Two wives, two handmaids – eleven kids, a stout “stock” portfolio (this stock is sheep not shares), twenty years later Jacob packs up to go home. Like a thief in the night, he slips out taking all he has acquired and a little more. Uncle Laban goes looking for Jacob, intending to kill him. But one night on the trail, the Lord drops in through a dream and tells Laban, “You’d better not touch a hair on Jacob’s head.” So, when Laban catches him, instead of killing Jacob, Laban whines: “I can’t believe you would leave without kisses and good-byes, or let me throw a farewell party, and YOU STOLE MY GODS! I want them back.” After Laban searches and cannot find his missing idols with Jacob’s tribe – don’t you hate it when you lose your gods – (Rachel secretly stole and packed them in her saddle) they all kiss, say goodbye, and make a covenant not to harm each other.
Meanwhile back at the home ranch, when we last heard from Esau, Jacob becomes an endangered species. So to test the waters, Jacob sends a scouting team to say, “Lord Esau, your servant Jacob is on his way home, a happy, wealthy family man.” Notice who’s lord now and who is servant. Jacob butters the bread on both sides. The servants come back: “Good news – your brother wants to see you; bad news, he’s coming with four hundred men.” Jacob excuses himself to change his cargo pants. He’s scared. When we are scared, losing hope, as a last resort, we do what? Pray – so he prays, “Lord deliver me, and remember your promises,” – as it the Lord has a memory issue.
Before going to sleep that night, Jacob prepares a little gift to send Esau. We modern urbanites might not appreciate a load of goats, rams, camels, cows and donkeys. It’s really a huge gift. Maybe Esau will like this better than a t-shirt that reads: “My brother went to Paddan-Aram and all he brought me was this crappy t-shirt.” Again, Jacob applies butter to his brother. Just in case Esau doesn’t change heart, Jacob takes wives, maids and eleven children across the river to spend the night. He then crosses back to sleep alone. That’s when Jacob gets ambushed by a man, an “ish” – a stranger. They wrestle all night. Neither gains an advantage. Daybreak is coming. The stranger begs Jacob to turn him loose. “What’s your name?” “Jacob.” “From on, you are “Israel.” You have striven with God and humans and prevailed.” Israel means “he strives with God or he’s saved by God.” “And your name, sir, would be?” The answer is not to be. Knowing a person’s name gives you power over them. Jacob gets a blessing instead. Whoever the man is, Jacob believes he’s seen God face-to-face and lives to tell about it. So he renames the place Peniel, meaning “face of God.”
Out of all our faith ancestors so far – Jacob could most use a character transplant. The nighttime rumble with God is the moment it comes. He’s now “Israel,” though he’ll still have remnants of Jacob left. But will a name change be enough? God is yet in charge, and Jacob gets a blessing, and Jacob does like blessings. This time God gets in his face to give him one. God blesses him with a reassurance that the promise still holds – a trust that will soon be tested with his brother.
We scrap with God, too, you know. To come to our own faith, not someone else’s, we must strive with the God we’ve been handed. We may have inherited a harsh, vindictive, unpredictable God who scares us. Others are ruled by an image a nice, kindly, old grandfather figure who is powerless to stop evil. Some contend within an inner darkness, doubting, wanting questions answered – to hear they matter, know what God expects, and know if God can always be trusted. God will come up close and personal to ambush us, contend for our hearts and souls. If we stay in the fray, we might pin him down momentarily, but he will slip loose. Before he leaves, God renames us, remakes us, blesses us and promises never to leave us. Now your name and mine is “Beloved child of God,” our eternal blessing. And we still won’t fully know his name. But we have enough. We have met a divine love given for all people – all creation. That gift given us is not a possession or right – it’s a gift that lives by being given away to others – all others.
It’s grace – the kind that assaults us before we realize where it’s coming from, and by losing we win an amazing grace. Our former lives of deception, blaming others, not taking responsibility or being accountable are replaced with a grace to see God and each other in a new way – to love one another because we now accept we are unconditionally loved. That’s how we know we’ve been changed from above. We can never go back. Jacob – flawed, sinful and deceitful sees himself as God has – but sees through God’s eyes, who he really is – Israel, father of a nation, blessed with God’s promise.
Jabbok is the place we encounter the real miracle, where God takes us down and transforms us. It’s a miracle even better than Jesus in a deserted place, making a Happy Meal of fish sandwiches for thousands – from a few buns and a couple of fish. That’s good – but the miracle at our Jabbok is: God knows us as we are, loves us, transforms, redeems, protects us and name us his Beloved. That makes us witnesses of the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets – enfleshed and dwelling with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. That makes us part of the promise. We now are witnesses to God’s promise. We are Abraham and Israel’s offspring.