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The Rev. Frederick Buechner The Rev. Frederick Buechner
The Rev. Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of numerous bestselling books and novels. Visit www.FrederickBuechner.com

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Frederick Buechner Center


The Magnificent Defeat

November 07, 2014

Today we present Buechner's classic sermon "The Magnificent Defeat" which was originally published in the book The Magnificent Defeat and later in Secrets in the Dark.


The Magnificent Defeat


The same night he arose 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. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob's thigh 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." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Tell me, I pray, your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of 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 thigh. Genesis 32:22-31 RSV


WHEN A MINISTER reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lessonsomething elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen-and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it-there is no telling what you might hear.


The story of Jacob at the river Jabbok, for instance. This stranger leaping out of the night to do terrible battle for God knows what reason. Jacob crying out to know his name but getting no answer. Jacob crippled, defeated, but clinging on like a drowning man and choking out the words, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Then the stranger trying to break away before the sun rises. A ghost, a demon? The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story which were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as man himself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife. If it means anything, what does it mean, and let us not assume that it means anything very neat or very edifying. Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification. But in any event, the place where you have to start is Jacob: Jacob the son of Isaac, the beloved of Rachel and Leah, the despair of Esau, his brother. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Who and what was he?


An old man sits alone in his tent. Outside, the day is coming to a close so that the light in the tent is poor, but that is of no concern to the old man because he is virtually blind, and all he can make out is a brightness where the curtain of the tent is open to the sky. He is looking that way now, his head trembling under the weight of his great age, his eyes cobwebbed around with many wrinkles, the ancient, sightless eyes. A fly buzzes through the still air, then lands somewhere.


For the old man there is no longer much difference between life and death, but for the sake of his family and his family's destiny, there are things that he has to do before the last day comes, the loose ends of a whole long life to gather together and somehow tie up. And one of these in particular will not let him sleep until he has done it: to call his eldest son to him and give him his blessing, but not a blessing in our sense of the word-a pious formality, a vague expression of good will that we might use when someone is going on a journey and we say, "God bless you." For the old man, a blessing is the speaking of a word of great power; it is the conveying of something of the very energy and vitality of his soul to the one he blesses; and this final blessing of his firstborn son is to be the most powerful of all, so much so that once it is given it can never be taken back. And here even for us something of this remains true: we also know that words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.


So the old man is waiting now for his eldest son, Esau, to appear, and after a while he hears someone enter and say, "My father." But in the dark one voice sounds much like another, and the old man, who lives now only in the dark, asks, "Who are you, my son?" The boy lies and says that he is Esau. He says it boldly, and disguised as he is in Esau's clothes, and imitating Esau's voice-the flat, blunt tones of his brother-one can imagine that he is almost convinced himself that what he says is true. But the silence that follows his words is too silent, or a shadow falls between them-something-and the old man reaches forward as if to touch the face he cannot see and asks again, "Are you really my son, Esau?" The boy lies a second time, only perhaps not boldly now, perhaps in a whisper, perhaps not even bothering to disguise his voice in the half hope that his father will see through the deception. It is hard to know what the blind see and what they do not see; and maybe it was hard for the old man to distinguish clearly between what he believed and what he wanted to believe. But anyway, in the silence of his black goat-skin tent, the old man stretches out both of his arms and says, "Come near and kiss me, my son." So the boy comes near and kisses him, and the old man smells the smell of his garments and gives him the blessing, saying, "See, the smell of my son is the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed." The boy who thus by the most calculating stealth stole the blessing was of course Jacob, whose very name in Hebrew may mean "he who supplants," or, more colloq uially translated, "the go-getter."


It is not, I am afraid, a very edifying story. And if you consider the aftermath, it becomes a great deal less edifying still. What I mean is that if Jacob, as the result of duping his blind old father, had fallen on evil times, if he had been ostracized by his family and friends and sent off into the wilderness somewhere to suffer the pangs of a guilty conscience and to repent his evil ways, then of course the moralists would have a comparatively easy time of it. As a man sows, so shall he reap. Honesty is the best policy. But this is just not the way that things fell out at all.


On the contrary. Once his dishonesty is exposed and the truth emerges, there is really surprisingly little fuss. Old Isaac seemed to take the news so much in his stride that you almost wonder if perhaps in some intuitive way he did not know that it had been Jacob all along and blessed him anyway, believing in his heart that he would make the worthier successor. Rebecca, the mother, had favored the younger son from the start, so of course there were no hard words from her. In fact only Esau behaved as you might have expected. He was furious at having been cheated, and he vowed to kill Jacob the first chance he got. But for all his raging, nobody apparently felt very sorry for him because the truth of the matter is that Esau seems to have been pretty much of a fool.


One remembers the story of how, before being cheated out of the blessing, he sold his birthright for some bread and some lentil soup simply because Jacob had corne to him at a time when he was ravenously hungry after a long day in the fields-his birthright looking pale and intangible beside the fragrant reality of a good meal. So, although everybody saw that Esau had been given a raw deal, there seems to have been the feeling that maybe it was no more than what he deserved, and that he probably would not have known what to do with a square deal anyway.


