Wrestling (September 22, 2019)
Genesis 32: 9-13, 22-30
So we continue on in the story of the Bible, and we arrive at Jacob wrestling with God. As we come upon our scene, Jacob is alone and God appears and wrestles with him. But let’s go back and figure out why Jacob is alone. Jacob is alone because he is scared of his brother Esau. Why is he scared of his brother Esau? He and his brother have had a interesting relationship throughout his life. Jacob’s name either means “to grab” or “heel.” He is named that because as they were getting ready to be born, they were jostling for position in the womb. And Esau arrives first, but he’s followed immediately by Jacob who is grabbing at his heel. It was important that we know who was born first because the firstborn received two portions of the inheritance and all other children would receive one portion of the inheritance. That double portion, that extra portion, is the right of the firstborn. It matters who came out first, even though they were twins. And Jacob, from the very beginning were told, is trying to steal that from his brother.
As they grow up, Jacob is kind of the apprentice to his mother, he spends time with her in the household. His brother Esau spends time with their father Isaac and becomes a hunter. And at one point in our story Esau is out hunting and becomes very parched, probably heat exhaustion beginning to creep in, and he comes back to the camp and Jacob is cooking. And Jacob negotiates with Esau for Esau to trade the birthright for the soup. And in that moment Jacob, in Esau’s mind, steals Esau’s birthright.
Then as their father is dying, as the birthrights are getting ready to be handed out, his father tries to bless his two children. This is something that’s very common in scriptural narrative. Esau goes and he is going to go hunt and then prepare a meal for his father to be well fed before blessing him. As he’s gone, Jacob, at the direction of his mother, takes some of their livestock. They kill the livestock and prepare a soup similar to what Esau would make. Then they cover Jacob in hair, because Esau was hairier than Jacob, and then they have Jacob go in and pretend to be Esau. And Isaac, being blind, doesn’t know the difference and blesses Jacob with the blessing of the first born, including that his brother would be his servant. Then Esau comes back and finds out that this happened, and Isaac actually says “I have no blessings left for you, my son.” And Esau was pretty angry at this. And he says that as soon as his father is dead and will no longer be able to mourn it, he’s going to kill his brother. Their mother hears this, warns Jacob, and Jacob runs away.
He winds up in southern turkey with the descendants of Abraham‘s brother. Jacob stays with them for 20 years. A lot happens there that I’m not going to get completely into for time, but at the end of the day Jacob winds up with what that society would’ve considered possessions that are quite a bit: he winds up with two wives, two concubines from those wives, 12 sons, at least one daughter, and a sizable portion of livestock. He becomes very rich. Finally his uncle has had enough and kicks them out. Now he’s got nowhere left to go, so he heads back home where his brother waits for him. And the last time he heard, his brother was trying to kill him.
So in reality what he scared of is not necessarily his brother, but his brother of 20 years ago. He’s not so much scared of his brother, but rather of his past catching up to him. And he’s got nowhere left to run from all the times he had cheated people in his past. And he’s afraid that everything‘s gonna come back to haunt him. He’s failed to forgive himself for the things that happened 20, 25, 30 years ago. He believes that Esau failed to forgive him as well. Even with all the things he received, and all the blessings, and everything he’s accomplished; even with the world telling him he’s great, he’s afraid it’s all gonna come crashing down like a house of cards. And that he seems relatable, at least in my mind, to a great many people.
He’s received word his brother is coming and that his brother has 400 men with him, which is a small army. Jacob has his own resources. He’s got all this livestock, he could buy mercenaries with that. He’s got the servants that one would need to tend that much livestock. He’s got his sons some of which could be around 12 to 13 years old, they might be able to fight. So he’s got some resources, he’s not completely unable to respond. But he doesn’t use them. He doesn’t rest upon all those blessings he had, rather he sends them ahead as gifts. But ultimately he’s not preparing for battle, he’s trying to prepare for a conversation. And at this moment right before his brother theoretically will be upon him, he prays that God will deliver him. Only then does God appear to him and bless him (after wrestling). Does God appear to him if he relies upon his riches? I don’t know but I think a lot of times we think if we just accomplish enough. if we just get rich enough, if we just have enough, we will be comfortable and we won’t be subject to the same sort of worries that we are now. But we are always subject to fear, we are always subject to the walls coming crashing down. These patriarchs are human, which is weird for these stories.
Jacob then wrestles with a man, and after wrestling with him for a significant time, Jacob demands a blessing from this man that he doesn’t know is God yet. And the man agrees to give Jacob a blessing. The first thing he needs in order to do that is Jacob‘s name. A name was not required to wrestle, a name was not required to fight, but a name is required to bless. We actually still somewhat have that idea today. If I am getting ready to pray over you, which is blessing you in that moment, I will ask your name unless I am 100% sure I have it right. Even if I am 99.9% sure I have your name right, I’m still going to ask it right before I pray. Why? Because in that moment it’s very important that I have it right, because the name is an important part of a blessing.
