Chosen Conversations

June 21, 2023

Season 1, Episode 5.

Available on Podcast here.

Available on Vimeo here.

Stan Wilson, Haley Villacorta, David Villacorta, and I have begun a series of podcasts/videos about “The Chosen” produced and directed by Dallas Jenkins.

These conversations seek to explore one dimension of “The Chosen” per episode. This week we focus on Mary, the Wedding in Cana, and first movements of opposition in the first season.

The first public miracle–turning water into wine at the Cana Wedding–revealed the presence of the Messiah in Israel. It inaugurated the public ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of John. As his ministry became more public, opposition also grew.

Join us for the conversation!

Holy Trinity Homily

June 5, 2023

This brief homily is based on the the lectionary readings from Genesis 1-2:4a, Psalm 8, Matthew 28:16-20, and 2 Corinthians 13:13.

The love of God is expressed in creation and in the story of redemption (including the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit).

The grace of Jesus Christ is the gift of himself as the one through whom we receive the grace that saves.

The communion of the Holy Spirit is a participation in the dynamic of love that is the intimacy of the Triune God.

2 Corinthians 13:13 summarizes the gospel story.

Chosen Conversations

June 2, 2023

Season 1, Episode 4.

Available on Podcast here.

Available on Vimeo here.

Stan Wilson, Haley Villacorta, David Villacorta, and I have begun a series of podcasts/videos about “The Chosen” produced and directed by Dallas Jenkins.

These conversations seek to explore one dimension of “The Chosen” per episode. This week we focus on Matthew in the first season.

Matthew, a rejected and marginalized person in the Jewish community, is a wealthy tax collector within the Roman system. How does the Chosen uniquely but helpfully portray the story of Matthew’s job, curiosity, and ultimately faith as he decides to follow Jesus when Jesus invites him.

Join us for the conversation!

Moffitt: Rethinking the Atonement

May 15, 2023

I have now read the fifth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Michael Asbell. This is my summary.

David Moffitt, Rethinking the Atonement: New Perspectives on Jesus’s Death, Resurrection, and Ascension (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2022).

While the term “atonement” is most often used to describe the cross of Jesus as the focus of God’s atoning activity, Moffitt suggests that “atonement” is more inclusive than the cross itself.  Rooting his argument in the homily we know as Hebrews, the work of atonement involves not only the cross but Christ’s resurrection and ascension.  God reconciled the world through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. This is a more wholistic picture. I have argued this myself in several places (including in this summary, though I don’t have an emphasis on ascension that belongs in this picture as well).

Moffitt argues that Hebrews, while proclaiming the death of Christ as the sacrificial slaughter for our sins, focuses more attention on the ascension of the resurrected Christ into God’s holy sanctuary to present the blood offering and to take up residence in that holy space as the high priest who presently and continually intercedes for the saints. His point is that in addition to the cross, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are “themselves fully and robustly salvific” (p. 5). All of these events in the life of Jesus are atoning. God saved us through the death of Christ “but even more by rising, ascending, and now interceding for them at the right hand of the Father” (p. 6).

Hebrews patterns the work of Christ on the model of the Levitical sacrificial system, though Christ is actually the archetype and Leviticus is the type.  The sacrifices were slaughtered, the blood was poured at the altar, and then the blood was taken into the most holy place and sprinkled on the ark of the covenant. Through the blood offering, the high priest interceded for the people.

The preacher in Hebrews understands the work of Christ in this way. Jesus is slaughtered on the cross and poured out at that altar, but then the resurrected Jesus ascends to the most holy place (the heavenly sanctuary) to present the offering before God. As high priest, Jesus remains in the presence of God to intercede for the people. Though Jesus could not be a priest on earth because he was from Judah and not Levi, he is a priest in the heavenlies according to the order of Melchizedek continually interceding for the people. In this way, Christ’s atoning work continues in the presence of God, and Christ is present to God as the embodied resurrected Messiah, our high priest. Consequently, the church lives with confident boldness as it journeys through the wilderness of life because it knows that its heavenly high priest stands before God as its intercessor.

