The collect and readings for today, Proper 13A, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost may be found here. The Old Testament reading, Genesis 32:22-31 , serves as the basis for the sermon below.
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
At some point we all leave home. In a sense we become homeless. We leave behind the way life was. We move out of the familiar ways and places that once housed our lives. Sometime this is a welcome move and other times, not so much. Some of this homelessness is a natural part of life. Growing up or growing old are both a process of leaving home. Other times the circumstances of life dictate a move; a hurricane, a death, a divorce, a job transfer, going off to school. Faithfulness led Abram and Sarai to leave their home for a new land. Sinfulness caused Adam and Eve to leave their garden place.
While leaving home often involves physical or geographical changes it is equally a spiritual condition. It is a movement and change deep within our soul. Regardless of how or why it happens homelessness disrupts life and leaves us longing to return home. Everyone wants to go home. After all, Toto, there’s no place like home.
They say you can never go back home. I think that’s right. After our boys moved out I remember how excited Cyndy and I would get when one of our boys would come back to visit. We had a such a good time with them – for the first three days. It wasn’t bad it was just different. Once we leave home it won’t ever be like it was before. We can’t undo the past or turn back the clock. We cannot keep things or people the way they used to be. Yet, we are not destined to be homeless. That is not God’s intention.
In a paradoxical way we leave home so that we might return home. We never go back as the same person we were when we left. The journey home changes us. T.S. Elliott expressed it beautifully in his poem Little Gidding:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Over and over throughout the Old Testament God promises to bring his people home, to a new land, the promised land. You and I are heirs to that promise. Jacob is an heir to that promise, a promise that was first made to his grandfather, Abram. Sometimes that promise may be all that sustains us in our homelessness.
The fulfillment of God’s promise is our journey home. This new home, however, the promised land, is more than a physical place or a geographical location. It is a spiritual home of wholeness, healing, and peace. It houses love and union with God, neighbor, and self. That does not mean that the journey home is necessarily easy or without struggle. To the contrary, the journey home always brings us to the River Jabbok.
That’s where Jacob is today. He ran away from home after buying his brother Esau’s inheritance and stealing the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the firstborn son. He worked fourteen years for his uncle Laban to get two wives, one of whom he didn’t even really want. Now Jacob wants to go home. Now he stands at the Jabbok. The way home always brings us to the ford of the Jabbok. We each have our own Jabbok that we must cross.
Jacob sends his wives, his maids, and his sons on across the river. Jacob, however, stays behind. Always the schemer, he sends messengers with gifts to Esau to pave the way home; and with good reason. Esau was planning to kill Jacob when Jacob left home. The messengers return but the news is not good. Esau is on the to Jacob and he has four hundred men with him.
Jacob cannot buy his way out this time. He is stuck. In front of him is Esau. Behind him is his past; the lies, the deception, the stolen blessing; the home he left behind. It is nighttime and Jacob is alone on the banks of the Jabbok. The Jabbok is, however, more than just a river. It is a lonely place, a dark place, a place of struggle and wrestling.
All night long Jacob wrestled with a man. Who was that man? Was it God? Esau? Was it Jacob’s uncle, Laban? Was it Isaac, his father? Was Jacob wrestling with himself? Was he wrestling with his past? His future? His identity? His faith? Perhaps the best and maybe the only answer to those questions is, “Yes. Yes, that’s who it was.” Regardless, it was a face to face meeting with God.
In this nighttime wrestling Jacob is both wounded and blessed. The two always seem to go together, blessings and wounds. His old life and identity as Jacob, the heel grabber, however, served him well. He held on to this man of the night long enough to receive a real blessing, not a stolen blessing, but one through which the promises of God will be fulfilled and Jacob will be changed.
Daybreak comes and Jacob is no longer Jacob, the deceiver and the supplanter. He has been renamed and reborn. He is now Israel, the one who struggles with and prevails against God. Jacob does not defeat God. He prevails. He stays in the struggle until a new day dawns and he receives the blessing that was always his. That is faithfulness. That is the way home. That is our work at Jabbok.
Jabbok, however, is not a place unique to Jacob. It is a place most of us know well. Jabbok is the struggle with an addiction. It is getting up every morning to grief and loss that are unbearable. It is tossing and turning through the night trying to figure out what to do next. It is the slow work of rebuilding trust and putting back together a marriage or a friendship. It is sitting day after day at the bedside of a loved one who is dying. It is faithfulness in the routine ordinariness of life, work, family, and marriage. It’s a week, a year, a lifetime of prayer and doing what’s right but not ever seeing the result.
Jabbok is experienced in a thousand different ways. It is the nighttime of our lives and the way home. It is the place where we are wounded, renamed, blessed, and made a new person. It is a holy place. That’s why Jacob renames Jabbok. He now calls it Peniel, the place where we see God and our life is preserved.
We each have our own story of standing on the banks of the Jabbok. We can probably name pretty quickly the wounds we have received there and describe how we now limp through life. In the midst of the struggle and the pain of being wounded it’s hard to see or trust the presence of a blessing. It’s too dark to see. But whatever you do don’t let go. Hold on. Jabbok will soon give way to Peniel. A new day is dawning and there is a blessing for you. It doesn’t mean life is magically fixed or that we go back to the old family place. It means God is faithful. It means we can now move forward. We are blessed, renamed, and made a new person; free to cross over, and go home. And we all want to go home. After all, Toto, there’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.