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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

God Reconciles

Gospel according to Genesis, a 3-week sermon series at the end of Summer, preached Sunday September 24, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


What is the good news? No matter how much destruction or death we see, this God creates and recreates. No matter how desperate we are or greedy we are, this God provides more than enough of what really matters. When we hurt one another, ourselves, or creation, this God reconciles all things toward love and justice.

We find this good news about this God in Jesus. We also find it in the oldest stories of scripture, in Genesis. This first week, we read Genesis 1 and 2, both creation stories, and heard about the God who creates. Last week, we read about Abraham and Sarah and heard about the God who provides. This week, we hear about the God who reconciles.

Let’s pray and listen for the words of the Lord…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Genesis 32:9-31

9 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,’ 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 I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, (even) the women and the children. 12 Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’ ”

13 And Jacob spent that night there, and from what he had with him, he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These Jacob delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between drove after drove.”

17 Jacob instructed the one in the lead, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau, and moreover, Jacob himself is behind us.’ ” 19 Jacob likewise instructed the second and the third droves and all the droves that followed, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you meet him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover your servant Jacob (himself) is behind us.’ ” For Jacob thought, “I (just) may appease him with the presents that go ahead of me, and afterward when I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the presents passed on ahead of him, and he himself would spend the night in the camp. 22 The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything else that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone,.

And a person wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. 25 When the person saw that he was not prevailing against Jacob, he struck Jacob on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then the person said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to Jacob, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the person said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have survived.”

29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed Jacob. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip.

This is the words of the Lord… Thanks be to God.

Sermon God Reconciles

In the early years after my father died, I have a few key memories of happy things. Most of those include my older brother Al. He’s 9 years older than me, and while losing a father like I did when I was only 6 and a half was hard, I’ve often imagined that losing a father at 15, like Al did, might have been even harder.

Some of my happy memories include hanging out in the basement with Al, in his cool room, with all the cool posters and records… even getting to hang out with some of Al’s cool friends when they came over. I also remember the way mom would give us money and Al would drive me up to the Huddle House for a pecan waffle and bacon. But another memory that came into my mind when I read and studied this text this week was the way Al and I would wrestle.

Wrestling was a big deal on TV back then… Mr. Wrestling number 1 and 2, Mr. Fuji, the Sheik, the Valliant brothers, Andre the Giant… we’d watch them flip and spin and dive into one another… we knew the names of the common holds, and the special holds, and the finishing moves… We’d rearrange the sofa and chairs in the den to be our wrestling ring, and we’d go at it.

Back then, I knew Al was 9 years older than me, and I could obviously tell he was much bigger and stronger than me. But I didn’t mind, and I didn’t quit. We’d wrestle and he’d let me get him into a hold, and he’d beat the floor and shake his head like it really hurt, even though it clearly didn’t… then he’d reverse it on me, And I’d find myself doing anything and everything I could think of to escape, but not being able to if he didn’t want me to yet… He wouldn’t hurt me, but I couldn’t get away.

I wonder if that’s what Jacob felt like that night.

Jacob was about to face the consequences of all his past wrestling matches with his brother. See, Jacob had tricked the eldest birthright away from Esau by teasingly suggesting Esau trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, and when Jacob served him the stew, he assumed the birthright to himself from his brother. Then Jacob stole their fathers blessing of the oldest by putting hair on his arms and pretending to be his hairy brother Esau while their father his death bed blessed Jacob thinking he was Esau. Jacob had gotten away with these tricks and kept on tricking his way to a fruitful business and a bigger family by tricking his father-in-law for his daughters and in cross breeding pure and spotted goats.

But there comes a point where the decisions and actions of our past catch up to us. And I don’t mean at death. There comes a point where the lie we told ricochets around a community, and we lose the trust we once had. There comes a point where the harmful words we said are remembered and quoted back to us, and we realize the pain and guilt we had tried to pretend didn’t exist. There comes a point where life shuts every door in front of us, and we need to retreat, only to find we burnt too many bridges behind us. That’s where Jacob was.

Sure he had accumulated great wealth. Yes, he had a huge family and network of relationships. But you can’t run forvere. Eventually, we face again those we lie to, or cheat, or steal from, or hurt. Jacob was facing his brother. And because Jacob had tricked and cheated his way through life, he assumed he would need a trick, a bribe, to buy his brother and preserve his life.

Just notice, when that opportunity comes, that moment of consequences, everything ever “earned” is on the table just to keep our life. Jacob was having to give back his lifetime of profits and accomplishments in hopes his brother would not kill him. If Jacob’s plans works, he lose everything, all the profits he had ever gotten from all his trickery, but he might keep his family and his life. He doesn’t dare hope to have a brother again. He only hopes his brother won’t kill him.

And there, at the moment of truth or consequences, when he has sent across the river to the other side every possession and every person, there God arranges the sofas and coffee table and locks Jacob in a headlock. They wrestle all night it says, Jacob with a man, a person, a being… someone Jacob doesn’t know. It goes on and on, and Jacob is never going to win, any more than 7 year old me could ever win against 16 year old Al.

There were times when Al and I would wrestle and I wouldn’t want it to end, but Al did, or needed it to. I’d grab onto his leg so he couldn’t walk. But when Al was done, after 10 minutes or 45 minutes, in seconds he could pluck me from his leg and toss me onto the sofa, so he could go on about his day.

I imagine Jacob felt a bit like that. After wrestling with this person all night, there comes a point in the process where Jacob is tired but not ready to quit, even thinking he might get one over on God yet. But God needs Jacob to sense his place in the world. With the flick of a finger, Jacob’s hip joint is injured.

I wonder what felt like. Jacob’s lifetime of twisting and turning to get what he wants, and his persistence to keep wrestling all night thinking he would get what he wants if he’s tenacious enough, and then a flick, a wink, and Jacob limps away. How humbling that must be. Jacob’s opponent turns to go, but the injured Jacob insists on knowing who this trickster is that bested him. Jacob asks two things of the stranger…

A blessing, and a name. The last time he wanted a blessing, from his own father, he tricked one out of him. This time, he’s lost all the profits from his tricks, and his best trick didn’t work. Can he start over? Can he have a new way to be in this world, one that won’t lose it all in the end?

God doesn’t give a blessing or reveal a name. Instead, God changes Jacob’s name. He was Jacob, which means heel-holder. Remember at birth Jacob stuck a hand out of mama first, then Esau was born, then Jacob was born. He was named for the way he tried even at birth to trick his way forward in life, even if that meant cheating or stepping on others. Jacob means the one who supplants. Up until today, his identity had been attached to how he had cheated or mistreated or supplanted his brother others. But that life and name would be gone after this night of wrestling. Going forward, he will be called Israel…

People today still wrestle over the meaning of that name. Some think it means fighting or contending with God… others think it may mean prevailing or ruling with God… Still others think it means God contends or God rules. You can decide for yourself what you think.

For me, I hear God saying, you will no longer define yourself or be defined by the shortcuts, mistakes, injuries, or brokenness behind you. Instead, you will be defined by your struggle to be reconciled. You wont race through life confidently, doing what it takes and getting what you want no matter the impact or cost on others. You will limp through life, humbly, and look for new ways to mend what was broken, and rebuild any bridges that got burned.

Tomorrow, when he meets his brother, no matter what happened before, God’s goal is reconciliation, and this God of reconciliation promises to be with him, and with us, as we leave behind our former ways for a new way that brings wholeness, forgiveness, and peace to us and to all people.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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