Typically, the cross is understood as the singular place where Jesus offered himself as a bloody sacrifice and on the cross presented himself to the Father. Moffitt, based on Hebrews as well as a few other texts, wants to understand those two movements in a sequence. Christ first shed his blood on the cross and thus offered himself as one who bears the sins of the people, and then the resurrected Christ offered himself in the heavenly sanctuary when he ascended to the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews teaches “Jesus is the one who died as the sacrifice, rose as the sacrifice, and ascended into the heavenly tabernacle to offer himself to God as the sacrifice” (p. 65).

Moffitt rejects claims that Jesus is the object of divine wrath. The function of the shedding of blood is not about turning away God’s wrath. Rather, the sacrifice suffers the covenant curses for the people, and so did Jesus. He suffered as a representative in solidarity and identification with the people. Jesus was the obedient representative of the people who renewed Israel’s covenant with God through the sin-bearing function of his death, and gave this renewed covenant eternal meaning through the presentation of his offering in the heavenly sanctuary as an eternal high priest, the resurrected Jesus, the Son of God.

While the Son came to earth to bear sins (as in bearing them away), he will come again without sin and for full salvation. The work of reconciliation (or atonement) is not done until Christ returns and fully deals with sin in all its consequences.

Through the lens of Hebrews, Moffitt’s book is a welcome acknowledgement that atonement is a fuller concept than simply the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus is both victim and priest, both sin-bearer and intercessor, both the offering and the offeror.  

The atoning, or reconciling, work of God in Christ by the Spirit is the full story of the gospel: incarnation, life, cross, resurrection, ascension, intercession, and return.   

Renewed Israel Assembled for Word and Table

April 12, 2023

Texts: Acts 2:42, 46-47; 5:42; 20:7-12

Days 59-61 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

The assembling of Israel at Mount Sinai and the renewal of Israel on the day of Pentecost are deeply connected.

  • At Sinai God inaugurated covenant with Israel, and on Pentecost God renewed covenant with Israel.
  • At Sinai God’s presence was revealed through lightning, thunder, and smoke, and on Pentecost it was revealed by wind, fire, and tongues.
  • At Sinai God came to dwell among Israel in the tabernacle, and on Pentecost God came to dwell in the hearts of Israel through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • At Sinai God gave the law through Moses, and on Pentecost God taught Israel through words uttered by the Spirit of God.
  • At Sinai Israel gathered to hear the word of God and sit at God’s table, and at Pentecost Israel gathered to listen to the apostle’s teaching and sit at table with Jesus.

Acts 2:42 records that this newly assembled group of 3,000+ baptized believers devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship, and that fellowship involved breaking bread and prayers. Instead of four separate and distinct items, I think it is two (teaching and fellowship) with the second identified by breaking bread and prayers.

When they listened to the apostles teaching in the temple, they gathered as a community. When they shared fellowship through breaking bread and prayers, they gathered as a community. Israel, in effect, assembled on Mt. Zion just as they had done at Mt. Sinai. The assembly of Israel is renewed as the assembly of the Messiah in whose name the 3,000 were baptized.

They gathered, however, as a large community at the temple for teaching and prayers, and they gathered as smaller communities in homes for the breaking of bread. Their assemblies were not all the same sort of thing. Rather, they assembled in different ways in order to experience different dimensions of the reality of the Spirit. Perhaps thousands gathered in the temple to listen to teaching and participate in the prayers of the temple, and then they gathered in small groups in homes to eat together as they continued to praise God in prayer.

The standard was the teaching of the apostles. They were with Jesus for forty days after his resurrection. Those were days when Jesus clarified his mission, spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and help them read the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of his own work. If we wonder what the teaching of the apostles looked like, we only need read the sermons in Acts (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, or his summary to Cornelius in Acts 10). It was the story of Israel, Jesus, and the renewal of Israel.

