We have four really great texts this morning, full of good, hopeful stuff to reflect on. But for some weird reason this week – completely out of left field – I’ve kept finding myself thinking about a totally different story of scripture, one that really isn’t directly related to any of our readings.
You might remember the story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger/angel – does that ring any bells? What details do you remember about that story?
Basically, Jacob is camped out by himself at a place called Peniel, and a mysterious figure wrestles with Jacob all night long. This guy is clearly very strong, but Jacob manages to hold his own, so as morning breaks, the man hits Jacob’s hip to knock it out of joint so he can get away – but Jacob refuses to let him go unless he blesses him. This is the moment in which Jacob is renamed Israel, which means “the one who strives with God” – it’s pretty strong foreshadowing of what Israel’s relationship with God will actually be like. (spoiler alert?)
It’s a fairly familiar story. But does anyone here remember the context of this story? (It’s a lot less well known.) What was Jacob doing at Peniel? Where was he going?
Jacob was on his way home. He had living for many years with his uncle Laban; he married Laban’s daughters Rachel and Leah; he had a whole mess of kids; and he had finally worn out his welcome by basically tricking his uncle into giving him the best parts of his herds and flocks. So with Laban ready to literally run Jacob off his property, God speaks to Jacob and tells him, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
So Jacob says to his wives, “Well, your dad’s pretty mad at me; and God says it’s time to go; so I guess we should make like a tree and leave!” So they pack up the kids and the camels and the cows and everything else and hit the road. But they’ve only barely gotten out the door when suddenly Jacob remembers: “Oh crap. Esau. That’s gonna be a problem.”
You might remember that when Jacob last left Esau, he had not only tricked him out of his inheritance; he had also tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son. Esau was so furious with Jacob that he even plotted to kill him once their father died. This is why Jacob went to live with Laban in the first place: he ran away from Esau’s fury – and left him to do all the chores in the meanwhile, while he went on to trick someone else!
But now, all of Jacob’s trickery and cunning are catching up with him – because going home, he will have to face his brother, Esau. And Jacob is terrified. He sends messengers to Esau to be like, “Heeyyyyy big bro… remember me? I’m coming home – and I’m bringing you lots of stuff! So like… are we cool?” And the messengers come back and tell Jacob, “We saw Esau, and he’s coming here to meet you, and also, uh… he’s bringing 400 men with him.”
This throws Jacob into a full blown panic. He splits up his group of people in case Esau would come and attack them. And he tries to win his way back into Esau’s good graces by sending him wave after wave of gifts: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty camels, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. And finally, Jacob has Rachel and Leah hang back with the kids while he prepares to face Esau alone.
This is where we find Jacob on the night when he wrestles with the angel. Jacob is alone and anxious and afraid. He’s preparing himself with fear and trembling to face his brother – and to face the consequences of his actions. For Jacob, it is a long night of agonizing over what will happen when he sees his brother the next day.
In the morning, he gets up and sees Esau coming with his 400 men. He goes out to meet him, with Rachel and Leah and the kids following at a safe distance. And what do you suppose happens next?
To Jacob’s great surprise, Esau runs to meet him. He pulls Jacob into a big bear hug and full on weeps at seeing his long-lost brother after all this time. Esau holds no grudge against his brother; he shows nothing but love toward him. And he even tells Jacob, “You really didn’t need to get me all this stuff; I already have everything I need. Like, I’m good on camels, seriously.” Esau is just so happy and grateful to see his brother again.
It’s such a beautiful story of grace and repentance and reconciliation – a story about the repairing of a very broken relationship. I love this story of Esau reconciling with Jacob. Jacob repents of the ways that he has caused harm to his brother and to their relationship, and Esau so graciously forgives him. And although Esau definitely isn’t a perfect person, the grace he shows toward Jacob is a pretty perfect reflection of the grace that God shows toward us. And these themes of grace and repentance and reconciliation are what stand out to me as I read our texts for today.
Sometimes I think we get this idea stuck in our heads of God as this judgmental and disapproving father figure. We expect God to be angry with us – or to be disappointed, which we all know is even worse to hear from a parent figure. So when it comes to a season like Advent – or even more so Lent – I think we can sometimes feel a bit like Jacob, anxious and alone at Peniel, wrestling with our own failings, and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
This is especially true when we come across harsh-sounding language like what we hear in our first reading from Malachi: “But who can endure the day of [the Lord’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” In other words, he’s coming to burn the impurities out of us like fire and caustic soap – yikes! But keep reading, and Malachi tells us why; he writes: “…he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.” He’s talking about restoration of relationship!
This is why John the Baptist is calling people to repentance in our gospel reading. It’s not a call to feel bad about ourselves or to beat ourselves up for the ways we’ve fallen short. This call to repentance is a call to come home. It’s a call to turn back toward God, who is ready and waiting to run out and meet us, to receive us with love and grace.
God’s relationship with humanity is a relationship that God simply refuses to give up on. Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – celebrates this in our gospel canticle. He sings: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old… Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant.”
God’s people – Israel, the people who strive with God – have endlessly rebelled against the covenant and against God. Their relationship with God is broken and fractured. But instead of being angry, God bends over backwards to fix this relationship. Instead of letting the covenant remain broken and letting humanity self-destruct, God doubles down on a new covenant; God comes in love and in the flesh to forgive us and redeem us forever.
From top to bottom, beginning to end, God’s intention toward us is reconciliation and love. Like Esau, God’s not mad when we mess up; God just wants us to come home.
So this week, I invite you to consider: Where in your life might God be seeking reconciliation with you? Or where might God be inviting you into reconciliation with someone else? And how can you let down your guard enough to receive God’s presence and just let yourself be loved?