Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Victorious Limp” (Genesis 32:22-31)
October 20, 2019
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my athletic heroes is the legendary Bo Jackson, one of ten children reared in a two-bedroom house in Bessemer, Alabama, who was drafted by the New York Yankees but chose to attend Auburn University instead because he had promised his mom he would be the first one in the family to attend college.  Bo Jackson set many records at Auburn and won the Heisman Trophy in 1985.

He went on to play both professional football with the Los Angeles Raiders and professional baseball with the Kansas City Royals, the only person ever chosen to play both in the NFL Pro Bowl and the MLB All Star Game.  If Bo got angry after a strike out, he was famously known for snapping his baseball bat in two over his thigh.  Once after a ground out he snapped his bat over his batting helmet.  You did not ever want to be Bo Jackson’s baseball bat.  Once in a game against the Baltimore Orioles after a catch in center field at full speed he ran up and along the back wall for a moment like he was Spiderman.  When Bo Jackson was not running along walls in baseball stadiums he was running over opponents in football stadiums, as he did in a legendary Monday Night Football game when he ran over highly touted, trash talking Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth.

But all this came to a sudden unexpected end in a January 1991 playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals when he was tackled at the end of a 34-yard run and his hip was popped out of joint.  That was the end of his football career.  A couple months later he was cut by the Kansas City Royals during spring training.  That hip injury changed the trajectory of Bo Jackson’s life.

Sometimes the trajectory of your life can change in a moment, just like with Bo Jackson.  Moreover, during such a change you can feel very alone.  In September 1996 my family and I moved from Wyoming to South Carolina.  Steph and our three young daughters boarded a plane to North Carolina.  Everything that was not carried by Steph was in the Ryder truck I drove the next three days, with our one vehicle, a 1989 Honda Accord, on the towing ramp behind the truck.

Later as I was driving on Interstate 40 across Tennessee, although the fuel gauge indicated that there was still a quarter of a tank remaining, the engine began to sputter and the fuel ran out.  I hitched a ride and a very kind person gave me a ride to a gas station.  As we rode away I watched in the side view mirror as the Ryder truck with all our possessions and our one car slowly vanished from sight.  In that moment—separate from Steph and our kids, separate from all our possessions—I felt very alone—well, except for that kind stranger.

The gospel is good news for those whose life trajectory has unexpectedly changed in a moment, good news for those feeling alone during such a change.

In today’s Old Testament lesson Jacob experienced both these things.  Throughout his entire life Jacob had struggled for one thing: a blessing.  He struggled for a blessing from his father Isaac, later for a blessing from his father-in-law Laban, and as we read today, still later for a blessing from God.  In scripture receiving a blessing means receiving grace, receiving favor.  Receiving the blessing of the firstborn meant even more.

Even in their mother Rebekah’s womb the unborn Jacob and his twin brother Esau struggled to be born first—so much so that when Jacob emerged from the womb he was literally clinging to Esau’s heel.  Throughout their childhood Esau was Isaac’s favorite of his two sons.  Esau would accompany Isaac on his hunting expeditions while Jacob remained at home in the family tent with their mother Rebekah.  Jacob was so desperate to receive his father’s blessing, so desperate to receive the blessing reserved for the firstborn, that years later he deceived both his twin brother Esau and his blind ailing father Isaac in order to receive that blessing (Genesis 27).  When Esau learned what had happened he was so angry he decided to kill his twin brother Jacob.  Rebekah heard about this and sent Jacob far away.  And you thought your family was dysfunctional…

Jacob spent the next twenty years in a distant land far from home, twenty years working for his father-in-law Laban, twenty years during which he fathered eleven children.  When the time had come for Jacob and his family to move back to his homeland, he had no idea what was in store for him there.  He thought Esau still wanted to kill him.  Jacob and his family travelled by night, and as the writer of Genesis put it in today’s reading:

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone (Genesis 32:22-24a).

I would guess that every one of you has experienced a situation in your life when just like Jacob in today’s passage you are separated from your family, separated from your possessions, and alone in the dark.  And yet this is when one of the most important events in Jacob’s life took place, as the writer of Genesis continued:

A man wrestled with him until daybreak.  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.”  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.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip (Genesis 22:24b-31).

