sermon art: Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Edward Knippers (b. 1946), 2012 – oil on panel – 8 feet by 12 feet.
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 6, 2023
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
Genesis 32:22-31 [At night Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Romans 9:1-5 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
The Matthew reading of the Feeding of the 5,000 is at the end of the sermon.
I was a letter writer in middle school. I wrote to my cousin and my grandmothers and to a boy whose grandmother went to my church. He visited her occasionally. And we wrote letters. I wish I had them, those letters. Lord only knows what was in them. They are lost to time. But I would love to know what I thought was important at 13 years old, what was worth remembering and sharing. Many of the letters we used to write are long gone unless you’re a historical figure of some importance like the Apostle Paul who wrote a lot of what we consider to be the New Testament in the Christian Bible. He wrote at least seven of the thirteen letters attributed to him and the other six are likely written by his students. We wing around Paul’s name so much that sometimes I wonder if people who are new to church may not know he was a Jewish religious leader responsible for deaths of the earliest Christians. His conversion to Christianity is told in the book of Acts. It’s flashy, dramatic, and memorable – maybe even Hollywood worthy. His skills as a religious leader came in handy as he planted churches, moved on to plant another one, and started writing them letters telling them he loved them and addressing any concerns.
Paul’s letter to the Roman church became the Bible book of Romans. My Bible at home runs 15 pages for the letter to the Roman church. Imagine opening up that one back in the 1st century day. In Paul’s time, Greek writing ran together without spaces or punctuation and no chapters and verses. In our reading today from Romans 9, Paul had just finished writing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. He then goes on to wrestle with what this means for Jews, for his people, his kindred in the flesh. Turns out that Jesus’ message wasn’t as well-received as his followers would have hoped. Paul rambled but he wasn’t coming up with satisfactory answers. He wrote, “…my kindred according to the flesh; they are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever, amen.” Or as Pastor Gail likes to say, “Bless their hearts.” Paul means it like she does, for real.
The Israelites, the Jews, are blessed by God. And who are they? We can get this confused too. In our times, Israel is a country. In our Bible story from the book of Genesis today, Israel is a person, a person who name was changed from Jacob after he wrestled “with God and with humans and prevailed.” From the Hebrew people freed from Pharoah by Moses, to the people Israel named after Jacob, to the Jews – generations of people to whom God made promises, promises in the form of a covenant through which the whole world would be blessed through a new covenant that includes everyone.
In Lutheran Christianity, we talk about God’s promises quite a bit. At the communion table, we hear God’s promise through Jesus as the “new covenant in my blood.” God also makes promises to us in our baptism. God promises to be present with us in suffering and in celebration, to always take us back through forgiveness, to make us ever more Christ-shaped as disciples, and to keep these promises forever. We trust God to keep God’s promises. Like Jacob, we sometimes wrestle with God and demand to be blessed by the promises. Holding God accountable for the promises God has made. God’s promises are forever. Paul could have argued that Christianity is over and against Judaism, but HE DIDN’T. For good reason. Paul knew that either God keeps God’s promises or God isn’t trustworthy to keep any promises. The new covenant is an extension of the covenant that God made with the Jews, not erasure.
God’s promised covenant with the Jews matters today as much as it ever has. Antisemitism is the word that describes hatred for Jews and antisemitism is on the rise all around the world and here at home in Denver. How we talk about our Christian faith becomes a matter of life and death for our Jewish family, friends, and neighbors. Out of 8 billion people on the planet, only 15-20 million are Jews, 0.2% of the world’s population. Meanwhile there are over 2 billion Christians. We carry weight in the world – political and practical weight that impact issues of life and death. As we call the modern state of Israel to account for its treatment of Palestinians, we need to take care that we don’t paint Judaism with the broad brush of antisemitism as demands escalate for peace in that region. It’s very complicated and it’s all too real with Palestinian and Jewish people’s lives at stake. We work for peace with people there even as we long for it.
Paul longed for full knowledge. His letters are filled with longing to see the fullness of God. In another letter he writes about being human as seeing through a mirror dimly. We simply cannot see the big picture. Every so often we get glimpses of it, but our human highs and lows distract us. We get lost in our own thinking. Especially when we suffer. Last Sunday, I woke up on the ornery side of the bed. That’s an especially hard place to be as a pastor who leads worship. But, as I was telling Rob about it, I also said that this is why I need worship and singing and praying and listening (thank God Pastor Gail preached last week.) I’ve experienced it many times both as not a pastor and as a pastor where being in worship drops me into a collective longing for God’s promises to comfort and challenge us.
As Jacob wrestled for God’s blessing, we too can wrestle with God. The story before and after the part about Jacob wrestling with God and with humans is about Jacob’s fear of his brother Esau. Esau had been furious with Jacob for good reason. Jacob hoped to woo Esau into a better mood with gifts upon gifts. When Jacob limped away from his wrestling match, he was anticipating Esau’s wrath. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…Jacob said, ‘…truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’” Let’s recap. Jacob wrestled with God and with humans, limped away with a hip out of joint towards his brother Esau who he thought wanted to kill him. Instead, they were reconnected through Esau’s forgiveness, so much so that Jacob saw the face of God in Esau’s face.
Last week, Pastor Gail preached about the invasive extravagance of God’s kingdom. This week, Paul and Jacob’s stories give us permission to wrestle and long for the abundance Jesus revealed in the feeding of the 5,000. The longing to be useful disciples who miraculously were able to do what Jesus asked them to do, and the longing to be filled as the ones who were fed. On any given day, each of our longings are different. Lately, and to no one’s surprise, I long for healing through the wisdom and hands of doctors and nurses. I wrestle more with myself than I do with God. There are signs of the kingdom and the peace of God’s promises throughout my story. But there is also fear and darkness. To say there isn’t, wouldn’t be telling the truth.
Today’s Bible readings encourage us to wrestle with God as we acknowledge our longings. What wrestling are you doing with God? What do you long for? Today is a day to trust God’s promises and to hold God accountable to them. There may be someone who is the face of God for you as Esau was for Jacob in the act of loving forgiveness. There may be a Jew who you can walk alongside as a cousin in the faith as Paul did for his people, his kinsmen in the flesh, acknowledging God’s unbreakable promise for them. There may be someone who encourages and loves you until your empty, broken heart is filled. On any given day, and maybe especially on Sundays, we help each other glimpse God’s kingdom coming near even if it’s not fully here yet. May it be so. Amen.
 Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for August 6, 2023.
 1 Corinthians 13:12
 Matthew 4:17
Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard [about the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.