Wrestling With God 2017
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When 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. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
(Genesis 32:22-31, NRSV)
Despite the popularity of smart phone games, Play Station, and X-Box, kids today are still into a lot of the things we were into as kids. They still like Barbie dolls and baseball cards. And when some boys reach just the right age, another event still grabs their attention--professional wrestling. Perhaps you’ve seen these so called professional athletes who are closer to being professional actors. The Rock, now a famous actor known to many by his real name, Dwayne Johnson, is among the most famous. You can always recognize professional wrestlers by their bright tights, knee high boots, glaring expressions, ego-boosting names, and endless monologues.
When I was in the fifth grade, every Saturday afternoon my best friend, Brad Apple (yes that is his real name), and I watched studio wrestling live from the studio of Channel 5 in Memphis. We hung on every defiant syllable from the likes of “Plowboy” Frazier, Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson, and Jerry “The King” Lawler. After the show, we'd act out a round or two of wrestling ourselves. My friend became the Bad Apple and I became Handsome Jimbo from Mempho. We were all over the floor trying to get each other in a head lock, trying to execute an atomic knee drop, attempting a fake pile driver, the sleeper hold or a body slam. Eventually, someone would get hurt or something in the house would get broken. So much for another short career in professional wrestling.
Just like when I was a kid, today’s professional wrestlers can bleed on cue and get pinned for the three count just in time for a commercial break. But we don’t have to resort to television in order to view wrestling. Aside from such staged productions, one of the most famous wrestling matches of all time can be found in today’s passage from Genesis about Jacob.
If he were alive today, old Jacob the trickster might change his name to Fake Jake and become an impressive professional wrestler. Let’s put his situation in context by recalling some key events in his life. Many years earlier, Jacob stole the birthright from his older brother Esau. As a result, Esau hated his brother, and Jacob had fled the country to save his life.
Along his journey Jacob spent one night at Bethel where he encountered God in a dream complete with a ladder and angels. You might recall the old Spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder.” Eventually Jacob’s journey led him to a place called Haran where he fell in love with a woman named Rachel. He agreed to work for her father, Laban, for seven years in order to win her hand in marriage. Ironically, Jacob got tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel's older sister. After seven more years Jacob married Rachel and got the last laugh on his father-in-law Laban.
Today’s story occurs decades after these events. We find an older Jacob with his entourage preparing to meet Esau. After all this time, one might think that Jacob has outgrown his bent for trickery, not exactly. Earlier in chapter 32, we find Jacob working out elaborate plans to divide all his servants and animals just in case Esau still harbors hatred and decides to attack. Jacob had yet to learn true reliance upon God, thus he still relied on his own craftiness and trickery. Of course, it was Jacob’s underhanded ways that started the trouble with Esau in the first place. As the day draws to a close, Jacob sends his entourage across the river, toward his original homeland.
Obsessed with his worst fear, his brother Esau, Jacob stands alone in the dark night. He can’t find any light within himself. The thought of facing Esau leads Jacob to take an honest account of his soul. He stands there frightened, full of doubts and second thoughts. Jacob feels like running away. But where could he run? His mind drifts back to Bethel and the dreamy ladder to God.
The vision shatters as Jacob is attacked by an unseen opponent. Some translations say it was an angel, a man, or simply a being. Jacob wrestles as if his life depends on it. Who is he wrestling, himself? This external wrestling match paints a perfect picture of the internal tossing and turning, the restlessness and the real conflicts within Jacob. Could he be wrestling another human being? While this thought may have raced through Jacob’s mind, this creature seems more than human. Could he be wrestling an angel? This creature does seem as strong as Jacob, but would not an angel be stronger? At the breaking of day, Jacob hopes to see his opponent’s face.
Before seeing the face, Jacob feels the opponent’s touch. In the powerful touch, Jacob knows he is wrestling a divine Being. This powerful touch puts Jacob’s hip out of socket. At this point, I’m sure I would have let go and nursed my injured leg. Not Jacob, he hangs on. In a moment full of holy mystery and divine ambiguity, deep down Jacob knows that somehow he is wrestling with God.
