Some of you may know that I wrestle mightily with just about every sermon I write. One might go so far as to say that it’s a real throw down as I agonize over what to say and how to say it.
Does that pesky little character defect of perfectionism rear its head a lot of the time? Sure. Do I self-consciously fear that I might say something stupid? Of course. Do I feel great responsibility for feeding the souls of the faithful? You bet.
But without a doubt the deepest source of my agitation is the difficulty of trying to lay hold of God. How do any of us presume to speak of the mystery of who God is with our limited minds and even more limited language?
Oddly enough, the story of Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match may, in its own gutsy, full-bodied way, say more about God and ourselves than any neatly worded theological doctrines. Images of a mysterious all night battle with an unnamed adversary who wounds and renames Jacob, may capture our imaginations, and ultimately convey the essence of an encounter with the divine better than any church’s creed. If we fully open our senses to the story, we can almost hear the heavy breathing and grunts of the wrestlers as they roll around in the dirt. We may smell the musky odor of their sweaty bodies. Perhaps we can sense their determination, evidenced through gritted teeth and muscles stretched to the breaking point. We can feel the pall of deep darkness until the light dawns at battle’s end.
And what a battle it is, a battle that marks a turning point in Jacob’s heretofore shady life. You will remember that Jacob has been a con-man and manipulator from the get go. Born grabbing onto his twin brother Esau’s heel, he was named “one who supplants” (take another’s place) or “one who grabs the heel.” Always a mama’s boy, Jacob, in cahoots with his mother, stole his brother’s birthright and father’s blessing in order to acquire the powerful position of patriarch of the family. Unfortunately, those plans had to be put on hold due to Esau’s predictably homicidal rage and Jacob’s need to flee to his Uncle Laban, where he ended up working for fourteen years and acquiring his own family and a good deal of wealth. Truth be told, relations with Laban were never anything to write home about— the trickster himself was tricked by Laban into working an extra seven years for the right to marry his true love, Rachel, and relations turned even more sour as Laban and his sons grew jealous of Jacob’s success. After being told by God in a dream to return home, Jacob packed up his family and belongings and began the long journey to try to patch things up with Esau.
As today’s reading from Scripture opens, Jacob has learned that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob takes his wives, maids and children and puts them across the river. It is night time and he is left alone awaiting a reunion with a brother whose last words years before were vengeful, murderous threats. We are told little of Jacob’s feelings as he is left alone. Is he worrying about whether these 400 men are coming to kill him? Is he terrified? Is his life passing before his eyes? Does he regret the life he has lived and the relationships and people he has hurt?
And then it happens. In a few short words we hear that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Imagine that. As if it’s not bad enough that his brother may be coming to avenge a terrible wrong, now Jacob has been assailed by a mugger with whom he struggles all night long. Imagine the shock, the adrenaline, and the stubborn resolve to hang tough and not be defeated. Imagine being so unyielding that the assailant has to wound him in the thigh in order to end the match, causing Jacob to cling even tighter and demand a blessing before he lets go. Imagine Jacob receiving the blessing of a new name and realizing after the fact that he had actually been wrestling with God.
“What is your name?” the nameless opponent asks. “Jacob. I am Jacob, which means the one who grabs what does not belong to me. I am Jacob. I am wily and manipulative. I am a con-man. I am Jacob. A liar. A cheat.” That is what Jacob confesses when he says his name, for in ancient times a person’s name was considered his truest essence. In a response on which this whole story hinges, Jacob’s opponent then says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” In an instant Jacob becomes a new person—a striver who has prevailed.
For some reason a line from a television commercial keeps playing through my head, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. This is not an outdated version of God–that primitive, punitive God some of us have grown up with. Nor is this a God we can domesticate and put in a neat little box. This is not a God whose favor we curry and attempt to control by being good little girls and boys. This God is wild, strong, engaged and engaging. A wrestler. One who strives right along with Jacob and with us. And one who blesses us with new identities as we emerge from the struggle.
I have to believe that this story speaks to all of our hearts because struggle is the name of the game on planet earth. To be human is to struggle–with broken dreams and deep betrayals. With change. With disorienting losses of every kind. With loneliness, depression, and anxiety. With all the social evils that threaten our sense of safety and the health of our souls. And we are often left to wonder if we will prevail, if we can hang on and wrest a blessing from the battles we fight in the dark nights of our souls.
I must confess that Jacob is my hero. Truth be told, he’s probably one of those anti-heroes I just can’t help rooting for. He’s been a hot mess—self-indulgent, lazy and overly dependent on his mother to begin with, then someone who lies and steals from his father and brother and has a shallow, transactional relationship with God— “if you take care of me, I’ll worship you.” Not exactly your standup kind of guy. Yet, I love this guy and it’s probably because of his wrestling match with God. In it Jacob is still a con man and a shyster, yet he’s so much more than that. He’s feisty and committed. He’s a worthy adversary. He does not give up. He hangs in there with the struggle, and even when his thigh is injured he hangs on, in a clinging way to be sure, but he doesn’t give up until he receives the blessing embedded in the battle.
Those blessings are rarely one-size-all or anything we can control. Jacob confesses who he is and receives a new name and glorious new identity, but now walks with a limp, perhaps a foreshadowing of God’s words to St. Paul about Paul’s own woundedness, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
As we wrestle with God we are likely to be surprised at the turns our struggles, and the blessings that emerge from them, take. Each of us is called in the words of Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul” to “come to your life like a warrior,” to engage faithfully with God and our struggles by committing to growing through them. At times we will be exhilarated by the learnings and new life that emerge. At other times we will be called to surrender our entrenched notions of how life ought to work so God can bestow greater blessings than our limited minds could ever imagine.
I do not believe for one minute that God sends suffering our way—either to punish or to test us—but that’s a whole other sermon. Suffice it to say that today we see a side of God who gets down in the mud of our lives to push and pull us to a new place, providing the challenge most of us need to call upon our greatest strengths, fiercest courage, best resources, and faith no matter how tenuous it may be. We may have a hard time laying a hold of the God whose face we cannot see and mysteries we cannot fully grasp, but God, in whatever way God will, has no problem laying a hold of us.
In Jesus’ name.