Furthermore, the name is the blessing. And I know the Scriptures go on to say, “and then he blessed him,” but the only thing that’s recorded is God changing Jacob‘s name. He receives a new name, the name is “Israel,” which means “one who wrestles with God,” “one who strives with God,” “one who has prevailed over God;” something along those lines.
Something interesting about this, that I found interesting at least since I first noticed it, is that within the narrative of Scripture at the very least, the name does not actually seem to change. It tends to go back-and-forth throughout the book of Genesis. We see that here it says “your name is changed to Israel,” but literally the next chapter is referred to as Jacob. And as we keep going forward it keeps changing. It’s Jacob sometimes, and Israel sometimes. Even God doesn’t refer to it the same way: in Exodus we first hear that line “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of…Jacob;” not Israel. Yet the people named after him are named Israel.
I have just constantly found that interesting. So what can that tell us? I kind of waffle back and forth to what that really means, but right now I would tell you that I think what that means is that the person remains Jacob, but his part in the promise of God becomes Israel. In other words, he is Jacob, but his legacy is Israel. And those two things would’ve been very interwoven, more so than they are now. But for me that’s what it is: the new name of Israel describes his descendants more than himself. The Scriptures are the story of the people of Israel, and the people of Israel are people who struggle with God. Which is really good for us, because we are people who struggle with God.
We struggle with God when we come across Scriptures that cause us concern. Scriptures that don’t morph into the idea of an ideal life that we’ve created. We begin to wrestle with God when we begin to doubt sometimes. We wrestle with God when bad things happen to good people, or when rain falls on the wicked.
I mentioned last week that I often will write my sermon a week in advance. That is still true for this sermon. And I actually wrote this sermon on September 11. That wasn’t planned, but when I realized what was happening it made the sermon. 18 years ago on the day I wrote this a lot of bad things happened to a lot of good people. And I remember that day the church doors opened. And I don’t know what your pastor said to you at that time, but I know that my pastor sat down and he simply said “I don’t have an answer.” He knew the question was “why?” and said “I don’t have an answer. But I do know that I would rather be here than home, that I would rather wrestle here with God then wrestle alone.” In these moments we either wrestle with God, or we run. And really those are our two options: we either wrestle or we run away. And sometimes the people choose both of those. But I think Methodists at least try and be people that wrestle with God, that recognize what life is and don’t shy away from it. So we wrestle. We wonder why rain falls on the wicked, and why bad things happen to good people. We fall and we beg God to raise us up again, and then we fall again. And that’s really the story of the people of Israel throughout the whole of the Old Testament.
And sometimes we come up limping. And I find it fascinating that this encounter that Jacob receives, this encounter that is an answer to prayer, that supposed to be a blessing from God, leaves him limping. And what does it imply that an encounter from God leads us limping? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
A change happens in the narrative. Right before this passage Jacob hears that his brother is coming with an army of 400 men, and he takes all of his possessions and he places them between him and his brother. Scripture says he’s not using them as a human shield, he’s hoping that by the time Esau gets to him his anger will have been bought away. In essence he says, “I’m going to give you back your birthright in the form of these possessions I’ve gotten from our uncle.” But at the end of this he put his children and his wife between him and his brother. And there’s no way to look at that and what he’s doing there that’s good. And then he wrestles with God. And the first thing he does in the morning after he wrestled with God is he crosses the river himself. Then he gets in front of his wives and children. And he can’t catch up to any of the things in front of that, but he faces his brother. Would Jacob have been able to face his brother at the head of the delegation without having wrestled all night with God beforehand, and known that he was strong enough to live to tell the tale about it? I don’t know. But before this Jacob has always run away; after this he never runs away.
Even with the limp he is stronger than he was before. Even with the limp, he is more capable of facing his brother. Which means his prayer was answered. Ultimately it is the way we handle the situations we wind up in, the way we handle the struggles that we must wrestle with, that defines us. It’s not the struggles that define us, we’re not defined by what has happened to us; we are defined by how we have handled them, how we have persevered. We show our strength by the fact we’re still going. It’s in wrestling with God that Jacob realizes he doesn’t have to run. It’s in wrestling with God that he learns how strong he is. And that limp reminds him of that. Later, Paul talks about his own strength by talking about the thorn in his side, this thing that he prays God will take away, something that’s aggravating to him. Yet that reminds him of the importance of preaching Christ. Whatever it is you’re wrestling with God over right now, embrace that. Live into that. Even if it causes you to limp, wear the limp with pride. Because I have to tell you, 18 years later, I’m limping. And I still don’t have a better answer than “I don’t know.” But I reiterate with my pastor that it’s better to wrestle with God than to wrestle alone. And when I’m in trouble, there’s no place I’d rather be than right here. So let’s wrestle with life, together. Amen.