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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Give Me My Blessing - 10/16/2016

I don't want to talk about the widow and the unjust judge today – as good a story as it is. I want to talk about Jacob in our Old Testament reading.

I want to talk about Jacob because … our confirmation class started last week and as we were going over the worksheet for sermon notes, one student challenged me to preach on the Old Testament this week. I brushed it off at the time, but she kind of planted a seed and when I started thinking about my sermon, I thought, “Maybe I should preach on Jacob.”

I want to talk about Jacob because ... I see Jacob in Martin Luther. We are taking some time on this Reformation 500 weekend to learn about Martin Luther's bible. That bible came about after long nights of struggle for Luther.

Luther struggled through those nights praying, ignoring his physical needs, and arguing with God over the one thing that haunted him to the core: How could he ever be sure he had done enough, confessed enough, prayed enough to be forgiven and cleansed of his sin?

I want to talk about Jacob because … it's a good story about struggle and blessing. The very first time we meet Jacob in the bible, he is embroiled in a struggle.

Jacob's father Issac lived in the abundance of the blessing God gave Abraham, Issac's father. Like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and his wife Rebekah also had trouble conceiving, but God promises it will happen and it does. Rebekah becomes pregnant with not one son, but two. Twin sons who are at odds with each other right from their beginnings in their mother's womb. So much so, that Rebekah is at her wits end during her pregnancy and she cried out to God in prayer: “if it is to be this way, why do I live!?” And this is what God told her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:22b,23b)

When the babies were born they couldn't have been more different in appearance. First came Esau, a big baby with red skin and lots of hair. And hanging on to the heel of his big brother, Jacob was born, a smaller and smooth-skinned baby.

Growing up, the boys were different in many other ways too. We might understand Esau to be a man's man. He was strong, loved to hunt, and was his father's favorite. Jacob was Rebekah's favorite, he was slighter in build and he made a mean lentil stew. It's over that lentil stew we find out Esau could be rather impetuous, and Jacob rather conniving. “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” … Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25:29-34)– his whole inheritance.

Bargaining with Esau for the birthright wasn't quite enough though, Jacob also desired the blessing of the father to the firstborn son, and so he and Rebekah conspired to make that happen. Rebekah devised a plan to trick her husband into giving this blessing to Jacob. They used the wool from lambs in their own flock to wrap around Jacob's forearms so he was hairy like his brother, prepared a savory meal, disguised the youngest as the eldest … and sent him to Dad, who couldn't see well anymore, and to receive the blessing. And it worked.

These blessings were life-altering events. We use the word blessing quite liberally and unconsciously. Think of these blessing more along the same scale as having a baby, winning a Nobel Prize, or moving to another county. It's a big deal.

Not getting a blessing could be the difference in making or breaking someone. When Esau discovered his trickster brother Jacob had stolen his blessing, he pleaded with Issac, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me? … Bless me, me also, father!” (Gen. 2736B, 34b) But it was done. The blessing was given. The theft of his blessing seemed to cause Esau more agony then giving up his inheritance for a bowl of  soup.

Esau was furious and he made it pretty clear that once Isaac died, Jacob would be next. So Rebekah plotted again and had Jacob sent back to their homeland where he could find a suitable wife (and be far away from his revenge-driven brother.)

A lot more happens to Jacob with struggles and blessings, but we'll have to save some of that for another sermon or another bible study. Where we pick up the story today, 20 years have passed since Jacob fled, and he wants to go home and so he sets out with his whole household. He has sent Esau a gift as a peace offering, but remains fearful that Esau will still be mad and set on killing him.

It is on that tense journey home that this epic wrestling match takes place in which God takes a human form. God decides to take on human vulnerability for the sake of a genuine, hand-to-hand encounter with Jacob. And in doing so, God becomes concretely present in Jacob's life. Jacob struggles with God all night long and it is not an easy match but he finally gets that powerful grip on God just before the dawn and refuses to let go of God until he gets the blessing he has been after his whole life, directly from the mouth of God.

This time, there are no trickster moves, no cons, no going through the back door. It is physical, it is demanding, it is painful, and through it, Jacob is blessed directly and finally by God.

I want to talk about Jacob because ... I see us in Jacob.

This may not be the way we typically understand our relationship with God. But the more one considers this story, the more one can see we all have our nights of struggling with God.

I see it in myself when I struggle with God over how to handle a difficult situation – I can be a very physical experience. It might upset my digestive system or bring on a headache, it messes with my appetite and interrupts my sleep. Sometimes the only way I can work through it all is to do something really physical.

I hear it in the words of people who are praying so hard and worrying so much about their children, about their jobs, about their health, about the state of our country. You see the physical nature of the struggle in furrowed brows, tears, clenched fists.

I want to talk about Jacob because ... I think there is something important and true and liberating in these nights of struggling with God, these nights of Peni-el, of coming face-to-face with God and surviving, as Jacob puts it.  It might be hard to acknowledge that we can get angry with God sometimes; that we can feel like the persistent widow we read about in Luke today, demanding to be heard, demanding justice. Maybe in those deepest, most desperate moments of despair and fear, we even accuse God of being more like that unjust judge who refuses to listen for so long – who seems so cold and unmoved by our suffering or our grief.

It's hard to admit that can be our experience with this God who we so often characterize as warm and parental, powerful and praise worthy – The One we submit to, obey and trust. It doesn't feel like it should be permitted to shake our fists at God, or doubt God's empathy, or demand things of God.

But that is our experience sometimes, and if not ours, then we can be sure it is the experience of someone who is dear to us. And when we recognize that, when we own it, I think that is perhaps when we can see start to see what lies beyond the struggle.

We can open our eyes and ears, our hearts and whole physical selves to a God who can handle that anger and seems so willing to do so, even if, as for Jacob, it means to come in a very physical form and force a one-on-one encounter in order to receive a blessing. Beyond that struggle, Jacob went on to be embraced in love and homecoming by his brother Esau. Years later they buried and grieved their father Issac together.

Beyond that struggle we see a God who can bear our anger and our outbursts and still continue to love us despite our doubts and demands. And in the midst of all, we can see a God who works through us in spite of – or maybe because of – our struggles with God.

A fitting thought today as we remember how God prepared the future beyond Luther's struggles. The work Martin Luther did 500 years ago has directly nurtured our Lutheran tendency to encourage each other to engage in the bible, both in quiet moments by ourselves, and gathered around the Word in study and in worship. Luther finally found the answer to his struggle in the scriptures and the very core of our Lutheran way of understanding God and ourselves began to take shape.

But beyond that struggle it also became clear to Luther that all of God's people should be able to read the scriptures for themselves … and to hear them spoken in their everyday language.

I want to talk about Jacob because …. Through his story, through the life of Martin Luther and through our very own experiences, we can see these struggles with God.

But we also see that God is right there in those struggles with us. And, at the same time, God is already beyond those struggles, preparing the way, readying something new … a new name for Jacob, a liberation of the Holy Scriptures in Luther, and who knows what for us? Perhaps a child restored to health, a new job, a new ministry for the community, and most certainly, a new life that came to us in the flesh of Jesus, that came to us freely to teach us, to bathe us in the waters of our baptisms, to feed us at a great table of graciousness, and to bear the weight of all creation's struggles on a cross.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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