Fairhaven Sermon 8-6-2023

The sermon explores the theme of spiritual maturity and identity formation through the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God. Pastor Dylan describes how Jacob begins his life driven by self-interest, manipulating others and disconnected from God. After encountering God in a vision, Jacob begins a journey of growth, though he still relies on his own scheming. The pivotal moment comes when Jacob physically wrestles with a divine messenger, demanding a blessing. After this intense struggle, Jacob receives the new name Israel, symbolic of his identity shifting to one who wrestles with God.

Pastor Dylan connects this transformation to the Christian life. Though God’s grace and blessings are freely given, believers must actively “wrestle” to fully embrace their identity in Christ. Maturity means recognizing that life’s struggles belong to God rather than striving alone. Just as Jacob emerged from the fight a new man, Christians are continually called to surrender their old identities and accept the love remaking them as children of God.

Spiritual growth is an ongoing process of choosing faith over fear, allowing God to shape us into who we were created to be.


I mentioned this before probably, but my ethnic heritage is decidedly bland. It’s largely German, Swiss, large amount of Swiss, which is kind of weird actually. French, English, Irish, you know, your basic northern Europeans, not a lot of spices or tomato, you know. We’ve been here a good while.
 It’s been since the 1740s or earlier for a lot of the Swiss and the English, which is a very long time to remain in love with the promised land of Butler County. The French side is the most recent, and even that particular great-great-grandfather got here in 1900, so that’s still 120 years ago. Unsurprisingly though, the traditions that my ancestors may have brought with them across the Atlantic are virtually gone. I don’t know what they ate.
 I don’t know their religious customs. The churches in Porterville and elsewhere that many of my forebears would have helped found, they started as Swiss reform churches, but they’ve been Americanized into just Bible churches now, they’re called, for decades. My French great-great-grandfather, I imagine, was Catholic, but he’d have been traveling quite a ways every Sunday to find a mass, so presumably he just didn’t. And here we are.
 Accordingly, I look with envy upon some of the things the spicier ethnicities of Western PA have, you know, like clubs and pierogies and holiday traditions and special days at Kennywood. I’m especially jealous, you know, of the rare and unique ones, the Lithuanians, the Ruthenians, because I’m just American. And indeed, the US census shows that a lot of the English, a lot of the Scots, Irish families who have been in this region, in the Appalachian region for a long time have simply just marked American on their census for years and years and years, because any identity beyond that is gone. My homeland isn’t the Alpine lakes of Switzerland, though I’d like to see them.
 It’s the glacial valleys, the rolling hills of Slippery Rock Township. It’s changed. There’s a novelty t-shirt store at the Robinson Mall with a shirt in the window that I’ve seen many places elsewhere. and it says, American by birth, Italian by the grace of God.
 And that’s a joke, I assume. Maybe not for some Italians who are really into it. But there’s something to that also. We carry different identities at different depths within us.
 And the identity of our birth is not necessarily the one that we claim, the one we retain throughout our lives. Like in this example, an Italian-American who was born and raised in the US has a really wide choice as to how Italian they want to be, right? They could easily discard their home culture entirely as my European ancestors did eventually until American is what they are above all else and no one else, maybe not even their kids, knows their heritage without doing some hardcore research. Meanwhile, you could have an adopted child, right, who might identify with their biological family to some degree, and their DNA will never change, but it’s also quite likely that their last name will change and that they’ll consider themselves to be more fully a member of that adoptive family. It’s quite likely that their adoptive parents just become understood as their parents, right? And those who gave them birth might get that added distance of biological parents.
 You know, the same way a woman often changes her name upon marriage. Men do now occasionally. I have some friends who hyphenated theirs to symbol a new family as a fusion of the old. And whenever you change your name, it’s not that the old has gone away, but that you’ve chosen to become something.
