Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jacob’s Wrestle

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

On October 20, 2013 we will celebrate the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from Genesis:

Genesis 32:24-30

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When 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. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

Here is Buechner's account of Jacob's wrestle, from The Son of Laughter:

Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. It was a man. I could not see his face. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river. My bulls had raped him. My flocks had fouled him and my children pissed on him. He would not let me cross without a battle. I got my elbow into the pit of his throat and forced him off. I threw him over onto his back. His breath was hot in my face as I straddled him. My breath came in gasps. Quick as a serpent he twisted loose, and I was caught between his thighs. The grip was so tight I could not move. He had both hands pressed to my cheek. He was pushing my face into the mud, grunting with the effort. Then he got me on my belly with his knee in the small of my back. He was tugging my head up toward him. He was breaking my neck.

He was not the god of the river. He was Esau. He had slain all my sons. He had forded the river to slay me. Just as my neck was about to snap, I butted my head upward with the last of my strength and caught him square. For an instant his grip loosened and I was free. Over and over we rolled together into the reeds at the water's edge. We struggled in each other's arms. He was on top. Then I was on top. I knew that they were not Esau's arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was. I knew only my terror and that it was dark as death. I knew only that what the stranger wanted was my life.

For the rest of the night we battled in the reeds with the Jabbok roaring down through the gorge above us. Each time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow. There were moments when we lay exhausted in each other's arms the way a man and a woman lie exhausted from passion. There were moments when I seemed to be prevailing. It was as if he was letting me prevail. Then he was at me with new fury. But he did not prevail. For hours it went on that way. Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain's beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, "Let me go:'

The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.

He said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking."

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.

I said, "I will not let you go."

I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.

I said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.

"Bless me," I said. "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

He said, "Who are you?"

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.

My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

"Jacob," I said. "My name is Jacob:'

"It is Jacob no longer;' he said. "Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel:'

I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. He was too close to me to see. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.

I said, "What is your name?" I could only whisper it.

"Why do you ask me my name?"

We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky.

I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.