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When we think about pilgrimages, we can imagine what the journey is like and we know it is not always easy or comfortable. In fact, it is often challenging and it has its ups and downs, just like in life. And there are special milestones along the way that help us to take stock and remember how far we have come. Perhaps something special or sacred happened at various points in our lives, and those count as the significant milestones in our life journey. Often, these milestones also mark important transition points such as starting a new job, welcoming a new baby, losing a loved one, moving to another country, moving back here after a long time away, choosing to be in a committed relationship, experiencing God in a new way. Some transitions are joyful and some are painful, but each transition comes with its own set of challenges, even the seemingly happy ones.
There are many stories about milestones and transitions in the Bible. And one of the most significant to me is that of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger in Genesis 32. Let’s take a walk through the background story. Jacob and Esau were twins and Jacob managed to convince Esau to sell away his birthright as the eldest son to him in exchange for a bowl of stew. Then much later on, Jacob pretended to be Esau and went to talk to his father who was old and blind, and deceived his own father so that the birthright could be given to him. After that, he ran away to his uncle’s land, knowing that his brother was angry with him.
Jacob married and had children and amassed wealth over the years, and he was preparing to return to the land of his father, Canaan. And in Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way back home to Canaan with his small tribe of wives and children when he heard that his estranged brother, Esau, was coming to meet him – with four hundred men. It sounded more like an army than a welcome party. And Jacob was scared to death.
He knew there was a high possibility that Esau would kill them all – him, his wives and children, his entire household — for what he had done in the past, and he prayed to God for help and deliverance. Then he divided his family into two groups, hoping that at least one will survive. After all the planning and preparation, Jacob tries to go to sleep, but sometime during the night, Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. That brings us to the beginning of our passage for today.
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[g] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[h] and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
So as I was reading this passage, a few questions popped up in my mind. The first question was:
1. What was the significance of crossing the ford?
But before we answer that question, I have a simpler question — What is a ford? Verse 32 says they crossed the ford of the Jabbok in the middle of the night, and that is a word we seldom use. So I looked up the definition in order to picture the scene better:
1. a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across.
I did a bit of research and the Jabbok River is located about 30 kilometers north of the Dead Sea and flows into the Jordan River. As you well know, the Israelites had to cross various bodies of water to get to their destinations. Sometimes the crossing of a body of water is purely functional to get to one’s destination but in this story, the crossing of the ford of Jabbok seems to be rather symbolic too, when you take into account what happens after. Water has some symbolism for us Christians. We gathered at the Jordan River for the baptism of some of our siblings last year, and even when we’re not at a river, we use water for baptism in church. It is one way to mark a significant moment when change happens within a person.
For Jacob, crossing the Jabbok that night represented the crossing over to a significant change within himself. The story starts with Jacob sending his whole family and all his possessions across the stream, and Jacob was left alone. Perhaps Jacob was sending his family away to keep them safe. Perhaps he thought both he and his family would be safer if he were not with them since he’s the person Esau had issue with. Or maybe he was very anxious and needed some space to be by himself to sort out his emotions and pray. Whatever his intent, we know that he deliberately chose to send everyone and everything across the river, and he chose to be alone and vulnerable. This parallels his situation at Bethel when he was running away from his brother many years ago, but this time he is choosing to be alone. He’s not running away; he’s coming back. This shows that he is willing to face his past – as well as his destiny – relying on God alone.
That’s when a mysterious stranger shows up and wrestles Jacob till daybreak. And the second question I had was:
2. Who was Jacob wrestling with?
There is some debate among scholars about who Jacob was wrestling with. Some say it’s an angel sent by God. Some say perhaps Jacob was actually wrestling with himself – his alter ego. Striking the blow to the hip is a dirty trick – one that Jacob himself might use. And it would make sense as a symbolic story for the nation of Israel which has a history of wrestling with itself, as well as with outsiders. The tribes of Israel often fought amongst themselves, to which Jacob’s internal battle may allude.
But of all the possibilities as to who the stranger might be, I find one to be the most intriguing.
Jacob is wrestling with God.
The stranger tells Jacob in v. 28, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
At first, this doesn’t make sense. Why would God want to attack Jacob and wrestle with him? And that is my third question:
3. Why were they wrestling?
Well, if we look carefully, we find that this is exactly the encounter that Jacob needed. His internal turmoil needed to be worked out externally with God so that he could gain clarity, awareness and the conviction to change.
