The next day, Jacob 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.
Today, we continue a series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis means “Beginning,” and it tells us about the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God. Among others, Genesis tells us about the patriarchs and the matriarchs—chiefly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a sort of a “first family” in Hebrew religion.
Two weeks ago, Jacob was on the run for his life, after hustling his own brother and deceiving his own father. Out in the middle of nowhere, Jacob had a dream about the presence of God, and like Jacob, we are called to discern the presence of God in all the places and circumstances of our lives.
Last week, Jacob the trickster was himself tricked and deceived. He ended up married to two sisters, Leah and Rachel – one to whom he was attracted, and one to whom he was not. We realized that all of us are both Leah and Rachel, and God loves us even when we’re not easy to love, and has likewise called us to love others, even when they are not easy to love.
In today’s text, 3 chapters and 20 years have passed since we saw him last. He leaves his deceptive father-in-law and heads back toward the home of his youth, only to discover that the brother he wronged is on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men. God first appeared to Jacob in a dream one night 20 years earlier; God is going to visit Jacob yet again this night, but by morning, Jacob’s life will be changed. May we pray.
I have to admit that I wrestled and struggled with this sermon all week. No, the irony is not lost on me – that I wrestled all week with a sermon based on a text about God wrestling with Jacob.
I wonder if some of the difficulty is that I just don’t know that much about wrestling. A restaurant worker asked me this week if I had played sports in high school. Well, yes, I had. She said, “Looking at you, I’ll bet you were a wrestler.” I said, “No, actually, I was on the golf team.” Growing up, I had several friends who were into WWF – now WWE – professional wrestling. They had all the dolls—I mean, action figures—of all the professional wrestlers, and sometimes when I was at their homes, they’d pull out those dolls—I mean, action figures—and asked if I wanted to play wrestling. No, I did not. In my overly diplomatic eight-year-old way, I’d say, “Ummmm, professional wrestling is stupid. Everyone knows it’s fake.”
Fake wrestling – what’s the point of that? If you’re going to wrestle with someone or something in your life, wouldn’t you rather wrestle with the real deal?
Like Jacob. He had wrestled with a lot of things in his life – parents who bickered over which of their sons was better, he wrestled a birthright away from his older brother, he wrestled away a blessing from his father, he wrestled with his boss and then father-in-law over wages and wives, and the wrestling match continued as they duked it out over which livestock belonged to whom.
Finally, Jacob has had enough, and he goes to his sister wives and says, “Your father has it in for me, and I can’t take it anymore. Round up all eleven kids, pack up the Suburban, and let’s get out of here. Let’s go back to the home I came from.”
However, no sooner has Jacob left his father-in-law, Laban than he learns that his older brother, Esau – the brother whose birthright and blessing he stole – is on his way to meet him. Last Jacob knew, Esau intended to kill him. Jacob, scrambling to find favor in his brother’s sight, sends a portion of his livestock, his wealth, and his servants as a gift to his estranged brother. Perhaps money can’t buy happiness, but maybe it can at least make a downpayment on a little domestic peace.
He waits a few days, and hasn’t heard anything. Who knows, maybe his brother was angry and has killed the messenger – it wouldn’t be the first or last time for that. So Jacob takes his family and the rest of his property across the Jabbok River, and says, “You all go on ahead – go meet your brother-in-law! Go meet your uncle! Sure, he has it in for me and just might kill you on sight, but I’m gonna stay here for a few days.”
Late in the afternoon, he watches them all disappear into the setting sun, and suddenly he’s alone. He paces the muddy riverbank pondering his predicament, safe for now, but uncertain about what the future holds. The sun slowly dips below the horizon, and as the darkness settles in, Jacob realizes he is not alone.
He is set upon by a man, an angel, a demon – in the struggle and darkness, Jacob certainly can’t tell which. They struggle, grapple, and wrestle with each other all night until the darkness begins to lift just slightly with the promise of the coming dawn, and the creature reaches out with its strength and dislocates Jacob’s hip. And at this point Jacob knows that he is in the presence of something supernatural – something who’s blessing matters, and Jacob demands a blessing.
“Not so fast,” says this creature, which, by now, we know is God. “First, tell me your name.” Names in the ancient world are never just names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character. Jacob’s name – which means “heel,” “supplanter,” “striver,” “hustler” – that name is no exception. Jacob has been grasping and striving and hustling since the day he was born. He has been living on his own wits and cunning, trusting no one and proving himself untrustworthy at every turn.
During the wrestling match, when God asks Jacob’s name, he is inviting Jacob to confess the less-than-sterling truth about himself – his ill-gotten gain, his checkered past, his fears and failures and shortcomings, his shifty arrangements and dubious social interactions – God is demanding that Jacob tell the truth about who he has always been.
To his credit, Jacob comes clean. What is your name? What is your identity? How are you known? “My name is Jacob, and I truly am all that name implies – I am a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat. I have wronged others for my own selfish personal gain. I have foolishly tried to hoard God’s blessing for myself and robbed others in the process. I have only looked out for myself and my own personal interests, and as a result, my life couldn’t be any more miserable. Have mercy on me and bless me, a sinner.”
