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Born as Jacob, Reborn as Israel

Rev Dr. Fritz Ritsch

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43: 1-7

“He who created you, O Jacob; He who formed you, O Israel.” That’s how our Isaiah passage begins; and it ends speaking of all people whom God will redeem: “Every one who is called by My name, whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made.”

Now what the Lord means in context is that God created the nation of Israel and that God will save it from the trouble it’s in, specifically, the Babylonian exile, in which the nations of Israel and Judah were defeated by the Babylonians and sent into exile throughout the empire. God is promising to bring them back from exile to their homeland again. In Isaiah’s poetry, God’s people are called by turns Jacob and Israel. This is because of the story of the founder of Israel, Jacob. It’s a story worth repeating.

Jacob was one of two twin sons of Isaac, the other being Esau. Esau was a hunter and Isaac’s favorite son. He was also the firstborn of the two twins, and therefore the proper inheritor of Isaac’s wealth and property, his birthright. But Jacob was much more clever than his brother, and tricked his father into giving Jacob the blessing that should have gone to Esau. Then he ran away to work for his uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel, but Laban then tricked Jacob into marrying his less marriageable daughter Leah, and told him he had to work for Laban another seven years to earn Rachel. Remember, this was the time when it was common to have more than one wife. Jacob then tricks Laban by stealing Laban’s household gods and taking off with Leah, Rachel, and a lot of wealth.

Though Jacob’s been clever, and gotten what he wanted, he’s also been dumb, and alienated some very powerful people. He starts to wonder how he can escape some of the bad will he’s engendered, and so he thinks it’s time to return home, where his father has died and now Esau rules the roost. Remember, Jacob deprived Esau of his father’s blessing, so there’s no reason for Jacob to think Esau will greet him with kindness and affection. It’s just that Jacob has nowhere else to turn.

Scripture tells us Jacob was a very strong man, and a powerful wrestler. One night, as his caravan nears Esau’s property, Jacob wrestles all night into the morning hours with something–an angel? A demon? A very powerful, somehow divine man? Scripture never specifies. Ultimately, the creature cannot win against Jacob, but neither can Jacob defeat the creature, and so the creature strikes him in the hip, wounding Jacob for the rest of his life; and he gives Jacob this blessing: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but you shall be called Israel, for you have seen the face of God, and lived.” The name Israel can be translated as “He who struggles with God.” But it can also mean, “God struggles with you.”

We all have two births, and both are from God. One is our physical birth. God gives us life, and loves us for who we are. But then there is a deeper, more profound birth, one in which our lives are molded and shaped by God–often through struggle–through contention–through making bad decisions, or experiencing terrible circumstances for reasons beyond our control. All believers are born as Jacob, and reborn as Israel. We often walk away wounded. After all, we meet God with resistance, with wanting our own way, but we are reshaped into better people; we contend with God in times of struggle and need, times when we ask God hard questions, and somehow our faith is strengthened.

But the point is, we are changed. We’re reborn. We move from being Jacob to being Israel.

That’s what baptism symbolizes. We say that in baptism that we join Jesus in a death like his, so that we may be like him in a resurrection like his. The water in baptism symbolizes going down in burial; emerging from it symbolizes being born again.

At the beginning of the new year we have this service in which we celebrate that the new year brings new opportunities and challenges, for us as individuals and as a congregation, to contend with the challenges of life, and grow stronger in faith, knowing that our past, present, and future rest in the hands of God who loves us, who has given birth to us, and is constantly calling us to rebirth, constantly calling us from being Jacob–to being Israel.