Jacob is alone.
It is dark and he is tired. He is nervous because tomorrow, he will meet his brother for the first time in 30 years and he doesn’t know what to expect. He is sitting on the banks of a river when a man attacks him. They fight one another for hours until the dawn starts to break. Then the man who has been Jacob’s equal all night, simply touches his side and Jacob feels his hip move in a way it never has. Pain runs down his side. He looks up at the man and realizes in this moment that he is not wrestling with a mercenary sent by his brother or another man he has wronged. The strange man’s tamest touch convinces him that this man holds the blessing that he has sought his entire life.
“What is your name?” the man asks. “Jacob,” he replies. It was the name given him after the midwives recounted to Rebekah and Isaac how he came out of the womb holding on Esau’s ankle. Heel Grabber. Ankle Biter. Supplanter. It was a name that had defined him.
“No longer shall you be called Heel Grabber, but you shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and won.”
Jacob receives his new name, God’s blessing, and he leaves that place limping. He names the spot Peniel, which means face, for it was there that he saw God face to face.
Three things happen when we encounter God.
First: We receive a new name. What is your name? Heel Grabber. Younger Son. Oldest Child. Disappointment. Middle child. Only child. Over Achiever. Under Achiever. Let Down. Perfectionist. Of course you know that none of these names is legitimate. You have heard that your name is God’s beloved and that this name ought to help you dismiss all of the other names that we live with. But it takes being alone on the banks of a river, it takes wrestling through the night, it takes having your hip put out of place to truly know it. Who can tell when that moment of clarity will come, when the truth of God’s new name for you will hit you in that same place in your gut where you feel fear, nervousness, and excitement. Those moments only come as gifts. When we see God face to face, we know deep in our bones what our name is.
Second: We leave with a limp. When Saul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus, he leaves blind. When Isaiah beholds God in a vision, it is as if his mouth is touched with a burning coal. When Zaccheaus encounters Christ, he leaves that encounter poorer, softer, and kinder than before. Encountering God leaves us with a limp. It makes us softer, more vulnerable, weaker. In a way it makes us stronger, but only that kind of stronger that comes from having been broken.
Finally: After Jacob encounters God at Peniel (face), he stands up and Esau is coming towards him. They have a beautiful encounter in which Jacob says, “to see your face, is to see the face of God.” When we encounter God, we see in our brothers and sisters, our enemies, our competition, and even our families, the face of God. When we behold His face, we begin to behold it in the face of others.
Jacob’s story is the story of Israel. And that story is our story. We are God’s beloved, always wrestling with Him, walking with a limp, and seeing in all people the very face of God.
We give you thanks that our former pastoral intern, Tim Bowyer, was ordained as minister of Word and Sacrament his week. We thank you for his gifts for ministry and his passion for sharing the love of Jesus to others. Continue to provide wisdom to Tim as he seeks you for ministry opportunities.
As our hearts are drawn to pray for our city we pray for those in our city who need you this day. From the hurting, those suffering from injustices, those in the midst of violence, the underemployed, those needing a change of employment, the homeless, to those who need your mercy we seek you now to hear our prayers for our neighbors.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
- November 5th, Grace is hosting Dr. Kristen Deede Johnson for a lecture on faith in the public sphere. Kristen is a professor at Western Theological Seminary and has written about and worked in the space around faith and culture. This lecture will help us think critically about our political and public engagement for the good of Chicago. More info here.