Genesis 32:22-30 (The Message)
22-23 But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
*Hymn - Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown (UMH 386)
How many of you are fans of professional wrestling?
I have to admit, this is a huge gap in my knowledge base. There are two friends of mine down in Haverhill who are avid fans of WWE and I asked them - “What would you tell someone who knows nothing about wrestling what they need to know about wrestling in 30 seconds or less?” And in the midst of our conversation, I was directed to this clip, one of WWE’s legends - and some background here: Vince McMahon, the CEO of WWE, told Ric Flair that if he ever lost another match, he would have to retire. This clip is of the match between Flair and Shawn Michaels. Flair, incidentally, was Michaels’ childhood hero. Here’s what happened:
Now I know that the world of professional wrestling is *vastly* different from the sport you might find in high school or at the Olympics. Professional wrestling is this dramatized combat where the storyline serves to heighten the tension between the characters -- in many ways, the fight itself serves the greater narrative. It is about what happens between the characters, the relationship and interaction and that’s part of what makes the matches so interesting to watch. It’s, as my friend described, combat theater, an Avengers movie as a stageplay, the heart of these stories being good vs. evil. There’s a hero, there’s a villain, and the story goes on from there.
Given that, our story from scripture today would fit into any WWE match.
Here we have Jacob, twin of Esau, and the two of them had been at each other since before they were born. When Rebekah finally delivered them into the world, Esau was born first and Jacob second, gripping the heel of his older brother. This sibling rivalry even pitted parents Isaac and Rebekah against each other -- Isaac’s favorite being the older boy Esau and Rebekah preferring Jacob. Jacob is completely the underdog - being the younger son, all of the blessings of Isaac’s lineage, all the inheritance - everything would have gone to Esau.
Jacob, though, is a devious guy -- a thief, a trickster, and an all around pain in the you-know-where. He gets Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew and connives with his mother to receive Isaac’s blessing - the blessing intended for the firstborn. Esau is so furious that he starts plotting to kill Jacob. Jacob finds out and flees to Paddan-aram where he starts a family in the household of his uncle Laban. During the 20 years he lived there, he becomes so prosperous that Laban and his sons become suspicious, so Jacob, at 90 years old, takes his family and his flocks and his servants and flees back home.
On the way, though, he has to pass through Esau’s territory. Jacob sends messengers ahead with gifts of livestock and provisions, and receives word that Esau is coming to meet him and that 400 men are with him. Now Jacob’s worried that Esau’s finally going to have it in for him, and this is where our reading from today picked up - with Jacob sending his wives and children to safety while he remained behind to await his fate.
Jacob is alone. It’s the night before he will meet up with his brother and - presumably - his brother’s army. He’s afraid, he’s distressed, he doesn’t know if the goods he sent was enough to appease his twin brother. He isn’t sure this meeting is a good idea - and at this point there’s nothing he can do to get out of it. He’s probably reliving all the times he was a little snot to his older brother and getting ready for some major payback.
Into this turmoil a man appears to wrestle with Jacob all night long - tradition points to this being as an angel of God. Jacob, remember, is 90 years old. This angel of God can’t get the better of him even after hours of struggle and so he decides to fight dirty and put Jacob’s hip out of joint. Jacob doesn’t give up, and won’t let the angel be on his way until he gets a blessing -- perhaps echoing back to the moment that started this chain of events when Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. We don’t know what blessing the angel spoke over Jacob -- we don’t even know this mysterious figure’s name, even though the angel makes it a point of knowing Jacob’s name. (Maybe it signifies that the angel Jacob wrestled with was within himself). The angel gives Jacob a new name - Israel - God-Wrestler - literally one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. The angel departs and Jacob names the places Peniel - God Face - because he realizes how lucky he is to have seen God and survived to tell the tale.
Jacob, wrestling with God -- renamed Israel, a people who as we read time and time again also wrestled with God.
During this season of Lent, we are taking a look at the ways God speaks into our lives and how we hear what God is saying to us. Last week, we talked about God getting our attention, like Moses at the burning bush. But not all our encounters with God are ones that bring peace. Sometimes, we struggle and wrestle with God. Sometimes we know what God wants us to do and we don’t want to do it. Sometimes, we wrestle with God because we’re afraid or angry about something in our lives. Sometimes, we wrestle with God because there’s a big decision to make and we don’t know what to do. Sometimes we’re wrestling with ourselves, and all God wants to do is give us the grace to make it through.