In other words, far from suffering for his dishonesty, Jacob clearly profited from it. Not only was the blessing his, not to mention the birthright, but nobody seems to have thought much the worse of him for it, and there are no signs in the narrative that his conscience troubled him in the least. The only price he had to pay was to go away for a while until Esau's anger cooled down; and although one can imagine that this was not easy for him, he was more than compensated for his pains by the extraordinary thing that happened to him on his way.


For anyone who is still trying to find an easy moral here, this is the place to despair: because in the very process of trying to escape the wrath of the brother he had cheated, this betrayer of his father camped for the night in the hill country to the north, lay down with a stone for his pillow, and then dreamed not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty. The wonderful unexpectedness of it-of life itself, of God himself. He dreamed of a great ladder set up on the earth with the top of it reaching into heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon it; and there above it in the blazing starlight stood the Lord God himself, speaking to Jacob words of great benediction and great comfort: "The land on which you lie I will give to your descendants, and your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go."


Do not misunderstand me about moralists. The ecclesiastical body to which I am answerable as a minister would, I am sure, take a rather dim view of it if I were to say, "Down with moralists!" but as a matter of fact that is neither what I want to say nor what I feel. Moralists have their point, and in the long run, and very profoundly too, honesty is the best policy. But the thing to remember is that one cannot say that until one has said something else first. And that something else is that, practically speaking, dishonesty is not a bad policy either. I do not mean extreme dishonesty-larceny, blackmail, perjury, and so on-because practically speaking that is a bad policy if only on the grounds that either it lands the individual in jailor keeps him so busy trying to stay out of jail that he hardly has time to enjoy his ill-gotten gains once he has gotten them. I mean Jacob's kind of dishonesty, which is also apt to be your kind and mine. This is a policy that can take a man a long way in this world, and we are fools either to forget it or to pretend that it is not so.


This is not a very noble truth about life, but I think that it is a truth nonetheless, and as such it has to be faced just as in their relentless wisdom the recorders of this ancient cycle of stories faced it. It can be stated quite simply: the shrewd and ambitious man who is strong on guts and weak on conscience, who knows very well what he wants and directs all his energies toward getting it, the Jacobs of this world, all in all do pretty well. Again, I do not mean the criminal who is willing to break the law to get what he wants or even to take somebody's life if that becomes necessary. I mean the man who stays within the law and would never seriously consider taking other people's lives, but who from time to time might simply manipulate them a little for his own purposes or maybe just remain indifferent to them. There is no law against taking advantage of somebody else's stupidity, for instance. The world is full of Esaus, of suckers, and there is no need to worry about giving a sucker an even break because the chances are that he will never know what hit him anyway. In fact a sucker is by definition the man who never knows what hit him and thus keeps on getting hit-if not by us, by somebody else, so why not by us?


And the world is full of Isaacs, of people who cannot help loving us no matter what we do and whose love we are free to use pretty much as we please, knowing perfectly well that they will go on loving us anyway-and without really hurting them either, or at least not in a way that they mind, feeling the way they do. One is not doing anything wrong by all this, not in a way the world objects to, and if he plays it with any kind of sensitivity, a man is not going to be ostracized by anybody or even much criticized. On the contrary, he can remain by and large what the world calls a "good guy," and I do not use that term altogether ironically either. I mean "gooder" than many, good enough so that God in his infinite mercy can still touch that man's heart with blessed dreams.


Only what does it all get him? I know what you expect the preacher to say: that it gets him nothing. But even preachers must be honest. I think it can get him a good deal, this policy of dishonesty where necessary. It can get him the invitation or the promotion. It can get him the job. It can get him the pat on the back and the admiring wink that mean so much. And these, in large measure, are what we mean by happiness. Do not underestimate them. Then it comes time for Jacob to go home again. He has lived long enough in the hill country to the north, long enough to marry and to get rich. He is a successful man and, as the world goes, a happy man. Old Isaac has long since died, and there is every reason to think that Esau is willing to let bygones be bygones. Good old Esau. Jacob wants to go home again, back to the land that God promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and now to him, as a gift. A gift. God's gift. And now Jacob, who knows what he wants and what he can get and how to get it, goes back to get that gift. And I mean get, and you can be sure that Jacob means it too.


When he reaches the river Jabbok, which is all that stands between him and the promised land, he sends his family and his servants across ahead of him, but he remains behind to spend the night on the near shore alone. One wonders why. Maybe in order to savor to its fullest this moment of greatest achievement, this moment for which all his earlier moments have been preparing and from which only a river separates him now.


And then it happens. Out of the deep of the night a stranger leaps. He hurls himself at Jacob, and they fall to the ground, their bodies lashing through the darkness. It is terrible enough not to see the attacker's face, and his strength is more terrible still, the strength of more than a man. All the night through they struggle in silence until just before morning when it looks as though a miracle might happen. Jacob is winning. The stranger cries out to be set free before the sun rises. Then, suddenly, all is reversed.


He merely touches the hollow of Jacob's thigh, and in a moment Jacob is lying there crippled and helpless. The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, that the whole battle was from the beginning fated to end this way, that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is a grip not of violence but of need, like the grip of a drowning man.


The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent's face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death-the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me!" Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.


Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight-God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives - our selves, our wills, our treasure.


Will we give them, you and I? I do not know. Only remember the last glimpse that we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.


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