31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 24, 2023
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
At his birth, they named him trickster so it is no surprise that he lived up to his name. Over and over again, the Bible details how Jacob tricked others: his brother, his father, his father-in-law. Even when Jacob was tricked in return, he still didn’t seem inclined to change his ways.
Was this because it was expected of Jacob or was it because his conniving ways seem to always help Jacob land on top? (Shrug)
Regardless, a trickster, a conniver, a con artist was who Jacob seemed destined to be- until one night when Jacob wrestled with his anxiety and fear, wrestled with the knowledge of how his behavior had affected his family, wrestled with himself. A trickster, deceiver, a cheat he was until one night when Jacob wrestled with God.
In the past, Jacob would have used his intelligence to fool his opponent and win; however Jacob did not employ any schemes. For the first time in his life, Jacob honestly wrestled and wrestled honestly. He didn’t look for the short cut. He persisted. He held on. He held on for a blessing, and he received one. His name was forever changed from Jacob “Trickster” to Israel “He who struggles with God”.
Words are powerful. Names are powerful. When Jacob was no longer called trickster, he no longer behaved as a trickster. The One who struggles with God lived up to his name and continued to wrestle with God and live as faithfully as he could all the days of his life.
Jacob was transformed by God, transformed by the knowledge that he was God’s beloved child, transformed in a way that only God can do.
History has told many stories about her however the only one the Bible tells is that Mary Magdalene was a woman from whom “seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2). Seven demons. Seven evil spirits. Seven infirmities that trapped Mary Magdalene and likely interfered with her relationships, including her relationship with God.
The struggle in her mind, the struggle in her body as she dealt with so much illness must have caused her daily pain. And yet, she and her family and her community probably had long ago become resigned to the fact that this was how she would be – never healthy, never able to contribute, never a blessing.
And then Jesus came into her life and healed Mary Magdalene of all seven demons, and Mary was freed. Mary was able to use all of the gifts and abilities God had given her to actively support Jesus’ ministry of peace and love and make a difference in her world.
Physical pain is debilitating. Mental health issues can feel like prisons. Illness of all kinds robs us of our dignity, leaving us feeling useless, unable to contribute, never a blessing.
That is not how God sees us though. Always to God, we are beloved; we are gifted; we are able to make a difference in the world.
Mary Magdalene was transformed by God, transformed by the healing of her body, transformed by the healing of her mind, transformed by the restoring of her dignity and worth, transformed in a way that only God can do.
Everything about his life seemed just right. According to society’s judgment, he was a righteous and honorable man. He had power and authority, status and wealth, and yet, it didn’t seem enough. So Nicodemus went searching for Jesus.
It’s true that Nicodemus had doubts. It’s true that Nicodemus had uncertainties; however there was no need for anyone else to know. There was no need to open himself up to gossip and speculation so Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, under the cloak of darkness, in secrecy.
And this man who society thought had it altogether, this man discovered that this journey of life, this journey with God is not about prominence or status. This journey of faith is about being vulnerable, vulnerable enough to walk in the light and expose all of our doubts and insecurities, our uncertainties and questions. This journey of faith is about being vulnerable enough to open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit and to listen and walk the way God is calling us.
It is hard to choose God’s way instead of our way, and yet, our way too often is a way that is guided by fear – fear of vulnerability, fear of what others think, fear of holding on to our place in society, fear of not looking foolish. God’s way, though, is peace, joy, hope, and love.
Nicodemus was transformed by God, transformed from a person who sneaked around in the darkness, to a person who walked faithfully in the light. Nicodemus was reborn in body, mind, and soul, transformed by the Holy Spirit, transformed in a way that only God can do.
If the Bible describes Nicodemus as a prominent and upright leader, than Saul was that times ten. Everything about Saul’s credentials was impeccable, following all of the Jewish religious customs faithfully, taught by the right teachers, born of the right people, “a Hebrew of Hebrews”, beyond reproach in every way – and yet, what did all of this privilege get him? A heart of hate and a closed mind unwilling to even entertain that God could be doing something new.
Saul used his privilege, his intelligence, and his abilities to persecute others, to track down members of the Way so they could be eliminated and hopefully with them, this belief that transgressed from tradition.
This was who Saul believed God had made him to be. This was why Saul thought God had blessed him with such privilege- to keep the tradition pure – at all costs.
And Saul might have continued to create fear and cause harm wherever he went, except one day, one extraordinary day, Jesus came to Saul and transformed Saul’s life. The resurrected Christ came to Saul and changed his name, changed his heart, changed his mind, changed his path in life.
The Pharisee Saul was transformed by God into the Apostle Paul, transformed into God’s messenger, powerfully preaching, writing, and leading others to lives that were also transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul and the entire community of Jesus Christ were transformed one day on the road to Damascus in a way that only God can do.
Is it possible for people to change? Is it possible for people to be transformed? Yes, yes it is.
Perhaps not on their own, perhaps not due to our own ingenuity and will power; however throughout the Bible, we see how change is possible for God.
How God changes people’s hearts. How God changes people’s behavior. How God changes people’s lives. How God heals our emotional scars and our physical ailments. How God soothes our anxieties and fears. How God opens our eyes and inspires us to a new path, a way of peace and love, God’s way of peace and love.
Jacob the trickster became Israel, the one who wrestled with humans and God and prevailed. The trickster became Israel, the faithful father of nations. Mary Magdalene was freed of seven demons, freed to be the faithful disciple of Christ God had created and called her to be. Nicodemus had his eyes open to the fear that had been quietly controlling his life. Nicodemus was born again, born of the Spirit, inspired to walk in the light instead of creeping around in the darkness. And Paul. Paul had his name changed and his life completely upended. Love took the place of hate in his heart. Love that was patient and kind. Love that was persevering. Love that was contagious, empowering him to do incredible ministry as God worked through Paul to change the other’s lives, to change whole communities, to completely transform the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Is it possible for people to change? Is it possible for people to be transformed? Yes, yes it is because anything and everything are possible for God.