Our physical bodies so often reveal our emotional tensions.  The person who is carrying the weight of the world has shoulders that slump inward, bowed by an invisible, deeply felt burden.  The person who is all bent out of shape emotionally also has mysterious aches and pains.  The one who can’t stand something develops pain in the feet or ankles.  In a similar way, Jacob begins the night wrestling with his own fears about his upcoming meeting with his brother Esau, and then spends the rest of the night wrestling with a mystery figure.  The outer fight mirrors the inner one. 

Read the Working Preacher commentary. 

Read the scripture passage.

Jacob begins by thanking God, with the feel of a sales pitch, bothering to remind God that his family is needed to fulfill God’s promises.  Then he prays for safety for himself and his family as he meets up with his brother.  In the verses left out of our selection, he hedges his bets by sending presents ahead to Esau.  Then he sends his family on ahead of him, and when he’s finally alone, the mystery figure appears to wrestle with him.

Jacob shows unusual persistence – for him – in wrestling with this nighttime figure.  We know him as a cheater, but this time he seems to be focused – and determined.  He won’t let the figure go, even after he’s injured.  The injury to his hip socket seems to be dirty fighting, as Jacob the trickster is tricked by someone else.  All that Jacob has dealt out to other people comes back to him in full measure in this encounter.  Jacob concludes that he has met up with God face to face in this encounter, and he also meets up with his own brokenness as a man.  It’s hard to tell Jacob and the mystery wrestler apart, as if Jacob is tussling with a part of himself.  He meets up with the truth about himself in the night. 

Curiously, Jacob won’t let the mystery figure go until he gets a blessing.  His quest for a family blessing, and his theft of Esau’s rightful place, begin his journey away from home.  Now, the end of the journey is bookended with another hard-won blessing.  In the first encounter, back at the family home, Esau is wounded in spirit by the theft of his blessing.  In this meeting, Jacob is the one who comes away wounded.    

Sermon possibilities:

Jacob prays to God for deliverance from Esau, and then he also does everything he can to make things work out.  The sermon might look at how our efforts and our prayers work together, adding our work to God’s…or explore how we sometimes work against the things we’re praying for. 

Only when Jacob is alone does the mystery wrestler appear.  The sermon might look at how hard it is to be alone, and quiet, when we have our phones and tablets always available to entertain us.  What happens when we’re truly alone – it is a peaceful silence, or are we wrestling with fears and tormentors of our own?  And if we persist in the wrestling, what blessing might emerge? 

Jacob is marked, physically, by this encounter.  The sermon might explore how we go through life marked by emotional and physical struggles.  We’re never quite the same afterward, and we carry the evidence of hard-won wisdom.  Where are our scars – emotional, spiritual and physical?  Did we find God in the wrestling? 

Or the sermon might ponder how whole faith communities are sometimes like Jacob.  Where has your congregation wrestled with God?  Was there a blessing at the end of the wrestling? 

Where are your thoughts taking you this week?  We would love to hear, and continue the conversation, in the comments section below. 

Mary Austin is the pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church in the Washington, DC area.  She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall.  The image above is “Jacob and the Angel” by Annette Gandy Fortt from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56023 

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2 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Mixed Martial Arts [Genesis 32:[9-13] 22-30]

  1. I have no idea what direction I am headed but here is what I am noticing.
    -Jacob was on his way to meet Esau that had to be on his mind all the time
    -The wrestling came at night and Jacob was alone. How many nights do I wake up (or never make it to sleep) wrestling with life in its various stages of messiness.
    -Most of those wrestlings in my night have a name/a face. Jacob’s does not.
    -and for the entire night it is mystery
    -There was no clear defined winner. Was it a tie?
    -what might it mean that God comes to a draw with Jacob?
    -how Jacob’s sense of God/The Divine/the Holy changed?
    -and the limp…we wear our scars and a wounds in so many ways…some visible…some not so visible.

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