If there is anything that I have learned from Pandemic binge watching, it is that I love liars. Just about every show I’m hooked on is about liars. Although we’re a decade late to the party, my husband and I are watching The Americans, about two KGB sleeper agents in the 1980s who live in a posh Falls Church Virginia neighborhood posing as a normal American family with teenagers. How do they do it? They put a dead guy in the trunk while baking brownies for the neighbors! And who can forget Lady Olenna Tyrell, the lying granny from Game of Thrones. Or Reese Witherspoon and her crew of deceitful kindergarten mothers in Big Little Lies. Ricky Gervais famously said, “Without lies, we would have no fiction.”
Face it. We are fascinated by liars. We want to see what they can get away with. Liars shake things up. It’s fascinating to think about why people lie. I’m not Sigmund Freud, but I would guess that we lie to make ourselves look better than we are or to get more than we deserve. We not only lie to others, but we lie to ourselves. Does your weight on your driver’s license match your scale? Does your timesheet square with hours worked? A few years before my mother died, we found out she was actually four years older than she was on her birthday.
It’s hard to admit that you’re a liar. We all are, though. We inflate, we stretch, we bend, we leave out bits, we add other bits—even when the truth will do. In my family, we never just caught two fish, we always caught at least three. We only had one glass of wine. We only had two beers.There was too much traffic to make it in time. The dog ate our homework.
This is truly the effect that the law has on us. We have to find a way to be better than we are, to be perceived as more than we are, to conjure up the magic of a loveable and acceptable persona who is worthy of love. We are strivers who believe we have to lie in order to live like we think other people are living. We are not satisfied to be who we were made to be. We are not satisfied with how we are right now, how the world is right now, what God is getting done or leaving undone. We leave a wake of lies and betrayal in our trail in our search for more.
The Old Testament reading from today is about a loveable liar in Genesis 32 named Jacob.
Rev. Dr. David Lose uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of “telling the truth twice.” God asks Jacob’s name, and he says “Jacob.” (The name “Jacob” is derived from the Hebrew word for “heel” and has the connotation of “supplanting” or “cheating.”) And that name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been–a supplanter, a cheater, a liar, one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother’s blessing, one who had to run for his life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being deceived. That’s the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.”
After being told by God to go back home and face his lies, Jacob finds himself sleeping on a sandbar in the Jabbock wadi, while he waits for his brother’s army to arrive to exact revenge. Verse 32:24 says, “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him til daybreak.” The ‘man,’ who we learn is God, wrenches Jacob’s hip out of socket but Jacob will not let him go unless he is blessed. Jacob has wrestled with God and received grace, as well as a limp.
“But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the callow youth he once was. The once self-centered youth will become the patriarch, the man who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself (47:7, 10). This is the second truth, the Gospel of the story. God gives Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.”
Jacob’s new identity as Israel means “wrestles with God.” It turns out that God loves liars, too, because liars eventually become wrestlers. We liars are trying to escape from the truth that we are mere mortals, that we are not perfect or infallible, that we cannot run our own lives and that we are in deep, daily need of God. We may have had a few moments when our will was done, but we will eventually lose the wrestling match of our will vs. God’s will. As a book I love says, We believe we “can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if [we] only manage well.” We are lying to ourselves because our satisfaction, and therefore the truth, can only be found in God.
The Jabbock sandbar is an apt metaphor for the stuck places in our lives. Behind us lies the wreckage of our past, ahead lies the future with its fears and uncertainty. We stand on the sandbar of our lives praying for relief. How often have we found ourselves on the sandbar of our lives, as our fears advance toward us? Have the lies you have been telling yourself about your own strength and power failed to keep you satisfied and safe? Has your armor-plated self-sufficiency kept you wrestling with God for control of your life?
Where had the lies that masqueraded as strength gotten Jacob? On a sandbar in a river facing his very angry brother who brought an army to the reunion. But his lying past was changed that night struggling with his life of lies until grace revealed the truth about who he was in God. No longer ‘the heel’ but one who struggles with God. We think of grace as painless, but this story shows us that grace leaves its mark. We don’t give in easily and God doesn’t give up easily. That is what a real relationship is like. We are invited to lie less and wrestle more.
Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that, “We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be.”
Jacob went to sleep afraid to face his lies but arose the next morning with a limp and a new name. He looked up and saw his brother coming for him and instead of hiding, he went out to meet him, bowing to the ground seven times. Esau saw this and so ran to him, hugged and kissed him and they both wept. The truth had set him free to love his brother and himself. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. God is not afraid to wrestle with you because he knows who you are as well as who you can be, and wants to set you free.