As renewed Israel, they continued table practices. They ate together, and they ate in the presence of God. The Messiah is the host of the table. The Gospel of Luke identified the meaning of breaking bread. It is a meal hosted by the Messiah to give life and enjoy fellowship. It is a resurrection of meal because in the breaking of the bread the living Messiah is revealed.

When Paul and the community in Troas broke bread, they broke bread with a resurrected Eutyches. But they not only ate with Eutyches, they ate with the resurrected one himself. This was a table of the living Messiah, and the community gathered in the presence of the Messiah who hosts his own banquet.

The baptized community assembled to hear the word of the Lord, and they assembled to fellowship, which included the breaking of bread and prayers. This was a continuation of Israel’s own life with God which began with a “day of assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:4; 18:16) and continued through the teaching of the law and eating at tables with God. The church, grafted into the tree of Israel, continues the same sort of practices: assembling, teaching, and table.

This is part of the process by which a community is formed, and in this case the formation of a community that embraces and participates in the mission of God.

Chosen Conversations

April 12, 2023

Season 1, Episode 1.

Available on Apple Podcasts here.

Available on Vimeo here.

Stan Wilson, Haley Villacorta, David Villacorta, and I have begun a series of podcasts/videos about “The Chosen” produced and directed by Dallas Jenkins.

These conversations seek to explore one dimension of “The Chosen” per episode. This week we focus on Mary in the first episode in the first season.

We see the dramatized interaction between Jesus and Mary in that episode as a proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus.

Join us for the conversation!

A Letter to the Body of Christ

February 13, 2023

This was first presented orally at the opening of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. It appears in the volume: Letters of Conscience to the Churches in America: A Courageous Christian Response to White Supremacy. I was invited by Jerry Taylor to offer a letter in support of the new Center, and this is what I sent him.

April 21, 2020, From Nashville, Tennessee

To my Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

At least two horizons are important for this moment in history.

One horizon is the heart of God, which is displayed throughout God’s story given to us in the Bible. The other horizon is the moment in which we live with its historical baggage, situated complexities, and systemic practices.

God created one humanity. Though it—as God intended—grew in diversity and culture as human beings spread across the globe, we are all one blood from one ancestor (Acts 17:28). Every human being is invested with dignity, honor, and glory as the image of God. Moreover, in the new creation—the body of Christ—we are one genos (1 Peter 2:9), a community bound together by the Spirit of God. We are a new race—a family of sisters and brothers in Christ. This new creation participates in the reality gathered around the throne of God where all languages, tribes, and peoples stand before the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 7:9). The body of Christ—expressed in our common human dignity, our shared life in the Spirit, and our future home together—ought to rise above all divisions in this evil age (Galatians 1:4) and cry out with one voice to proclaim the reconciling gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

But this evil age has a history. It is filled with slavery, violence, and discrimination. This history has a formative effect on people, families, and nations. Just as Israel could not escape the cumulative effect of its sins against the poor and its injustices, so no nation can escape them now. The evils in our history are a powerful debilitating presence, and they shape us in ways we do not even know. That history grounds and empowers the systemic evils of our nation’s laws, courts, and economic practices.

African Americans have experienced these evils over and over again. From slavery through Jim Crow segregation, from Jim Crow segregation to Redlining economic exclusion, and from Redlining to mass incarceration, the system—in all its facets—has oppressed African Americans economically, judicially, and relationally. The system created an atmosphere of suspicion, hostility, and prejudice.

White nationalism produced that system. White privilege maintains it.

The present times give new evidence of this evil age and its systemic hostility to African Americans in the United States. Armed white groups protest when African Americans cannot even kneel in protest at a football game. The Coronavirus is killing African Americans at a higher rate due, in large part, to years of neglect and poverty. Hate crimes are increasing. Racist language and practices are given space in the public square and in our government policies.

