6The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and also the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, 8thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”
9And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff have I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. 11Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23Jd took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking on toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come,” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Jacob, the classic trickster of the Old Testament, is out of ideas. He may have fooled his father Isaac and stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, but now his brother is back with an army of 400 men. Jacob is a wealthy man, but all his gains are ill-gotten, results of his trickster ways and his ability to use his cleverness to gain at the expense of others.
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”
Jacob, whose pranks are the stuff of legend, who has always managed to gain and keep the upper hand, is out of ideas. He writes off have of his household as lost, knowing that he cannot withstand an attack by such a large force, but maybe he can escape with the survivors. His mother’s favorite, but second-born, child, Jacob learned to always look for the advantage.
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and also the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”
Jacob, the heel-grabbing younger twin, faced with the potential wrath of a cheated older brother, is out of ideas.
Unless the promises of God, unlike those of Jacob, are reliable and sure. The only trick Jacob has left is that God is not a trickster like he is.
“And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff have I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
This prayer, I think, marks a turning point for Jacob. His whole life he has been able to take the blessing of a sharp mind, which God had given him, and used it for his own benefit. This time, with the weight of past debts riding towards him, that's not at option. He recognizes that his ability to outmaneuver his opponents has failed him, so he must turn from cleverness to faith, reminding God of the blessings of God's promise, and crediting God with what the Trickster had "earned" in his journeys.
He has no other option, and turns to God, knowing full well that if God chooses not to intervene, it will mean his destruction. "The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok."
Peter has been in and around boats his whole life. He was a fisherman, after all, before a traveling preacher named Jesus told him to "Come, follow me." Now he's learning to fish for people, but he's the one who feels caught.
He's caught up in the moments when Jesus heals the sick, he's caught up in the inspiration of the crowds when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, even when he doesn't understand Jesus's full meaning. Peter is caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee while his miracle-working master is praying on his own.
But the ranks of the disciples are filled with experienced fishermen, who know how to handle the wind and the waves. They're in the deep water, where their boat was designed to be. A strong headwind and some battering waves far away from land is a good workout, but no reason to panic, at least not yet.
But then something strange appears out of the fog, a human figure, at first mistaken for a ghost. "And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, 'Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.'" The disciples do not fear the storm, they have experience with the natural. The idea, however, that something supernatural is at work gives them reason to cry out in fear.
Something supernatural is at work at the Jabbok.
Jacob is striving against a mysterious figure, a man who is not clearly identified in the text. They grapple with one another through the night, and Jacob cannot quite get the upper hand. On the other hand, the unnamed man does not prevail against the heel-grabber either. "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.'"
The Trickster, the Heel-Grabber, refuses to loose his hold on the man, even though his hip is dislocated. “Jacob had asked for a blessing. Perhaps he dreamed of security, land, more sons. But what he got was a new identity through an assault from God.” He demands a blessing, and receives a new identity. "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.'" The Heel-Grabber is liberated from the hold the past held on him. Esau is still waiting for him, but a newly-named Israel is able to face his past without being bound by it. Instead of hanging on for every possible advantage, Israel can see the value in the struggle, knowing that the process is perhaps even more important than the results.
The blessing of Israel is a new liveliness that means he can move forward to reconciliation with Esau, he is no longer the weary trickster out of ideas, he is Israel, who has struggle with God and with people and prevailed. But he is neither in a position to strut, nor swagger. Neither can he run away from trouble or dodge the storms that lie ahead in his path. The blessing of newness of life is so great that it leaves him limping.
But the limp blessed him with the ability to step out on faith.
Peter stands on a boat in the middle of a storm, but the storm he can handle. It’s this supernatural walking on water that gives him pause. He cries out in fear at the sight.
“But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come,’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”
Peter hears his master’s voice telling him “Come,” and in it he hears a command powerful enough to convince him to get out of the boat. he hears the same voice that commanded him to put down his nets and become a fisher of people. He hears the same voice that told him that Blessed are the peacemakers. I wonder if he heard the Word that was with God and was God at the beginning. I wonder if he heard the Word that rang out saying “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” He heard his teacher and his friend say “Come,” so whatever was packed in that simple command, he got out of the boat and walked on water.
Peter can only hold on to his faith in Jesus’s command for a moment. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”
Peter’s absolute faith in God’s ability to call him out onto the stormy water falters, but his hope that his Lord can still save him does not. When you’re out on the water, in the midst of a storm, and you go from walking on water to sinking, there are no more tricks. There are no sails for this fisherman to trim, no clever ideas for keeping the collection of beams and sealant afloat, because Peter, nicknamed “Rock” has walked out onto the water to have an encounter with God. Not even his faith, a blessing time and again in the past, is sufficient to save him. The only solid thing he has left is the hope that his Lord is trustworthy and sure, that God’s blessings can outmatch the storm.
“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
I imagine “You of little faith,” which is only directed at Jesus’s followers, never unbelievers, as though it is always said with a smile. Drawing Peter up out of the water, Jesus knows full well with which kind of limited people he is working. Jesus knows that the faith of all of his followers is finite.
But the God in whom we have faith is infinite, and perfects out faith in us even before we know how to act on it or carry it forward into the world. God’s blessings are not a promise that everything will suddenly be easy. In fact, God’s blessings challenge us to do what is difficult. Peter did not walk on calm waters, after all. He stepped out of the boat in the middle of a storm. While his fear sank him, for a moment there, God blessed him by letting him walk on water.
Peter’s cry as he is sinking echoes Jacob’s prayer when he knows he will encounter Esau. Both rely solely on God’s grace when their own abilities, Jacob’s cleverness and Peter’s faith, fail. “Lord, Save me!” and “Deliver me, please,” are variations on the same hope. Our hope is in the one who blesses us in ways beyond our imagination.
But those blessings are not always the grace that is usually imagined. One could say that Israel limped on water for the rest of his life. He was free from his old patterns of behavior, but his damaged hip was among the blessings he was given that night at the ford of the river Jabbok. Jesus caught Peter and pulled him up, a reminder that even as a fisher of people, he had been caught already, and that one day others would take him to a place he did not with to go.
God’s blessings can leave us limping or empower us to walk on water. Perhaps though, those are not so far apart as we may suppose. Israel’s morning walk took him from the place where he had spent the night struggling with God, called Penuel, and led him to reconciliation with his brother, Esau, rather than the battle he had perhaps expected. Peter’s morning walk took him from the familiarity and safety of a boat into the middle of a raging storm just because his Lord called to him.
God has blessed us with each other, with a unique community and a particular place to go out and do the ministry to which God has called us. We will find our own version of walking on water as we seek to worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone. We will find our own painful reconciliation as we limp across the ford of the river Jabbok. But we know that the blessings of the LORD are all around us, and that whether we are limping or walking on water, God is still active among us, and for that, we will live in gratitude, service, and love, singing praises to the one who intervenes in this world and empowers our ministry.