Up until his wrestling match at the river Jabbok, Jacob’s usual methods of dealing with life’s problems was to avoid direct confrontation and outsmart or deceive his opponents. And these methods seemed to work out for him and made him quite successful. He had a family, many children, and material wealth.
But what Jacob finds out is that this is not enough. His past will catch up with him. And God doesn’t allow Jacob to stay the way he is. Jacob had decades’ worth of relational conflicts he needed to resolve and he had to make amends for the wrong he had done. And God didn’t want him to just give an external show of making amends and asking for forgiveness, but a true transformation of his heart. This was more for Jacob than for God. This was for Jacob’s growth as a person, to move him towards genuine humility and alignment of his heart and his actions.
Let’s just pause here and think about the implications for our own lives, our own faith journey, our own church.
God doesn’t allow us to stay the way we are. No matter where we have been, no matter our successes or sins, God does not abandon us. But there comes a time when God may wrestle with us, and we wrestle with God, because something more is required of us. We come face to face with who we are – all our mistakes, all our fears, the most vulnerable part of ourselves that we keep hidden away. And that’s where we meet God, often in a painful, and yet transformative way.
Is there something that God is wrestling with you, and you are wrestling with God about? Is God inviting you to come face to face with who you are – your mistakes, fears, the most vulnerable parts of yourself that you would prefer to keep hidden? If so, do not be afraid. This is an important step towards growth. And you are not alone in this invitation to come face to face.
During that fateful night alone beside the river, Jacob finally faces the darkest parts of himself and the wrongdoings of his past. But it doesn’t just stop there. More importantly, he begins to lay down his fears and sees the future that God has destined for him. So this confrontation with God becomes the gift of grace that Jacob so desperately needed.
At dawn, after they have been wrestling all night, the mysterious stranger strikes Jacob in the hip. You can imagine how painful that is! Then the stranger asks Jacob to release him. But Jacob will not let him go until he receives a blessing.
What does the mysterious stranger do? He asks Jacob’s name. This may strike us as strange but it was not just a random question. Remember there was another time when Jacob was asked his name and he lied? That was when his father, Isaac, asked his name. At that time, Jacob the deceiver, had lied and said he was Esau so that he could receive his father’s blessing.
But here at the river Jabbok, Jacob admits who he really is – not just his identity but all his wrongdoings, his arrogance, and his deception. This was perhaps a sign that he was repenting or basically, turning his back on his old ways.
So the mysterious stranger gives Jacob a new name – Israel. The Hebrew word is Yisra’el, which has several meanings: “God strives”, “God persists”, “God rules”.
This name is appropriate in several ways. Jacob persisted with humans and prevailed. He persisted with God and received a blessing. Even with that very painful injury, he would not let go without wrestling a blessing from God. And this blessing he received from God is a genuine one – not one stolen from his brother.
Due to this life-changing encounter with God, Jacob names the place Peniel, meaning “face of God”. It says in v. 30, ‘So Jacob called the place Peniel,[g] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
My fourth question is:
4. What is the significance of the name Peniel for us?
Peniel in Hebrew means “face of God” and I would like to suggest that the word “face” works on three levels. First, Jacob is no longer running away but coming face-to-face with his brother Esau. Second, he is coming face-to-face with the sins of his past. Third, and most importantly, he is coming face-to-face with God. He is finally being honest. He is willing to be transformed.
What about us? What is it, or who is it, that you have been avoiding? Coming to Peniel means coming face-to-face with yourself – being honest with yourself, others and God. There was an honesty in Jacob’s struggle. And that is what God was looking for. This honesty is what God wants from us too. God loves us too much to allow us to stay where we are. Because as pilgrims, we are on an intentional journey towards spiritual growth. It takes work and wrestling, but we need to first be humble, honest and willing.
This applies not just to individuals, but to our faith community as well. As a church, we can be encouraged by this text to grapple with our differences, our difficult histories, the ways we have failed in the past, and our uncertainties about the future.
