Sorry there was no sermon posted last week; the camera had no battery, and there was no manuscript to post. But thanks for checking out this week’s sermon!
I’ve mentioned already this summer that, for the next few months, I’m mostly going to be preaching my way through the entire Old Testament. This meant making some very specific choices. In particular, it meant omitting certain things in order to make sure others were included. The last two weeks I preached, I included texts from Genesis about Abraham, because he’s such a critical figure in the Old Testament.
As necessity requires to keep the story moving, though, I had a skip ahead a bit. Today, we find ourselves in the story of Jacob. Now, you may recall that, in Abraham’s story, we heard about Abraham’s son Isaac, whom he bound and considered sacrificing to God, only to be stopped by God. Well, Isaac grew up and married Rebekah, whom he loved deeply. And while the story of Isaac is interesting in its own right, it really hits its high-point with his father’s attempted sacrifice of him… at least until he himself becomes a father.
When Isaac finally does become a father, he has twin boys – Jacob and Esau. Esau comes out first, and is big and strong. Jacob comes second, smaller and skinnier, but cleverer, too. In fact, he came out holding his brother’s heel, which is where he gets his name (which means, “he grabs the heel”) – almost an omen that he would aspire for more than being the second-best. The brothers grow up together, and their upbringings were as different as could be, since each of their parents had a clear favorite. Isaac, as most fathers in his time would’ve, preferred Esau. Esau was strong and a gifted hunter, and was the one to inherit as the firstborn. He grew up at his father’s side doing the “men’s work.” Jacob spent more time with his mother, and while he spent less time on the hunt, he was the craftier son, which had its own advantages.
The two boys lived as brothers do, until it was near the time that Esau would receive his birthright as firstborn son from their father. Jacob had lain around the house all day, probably talking to his mother and helping her prepare the meals. Esau came back from his hunt, and he was famished. He asked for the soup his brother had, but Jacob told him that he’d only give him the food in exchange for Esau’s birthright – his rights of inheritance as the firstborn son. This was a horribly uneven trade; it was also a really mean thing to do to someone who’s hungry. But Jacob did, and Esau, hungry as he was, agreed, and sold his birthright to his brother.
Having already lost his inheritance as the eldest, Esau had only one thing left to receive from his father: a blessing before he died. And when the time came, Isaac, his father, asked Esau to go out and get the game that he liked to eat. In the meantime, Rebekah overheard her husband and plotted with her son Jacob to steal the blessing, and steal it he did. He tricked his father and got himself everything his brother was supposed to receive.
As you might guess, now with no inheritance and no blessing and nothing to keep him at home, Esau left. Jacob was able to get everything he had taken from Esau. But of course, as time went on, Jacob eventually needed to travel. Years later, once both men were married adults, Jacob was moving his family to the borders of his brother’s lands. So he went to the border, but he sent his family across the river, where they would be safe, and he prepared to enter the land alone. That’s where we meet our story today.
Now, I know, with my descriptions, it’s probably hard to tell, but Jacob is supposed to be the hero of our story. It’s easier to read him as the villain, and sometimes that’s probably the right thing. But we’re supposed to remember that this man, despicable as he might be, is also God’s servant; he’s also here to teach us something about ourselves. So I ask you this morning to think of Jacob as generously as you possibly can, before we continue in our story.
And as it happens, Jacob is standing, getting ready for the big meeting with the brother whom he’d wronged. As he waits, all alone, we meet a man. We’re told nothing about this man (at this point in the story, at least), except that he wrestles with Jacob all night. Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever wrestled, but wrestling for even, like, two minutes is exceptionally exhausting. It’s like giving everything your body has. Only, in this story, it’s not two minutes – it’s a whole night.
So after a long, exhausting night of wrestling, this anonymous challenger strikes Jacob on the hip, dislodging it and hoping to end the fight. Only, funny enough, it doesn’t. Jacob holds on, but senses his competitor, who’s resorted to trying a new strategy, is weakening. So Jacob says, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” The mysterious stranger asks his name, he answers, “Jacob,” and indeed, a blessing he receives.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed,” says the wrestler. And this is one of those verses that has mystified commentators for as long as this text has been read. Sure, there is all that stuff about renaming. But most of us know how important names were in the ancient world. What’s truly intriguing about this text is what this wrestler has said to Jacob. This competitor says that Jacob has striven – has battled – with humans and with God, and has prevailed.
Well, finding a human Jacob has battled is not hard. Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb, so there’s your human combatant. But when did Jacob struggle against God? Well, the answer would seem to be, “in this passage.” This has led many to hypothesize that this “man” who is never identified as anything other than being a “man,” was truly some sort of angel or divine being. This “man” fought on behalf of God, and yet, somehow, Jacob didn’t lost.
So he blesses Jacob by renaming him “Israel.” The meaning of the name is twofold. “Wrestles with God” is the traditional interpretation. “God protects” is another. Jacob, renamed “Israel” is given this twofold name. He will be protected by God, and yet he is called to wrestle with God. That’s to be his life from now on. He has struggled with God, and he will again, but through it all, he will receive God’s protection.
It’s no coincidence that Jacob becomes the person who’s name God’s people take. The whole nation is named “Israel,” not just because they were related to him, but also because that is what they were meant to do.
