Sermon: Out of Joint

October 16, 2022

Genesis 32:22-31
Luke 18:1-8

by Eric Anderson

Of the three men who represent the first three generations of the people of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – Jacob is the one that you wouldn’t want to stand next to for very long. If you did, you’d want to check your pockets before he got out of sight, because he could very well be carrying you watch, your keys, and your wallet as he went.

Jacob had, after all, deceived and defrauded his brother, his father, and his father-in-law. I guess that keeps cons in the family. It did mean that maintaining a home grew problematic. He had to leave his father’s neighborhood because he’d angered his brother enough to threaten murder. Likewise, after he’d lived some years near his father-in-law, that relationship had deteriorated to the point where becoming his brother’s neighbor looked safer.

That’s where Jacob was headed when he slept alone near the ford of the Jabbok.

He’d sent everything and everyone on ahead. He’d become a rich man by defrauding his father-in-law. Sending those flocks and herds on ahead to where his brother Esau would be, well. That was a considered gambit. Esau’s anger might be reduced by a series of rich gifts. It had happened before.

He’d then sent his children on ahead with their four mothers – family life in that household was complicated. This time, I imagine his hope was that by placing his family’s safety in his brother’s hands, Esau would be merciful. Or, if I’m more cynical about it, he’d be able to get away while Esau was busy gathering up his loved ones.

He was in position to flee if things went wrong. And then things did go wrong. Instead of the peaceful night of – well, OK, the not-so-peaceful night of fretting that he’d anticipated, he spent the night in a wrestling match with a figure he couldn’t really identify. He might have guessed it to be Esau, who had been a powerful man, stronger than Jacob, when they’d lived together in their father’s home. As dawn approached, he’d clearly abandoned that idea. He seemed to recall the dream he’d had when fleeing from his brother years before, of God’s messengers ascending and descending something vaguely like a ladder. Here in this wilderness landscape, he became convinced that his struggle was with a divine figure, one which might bless him.

If you’re thinking that sounds odd for someone who believed in one single God, that’s probably not how he thought of it. Ancient theologies – for that matter, a good number of contemporary ones – were filled with spiritual beings that shared in divinity but were not God. They might be well disposed toward humankind or they might be hostile. If you gained power over them – like, for instance, winning a wrestling match – their gifts might be amazing.

Jacob had good reason to stick with his wrestling match.

In the end, he got his blessing, though the author didn’t tell us what effects it had. He also got a new name, “Yisra-el,” or as we say it “Israel,” “one who strives with God.” As Carrie Plunkett-Brewton writes at Working Preacher, “When Jacob supplies his name, the creature renames him Israel because, he says, ‘you have striven with elohim and with human beings and have prevailed.’ The name ‘Jacob’ was given to him at birth to mark his efforts to supplant his brother even in the womb. Now he’s given another name that matches his story of striving and overcoming all that stands in his way, including dangerous supernatural beings, and he’s given another blessing.”

Another blessing, indeed, but this one also left a mark. Jacob’s – Israel’s – opponent put his hip out of joint. Leaving the scene of their match, he limped because of his hip. The encounter had transformed him. He understood more of himself. He had a new name. And… he could no longer move in the same way. He was out of joint.

I think that may resonate with us in 2022 after two and a half years of global pandemic, with no assurance that our pre-COVID lives will resume. Despite the announcements of some political leaders – shouldn’t they have learned not to make pronouncements of this kind? – despite the announcements of some political leaders, the pandemic is not yet over. Conditions now are considerably safer than they’ve been in some time, and we believe we can make some further adjustments to our precautions here at Church of the Holy Cross relatively soon, but we have seen new variants spread easily and rapidly through populations. It may very well happen again.

Leaving us… out of joint.

One hundred years ago, the world was recovering from a global pandemic that, overall, took more lives than COVID-19. Influenza struck in a series of waves, claiming an estimated 25 to 50 million people. The 1918 flu arrived at the first World War was ending, a global conflict that had killed 15 to 22 million people. Talk about a world out of joint.

Take a look at photographs of the 1920s and compare them with photos of the first two decades of that century. Women’s fashions in Europe and the United States had been relatively stable for years, but suddenly the flapper dresses appeared. The airplane became a featured attraction at fairs and shows; people had barely been aware of its existence before the war began. The Russian Revolution replaced imperial government with a communist one – a government just as tragically open to the use of force as its predecessor. While some economies boomed, the benefits accrued mostly to those already wealthy, prompting speculation and planting the seeds of the Great Depression. Worker discontent fed the formation of far left-wing parties and far right-wing parties in China and Europe, culminating in the Communist revolutions in China and the fascist governments in Italy and Germany.

It was a world out of joint.

I am terrible at predicting the future, but based on history, I suspect that we will not return to the life we’d known in 2019. I’m pretty sure that we will feel profoundly out of joint over the next decade and beyond. In a world out of joint, what do we do?

Beth L. Tanner writes at Working Preacher, “In life, often all we can do is hang on. We cannot defeat grief or heartbreak; they will leave a mark. We must be like Jacob and refuse to let go of God until a blessing provides new insights that will once again transform us.”

Please note that when Dr. Tanner says, “hang on,” she is not saying, “Hang on to the past.” She is not saying, “Hang on to the grief or heartbreak.” She is not saying, “Hang on to what you know.” She is saying, “Hang onto God, even when you’re not at all certain what God may do.”

God, after all, had put Jacob’s hip out of joint.

As Corinne L. Carvalho writes, also at Working Preacher, “…This is really a story about Israel and God. In fact, it is ISRAEL’S story about itself and God. How interesting to note that Israel defines itself as a people who refuses to let go of God. They tell us that they will fight with God to demand that Yahweh bless them. They are a people who are willing to be changed, even damaged in that exchange, because they know that attaining that blessing is worth the sacrifice. They are not a people of passive faith.”

Nor should we be.

As we come into this new world, one reshaped by a global pandemic, by political trauma, by an economy shaped by greed, and by uncertainty, it is time for us to wrestle with God once more. We will come away with new values – can we truly argue that our old values were any better than those of Jacob the con artist? We will come away with our pride humbled – do we really imagine that a wrestling match with God will go entirely our way? We will come away with something out of joint – God is going to reshape us in ways we do not expect.

We will also come away blessed and more prepared for the new living ahead.

Jacob – Israel – encountered his brother the next day. Those gifts he sent ahead restored his brother’s fortunes, but the conversation between them restored the relationship between the brothers. The Jacob who had defrauded his family could not have done that. The Israel who had had his hip put out of joint by God did.

As I say, I don’t know what’s coming. What I do know is that we will have to hang on to God, and wrestle with God, and refuse to let go of God until we are equipped and blessed to encounter the new realities of life.

Are you feeling out of joint? You have every reason to feel that way.

Do what Jacob did: Hang on.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric is inclined to improvise – and between that and his eyes skipping around the paper, the sermon prepared and the sermon delivered are not the same.

The image is The Wrestle of Jacob by Gustave Doré –, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on October 16, 2022

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