Making a mysterious story our own!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 16 October 2016
The story of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis, the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob one of which we heard in today’s first reading, these stories are old and strange. The period they refer to is 1,500 to 2,000 B.C. – that’s nearly 4,000 years ago! The stories have been passed down, shaped and re-shaped by generations of people before being written down and put together with other stories to eventually form what we now have as the book of Genesis.
There is no one meaning to them; puzzles and inconsistencies abound; questions remain unanswered; each part has a story to tell and the end result is often deeply attractive. These ancient stories in our Bible are very similar to an old building such as this church where we worship. Here too puzzles and inconsistencies abound; here too questions remain unanswered; here too each part has a story to tell and here too the end result is deeply attractive.
What then of the story of the patriarch Jacob? Up to this point in the book of Genesis (chapter 32) the story has been pretty unedifying!
Some of you will recall that when his father lay dying, Jacob had disguised himself as his brother by using an animal skin, had got his mother to prepare his father’s favourite stew, and had pretended to be his brother so that he got his father’s blessing instead of his brother Esau.
He then had to flee for his life!
Many years later, during which time Jacob had not improved, he fled from where he’d been living and journeyed home, back to meet his brother whom he had not seen since he had cheated on him! Not surprisingly Jacob was nervous as to how things were going to work out.
In this anxious frame of mind he had prayed to the God of his grandfather Abraham and the God of his father Isaac to save him from his brother Esau, reminding God that he had promised to make everything go well for him and protect him. Not relying entirely on the power of prayer (!) Jacob had sent gifts ahead to reassure Esau that he had not come to seek revenge but peace.
But how was it going to go? Jacob was unsure!
First we heard how Jacob sent his family and everything he’d brought with him, across the river Jabbok. He, though, didn’t go with them but remained behind on his own, night having fallen.
Jacob then wrestled with a man until daybreak. In the course of the struggle, Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. As day broke the man wanted to go, but Jacob refused to let him until he gave Jacob his blessing. Jacob was then given a new name, Israel, because, as the man said, Jacob had ‘striven with God and with humans, and had prevailed.’
In turn Jacob asked the man his name, but sidestepping that request he did finally bless Jacob. The place was then given a name and as the sun rose, Jacob went off, limping because of his hip.
What a mysterious story! One commentator has described it as ‘worthy of a Rembrandt but as enigmatic as a Mona Lisa!’
Jacob wrestling with God and prevailing! Jacob being tested to the limits of his endurance and persevering! The struggle though leaving its mark on Jacob – yes the sun rose, yes the struggle was over, but Jacob went on his way, limping.
What are we to make of this extraordinary story?
In the context of the book of Genesis, this passage plays a pivotal role. Why? Because this is the moment that Jacob is transformed – his name is changed from Jacob to Israel and he becomes one of the patriarchs following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac – now not through cheating but by God’s grace. It’s a deeply significant moment in the book of Genesis.
And we can just leave the story there – this is one of the ancient stories in the Bible with a particular role to play in the telling of the whole biblical story – or we can push into it further and try and make something of it for ourselves.
But to do that we’re going to need some help.
Some of you may be familiar with the work of the British sculptor Jacob Epstein. He was a pioneer of modern sculpture in Britain and had a profound influence on Henry Moore, the sculptor that you’re more likely to have heard of than his patron and mentor Jacob Epstein.
One of Epstein’s most powerful pieces is of this story – Jacob and the Angel. The sculpture is carved from a single block of English Alabaster. It’s one of the heaviest works in Tate Britain’s collection and it’s of two colossal figures locked together – there’s a reproduction of it on the back of your service leaflet.
In this sculpture, the nightlong struggle between Jacob and his assailant is nearing the end – dawn is approaching and with the fight now over Jacob, exhausted, finally receives the blessing he has wrestled through the night to obtain. The angel with the long hair is wild and strong, holding Jacob in a tight grasp, as if squeezing his last breath from him. Jacob, eyes closed and head thrown back, is forced to succumb to the angel’s power. Jacob’s stubbornness is rewarded as he yields to the angel and is blessed in so doing.
Epstein doesn’t tame the biblical story. As we’ve seen, the biblical story is every bit as wild and strange as this sculpture that Epstein has produced. But looking at it, and even better if you can go and see it at Tate Britain, there’s such an immediacy about the sculpture that I find myself drawn in to participate myself in Jacob wrestling with God, myself yielding to his embrace, and in turn being blessed.
In a moment we shall sing hymn number 407. If you could look at that now, you’ll see that the words are by Charles Wesley and are based on this story of Jacob that we’ve been looking at from the book of Genesis.
I want to end by reading these words of Charles Wesley so that when we sing them we can participate more deeply in his appreciation of this passage of the Bible.
Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell thee who I am,
my misery or sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name;
look on thy hands, and read it there!
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
In vain thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold.
Art thou the man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
wrestling, I will not let thee go,
till I thy name, thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
but confident in self-despair;
speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer.
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love!
‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart!
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
pure universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move;
thy nature and thy name is Love.
A sculpture, a hymn: two ways to help us make this mysterious story our own!