Canaan. So in this dream Jacob is reminded—he sees the angels ascending and descending on the ladder to heaven—that God is with him. He goes on to the homeland of his uncle Laban and then there’s a lot of messy back and forth of deception and deceit. I don’t have enough time to go into those details, but let me just say, that it’s messy enough with the deceit and the deception that any Family Systems psychologist could spend a lifetime unraveling what goes on in that story.
Jacob has another dream, now that he has wives and concubines and maids and lots of livestock and is a threat to Laban’s sons. God comes to him in another dream and says it’s time to go and tells him to go back to where his brother Esau and his family are in the Land of Promise. That’s where we pick up the story that you heard this morning.
Jacob has heard that Esau and 400 men are coming to meet him. Now one can assume that they were not planning a happy reunion homecoming picnic to welcome back Jacob who has stolen his birthright and his blessing twice. So Jacob sends his wives and everything he owns across the river. He is at this crossroads, this ford in the stream, the Jabbok River, at a critical point in his life. Scripture tells us Jacob was left alone. It’s true, he’s alone in some ways with his fear. But he has come to that point in his life that his intellect, his conniving, every resource he can bring to bear, are not up to the problem that he faces. It is a problem too big for him to solve. Perhaps you have had those crossroads in your life before: where you had a problem that was too big for you to resolve; no matter how much you could bring to bear, it wasn’t sufficient to the hurdle in front of you.
God was with Jacob just as He promised he would be. And Jacob, ultimately wrestling with God, wrestling with his past, has to surrender. He has to trust God with what he can’t overcome in his own human strength and craftiness. And, as you listen carefully to that story, two important things happen: Jacob does wrestle and he gets a new name. He’s no longer called Jacob the grabber, but Israel, one who has striven with God and humans and has endured. He is a new person. He is a new creation, having surrendered to God. He also walks away with a limp, an external sign of an internal manifestation and transformation of ultimately surrendering to God.
Hebrew Bible scholar Denise Hopkins says that the central question in Genesis is, do we trust God enough to have our best interests at heart or do we decide that we have to take things into our own hands? Heretofore, Jacob has leaned toward the latter. Going forward, he knows that ultimately his trust and his well-being is in God.
We have those pivot points in our lives, and perhaps we’re at a pivot point in our country as well. Wendell Berry in his poem The Real Work puts it this way. “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, that we have begun our real journey.” Where do you turn? To whom do you turn? Where do you put your trust?
One of my favorite statues in the Cathedral is a statue that’s around the corner right at the top of the stairs that go down to the crypt. It’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln on his knees, deep in prayer. Abraham Lincoln told several of his friends, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” The statue in the Cathedral was sculpted by Herbert Houck, whose grandfather is reported to have seen Abraham Lincoln on his knees in the woods before he gave the Gettysburg Address.
Jacob goes on from the Jabbok to be reconciled with his brother. But he couldn’t have gone to the Promised Land until he was reconciled with God and was clear on who is ultimately in charge. Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel lesson that you heard that we are to pray always and not to lose heart. Remember that God is with us. God is our source of strength and help, comfort and direction. I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The Lord shall be with us always, from this time forth, forever more. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is fond of saying, “God’s not done with us yet.” Let it be so. Amen