More importantly for us, it’s what we are meant to do today, too. Wrestling doesn’t mean we’re in a fight with God wherein we’re trying to beat or kill God. Wrestling is not like boxing, where the goal is to injure your opponent. Sure, all sports have injuries, but only a sport like boxing or mixed martial arts is hurting your opponent the entire point of the exercise. Wrestling is about figuring things out. When you wrestle with a person, you’re trying to find the right places to put pressure, you’re trying to find your balance, and you’re trying to figure out where you belong. You’re trying to subdue the other person, specifically without hurting them. It’s the perfect metaphor here, because of course we’re not out to hurt God, but we do need to figure God out. We do strive to understand. We try to subdue God, not by beating God, but by wrestling out understanding, trying to find God’s will in difficult places.
In our relationship with God, things are rarely easy or straightforward. Rarely are we given absolute clarity. But it’s not our job to just to remain silent and to ignore the problems we see. We’re called to embrace the call of Jacob, the call of Israel, to wrestle. That’s not an easy thing, but it’s necessary for further understanding.
As I said, wrestling is the perfect analogy, because it’s not about beating God. Jacob’s wrestling match with God is successful, not because he wins, but because he grows by it. The idea of wrestling with God, of being forced to see who we are, face-to-face, is important. It’s how we grow. I wonder how many things went through Jacob’s mind that night. Remember, he was never the physical one; that was Esau. Yet, on that night, Jacob stood his ground. Jacob was never really the hard worker – most of his good fortune was stolen. Yet, on the night of the hardest test of his life, he found a way to work and work and work the whole night long, when giving up would’ve been far easier. When we wrestle with God, not only do we confront the ugly sides of ourselves, but we actually can learn and grow.
God doesn’t ever ask us merely to submit. Surely, we’re supposed to do the right thing, and much of the time in life, the right thing is easy. But when the hard things come, we’re not supposed to just fall back on simple answers; we’re supposed to be inspired to climb to a mountaintop (literal in Jacob’s case, though maybe metaphorical in ours) and wrestle with God. We’re allowed to try to understand and to figure it out. We’re not supposed to take God for granted. We’re supposed to make God a part of our lives, our decisions, and our understanding.
That’s another thing about wrestling. It’s not really something you can do halfway. If you only halfway wrestle, it tends not to go very well. God would rather have you as an engaged wrestler than a disengaged follower. Better to try to figure things out, sometimes by questioning or pushing back, than it is to simply be like a robot following simple commands.
And remember, Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t get him all the answers. In fact, what he asks for is his combatant’s name… but he never gets it. God is allowed to sometimes withhold from us, even once we’ve engaged. God is infinite, and complex, and will sometimes, even after our best efforts, ultimately impossible to understand fully.
But the fact of the matter is, the engagement teaches Jacob, and it makes him better. We grow by being engaged with God, even when we’re wrestling. Our struggles with God are not meant to be a rejection or God, or a way of getting rid of God. Rather, the times we wrestle are the times we’re most engaged, because they’re the times when we care about the outcome. They’re the times when we get stronger through it. They’re the times when we’re tried, tested, and come out the other side better than we were before.
So on that note, I don’t want to leave you hanging with the story of Jacob and Esau. I told you that Jacob was on the border of his brother’s lands that night when he wrestled. The next day, when he crossed into his brother’s lands, he did so literally bowing down to his brother. With that show of humility, he was picked up, and literally welcomed with open arms as his brother hugged and kissed him.
It’s actually a very sweet reunion; we see Esau meet his nieces and nephews for the first time. We see Jacob and Esau trying to shower one another with gifts. We see a lifetime of wrongs attempting to be righted in a short space of time, and we see brothers reconnecting – or perhaps even connecting for the first time, because it’s hard to know how much they ever had before.
Through the nighttime wrestling match Jacob faced, God taught him a lesson – that it’s about the striving, it’s about seeking something better. Jacob learned in his struggle with God that it wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about the victory; it was about the blessing that comes from being in relationship with someone else. That’s why we wrestle with God, and that’s what Jacob learns. It’s what we see played out when Jacob decides to stop fighting with Esau and start working with him. Instead of trying to take advantage of his twin, Jacob rejoins his brother, as they were always meant to be. He earns the true victory, by finding love, rather than by finding the biggest advantage for himself.
At the heart of our lives as Christians is the story of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have this same story of physical wrestling, but we see throughout his story someone who tries to see what God is doing. Jesus isn’t sure if the crucifixion is the right thing, so he prays about it. We often take for granted that we should get to follow God without struggle – but the reality is, the stories of faith we’re given in Scripture, including the ultimate story we’re given in Jesus, are full of struggle. In Jesus’ moment of wrestling with what God wants him to do, he receives his greatest clarity. He finally sees that what he thought he didn’t want was going to be necessary, and that it was the only way for things to get better. Like Jacob, he sees God’s future only when he engages the problem head-on. Similarly, the only way for us to grow in love of God is by actually engaging with God, and that includes doing so both in the bright sunlight of day with our heads bowed and our humility embraced, as well as in the long, dark night on a lonely mountaintop.
May we all have the courage to embrace what we’re struggling with today. May we all look for what God is doing. And may we all wrestle without fear, finding God in unexpected places, asking, questioning, finding our balance, and, ultimately, deepening our relationship with God. Amen.