Wrestling with God

August 6, 2017

Bible Text: Genesis 32:22-31 |

For several weeks we’ve been following the story of Jacob – that patriarch of the Old Testament – who also just happens to be a thoroughgoing, conniving scoundrel.

And today Jacob is returning home.

Years ago he’d deceived his brother Esau of his birthright and his blessing, then fled for his life, certain that Esau would kill him.

It probably wasn’t a bad idea to run away. He probably would have been killed hm. But now he’s returning home. He’d become a wealthy man in the intervening years and – with a bit of flare that you’ve got to admire – he’s sent a whole entourage ahead of him – with flock upon flock of goats and camels and rams and flattering words to be delivered to his brother, as a prolonged peace offering. Or a bribe. Call it what you want.

And now it is night. His whole family and household have gone on ahead of him and he is alone, beside the Jabbok River, waiting for the dawn – waiting for the confrontation with his brother. I doubt he’s asleep. There’s no circumstance so bad that it’s not worse at three in the morning.

And then – out of nowhere – this guy attacks him and starts wrestling him. Jacob doesn’t know who this is or what it’s about. Maybe he thinks it’s Esau. Who knows? But the wrestling match begins and goes on and on and on! Neither man can prevail against the other. By the time it’s over they’re exhausted and panting. Dawn is about to break. The stranger doesn’t want to be seen, so he takes a cheap shot and dislocates Jacob’s hip. But still, Jacob clings on. It’s amazing. “Let go of me!” the stranger shouts.

And this is where the story really gets weird.

“No,” Jacob says. Not until you bless me.”

What did he mean by this? I hardly know. But clearly he respected his assailant and regarded him as one worthy and capable of giving blessing. A friend once told me a story from his time during the war. It was the story of a confusing, face-to-face encounter with the enemy and – when all was said and done – the memory that my friend carried away from the encounter was his deep, abiding respect for that enemy he’d faced.

And so with Jacob, there’s a certain respect for his adversary that makes him ask for a blessing. And the man replies with a question, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he says.

“No longer,” the man replies. “Now you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with human and divine beings, and you have lived.”

And with his blessing, the dark of night gave way to the breaking dawn and Jacob caught the faintest glimpse of who his assailant was. He had been with wrestling with God.

Now let’s be honest. This is a very strange story. There’s nothing at all like it in the rest of scripture. Sure, there are places where Moses is said to see the face of God, or that angels appear as God’s emissaries. But a wrestling match?! Well that’s preposterous. It’s absurd.

And, I think, it’s absolute genius.

This is the moment when the people of Israel received their name. Because from Jacob come twelve sons who will become fathers to the twelve tribes of Israel. This is the patriarch whose new name becomes the identity of the people who will bear his name even until the present day. And what does “Israel” mean? “One who strives with God.” They don’t get some boastful, congratulatory name. They’re not called “Blessed of the Lord” or “People of Light” or “My Chosen Ones.” No - nothing so exalted and exclusive as that. They get, “One who strives with God.” They’ll not be known by the privileges of their relationship with God, but rather by their strivings –their strivings with the unseen God who attacks and wounds in the night.

And isn’t it fascinating that Jacob was the patriarch to be so dignified with the name by which the nation would be known. Why wasn’t Abraham given this honor? He’s the one God chose first. He’s the faithful and righteous one. Not Jacob! He’s deceptive and scheming and untrustworthy. But there’s also this to be said about him: he’s got tenacity down. He will not give up. He just finished fourteen years of laboring for his father-in-law to earn his daughter’s hand in marriage. And now here he wrestles all night with this unseen assailant, and – even with his hip thrown out of joint – he won’t let go until he gets his blessing. (What a little Pitbull!)

This story is genius because of its courageous acknowledgment that what defines the people of God is their dogged tenacity to hold on in their faith through whatever confronts them – even when God appears to be their adversary. And then, when it is over, they’ve got the chutzpah to demand a blessing! Can you image?!

It’s so contrary to the prevailing attitude in our society today. Most people we know would look at this whole episode of wrestling with God as justification for dismissing the whole religion out of hand:

What an awful God to come attack you in the night. You just need drop any notion of faith in that god!

