In ancient churches an object called a diptych was pretty important. A diptych was a two-paneled list of those who were a part of a church. They would list the dead on one side and the living on another. They would include the names of the bishops with whom they were in communion. Keeping the diptych up-to-date was a way of clarifying who belonged to a particular fellowship and which churches were recognized as continuing in the tradition of the gospel. Yet there is another very old use of a diptych: the word can also refer to a two-paneled piece of art connected by hinges. Some icons were made this way. You might have two photos in your home that you display in similar fashion. Being able to place two images facing each other and hinged together can evoke a relationship. The reflections that follow take the form of a diptych: two stories, two panels, hinged together but distinct. One panel is the story of Jacob, the other is that of Timothy. We’ll put ourselves between the two and see what we might learn.
Here is the first and the oldest panel. At its center is a man named Jacob.
When we meet Jacob here in Genesis chapter 32 he feels cornered. You might remember that it was Jacob who deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for his older brother Esau. You might remember that it was Jacob who then had to flee his homeland to avoid the fury of Esau. You might remember that it was Jacob who took off toward the land of his mother’s brother, his uncle Laban. Jacob would spend years there, but his character wouldn’t budge. Just as Jacob fleeced his brother, so he fleeces Laban. Jacob packs up his tents, saddles his camels and is on the run again.
In case you haven’t caught it: Jacob is a conniver. He’s a schemer and a deceiver. Some preachers today refer to Jacob as a ‘hustler.’ Those who first heard this story would have cheered him on. Jacob wasn’t so concerned with the truth as to let it get in the way of getting what he wanted.
Jacob heads home. As he nears the land of his father, he sends messengers ahead to meet Esau. They find that Esau has headed out to meet Jacob’s caravan . . . with four hundred men! And so it seems the hustler might finally be getting what he deserves. It is the night before the brothers will meet and Jacob camps alone. He’s separated from his family and servants by the Jabbok River.
Now, I bet we can all imagine a bit of Jacob’s state of mind. Maybe you’ve been through the restless half-sleep of a night before an exam or a night before you expect to hear about a job you’ve applied for. Surely that experience connects us a bit with Jacob.
Remember, though, Jacob is a hustler. Why is he by himself? Is it chivalry? Is he thinking of abandoning his family to Esau’s wrath? Whatever his reason, I imagine he’s scheming all night.
All night, that is, until someone crawls out of the shadows and tries to rob him. What else would have thought? Jacob and this shadowy figure wrestle for hours.
Neither could gain an advantage. Finally, the assailant dislocates Jacob’s hip. Still Jacob would not give up. “Let me go for day is breaking,” the man said. Jacob grunts, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (He’s always got to get something out of it.) And so the man does, saying that Jacob has “striven with God.”
Generations later, Hosea confirms it. Jacob wasn’t just wrestling with a thief.
What a fascinating story we have before us! Not only did Jacob wrestle with God (most readers say it was God in human form) but Jacob managed to hold his own. He holds God back! We sometimes say that a dessert is irresistible, but in this story God is not that. God is resisted. Jacob does it!
Jacob wouldn’t have known it, but in the context of the whole of Scripture his experience symbolizes the back and forth that would later take place between his descendants and their divine covenant partner. Jacob couldn’t have known that, and neither could he have known that his experience would point toward Jesus—God again in human flesh.
Looking at this story, I can’t help but think it is timely. Our congregation has just thanked God for the gift new children in our midst. We don’t know what the future of these little ones will hold. We can run out all kinds of wonderful and frightening stories in our minds, but ultimately we don’t know.
Here’s why this story of Jacob is timely: part of our not-knowing is because God will not force these little ones into submission. God will give them freedom. God will not force shalom. God will be with them as one who can be rejected and as one who has been rejected, rejected to the point of death on a cross. Yet God will remain faithful. None of Jacob’s shenanigans undercuts God’s love or justice.