I suppose it is not much different than it has ever been, but its prominence, public expression, and prideful arrogance has leavened our public discourse with hate, bickering, and self-interest.

Sisters and brothers, hatred, violence, and unjust practices are not the prayer of Christ. We seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. We give greater weight to faith, mercy, and justice. We follow Jesus to the cross in obedience to the will of God rather than seeking our own interests and ambitions.

Our politic is neither Republican nor Democrat. Our politic is the kingdom of God. The reign of God calls us to treat every human being with dignity and honor, eschew violence against others, and call for economic and judicial justice for every human being.

This is the time—as it has always been the right time—to pay attention to the systemic evil that is now raising its ugly head. Too often our national consciousness receives this as normal.  It is not, however, the way things are supposed to be.

When Christians do not raise their voice against racism, they betray their Messiah who unites all peoples in one community gathered around the throne of God. When we deflect and distract from the real problems and their systemic nature, we betray our Lord who confronted evil rather than making excuses for it. When we ignore the problem, we become part of the problem. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation rather than harbingers of evil.  When we are silent, we are complicit; when we are complicit, we participate in the evil.

Let our churches pray for peace and reconciliation, but also let our churches act for peace and reconciliation. Let the white churches make the first move! Let us humble ourselves, making ourselves nothing, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with our African American sisters and brothers.

Who will make the first move? Who will confess their sin? Who will love their neighbor without conditions?

The white church must make that first move, confess their sins, and lovingly listen to its black neighbors. Only then may the healing begin, and only then will our white eyes open to the realities of this evil age for our black sisters and brothers.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology, Lipscomb University

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

February 3, 2023

Forgiveness is a choice, according to Desmond and Mpho Tutu, and there is no wholeness in humanity’s future without forgiveness. Since we are all broken, “forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again” (p. 3). Forgiveness is how we heal the world, according to The Book of Forgiving.

Often, we may want to forgive but don’t know how to do it. The process is mysterious and difficult, especially when we are trying to divest ourselves of resentment and bitterness toward others and their actions. “On this path,” they write, “we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness” (p. 4). They also addresses self-forgiveness as well as needing forgiveness ourselves.

Moreover, this father and daughter team raises the question how we pursue both forgiveness and justice. Tutu’s experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa informs his approach to this topic. His wisdom, gained both through theology and practice, has much to teach us.

At the heart of the book is the fourfold path. It is “simple, but it is not easy” (p. 5). They explore these practices through stories, personal experiences, and theological reflection.

  • Telling the Story
  • Naming the Hurt
  • Granting Forgiveness
  • Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

“Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed” (p. 71). The truth must be told, and the story must be heard. If we don’t tell the story to someone (family, friends, church, justice system, etc.), it will fester in our souls and damage the soul further. Listeners must create a safe space, listen attentively without cross-examination, acknowledge what happened, and sympathize with the pain.

When we name the hurt, we give a name to the emotion which helps understand how the hurt has affected us. Naming the hurt is the beginning of healing. This moves the story “beyond bare facts to the raw feelings” (p. 95). If we don’t express those feelings, they will come out in other, unhealthy ways. In this way, “grief is how we both cope with and release the pain we feel” (p. 102). Naming the hurt includes lament. Listeners don’t try to fix, minimize the loss, or offer advice. They listen well, sympathize, and love the one who names their hurt (p. 108).

Granting forgiveness is an act of spiritual formation; it is growth, and it is a process. The authors offer many examples of forgiveness by people deeply hurt by a loss or injustice. We choose to forgive as we recognize a “shared humanity” of brokenness (p. 125). When we can come to the point where we wish the other person well and when we can pray for their health and spiritual life, then we know we have forgiven. We can then tell a “new story” (p. 132).

