“Wrestling with God”
August 11, 2002
Even from the moment of his birth, Jacob always sought to get the upper hand in life. He used and manipulated the people around him to get what he wanted. He stole the birthright from his brother Esau, which he won from his blind father, Isaac. From his own uncle, Laban, Jacob took control of his livestock and wealth. He used his wife, Rachel, and his sister-in-law, Leah, and fathered many children by the two of them. Jacob only cared about one person, Jacob. He always wanted more and more, anything less was never good enough. Never in his mind did he consider the result of his actions, never in his mind did he contemplate the number of relationships that he had broken and destroyed.
When Jacob heard that his brother Esau was approaching with four hundred men, suddenly, all of his past actions were before him. For the first time, Jacob's conscience portrayed him, and he knew his own unworthiness, his own liabilities, his own guilt.
When Jacob looked out over the land from the direction where Esau was to come from, he saw only his coming judgment. In his mind's eye, he saw an army coming with swords, swords of judgement that he knew he deserved. Knowing that God had made a covenant with him, Jacob prayed for deliverance, but no deliverance came. Jacob was afraid. There would be no escape this time.
Our story for today begins with Jacob sending all he had across the river, his wives, children, and possessions. Alone, he stands on the bank of the river, where he begins to wrestle with a man. All night they wrestle. No one gains the upper hand. As the dawn approaches, the man strikes Jacob on the hip knocking his hip out of joint, but Jacob will not let go until the man blesses him. The man gives in and blesses Jacob, gives him a new name, Israel, and then disappears. Afterwards, Jacob names the place, Peniel, for he had seen God face to face and lived. As the sun rose upon Jacob, he crossed the river, limping as he walked.
What do we make of a story like this, a story that is as mysterious, peculiar, and even mythological as this one? Various commentary attempts to gain insight into this story’s origin and only fall short in the final analysis. In the end, we are only left with a story that leaves us bewildered and puzzled. We contemplate the meaning, search for illusive answers, and come away with only more questions.
Yet, deep down, in the recesses of our own soul, we know this story all too well. We know exactly what it is all about. For Jacob’s story is our story. We’ve lived it, experienced it, and felt it deep within our own joints and muscles. We don’t have to turn to commentaries to give us the meaning to this story, it is a story of our own lives, our own struggles, our own faith, a faith whose origin goes back much further than a mere 2000 years, a faith in something much greater than ourselves, a faith that rests in the most certain trust of who God is and what God promises to do, not just for us, but for the world.
But let’s not kid ourselves, our most certain faith in God is not always a sure thing. The all-powerful, sovereign, almighty God seems so often at times to be more elusive and distant, than accessible and close. God seems so often at times to be more of a faceless stranger than that of a familiar friend. Yet, how quick we are to point our finger of blame for this at the one on whom the blame doesn’t belong. We need not look any further than ourselves. For when we stand in front of the mirror, and look into our own eyes, our own souls are exposed, our own hearts are revealed, and our own actions are judged.
And as the sun goes down and the noise of the day is replaced by the silence of the night, we, too, are left alone with nothing except our own conscience, a conscience that reminds us of our past, a conscience that reminds us that we cannot run from the knowledge of who we are, what we have become, what we have done and not done, a conscience that reminds us that we cannot hide from the presence of the one who knows us far better than we know ourselves.
Jacob’s confrontation and wrestling with the faceless man at the Jabbok is the story of our own confrontation and wrestling with the divine, a confrontation that erupts when we begin to look deep within ourselves and we realize our own desperate need for divine blessing to right our own wrongs, the wrongs of taking God’s blessings for granted, the wrongs of using and manipulating God’s promises for our own advancement and enrichment, the wrongs of believing that God’s grace means we have a free ride to act as we please.
No, Jacob is not just another historical figure of the Old Testament, Jacob is the reflection of ourselves, our own image in the mirror, the personification of our own human struggle against that which we fear the most, the approaching day of judgment, the approaching day when we too must stand and face our accusers.
Yet, there are a great many people who would rather live in the fear of their own judgment, than to wrestle with God for a blessing. Why do we live in fear, and not in hope? Why do we continue to live in the history of our past, when a new and brighter future is dawning on the horizon? Why are we afraid to confront God and wrestle with God for our very lives? Why are we so afraid to grab onto God with all of our might and yell, “Bless me”?
Is it because we believe we can't wrestle with God? That God is beyond our reach and grasp? That we must be content with what happens? That we have no right to ask for anything, let alone a blessing? How dare we think we have the right to wrestle with God? Brothers and sisters, how dare we not wrestle with God.
Jacob's confrontation with the divine was not an act of blasphemy, but an act of faith, an act of a man who realized that faith in oneself is never a substitute for faith in God. In his desperation for deliverance, Jacob held onto God with all of his might, clinging to the only hope that he had, to the only one, whose promises and blessings are for certain. Jacob fought with God for that which only God can give.
When we wrestle with God for God's blessing, we demonstrate to God that we care, that we care about God's promises, that we care about our relationship with God, that we care about what happens to us, that any sense of God's absence and distance from us is unacceptable, that we will not take no for an answer, that we expect God to do things in the world, to bring justice where there is suffering, to make right what is wrong, to bring peace where there is war, and to create life from where there is death.
Faith is never blind faith, that maybe God is for us one day and against us another. Faith is always trusting faith, a trusting faith that in spite of our own faithlessness, in spite of our own unbelief, it is God who fights for us, it is God who wrestles with us, it is God who blesses us and remains faithful, faithful to His own covenant with us, even when it is us who have become distant and far from God.
But wrestling with God is always a risky proposition, because it never leaves us in the same place, or even as the same person that we were before. In wrestling with God, we are changed, changed into something much greater than ourselves, something that forever leaves us as a new person, something that forever leaves us as a new people.
Jacob's name carried with it all the baggage from his past. It was his mark, his label by which others knew him and by which he knew himself, his own character, and his own actions, but God gave him a new name, Israel. He no longer was just an individual, but a people, God's people. We cannot wrestle with God and be the same person we were before. We cannot wrestle with God and expect everything to remain the same. For when we wrestle with God, God causes us to never walk the same way in life again.
Our testimony and witness to God's faithfulness is not something we just read about and decide to believe in, it is something we have experienced within our very body and soul, something we have fought for, something that has forever changed us into someone new, something that gives us the joy to confess that we too have seen God face to face and lived.
My friends, let this day be the day when you wrestle with God and become a new people, a new people who seek to change the lives of people around you, a new people who witnesses to God's love for the world, a new people who brings hope to those who have no hope, a new people who gives abundantly of themselves, a new people who always walk with the limp of faith. Amen.