The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Genesis 32:22-30, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What do you do when God is your enemy? Life is full of moments like that when you are at odds with God; when it feels like He’s against you; and you are against Him. When there is a death in the family, trouble with your neighbors, illness that won’t / can’t be healed, rejection by the community, conflict in the church, and unfair treatment on the job. When things like these happen God just doesn’t seem to be doing his job. Instead of being there to help you and make things go better, go your way, God seems to be the problem, ignoring you and your prayers, or even blocking the way of progress. I don’t deserve this! You pray. You feel like Jacob, alone in the desert, wrestling with God.
Jacob, spent his whole life wrestling with God, his family and himself. He fought with his brother, Esau, over who should receive the family blessing from their father. You might remember how he plotted with his mother to steal it. Isaac, their father, sent Esau out to hunt for food, bring it back to him and receive the family blessing. He was the older son, he was entitled to it. While he was out Jacob’s mother prepared a sheep in a way to fool the old man. She dressed Jacob up in lamb’s skin so he would feel and smell like his older brother (apparently a hairy man!). Jacob took the food to his father, deceived him into thinking he was his brother, and received the blessing. He had to flee for his life. Esau pledged to kill him as soon as the funeral and mourning time were over. Jacob wrestled. His place in the family wasn’t to his liking. He took matters into his own hands to receive the blessing. It cost him his home.
And that’s not the end of Jacob’s story, or struggles. When he left his father’s house he went his live with his uncle Laban. He agreed to work for him and in return, after seven years, he would marry Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. When the seven years were up, Laban fooled him and when the wedding night was over, Jacob discovered he had married the wrong girl, Leah the old sister. So Jacob was forced to work another seven years to marry Rachel. Jacob wrestled. He wanted one girl and, just as he had deceived he was deceived. Another seven years and he had his “preferred” wife. But Jacob’s wrestling had just begun. Leah, the older, less attractive woman was very fertile. She had four boys. This didn’t set very well with Rachel, since she couldn’t seem to have any, she offered Jacob a servant girl. She had two sons for Jacob. Leah wasn’t to be out done. In response she gave Jacob her servant and she had two more sons. Leah had two more and a daughter. And finally, Rachel was remembered by God and had a son of her own, his name was Joseph. Jacob wrestled. While his wives had a birthing battle to prove who was the favorite wife, Jacob was caught in between.
But that’s not all. After working so many years for Laban, Jacob felt he hadn’t earned enough just by having productive wives and servants. He made a scheme to relieve Laban of a portion of his flocks. Under the agreement, Jacob’s flocks grew until Laban wasn’t happy with the arrangement anymore. Jacob was forced to flee again. Jacob wrestled. He had gained wealth and a huge family, but now he was homeless again. All he had spend his whole life struggling with his family.
That brings us to our reading for today. Jacob returns home to the brother who swore to kill him. He sent everything he had on ahead to meet Esau first as a buffer against his brother’s anger. Then all alone, he wrestled with a stranger all night. It is a very mysterious account. Jacob not giving up and the stranger touching his thigh putting it out of joint. Still Jacob refuses to give up the struggle. “I will not let go until you bless me!” The stranger changes his name from Jacob to Israel. “Because you have wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed.” “Please tell me your name,” Jacob insisted. He receives a blessing. Oh, by the way, do you know what Israel means. “He struggles with God.” And just so you don’t miss the point, Jacob names the place where this all happened, Penuel. Penuel means “The face of God.” So in some mysterious, miraculous way, Jacob wrestled again. This time it was with God who was a man. And he limped away with a blessing and a new name. What was the blessing? We’ll talk about that in a moment.
So here we are, also wrestlers with God. Sometimes we wrestle with him because of our own sinfulness. His Word enters our ears while we sit in the pew and strikes our hearts hard. We want to grab hold of God and wrestle Him into submission. We want God to conform to our standards of living. If God would just bend the law a bit for me, so I can do what I want to do and have a blessing and religion, too. We struggle with God over things we want. We want wealth and power and things, and we are not above bribing God to get it. If I win the lottery I’ll give a big gift to the church. God give me what I want and I’ll come to church more. Heal my sickness and I’ll tell everyone you did it. Put my family back together and we’ll spend our time serving the church.
Sometimes we wrestle with God because He just seems so absent. We pray and it seems we receive no answer. We are lonely and God doesn’t send anyone to visit. We are sick and God doesn’t heal us. We struggle with finances and God doesn’t give us what we need. We fight in our families and God doesn’t give us peace. We wrestle with God over what seems to be so right, and yet God does what God does. A lot of the time, God seems to be the enemy. He seems to want only suffering and pain for us. He seems to want us to disagree with our neighbors about what the bible teaches. He seems to want us to struggle. We don’t think we deserve this kind of treatment from God.
The truth is that God is involved in the very smallest details of our lives. He’s present even when we think He is not. He wrestles with us in our struggles. That’s when we see most clearly our need for God to intervene, for God to be in control. God engages us in the midst of a world that struggles because of sin, every day.
God comes down to be in the midst of us. God came to Jacob in human form and wrestled with him. Jesus, God in human flesh, does the same. He is God’s gift, God’s promise to Jacob. Through Jacob’s children’s children’s children God was made man in Jesus Christ. That’s the blessing that was given to him. It is the blessing given to us, through him. Jesus wrestled with the sin and brokenness of the world. He set things right. He made them new again through His death on the cross and His victory, His resurrection from the dead. God gives us a new name. He actually gives us His name, and a blessing. That’s what Holy Baptism does. We are connected to Jesus and His struggle with sin, death and hell. We come out victorious because Jesus won the victory for us. Jacob was far from the end of his wrestling. We wrestle every day too. But every day again God renews our connection to Jesus. In the face of discouragement, and loneliness, and hardship and pain and failure, He reminds us of our membership in His family, our belonging to Him.
I like this picture of Jacob clinging to the stranger. He’s in pain. He frightened. And yet he is determined, clinging to God because he knows only God can save him. That’s faith; clinging to Jesus, no matter what. That’s really hard in the face of trouble. That’s really hard when it feels like God is a million miles away. That’s really hard when we are in pain. It’s really hard when God himself seems to be the problem, wrestling with us putting our hip out of joint. But it’s God’s promise that is important here. He doesn’t bless us because we hang onto him. We hang on to Him because He is the only source of our blessing. Jesus is the fulfillment of our promise, God in the flesh, who lived and died and rose again to rebuild our relationship to God. To assure us that no matter what happens in life, God is on our side.
Jacob limped away from his encounter with God. When God wrestles with us we often are left with an injury. We limp away but God goes with us. He calls us by name. He uses us, wounded though we may be to get done what he wants done. That’s what He did with Jacob. That’s what He does with you and me. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.