We may either renew the relationship (which is a perpetual hope) or release the relationship (which is sometimes the only option). This step beyond forgiveness is important for healing since to forgive another is not the final step of healing. Renewal is not a return to what was before, but a new relationship borne out of the fruit of forgiveness (p. 148). Tutu offers some strategies for a renewal process. Sometimes, however, we must release the relationship; sometimes the person has already passed, or the person is impenitent (or refuses relationship). In such cases, “releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma” (p. 154).

This is a helpful book filled with real-life stories, practical wisdom, and a call for healing in our world without undermining the practice of justice. I highly recommend it.

Gender Ideology: “What is a Woman?”

January 9, 2023

Situation: the rise of trans people, especially among children (e.g., adolescent girls)

In 2007, there was only one pediatric gender clinic in the US; now, there are 300+ gender clinics (plus some services, like Planned Parenthood, dispense testosterone, depending on state laws, to minors without parental permission or a therapist note). Britain has seen a 4400%+ rise in incidences of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls (mostly teens) since 2014. This is called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD, teen girls with no prior history of gender dysphoria).

Gender Dysphoria: Severe discomfort with one’s biological sex.

  1. Classic/Typical Dysphoria:  appears in 1 in 10,000 (0.01%), overwhelmingly in males, begins in early childhood (2-4 years), persistent insistence on possessing the “wrong body,” and most experience same-(birth)-sex orientation. Typically, 75% become comfortable with their sex (most identify as Gay), while others transition to their desired sex (socially and/or medically).
  2. Social Contagion: “Trans Kids” (recently, they are mostly adolescent girls who have a long history of sharing their pain through self-harm, eating disorders, and anxiety about their bodies that is exacerbated by affirmation from authorities and social media influencers). In 2018, 2% of High Schoolers identified as transgender. Transition follows this form (not all fully complete it): (a) Self-identification and social transition (changing names, pronouns, gender expressions); (b) Puberty Blockers (when they have not yet gone through puberty); (c) Cross-Sex Hormones (androgens/antiestorgens; estrogens/antiandrogens); (d) Medical Transition (top surgeries; bottom surgeries).
  3. Activists: reshapes culture through the lens of gender ideology so that trans people are not only legally protected from harm but culturally affirmed and given space to flourish (e.g. sports, etc.).

Recommended Printed Resources

Abigail Favale (Roman Catholic), The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

Helen Joyce (atheist), Trans: Gender Identity and the New Battle for Women’s Rights.

Abigail Shrier (Jewish), Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Mark Yarhouse (evangelical), Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

Debra Soh (atheist), The End of Gender: Debunking Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society.

Preston Sprinkle (evangelical), Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has To Say

Recommended YouTube Lectures/Podcasts Abigail Shrier lecture Abigail Shrier and Jordan Peterson Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce and Abigail Favale Abigale Favale and Preston Sprinkle Abigale Favale Abigale Favale Mark Yarhouse Lisa Littman (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) Debra Soh

Question:  What is “gender”? How is it related to biological sex?

  • a social construct that varies from culture to culture;

therefore, gender is a fluid state without objective boundaries.

  • a matter of self-identification based on a sense of self;

therefore, gender is grounded in a subjective sense of self (even “innate”).

  • a fixed biological reality;

therefore, gender is grounded in and tethered to one’s biological sex.

Gender Definition

Gender is a comprehensive word that includes (a) social elements (which are culturally fluid in so many ways) and (b) struggles to identify (as some wrestle with their discomfort with their bodies and their self-image), but (c) ought to include biology as its objective ground and basis.

Much of current discussion excludes the body from such grounding or collapses the body into social construction or self-identity (e.g., male brain in a female body). Yet, binary biology is part of the ground of gender, and social constructs mimic this to one degree or another across cultures.

Lovingly, we may care for and accompany adolescents who are caught up in this “social contagion” (just like female adolescents have been caught in other contagions exacerbated by social media, like cutting [self-harm] and eating disorders) in ways that compassionately and sympathetically address gender dysphoria. While there are genuine experiences of gender dysphoria (the classic cases), there is also such a thing as “social contagion” that rests on social constructions for gender fluidity and encourages adolescents who are uncomfortable with their bodies to reject their body’s sex and identity as another gender (nonbinary, trans, etc.).