But look closer, there’s more. Jacob is wounded. We shouldn’t miss that. We know it will happen, don’t we? There is no getting through this life without getting wounded. Let’s not for a moment think we will get through life on our terms: we will suffer, we will limp.
Even our relationship with God will have disappointment and blessing. It’s true for you and me and for the youngest of children. Jacob, he could connive and he could plot and scheme, but eventually he would come across someone who would neither beat him nor be beaten by him. Jacob is wounded and he is blessed. And it’s through this that he finds out who he really is.
As the story continues out of our vision, Jacob limps into his brother’s presence. In a scene eerily similar to Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, Esau runs to meet his wounded brother and they embrace.
How will the kids we know wrestle with God? How will their wounds—wounds that we would rather they avoid—carry them in grace? What about us?
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Now we turn to our second panel, II Timothy 3:14-17, a passage taken from the second to last chapter of Paul’s letter to his understudy, Timothy.
Timothy would have known the story of Jacob. That’s the hinge. When Paul refers to the sacred writings or to scripture, he means the Old Testament, or what we sometimes call the Hebrew Bible. Timothy would have known these texts from childhood.
If Jacob’s story shows us that growing in faith will involve both disappointment and blessing, suffering and revelation, if his story shows us that wrestling with God is neither weird nor impious—Timothy’s biography shows the power of forming children in the faith. Scripture may not tell us how to play the stock market or what diet will help us shed those Thanksgiving pounds. Sadly, it could not show us how the Blue Jays could get past that pesky team from Cleveland.
What can scripture do? As Paul says, it can “instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The apostle continues, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.” This is a famous passage and a central reference for how Christians understand the Bible.
One of the basic beliefs of the Christian faith is that scripture is more than just a collection of ancient texts. Philosophically we might say that this is a properly basic belief. There’s no way to get below it, to prove or disprove it. The idea isn’t that scripture is magical or that it gives us historical-scientific snapshots of every event it depicts. No, the idea is that the breath of God blows through its very-human character. That’s inspiration. God’s breath brings life; it brings truth and beauty and goodness.
That seems like high praise, especially when we consider some biblical characters like Jacob. There so much blood spilled across the Bible’s pages it sometimes feels like a crass Hollywood production. God’s breath seems drowned out by the grunts of warfare and howls of strange cultic practices. How do we see it? Or even more pragmatically, why would we commend this book to children?
The clue Paul gives Timothy comes in verse fifteen: “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” There it is. Whereas in so much of scripture we see shadows of the divine, in Jesus we see God with depth and color.
It’s good that our children know the Bible’s stories and it’s good that they know how to connect them and order them. Yet the most important thing is to know how these stories point to faith in Jesus.
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So here we stand then—a community blessed with the task of caring for children—looking at these two panels. In our congregation when we celebrate and dedicate new children we commit ourselves to model what it means to be an apprentice in the way of Jesus. We look at the panel on our left and we see in the story of Jacob the truth that God allows us to push back and to wrestle with divinity. We should be neither surprised nor alarmed when any of us, young or old, do that. It shouldn’t make us panic. In the story of Jacob we also see a person wounded. Neither we nor our little ones will get through life (whether we acknowledge God or not) without wounds. Let us hope, then, that our wounds would be the occasion for knowing our true selves as creatures prone to self-delusion yet still loved deeply and irrevocably by God.
As we look at the panel of Paul’s description of Timothy on our right we see that there is great value in ensuring that children know the scriptures. What we are willing to invest time teaching to the children shows us what we truly believe is important. Kids pick that stuff up easily enough. What is crucial is that these kids meet Jesus. It’s through Jesus that they will really understand the scriptures. It’s in Jesus that they and we see the Almighty as one who loves us and loves our enemies enough to dwell with us, be wounded with us, die with us and overcome death for us.
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God, in Christ you invited children to come to yourself. Let us point them your way as well. Give us enough humble confidence in your existence to not be anxious. And may that same confidence allow us to lead and guide the children in our care to praise you. Amen.