Wrestling with God
We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. God was the one who gave this name to God’s people. This is who God wants us to be.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and 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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
What a strange story this is! If it isn’t scary to you, it’s probably because you’ve heard it so many times and you know how it ends, or maybe it’s the way you know Indiana Jones is going to be okay at the end of all his movies, because, after all, his name is in the title. Yes, Jacob is okay at the end of this tale, but – what happened here?
This story leaves us with many questions. Who exactly is Jacob’s attacker? At first it sounds like it’s a man but then it turns out it’s – God? But that only leaves us with more questions. Why would God bushwhack Jacob? Are we supposed to believe God couldn’t pin Jacob? Did Jacob want God’s blessing because he knew the blessing from his father Isaac was predicated on deceit, or was he just greedy for more blessings? And why does a deceitful and irreverent trickster end up with God’s blessing, anyway?
It helps to know the backstory. Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac married Rebekah, who gave birth to twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first, but Jacob was born grabbing onto his brother’s heel, so he was named Jacob, which means “one who take another’s place.” Jacob was his mother’s favorite, and together they plotted to steal Esau’s birthright and Isaac’s blessing, both due to Esau as the elder son. Unfortunately, those plans had to be put on hold due to Esau’s predictably homicidal rage, which sent Jacob running to his Uncle Laban. There, Jacob the trickster was tricked by his uncle into working an extra seven years for the right to marry his true love, Rachel. Relations turned even more sour as Laban and his sons grew jealous of Jacob’s wealth and success, which he achieved, basically, by systematically stealing Laban’s sheep out from under him. It’s really quite creative. So one night while Laban was away, Jacob gathered everything he had and took off for Canaan, for home.
That’s where today’s reading picks up. Twenty years have past since Jacob fled Esau’s wrath. Just before our verses, Jacob receives word that his brother is coming to meet him … with an army of 400 men. Understandably terrified, Jacob divides his huge entourage of wives, servants, livestock and possessions into two parts. That way, if Esau attacks, he won’t lose everything. He sends generous gifts to appease Esau, and then he sends his family and belongings across the River Jabbok. Maybe he figures that even if Esau refuses his tribute, he may at least take pity at the sight of his defenseless wives and children.
He sits down by the river, alone and a fugitive once again. And then it happens. In a few short words we’re told, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
I don’t like wrestling. I don’t just mean the theatrical hijinks of professional wrestling; I don’t like legit wrestling, Olympic or high school wrestling. It’s too intense, too immediately and personally violent; too up close. So I can’t even fathom the shock, the adrenaline, the exhaustion, or the stubborn resolve to hang tough and not let go in an all night wrestling match. But that’s the story.
In some ways, this is just like Jacob, a wrestler even before he was born. But here, instead of cunning, Jacob fights openly. He clings to his opponent, and refuses to let go even after his hip is put out of joint. The man, the angel, God, whomever it is, says, “Let me go; it’s almost daylight.” Jacob says he’ll only let go if the man blesses him. Does that mean Jacob has already figured out who his opponent is?
The man agrees, and gives Jacob a new name. In Jacob’s culture, that means a new identity. No longer Jacob the usurper, the cheat; now he is Israel, a name that means, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” That’s the big “reveal;” it was God all along. The scene concludes with Jacob carrying away God’s blessing along with his new identity. Not only will Jacob and Esau be reconciled in the chapters to come, but Jacob will sire a nation from his twelve sons, and they and their descendants proudly bear his name to this day, a people defined by clinging to God.
A God who wrestles with us. It’s not just Jacob who wrestled with God, here; God started it! What are we supposed to learn from this? Certainly, it challenges any attempt to make God fit into some easy mold. What’s more, God blesses Jacob even though he isn’t deserving, holy, or righteous by any stretch of the imagination. So one lesson is, “Don’t second guess God.”
But – wrestling with God! What can that mean for us, today? What does it look like in our lives – in your life, in my life?
It’s probably a very personal thing. It’s probably ongoing, not once and for all, for most of us. It may look like when you lost a loved one, lost your health, lost a job, or lost a dream, and you wondered where God was, how God could let it happen, or what’s even the point of a God who doesn’t fix everything. Maybe it’s when you figured out there’s something, some situation, you can’t change, fix, control, explain, or even understand. Like a pandemic, just as an example. Maybe it looks like when you found your way to a therapist, a grief group, a twelve-step meeting, or a church.
It may be about coming to faith, or keeping faith. Maybe you wrestle with God when you remember how you used to be able to recite the Apostles Creed without even thinking about it and now … now you’re glad we don’t say it very often, because you’d have to cross your fingers. Maybe it’s when the Dalai Lama makes a lot of sense, and you find yourself wondering, “If scripture isn’t either history or science, what is there to hold on to?” Maybe it’s when you haven’t lost your faith in God, exactly, but you’ve lost faith in the system that promised to help you grasp God by giving you the right language and answers.
Or maybe it’s that you can remember when you thought believing in God was stupid, and unsophisticated, and then something happened that shook you to your toes. Author Brené Brown describes wrestling with God at a time when she really thought she had control over everything. Her therapist told her she needed a bracelet that said, “Let go and let Brené.” Then she hit what she calls a “midlife unraveling.” All the books said go back to church, so she did, but she says she went back for the wrong reasons. She says, “I went back to church thinking that it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away.”
But once she was back at church, she was confronted with challenging and unpredictable things. Things like forgiveness. The pastor of her church said that in order for forgiveness to really happen, something has to die. Maybe it’s just your expectations of a person, or maybe it’s a bit of your own ego, but there has to be a death for forgiveness to happen. This, says Brown, was both hard, and hopeful.
Brown says she’d always believed that God is love, and it started making sense to her that Jesus was the Son of God. She says, “People would want love to be like unicorns and rainbows, and so you send Jesus, and people are like, ‘Oh my God; love is hard. Love is sacrifice. Love is eating with the sick. Love is trouble. Love is rebellious.’” And so, she says, church was not like an epidural. “It was like a midwife,” she says, “who just stood next to me saying, ‘push.’ It’s supposed to hurt a little bit.” “And I got it,” Brown says. “Love is not easy. Love is not hearts and bows. … I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort. But what it ended up saying is ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ And I never thought, until I found it, that that would be enough. But it’s perfect.”[i]
Wrestling with God. Inevitably, always, it looks like when we can no longer pretend; we can no longer run away. But God shows up, not with unicorns and rainbows, but to wrestle us, maybe into loving our neighbors as ourselves, maybe into opening our hearts to let God in – both of those are life long wrestling matches from where I sit. In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away, transformed. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.[ii] Later on, when he finally sees his brother Esau, Jacob says, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[iii] Jacob looks at the face of his enemy, and he sees the face of God. This is both hard, and hopeful. This takes wrestling with God, and not letting go.
I imagine many of us feel alone and in the dark right now, without our defenses to prop us up. The pandemic has lasted longer than we could have guessed. We know what’s behind us; we can’t see what’s ahead. Barbara Brown Taylor says it’s times like this that Jacob’s story “says to us, ‘Don’t be so sure that’s an enemy you’re wrestling. Don’t be so sure you can’t find God in the dark. Don’t be so sure you know how this story ends. Above all, don’t be so sure you can’t make it through the night. Faith has a lot more to do with hanging on than with being sure.’”[iv]
May it be so for you, and for me.