Message Manuscript of “Wrestling with God” Genesis 32:22-32
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, October 20, 2013
What memory comes into your mind when you hear the word “wrestling?” Saturday night TV, your wrestling team in school, dreadful unitards, uncomfortable-looking Sumos? I think about my brother. Wrestling was something we did well and often. As the younger brother, and one who resembled a twig for most of my life, I was almost always on the losing end of all wrestling matches between us. This was especially true anytime my brother had spent more time watching WWF wrestling than he did episodes of Star Trek or the Rockford Files, his two favorite shows. If I were in the same room with him at the time he turned the channel (yes, back then you had to get up, walk over to the TV, and turn the dial), I would do my best to quietly ease out of the room, as I knew I would become an unwilling victim of his imitation of the latest wrestling move of Andre the Giant, Hossein the Arab, or Hulk Hogan. It was then I learned some moves not so much for winning, but for survival. Biting, pinching, kicking, playing dead when my mother walked by. These all seemed to work if done correctly. This was what it was like to wrestle with my brother. How about you? Have any wrestling memories?
Our text today from Genesis 33:22-32 presents to us what it is like to wrestle with God as we get to stand outside the ring where Jacob and God are wrestling. To understand this odd wrestling match, you must remember a few things in it’s background, especially about Jacob’s history of wrestling. Really, from day one, Jacob has been a scrapper. He received his name because this was so, his mother and father seeing at birth his first wrestling move of reaching out and grabbing the heal of his older twin brother, Esau. He continued a life of contention, grappling with himself and his place in the world, with his brother’s birthright, with his love life, his wealth, his father-in-law, and with his God. What probably stands out to us the most in his life of wrestling is the struggle he had with Esau. As you may recall from Sunday School, Jacob wasn’t happy with his place in the birth order. He knew his father, Isaac, would be passing on his blessing to the oldest male in the family, to his brother Esau. Esau’s birth, even though probably just minutes before Jacob’s, made him the first one in line for all that his father had to offer when the time came. Jacob, unable to accept his place in life, set out to wrangle his brother out of it by tricking his father, blind at this point, to bless him instead of Esau. Esau was not only the oldest, he was also the hairiest. Jacob, who probably felt hairfully inadequate, put fur on his arms to fool his father into thinking he was Esau. And so the story goes, as you know, that Jacob ends us getting the blessing, which could not be revoked, even after his father learned that he had been deceived. By the time we get to Penuel in our text today, Jacob’s cunning moves in the ring of life are already quite evident.
At this time in Jacob’s life, he is on his way back to reconcile with Esau. He has been in a self-imposed exile of sorts, after fleeing for his life to Haraan to live with his mother’s kinfolk. While there, he got married (twice, to Leah and Rachel), worked for his family, and watched his personal assets increase. It was now time for him to return and set things right with his brother. On his journey back home, just before entering his hometown, he goes off by himself along the north banks of the Jabbok River. We don’t have all of the details what he is doing there, but I’m pretty sure we have all been there before, there before a big decision, a difficult responsibility, a sinful past, a step into the unknown. It is while there, wrestling with himself, that Jacob enters yet another brawl, as someone jumps from out of nowhere and wrestles him to the ground. We understand that man to be an angel of God, one sent by God. It didn’t take Jacob long to understand that this was no ordinary man who was coming at him in this ring. He sees God in the wrestling moves, which makes him strive even more to make sure he was getting from God what he wanted the most–a blessing. By the end of the match, he has named this man, Peniel, indicating his awareness that he had come face to face not with some man, but with God. Jacob has been wrestling with God.
I’m glad this story is in the Bible, as we can all benefit from knowing that someone else has wrestled with God. We all have or will wrestle like this in one way or another and it is helpful to know that doing so may not be so odd after all. In fact, it seems here and elsewhere in the Bible to be quite normal. We are so much like Jacob that it would be a waste for us not to see ourselves in this text. Aren’t you like Jacob? Haven’t you been a scrapper throughout your life, finding plenty of things you have to fight to get; feeling cheated when someone around you is getting what you don’t have and what you want the most? Sure, this morning, let’s just all concede that we have had a history of wrestling. We wrestle with siblings, with our parents, with our neighbors, with our circumstances, with our work, and with our purpose in life. We wrestle with ourselves, longing to be blessed, contending for who we are and for what place we feel we should have in the world. What we struggle with the most, though, is what Jacob struggled with the most–God. Another way to look at it is to see that what we scuffle with in all of these areas is mostly a struggle with God. We are grappling with God when we look outside of him for a blessing and a name in life.
Our text leads us beyond the match between Jacob and this late night wrestling opponent. It tells us of an outcome, 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. Who would have ever thought that wrestling with God would lead to a victory? If this match happened in a ring in Vegas, who would bet on Jacob? Sizing up the two contenders would surely lead to betting on God, not Jacob. The interesting thing here, though, is that God allows Jacob to prevail. The man from the darkness, whom Jacob identified as God, shows real vulnerability and allows Jacob to have what he is striving for–a blessing. The blessing, mixed with a name change to Israel, seems to have come as a result of God seeing in Jacob that he had changed; he had matured beyond his scrappy ways and was ready for bigger things from God.
The other outcome from this contest was an injury for Jacob, from having his hip taken out of socket by the strategic hit from his opponent. From then on, he would walk with a limp, with a reminder of what took place that night. Like Moses, David, and Paul and other people in the Bible, Jacob would move ahead with some marks of maturity; memorials of what happens when a person takes on God. Even still, the limp Israel walked out with that day was into the light of the son that rose upon him. God’s grace and favor welcomed him into a new day.
You may be wishing that your match with God would end in such a positive way. The fact that it did so for Jacob and others in the Bible is an indication that it can happen for you as well. It may be hard to see right now, as you may yet still be in the middle of the match, in the late of the night, in the throes of contention. If Jacob were here with us, allowing us to give a post-match interview of him, I think he would have a few things to say to us. First, he would remind us to keep on wrestling, to keep on striving. The match is yours to lose if you don’t do all you can to take hold of God, saying to him, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” This can happen in a midnight prayer, in the depth of your despair, or after realizing that the thing that matters most to you in life is what only God can give. What a real loss it would have been for Jacob if he had run away from his opponent, continuing to run as he had done for so much of his life. And what a loss it will be for you if you flee the darkness of your soul, fearing the inevitable confrontation between you and God over the things of your life.
He would also remind us that God is a graceful partner, much stronger than us but also much more vulnerable. Yes, that is God in the ring with you, but He wants you to win. He wants you to prevail. He wants you to discover that, while he sometimes comes to you from out of nowhere, his wrestling moves are full of mercy and empowered by grace. He wants to embrace you in such a way that he never lets go. Walking away with a limp will remind you that this is so. You may be like Jacob, having manipulated your way into difficult circumstances and broken relationships. You, too, may have taken what is not yours. What Jacob would say to you is that when you wrestle with God, it is God who loses, but His grace prevails. Jacob could see this as he came face-to-face with God. How much more can we, on this side of the cross of Calvary, see that this is so?
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés has a good word of wisdom here about wrestling. Refuse to fall down. If you cannot refuse to fall down, refuse to stay down. If you cannot refuse to stay down, lift your heart toward heaven, and like a hungry beggar, ask that it be filled, and it will be filled. You may be pushed down. You may be kept from rising. But no one can keep you from lifting your heart toward heaven.
As you limp on, taking with you your new name and your story of struggle, may you lift your heart toward heaven, to see that the sun is rising on you as well.