As a church, we are in a time of transition. We don’t know how long we will be staying at this location. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to sell this place at the desired price. We are uncertain where we will go and the form it will take, if and when we do move. But I pray that this time of transition will be a time we come face-to-face with God. This means a time to come face-to-face with ourselves, with one another and with God, and ask the important questions we need to discern together as a community:
1. Who are we called to be as a church?
2. How is God leading us into the future?
These are questions Miak and I, the board and council, as well as various leaders have spent time grappling with together. I think we know that we are called to be an inclusive and progressive church, a faith community that first realizes that everyone is equal, and we seek to put that into practice. Our website currently articulates who we are as a church quite well and you can read more there. But we need to continually seek God about our way ahead together and you will be hearing more as we move closer to our AGM at the end of November.
As we talk about spiritual milestones, this is also an appropriate time for us to take stock of where we are in our own lives and where we are going. Milestones offer us a chance to reflect, rest, and release. Many milestones are joyous times but they can also be times of sadness and loss. We say goodbye to the past and turn the page to a new chapter. Transitions mark the close of one chapter and the opening of a new chapter. Milestones mark our progress and growth. They mark significant events in our lives and possibly a turning point.
I would like to share some questions with you and encourage you to reflect and take stock of where you are in your life:
1. Reflect on the milestones in your life. Have those been opportunities to see God, see yourself and see others more clearly? How have those encounters helped you grow?
2. Is your life turning a new page in this season?
3. Are there things, situations, people that you are meant to say goodbye to?
4. What is the new chapter, new name that God is opening you towards?
5. Are you open, humble and willing to cross the ford even if it has to involve wrestling and struggle?
I was reflecting on my own life and one of the significant milestones during which I really wrestled with God, was when I was invited to share my story for the Pink Dot video a few years ago. I prayed and wrestled with God about the decision because I knew it would involve my family and loved ones. And I was afraid about the backlash that they would receive and have to deal with. I told God I was okay dealing with all the backlash but it felt unfair to have to put my family through all that. And I struggled for a few days with the decision. Finally, God reminded me that this was for their growth too. Even though it might be difficult for them and for me, perhaps this challenge was something they had to go through for their own growth, and I shouldn’t be standing in the way of their growth. This reminder from God was like a strike to the hip and I finally relented. What surprised me was my brother’s response when I talked to him about doing the Pink Dot video. Up till that point, I had never spoken directly to my brother about being lgbtq. He knew about me, of course, but we never talked about it. So this gave us an opportunity to talk about it openly and it gave me a chance to hear his views for the first time. He asked me if the content of my video would reach people like one of his friends who’s gay and left church because the pastor was unwelcoming. I said I hope so because that’s the only reason I was choosing to do this video – so that lgbtq people would know that God still loves them. Then my brother said, “If this video can reach people like my friend, then we just have to face what comes.” I was extremely moved to hear his words. Talk about coming face-to-face with God, with ourselves and with others.
So how did the story end for Jacob? Jacob leaves the fords of Jabbok wounded and prepares to face his brother Esau. In the words of the theologian Henri Nouwen, the hope is that Jacob, having wrestled with God, leaves Jabbok as a “wounded healer,” not as a wounded wounder. The hope is that he will learn from his injury and use his experience to heal others, and not wound them out of his own woundedness.
After this night alone coming face to face with God, Jacob rejoins his family and bravely walks in front of them as they make their way towards his brother. Jacob went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached Esau. Instead of running away, he takes ownership for his wrongdoings and “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Gen 33:3-4).” Jacob responds, “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.” (Gen 33:10). And Jacob should know since he has just spent the night wrestling with God face to face!
This precious encounter with God was truly a spiritual milestone for Jacob. It was humbling and life-transforming – transforming not only his relationship with God, but his relationship with himself and with others. What about you? What kind of spiritual milestones have you experienced in your life? It may not be as dramatic as Jacob’s but you know it’s a milestone because your life was certainly changed in some way.
Two students asked a rabbi, “Why does God command us to put the word of God on our hearts. Why did God not say to put God’s word in our hearts?” The rabbi responded, “We are commanded to place the word of God on our hearts because our hearts are closed and the word of God cannot get in. So God commands us to place the word of God on our hearts. And there it sits and waits for the day when our hearts will be broken. When they are broken, then the word of God will fall gently inside.”
May our hearts be broken and may the word of God fall gently inside.
Come to Peniel. Come face-to-face with God, with yourself and with others. Because this is where we will encounter the transforming grace of God. Yes, we may walk with a limp at the end of this struggle. But we will emerge transformed, changed by the blessing of God.
May this be so for you and me, and may this be so for our faith community.