Last week I shared that God has been trying to get my attention around taking some time to make sure I’m taking care of myself and that it’s OK to ask for help. To be honest, God and I are in a bit of a wrestling match on this one. It’s a hard pattern to change - I’ve had 34 years to practice these bad habits of supplanting my needs with those of others and to stubbornly insist that I can do it all and God, through the gift of motherhood, is slowly dismantling that illusion even as I hold on to it all the more. In some ways, I’m not even aware of how I’m fighting back, like I’m operating on auto-pilot until God tries to get my attention again - through something I read on Facebook, or getting sick, or any number of ways that God is inviting me to stop and rest.
Let’s just hope that I get the message before God throws my hip out of joint.
We all wrestle with God - it’s part of the life of faith. God works on our hearts and in our lives and invites us to grow in ways that are uncomfortable. Growth is hard. (And before you say that you are too old to grow, just remember that Jacob was 90, and reconciling with his twin brother Esau was a huge step). It can be hard to do the right thing, or to make an important decision when you don’t know how it will impact you and those you love, and you are trying to figure out where God even is in the middle of it all. We even wrestle with God around the big questions - where is God when life feels awful, or why does God let good people suffer, or what is God doing while we’re all down here making an awful mess of things at times?
Where are you wrestling with God? What is God pushing you to do that you may be resistant to? What’s your struggle?
Jacob marked the place of his struggle - giving it a name, giving it importance. The text doesn’t make reference to this, but often in ancient times, an altar would be built to denote the place as significant -- generally with a pile of rocks.
Last week, we named the places where God was trying to get our attention by creating our burning bush. This week, we’ll create an altar of the places where we are wrestling with God face-to-face. We have stones and sharpies up front - as you are moved to do so, I invite you to come forward and write a word or two that represents where you are currently wrestling with God, and we’ll create our altar together.
[invite folks forward]
We have here all the places where we are currently wrestling with God - and I want to affirm each of you who wrote something down here in that struggle. It can be a tough spot to be in, but the opportunity for life and growth is huge, as we offer up those places of doubt, challenge, uncertainty, fear and distress. Perhaps that is the blessing in all of this -- the blessing that Jacob receives -- that the struggle can be a window for God’s grace and love to work in us, moving us closer to where God wants us to be.
Perhaps the blessing is that God persists with us in our wrestling. God persists, God strives, God doesn’t give up on us. We have a God who is willing to enter into the fray with us humans - a God who even came to be among us and experience life as one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. We have a God who in Jesus, as we read in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians - though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be [grasped…something to be] exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a [servant], being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself….”
This is the kind of God that Jacob wrestled with - humble, self-giving compassionate...but also wily and fierce, as one commentary put it -- willing to dislocate hips if necessary to get the goal accomplished. God is with us in the struggle - God isn’t somehow distant to our questions, our uncertainties, our challenges - but is right there in the middle of it.
Perhaps the blessing is in the fact that Jacob left the banks of the Jabbok river as, in the words of Henri Nouwen, a wounded healer. The hope is that he would use his experience and injury to heal others, not to wound others out of his woundedness.
And, in fact, it seems like the defiant trickster has learned something of humility, for if you keep reading in the story, the two brothers reconcile, with Jacob bowing before seven times as he nears Esau, and with Esau running forward to embrace his brother.
It is in our places of greatest struggle, it is in our places of deepest pain, that we can offer others that same kind of love and grace that God offers to us -- that humble, compassionate, self-giving love. We know what the struggle is like because we’ve been there, because we’ve striven and seen God meet us face to face.
If you are here in the middle of a deep wrestling match with God, I want to tell you to keep heart. Keep wrestling - don’t give up because God isn’t giving up on you. There is blessing to be found - even as the pain can be great. If you are here and you’ve been in the ring with God a few times and lived to tell the tale, be compassionate to those who are still in the thick of it. Offer your support, your wisdom, your patience, your story to those who are limping a bit.
We have the gift of each other - knowing that unlike Jacob - we are never alone in the struggle. We have the gift of the struggle - knowing that blessing can be found. We have the gift of a God who is willing to wrestle with us - even until the break of day. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.