By and large we’re just a bunch of Creampuffs for Jesus. We want happiness and blessings all the time. The least little suffering and we wonder why we’ve been abandoned by God. And if God doesn’t get his act together and give us the comfort we deserve, well! we won’t stand for that: We’ll stop going to church. We won’t pray anymore. We might get really serious and threaten to become atheists. We’ll show him.

As if we’re in any position to dictate how God should or shouldn’t behave. As if we’re in any position to threaten God with our abdication. It’s such a wimpy, petulant kind of faith.

I think it’s time to rediscover a tougher, more resilient faith. And, please, I’m not describing that kind of muscular Christianity that’s so pompous and ugly, confident that God is on our side and to hell with you if you disagree. No. By a tougher faith I’m describing the exact opposite scenario – where you’re flat on your back and everything seems to be going wrong, and even God seems to be against you, and rather than denounce the faith, you dig in all the more and say, “Oh no. You can’t get rid of me that easily. I’m in this for the long haul, God. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”

I think there’s a kind of freedom in a faith like that. Because it’s not a faith that claims to know all or believe all. It’s simply a faith that says, “You are God. And I’m going to spend the rest of my life figuring out what that means.” Without that basic commitment, it’s like being in a marriage with a prenuptial agreement – from the outset you’ve got one eye on the back door. And if you’ve always got that option before you, you’re never actually discovering what the relationship could be. Commitment is the incubator for love.

And it is this tenacious commitment to God that has defined the people of Israel. For four thousand years this wrestling match has carried on. Against all odds, and without parallel in all the other ancient civilizations, Israel alone has prevailed: as a culture, as a religion, as an ethnic group, as a nation. Time and again they’ve been dominated by the superpowers of their day: Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome…Russia, Nazi Germany. And Israel has always been the weaker and more vulnerable one. But when the night is over, it is the superpowers that fade away, while little Israel remains. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Certainly they have proven that they know what it means to strive with human beings. And ultimately, I would say, they are striving with God. In the midst of all this suffering, the questions remain: Will we still hope in you and your promise? Will we still believe – against every circumstance – that you are our God and we are your people? And night after night, exhausted and with hips pulled out of joint – the answer remains, “Yes.” For all their failings throughout history, they have continued to hope that their covenant with God will prevail. Truly they are Israel; they have striven with divine and human beings, and they have persevered.

And please be clear – I’m not making a political statement about the Israeli state. I’m simply impressed by a religious culture that is so determined to keep hoping in God, regardless of the circumstances. There’s something to be learned here that stands in stark contrast to our own religious culture that so quickly stands in judgment of God.

Because here’s the deal: These wrestling matches in the night? This is what life is like. They’re going to happen whether we like it or not. And whether we’re fighting our own past, or fighting God, or think we’re fighting God, (who’s to say?), the temptation is to reject God whenever Sugar Daddy Jesus doesn’t give us what we think we need.

Or we can be like Jacob and just keep holding on.

What’s great about having Jacob as our model is that he’s no saint. This kind of tenacity isn’t reserved for the superstars of the faith. If you know what it’s like to persevere in a marriage or a relationship or a job, then you’ve got what it takes to stick it out with God. And even if you’ve failed in those things, God will not fail in you. And the second thing that encourages me in this story is this very imagery of being in wrestling match with God. Whether or not that’s actually happening from God’s perspective is irrelevant. The story gives us permission to perceive it as such – which is really quite liberating. You don’t have to be sweet and pious and self-contained. You can argue and shout and get mad. But the point is: keep holding on.

Because that’s a real relationship. That’s a “sickness and health, till death do we part” relationship. And that, my friends, is where we will discover the reality of who God is and who we are and what this life is all about.

In the end, even when we seem to be wrestling with God – that’s all it is: a wrestling match. If God wanted to take Jacob out, it would have happened in a heartbeat. But that’s not God character. And it’s not God’s intent.

But God will wrestle: Come on. Get in there. Give it some spirit. Pant a little. Get worked up and angry. Act like you care. Then maybe you’ll discover that you care very much – and that God does, too.

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