Indeed, that is exactly who Jacob has been up until this point. They say confession is good for the soul, and it must be, because God is not content to just leave it there. As they wrestle, as Jacob has confessed the truth about who he is and who he has been, God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow that that is all there is to him. “Yes, Jacob – that is exactly who you have been, but from now on, I am giving you a new name, a new identity.” God renames Jacob “Israel,” literally “one who wrestles with God,” and says, “from now on, this is who I have called you to be.”
God wrestles with Jacob at the intersection of “who he has always been” and “who God is calling him to be.” If you’re going to wrestle with someone or something in your life, wouldn’t you prefer to wrestle with the real deal? Wouldn’t you prefer to wrestle with the one whose blessing matters? God wrestles with Jacob, and us, and invites us to tell the truth, twice. First, God invites us to tell the truth about who we have been. Then, God invites us to tell the truth about who we can yet become.
We name the reality of our brokenness, our fears, our shortcomings, and our sin. And then we hear the good and gracious news that whatever is broken is not beyond repair, that God loves us with a perfect love that casts out all fear, that where our lives come up short, God’s grace covers the difference, and that our sin is not the end of the story.
Jacob’s story is our story because he finds his truest identity and purest calling in a process of death and resurrection, where his old self is put to death in order for God to bring his new self to life. Friends, that’s a process, that’s a struggle, that’s a wrestling match that sometimes feels like it’s hurting and crippling us, because it turns out the old self can be an awfully stubborn and is only interested in its own self-preservation, hanging on for dear life and fighting the transformation in our hearts and priorities.
Yet the simple reality is that we cannot serve both ourselves and God. The prophet Elijah said, “How long will you go limping between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). When Jesus faced temptation he said, “It is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8). Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Over and over again, the Scriptures are clear that we are to follow God only and devote ourselves wholly to God. There is a wrestling match going on within each of us, and the question of who we will serve and live for hangs in the balance. Who’s calling the shots and running things around here? Is it me, or is it Christ who lives in me?
As David Crowder titled his book, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die. We all want to claim the promise of new life in Christ, yet doing so requires us to re-orient our lives from self-centered living to God-centered living, and such a drastic change in our priorities never comes without some difficulty, some struggling, and some wrestling.
Yet in that wrestling, the story of the Christian Gospel is one of transformation, moving from the cross to resurrection, moving from death into new life, wrestling at the intersection point between who we’ve always been and who God is calling us to be. That transformation is made real in our baptism – the very language of the liturgy reminds us that in those sacred waters we die to self and are raised to new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jacob wrestled with God by the river, received a mark, and was transformed in receiving a new name, so too do the waters of baptism seal God’s mark upon our lives, and transform us into the people God calls us to be and empowers us to become in the Holy Spirit’s power. In some ways, baptism is the opening bell of the wrestling match between us and God, calling us to a new and transformed life, and the wrestling will continue in our lives until the image of God’s love is fully restored within us, shedding abroad in our hearts the full glory of God’s love.
Those who encounter God in this wrestling match find themselves at the intersection between “who I’ve always been” and “who I am called to be.” It’s a transformation place, a game-changing place, a place where God touches us and blesses us. God is the real deal; who wants to wrestle with something fake?
That reminds us that there are a whole lot of things with which we can wrestle that aren’t God. We can’t expect to receive the touch of God and the blessings of God unless we’re actually wrestling with God. I think we sometimes wrestle with all sorts of other things and fool ourselves into thinking those things are God – wrestling with career, family, wealth, property, power, or prestige. We wrestle and we struggle and then wonder why we’re not receiving God’s blessings. It’s simple – those things can’t give us God’s blessings because they are not God.
And so, I’ve just got a very basic and simple question for you this morning: Have you been wrestling lately? And if so, have you been wrestling with God?
Have you wrestled with the truth about who and what you are? Have you honestly confronted and been confronted by the truth about you who are and who you have been? If you have, that’s great, and if you haven’t, today’s a great day to start.
But I’ve got to remind you that the story doesn’t end there, for no matter who you are or have been, God is still calling you to something greater. That is the second truth, and it’s the greater and more determinative of the two. Telling the truth about who God is calling us to be creates for us an open and hopeful future and girds us with the courage to embrace it.
When God alters our understanding of who we are, something changes in our relationship with God and others. A new kind of love flows through us. Love begets love. The more you give of yourself to God the more things change in the way you perceive other people and the more things change in the way they relate to you.
That change is a blessing – the very blessing God provides when we have wrestled with God and found our lives re-named in God’s redemptive story.
God, we thank you for wrestling with us, for claiming us, for re-naming us within your story. Place within us the ability to tell the truth – first, the truth about who we are, and second, the truth about who you have called us to be. Call our constant attention to the distance between the two. Work in us and through us, through the power of your Holy Spirit, to complete your work of redemption and reconciliation with the whole world whom you love, the world you love so much that you were willing to send your Son to die for it. It is in his name we pray. Amen.