We can lovingly process this dysphoria with people while, at the same time, affirming the biological grounding of gender in their embodied sex. It is a difficult decision to reject the reality of one’s body; I cannot imagine that struggle. I know it is terrifying for those who experience this struggle, and they want some peace about how to relate to their bodies. As people of peace, we listen, dialogue, and offer a vision of the gospel that heals wounds rather than creating them.

Theological Claim:  There are only two sexes (“male” and “female” per Genesis 1:27).

Biologically, male and female are binary because a body either has one type of gamete or another (sperm or egg). No known human being has ever produced fertility through both. This biological reality is affirmed in the Genesis identification of human beings as “male or female” as well as in the biology of creation itself. All mammals are either male or female. Intersexed persons (0.02% of the population) are not a third sex but variations within male and female sexes. There is no third sex. Some people (0.002%) are born with both ovaries and testicles, few are functional and never both.

Without biological grounding, “gender” (and even sex itself for some) becomes an internal sense that is expressed through social conventions or expressions. Consequently, not only gender but sex itself becomes a fluid category. As a result, there is no definition of male/female except one’s own internal sense of identification. Biological sex, then, is folded into gender such that “sex” is “assigned” at birth rather than a given, a gift from God.

People who transition, whether driven by classic dysphoria or by social contagion, sometimes detransition. Some who transition regret their decision; others happily embrace it. Whatever the case, the church may pursue a welcoming and healing strategy rather than exclusion, derision, and hate. The church must prepare for how it will help trans people and nurture them in the faith.

Struggling with God (Genesis 32:22-31)

October 16, 2022

[This is a guest post by Becky Frazier, who completed an M.Div. at Lipscomb University and is presently on staff at the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, TN. This is the sermon she delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on October 16, 2022.]

This evening, I want to focus most of our time on the text from our Hebrew Bible, the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God. Let’s read it again together. Pay close attention and see what stands out to you from this passage: 

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, 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,and he was limping because of his hip. 

Whew! There’s a lot to unpack here out of 9 short verses. Who is this man that Jacob wrestles with? In a lot of traditional art and church history, the man is called an angel, but in the text, he is simply called a man, until the very end, after he has left, and Jacob says that in wrestling with this man, he has seen the face of God. The text doesn’t say where he comes from, he just shows up in the narrative as wrestling with Jacob. Who started it? Why were they wrestling? What is happening here? And why does it not warrant a whole chapter and some details please! Why, Old Testament, do I need to know how old every man was and the names of all the sons he begot, but you won’t tell me who this man was, or where he came from, or why he was wrestling or why Jacob thinks this man is God!?

It’s so interesting to me that, even after what the text describes as an extended time of fighting, all through the night, after a point where Jacob’s hip has been pulled out of place, causing what must have been excruciating pain, he still clings to this man, entangling himself and not letting go. When the man cries uncle and asks Jacob to get off of him, Jacob refuses saying that he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. 

Why would he ask for a blessing? How does he know that this man even has the ability to bless him? 

To help answer this, let’s situate this story in the narrative timeline. Jacob at this point in the story has left his father-in-law, Laban’s, house and gets word that he is about to run into his brother Esau. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this story, Jacob and Esau are brothers, twins in fact, and there is some bad blood there. And come to think of it, Jacob seems to have a pretty long history of wrestling. While they were still in their mother’s womb, their wrestling with one another was so intense that their mother, Rebekah, cried out to the Lord, asking what in the world was going on inside of her. 