The Being demands to be released. Feeling the powerful touch, Jacob knows this Being could easily dispose of him. Yet, Jacob hangs on and demands a blessing. Is Jacob trying another trick? Maybe he thinks that some of the Being’s power will rub off on him. Wouldn’t this be a great trick to have up his sleeve when he meets Esau? Perhaps in the struggle Jacob comes to terms with his true identity and feels ashamed. Holding on to the divine creature, Jacob would rather risk his life for the possibility of a blessing than continue to face his worst fears alone.
The Being asks, “What is your name?” In other words, “Jacob, who are you?” Jacob hangs his head in shame. He knows his true identity. In Hebrew Jacob means “supplanter” or “trickster.” Jacob the perpetual schemer, always going after God’s blessing the wrong way. With an aching hip and hurting pride, he answers, “Jacob.” Surprisingly, what comes out of the Being’s mouth are not words of guilt, but words of grace. The being tells Jacob his new name is “Israel” meaning “one who strives with God” Through his difficult struggles, Jacob experiences transformation.
Seeking to make sense of this surreal experience, Jacob asks the Being’s name. The Being replies, “Why do you ask my name?” but doesn’t give a name. Rather, the Being gives Jacob a blessing, the very presence of God. Inexplicably, the experience ends and Jacob renames the place. He calls it Peni’el, which means “the face of God,” because through this strangest of nights Jacob believes he has seen the very face of God. A new day dawns for Jacob. The encounter with God changes Jacob both inside and out. Limping into the sunrise, Jacob’s fears melt as he prepares to face Esau, a reunion that goes surprisingly well.
We are not strangers to this struggle. In our own individual ways, we too wrestle with God. Sometimes the wrestling match better resembles professional wrestling than an honest spiritual struggle. Sometimes we prefer to enter the ring with our mask on, hiding our true identity. We want all the moves staged so that God will be entirely predictable, as if that were possible. Mostly, we like the fact that the blood is fake and nobody gets hurt. Real confrontation and honest introspection can be painful. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, professional wrestling always seems hollow because we know it is fake, there’s nothing honest about it.
Sooner or later, we all find ourselves on the road to meet Esau, our deepest fear, our greatest threat. However, in this ambiguous twilight of life, it is possible to encounter God. Such painful events force us to look honestly at ourselves and our lives. There is no other way if we are to genuinely encounter God.
We all struggle with different things. Some of us wrestle with the troubling issues facing our world like terrorism or global warming. For others of us it is more personal, unemployment, loneliness, addiction, grief. Perhaps we struggle to make ends meet, to cope with a bad relationship, or to keep our sanity amidst the pell-mell of 21st century America.
Must we wrestle with God? Do we really have to endure this struggle? No, we can choose to live in the antiseptic world of professional wrestling where the moves are calculated and the blood is fake. We may deny the existence of Esau and swallow our fear. But if we seek God, we must enter the real struggles of this world. We must open ourselves to the suffering of those around us. We must get in touch with our own struggles. Only those in the dark have hope for a new day dawning.
Frederick Buechner says, “Faith is whistling in the dark.” I think faith is also wrestling in the dark. Sometimes we cannot be sure who or what we are wrestling. Nevertheless, be encouraged, hang on, hold fast, for when we wrestle with ourselves, when we wrestle with our world, when we wrestle with God, our struggle is not in vain. For the God with whom we wrestle is not trying to pin us down for the count, just the opposite. Jesus himself wrestled with brokenness and death on our behalf. The good news is that through his resurrection, Jesus won the match that we too might share in the prize of both abundant and eternal life. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
January 29, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Most merciful God, when we see ducks swimming in the water of Copley Pond on one day and kids playing ice hockey on it the next day, we remember that life means constant change in large ways and small. We’re aware that our lives are always in flux. Always moving, ever becoming. In the march of days loved ones move away, but we form new relationships as well. We find ourselves unable to do what we once could, yet find new courage and strength to face tomorrow. Remind us of your constant presence in all of life’s ebb and flow, in season and out of season. As we wrestle with our own issues, as well as the larger issues of life, remind us that our struggle is not in vain, for at the end of life’s tumult, we will see you face to face.
Today we remember displaced refugees seeking safety from the violence in their homelands. And we pray for people who are struggling to make ends meet, who may not be certain of their next meal. Be near all these we pray.
To you, O God, be all blessing and glory and honor. AMEN.