 You’ve chosen to create something new, and that’s what you’re claiming now. The name that will one day be on your headstone, the name that your children will bear, that’s something that you choose, that you create together in a new marriage. So you get what I’m saying here, that identities are fluid, are complicated. Who you started as, even down to the level of your DNA, is not necessarily the determinant of who you end up as in life.
 Life happens, we grow, we change. Over time, some of us might as well become a new person entirely. And I would argue that’s actually exactly what Jesus calls us to over a lifetime of discipleship and growth. By the end of our lives, by our older years, with God’s help, with God’s shaping touch, we should be unrecognizable from who we started as, in the best way possible.
 You know, disciple of Jesus, child of God, should become our above-all identity as we grow over time. I remember the words of 2 Corinthians 5, 17. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away.
 Look, new things have come into being. Complete change, complete transformation until it’s just newness. And we see something like this happening within Jacob, a kind of metamorphosis. Over the last month or so, I’ve been working through Jacob’s saga in Genesis, and what we have seen over the last three, what you might call, episodes is the sprouting and maturing of Jacob’s faith.
 In today’s reading, we might reach what we might call that maturing. Jacob began his story as a man who, despite his heritage as a son of Isaac, as the grandson of the great patriarch Abraham had zero relationship with God. Instead, he’s what his given name describes. Jacob means supplanter or one who seizes, and indeed he seeks to build his own power and fortune by hustling.
 If there’s one thing Jacob is, it’s a hustler. He manipulates those around him. His only mention of God before his exile, you’ll recall, was this offhanded remark to to his father as he’s trying to embezzle him in the wake of extorting his brother Esau’s entire inheritance. Jacob uses God as a tool, just kind of a rhetorical device.
 Whenever he is sent into exile, whenever he sets up camp at Bethel, it’s there that he sees this vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven. And he hears the voice of God directly speaking to him for the first time in his life. He’s never met God before, he’s never had any concept of God, and then God breaks through in this vision. And for the first time, a real relationship opens up between Jacob and the Lord, despite Jacob never having sought one.
 It’s not like Jacob went into the wilderness to meet God. No, Jacob had no interest in that. But God promises to be with him even as he’s leaving his homeland until his destiny is fulfilled. God promises that he’s never alone, even as he wanders into the desert and away from his family into an uncertain future.
 And so for Jacob, after Bethel, God is no longer this abstraction belonging to his father and his grandfather. Faith isn’t just something that his parents and grandparents had. The God of Abraham is now his too. One that he knows personally, one that he’s met, one that he has spoken to.
 Surely God was in this place, but I didn’t know it, Jacob says. And so it’s been a couple chapters, we skipped a couple chapters, since we last encountered Jacob at the beginning of his exile. And since then, now that we’re in chapter 32, he’s grown up quite a bit. A lot has happened in his life.
 It’s been a while. He’s gotten himself a couple wives, Rachel and Leah, those are stories of their own, in his mother’s homeland. And he’s had a really successful run back there. He’s been working the land of his cousin Laban as kind of an indentured servant.
 He’s paying off his wives, right? He was, Laban promised to give him his wives if he would work for him for a number of years. And he and Rachel and Leah have begun having sons who will become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. But now the land is getting a little bit tight for both Laban and Jacob to live in peace. Some friction is emerging between the two clans.
 Laban’s family is getting jealous because Jacob’s doing really well. He’s become a very successful farmer, very prosperous, got all these strong young boys, right? And God tells Jacob that it’s finally time to go back home and also to finally face his brother Esau, whom he pretty aggressively screwed over. His servants warn as he heads back to Canaan, the land of his father, that Esau, his brother, is coming to meet him with 400 men, which he reasonably assumes is probably not a great sign. Jacob, at the beginning of this chapter, is panicking.
 You know, his brother’s essentially raised an army that’s marching towards him, and he prays. Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you. I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. He’s right.
 I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, and now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau. I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers and their children. You were the one who told me.
 I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea so many you won’t be able to count them. He’s terrified. And he anticipates crossing back over the river to his homeland to face these skeletons that he prayed would stay in his closet forever. He thought all that was long gone.