Jacob finally received what he had struggled for his entire life, a blessing, and not just any blessing, a blessing from God that changed the entire trajectory of his life.  In their seminal Commentary on the Old Testament nineteenth century biblical scholars C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch identify the Person with whom Jacob had been wrestling all night: “God had met (Jacob) in the form of a man: God in the angel, not in a created angel, but in the Angel of Jehovah, the visible manifestation of the invisible God” (195).

When Jacob was alone in the dark during a transition in his life, he received a blessing from God.  From that day forward he limped because of his hip injury, an injury that immediately changed the trajectory of his life, but an injury that was to be a constant reminder that he was blessed by God, a constant reminder that God had given him grace.

There is a common misconception in the church that as a Christian you will always lead a “victorious life.”  However most Christians limp, either externally or internally, but just like Jacob’s limp, that limp is a “victorious limp.”

One of the most influential theological books in my life is the 1990 classic The Ragamuffin Gospel by the late Brennan Manning, in which he describes how God gives us what we all struggle for, the blessing of grace, grace that intersects with our lives as they actually are, not as they could be or would be or should be, but as they actually are.  He describes the difference between a “victorious life” and a “victorious limp”:

Most of the descriptions of the victorious life do not match the reality of my own.  Hyperbole, bloated rhetoric, and grandiose testimonies create the impression that once Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn—marriage blossoms into connubial bliss, physical health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar.  The victorious life is proclaimed to mean that everybody is a winner…The biblical image of the victorious life reads more like the victorious limp…Buffeted by the fickle winds of failure, battered by their own unruly emotions, and bruised by rejection and ridicule…after life has lined their faces a little, many followers of Jesus come into a coherent sense of themselves for the first time…Where sin abounded, grace has more abounded (181-182).

“Where sin abounded, grace has more abounded”…that is the good news of the gospel for those whose life, like Jacob’s, is marked by “a victorious limp.”

At Jesus’ baptism, which marked the beginning of his earthly ministry, God the Father blessed Jesus his Son as he proclaimed from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  Jesus proclaimed that blessing for all those who like Jacob had struggled their whole life to receive a blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus preached, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…blessed are you, blessed are you, blessed are you…” (Matthew 5:1-12).  Again and again Jesus blessed those who had had never felt blessed—lepers, paralytics, tax collectors, the deaf and blind, notorious sinners—Jesus blessed all of them with his grace.

And on Good Friday Jesus, “the visible manifestation of the invisible God,” lifted his arms of blessing on the cross to bless the whole world, to bless you, with God’s grace, God’s favor, God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, God’s unconditional love.  And while Risen Jesus does not limp, he does bear the scars from giving the world, and giving you, that blessing.

Back to Bo Jackson for a moment…although he never played football again after his hip injury he rehabilitated his hip and eventually came back to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox.  He shared the following in an ESPN documentary:

A couple years before my comeback my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and before she passed away she asked me if I was going to try and go back and play baseball, and I said, “If I rehab well enough to play baseball, I will, and if I do, the first hit will be for you” (from 30 for 30: You Don’t Know Bo).

You know where this is going…in his first at bat of the 1993 season with the Chicago White Sox, Bo Jackson hit the first pitch into the right field seats.  The standing ovation went on for so long he emerged from the dugout to wave his hat at the fans.  He further shared, “All my teammates came up and gave me a high five—cheering, hugging, and jumping.  And the gentleman who caught that ball gave it back to me because I had promised my mother that hit would be for her.”

And back to Jacob for a moment…the day after his life changing blessing from God, Jacob limped home.  And what happened when he saw Esau, the same Esau he had deceived twenty years earlier, the same Esau who had wanted to kill him?  Scripture tells us, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…Jacob said, ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor…God has dealt graciously with me’” (Genesis 33:4, 10-11).

And God has dealt graciously with you.  When your engine sputters and your fuel runs out, God does not leave you stranded alone on the side of the highway.  When the trajectory of your life changes and you feel alone in that change, God blesses you with his grace…and the reminder of that blessing is your victorious limp.