Sunday, August 6, 2017
Sermon: Seeing the Face of God
Seeing the Face of God
James Sledge August 6, 2017
What a strange story marking the end of Jacob’s exile from his homeland. When he first left Canaan, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, he slept alone in the wilderness, fearing for his life, dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and there encountered God. To his surprise, God promised to be with him and bless him and bring him back home once more. Now, as he returns, Jacob encounters God once more.
Jacob is almost home. But the night before he arrives, he finds himself alone once more in the wilderness, yet again fearing for his life, fearing his brother Esau. He returns a rich man, with vast herds and flocks, and many servants. He also has two wives and twelve children. God has indeed been with him. God has also told him it is time to come home. But there is still the issue of Esau. Is he still angry? Does he still seek Jacob’s life?
Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau that he and his flocks and servants and family are coming, hoping to find favor with Esau. The messengers return with a report that Esau and 400 men are coming to meet them. Jacob is, understandably, terrified.
Jacob remembers God’s promises and the command to return home. He prays for God to protect his family. He also sends waves of offerings to Esau, hoping to appease him. Servants take flocks and herds toward Esau at regular intervals. Finally, Jacob sends his family and all that remains with him on ahead, leaving Jacob alone.
Jacob is alone and afraid, just like all those decades ago at Bethel. But this time there is no dream of a ramp to heaven. This night a man wrestled with him until daybreak. People sometimes speak of an angel wrestling Jacob, but as the story opens, it simply says “a man.” It soon becomes obvious, however, that this is no ordinary man.
Most likely the writers of Genesis have borrowed a much older, pre-Israelite tale of a patriarch’s encounter with a night demon who attacks people trying to ford the river. But in the reworking, it becomes a highly symbolic story where God quite literally engages Jacob and allows him to struggle with and against God.
Remarkably, it is a story without a clear winner or loser. Jacob is blessed and receives a new name, but he is also scarred, wounded. His opponent blesses him, but refuses to reveal the divine name to Jacob. In the end, the story does not tell us who finally let go of whom, but both Jacob and his opponent agree that Jacob has wrestled with God.
Finally, Jacob limps away, calling the place Peniel, which means “God’s face.” Jacob says, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” But if Jacob has wrestled with God and yet lived, there still remains the matter of Esau.
I have to admit that for most of my life and most of my time as a pastor I never made much of a connection between Jacob’s wrestling match with God and Jacob’s encounter with Esau later that day. I blame the lectionary which lists the verses we heard today and next week jumps ahead to stories about Joseph, Jacob’s next to last son.
But the writers of Genesis clearly expect us to connect these two events. The paragraphs prior to our reading today are all about getting ready to meet Esau who is coming with four hundred men. And the very next verse after the Peniel story says this. Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. Jacob has survived his encounter with God. Will he fare so well with Esau?
Jacob moves toward Esau, bowing repeatedly as he gets closer. But Esau’s reaction is not at all what Jacob feared. Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. It is a show of hospitality and welcome unparalleled in the book of Genesis, a graciousness Jacob had no reason to expect.
This notion of grace, of favor, comes up repeatedly as Jacob and Esau meet. Jacob introduces his family, speaking of them as gracious gifts from God. But when Esau asks about all the gifts that have been coming to him in waves, Jacob says they were in order to find favor with Esau, to purchase it if you will. But Esau refuses such a gift. He has no need of it. He has plenty already.
This prompts a remarkable, theological epiphany for Jacob. Having encountered Esau’s gracious favor, Jacob now acts out of gratitude. “Accept my present from my hand, for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me…” Jacob, who thinks he must struggle and strive and scheme for everything, even with God, now sees that he has been the recipient of undeserved favor, grace, blessings, love.
When did you last see the face of God? The stories of Jacob wrestling at Peniel and meeting the brother he had defrauded speak truths about meeting God that may be uncomfortable for many of us. Both of Jacob’s encounters occurred in the midst of great fear and vulnerability. Alone at night on the banks of the river Jabbok, fearing for his life, Jacob meets God. It is a frightening encounter, one that leaves him wounded, but with a new name and destiny.
Jacob surely understands what Jesus will later teach about the need to descend into fear and loss and death. “Those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” True conversion almost always begins with descent, with loss, with dying.
So too Jacob’s meeting with Esau is filled with fear, danger, vulnerability, and risk. For all his attempts to placate Esau with gifts, Jacob must finally take the chance, a leap of faith, that he will encounter favor and grace he does not deserve. Surely Jacob could appreciate Jesus’ call to embrace the risky way of the cross.
When did you last see the face of God? According to the story of Jacob, and to the teachings of Jesus, the place where that happens may be the place we fear, the last place we want to go. But perhaps, the place that we most need to go.