 And on one hand, he really trusts that God is calling him back. He does go after all, but still not fully. He isn’t both feet in. Deep down, he’s still that desperate boy who hung on to his brother’s heel at birth, trying to control his own fate by force of will.
 And so he prepares this big strategy, right? This big game of showering Esau with gifts. He’s sending before him all kinds of dozens of animals and this fortune and so all these presents to Esau. So by the time Jacob arrives, Esau’s softened up a little bit. He’s like, Oh, well, this is nice.
 And when a reading this morning begins, he sends the first group over into the land to encounter Esau and offer this peacemaking gift. So he sent his wives, his children, the servants, a lot of animals ahead, but he stays behind on the riverbank, and this mysterious man shows up and starts wrestling him. What a weird moment. And they wrestle, and they wrestle through the night, And the man takes a cheap shot eventually, ’cause it’s gone on too long, and he either rips Jacob’s thigh muscle or dislocates his hip, depending on which translation that you read.
 And yet he still doesn’t win. Jacob persists, insisting that he won’t let this man out of a headlock until he gives him a blessing, which is a recurring theme for Jacob, you’ll notice. He’s always trying to get that blessing. And so he does.
 The man gives him that blessing. He asks him his name, Jacob, but then he renames him and he says, Your name won’t be Jacob anymore, but Israel, because you struggled with God and men and won. Israel means struggles with God. This mysterious attacker turns out to be God himself, but he refuses to speak his own name.
 In the midst of the struggle with himself, with his fear, and directly now with God, Jacob becomes a new man with a new name. His identity now has been forged in his wrestling with God. He started out that fight. He started out on that side of the river as Jacob, but now he’s Israel.
 Supplanter is who he was born as, this schemer, this striver. What wrestles with God is who he’s become. And that’s a really different way to live. Finally, Jacob, now Israel, sees God’s blessing and grace as his own, as really, truly being something he has.
 It’s striking, I think, in this story that God has already promised Jacob his blessing and promise like decades ago now, back at that night at Bethel when they first met. Years and years have passed. God already promised back at Bethel that all this stuff was going to be Jacob’s. Jacob already had God’s blessing without even asking for it.
 But it’s only whenever he wrestles with God that he demands it, that he then truly accepts the love and the grace of God given to him. God essentially has to like reverse psychology Jacob into finally getting it. He had to fight him so he knew that he wouldn’t have to fight anymore. God has to force Jacob to see that a path of grace has been laid wide open for him his whole life if he’s just willing to go.
 And our paths as Christians are not so different. No mysterious men are wrestling us on the side of the road, hopefully. But the promise God places upon our lives, that we are reborn and renewed and claimed as children of God through Jesus, is given to us at baptism. It’s totally free, it doesn’t require a single thing from us, just like whenever God promised Jacob at Bethel.
 We are marked and sealed as God’s beloved from the very beginning, before we even ask. But it’s most often in wrestling with God and man, in the words of Genesis, over the course of our lives, that who we have always been in Christ becomes the identity we claim deep in our souls. Grace and blessing are free. They’re always free, and yet we have to learn to receive them.
 Our lives are not so different than Jacob’s journey from home to exile and back home again. times will come and continue to come over and over and over again when we stand on the riverbank and we can choose to strive and flail and scrap on our own, looking with anxiety on what is to come, or accept that God is already with us, fighting for us in the midst of life’s battles, calling us to be more than we were born to be. And this is what spiritual maturity looks like. And I suspect it’s rarely a one-time thing for most of us.
 Maturity is just getting it right more often, right? But a decision we have to make over and over again. Is this my struggle to deal with myself? Is it on me? Or is it God’s? hand it over to God, to accept the blessing, is to transcend our own identities and to be renamed. We’re not striving, we’re not supplanting, we’re not scrapping anymore. We’re renamed.
 God has given you and me every single thing that we need. The question is whether we’ll break down, surrender and just accept the grace and love that has been ours all along. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.