Esau was born first which meant that he would receive the larger inheritance. But Jacob was right on his heels…literally. He followed Esau immediately with his hand wrapped around his brother’s foot. Jacob means “heel grabber”. Later in their life, Jacob twice wrests away from Esau what belonged to him through trickery: his birthright and his father’s blessing. After receiving this ill-begotten blessing, Jacob hightails it out of there to a far away land, knowing his brother was furious and would try to get vengeance. 

Jacob settles down and gets married to two sisters and has children… a lot of them…and grows his wealth (using some trickery again). But now it’s time to leave off on his own and in order to do that, he has to first encounter Esau, his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in perhaps decades, and who may or may not still have it out for Jacob (understandably in my opinion). So Jacob divides his family and all his wealth into two parties, thinking that if Esau attacked one, he at least wouldn’t be left with nothing, and sends them off ahead.   

And here’s where we find Jacob. Alone and in the dark. Wait… did you catch that? The text says, and I quote “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Jacob is alone and also wrestling with someone else. So…what’s going on here? In many Hebrew Rabbinic texts, they suggest that perhaps the person Jaocb is wrestling with, is himself. Jacob has been fighting his whole life. His brother (again and again), his father, his father-in-law. And now this man, all the while, demanding a blessing. He already had the birthright that had originally belonged to someone else and he already had his fathers blessing and he left his father-in-law with his blessing. And now here he is again. Desperately seeking another blessing. 

But here’s the thing. Jacob had already been blessed from the very beginning. When he and his twin were somersaulting in utero, his mom talked to God and God made it clear that there were two nations in her womb and that the older would serve the younger. He fought his whole life for what God had already given him. After fleeing his home in the aftermath of swindling his father and brother, God visited him in a dream and blessed him, saying that his descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and that God would be with him in whatever he did and would never leave him. He had already been blessed. And blessed by God. 

I think that is one of the themes of the book of genesis and all of scripture. In Genesis 1, we read that God made humans in God’s image and called them very good. And then, not long after a deceiver comes in and makes the humans question what God had already told them was true. If you eat this, he said, you will be like God. So they stole something that wasn’t theirs to take and then lied and finger-pointed and hid in shame, when the truth was that they were already like God, having been made in God’s image. And haven’t we been doing the same thing all this time. 

I am more and more convinced that this is at the root of all of our sin. We do not believe that what God said about us is true. We do not believe that we have been blessed. We do not believe that we are worthy. We do not believe that we are God’s beloved. So we lie and we steal and we hoard resources.  We perform and we perfect and we pretend. We numb and chase highs and we lash out, all in an attempt to hide our unworthiness or prove our worthiness instead of resting in the blessing that God has said was true about us before we even drew our first breath. You are good. You are beloved. You are worthy. You were made out of divine dust. God dwells in you. 

And so we return to Jacob. Who, in the darkness and in the loneliness, was wrestling with himself. Who, for once, was perhaps willing to take a cold hard look at the darkest parts of himself. To stop pretending. To stop fighting everyone else. To let go of this need to seek approval and blessing from others and to find the blessing that already existed within himself. I can say from some experience that this is not a fun place to be. When we bring out into the light all the things that think we have been hiding from others and even from ourselves, it hurts. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also necessary. 

In confronting himself, Jacob received a double blessing. In facing what he had done to his brother and his father, in facing the shadow side of himself and the person that he had become, he came away changed. Walking with a limp and a new name. Nevermore to be the same.

But Jacob also walked away declaring that he had also found God in the struggle. In wrestling with the darkness within, the very place that we assume is furthest from God, he actually ran smack dab into God. 

Thomas Merton writes “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”

So today, I bless you. May you struggle. May you wrestle. May you experience the pain and the loneliness that comes from being willing to truly face yourself. May you lay down the lies that you have believed about yourself and surrender to the truth that God has spoken over you. May you have the courage to face the darkest parts of yourself, knowing that God is with you in the wrestling and in the hurting and that nothing that you find there can invalidate what God has already said is true. May you walk away changed, even if it means you limp a little. And may you, at last, walk away with the knowledge that you have come face to face with God.