Surviving a Wrestling Match with God

Genesis 32:22-30

Last week we heard the story of the birth of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah through whom God planned to build a tribe of people who would be blessed to be a blessing to the entire world. This week we skip forward a generation to Isaac’s son Jacob. Isaac and his wife Rebekah had only two children, twin boys named Esau and Jacob. Esau was the older twin and Jacob was the younger twin, and unlike most twins they never got along. Esau was simple and straightforward and Jacob was a trickster and a schemer. Even though they were twins, the fact that Esau was older was a huge deal. In the ancient world, the oldest son inherited the bulk of the family’s wealth and became the head of the family. When the father was getting close to death, he would formally bless his oldest son. Isaac intended to give this blessing to Esau. But while Esau was preparing to receive the blessing, Jacob snuck in disguised as his older twin and tricked old blind Isaac into blessing him instead. Now this seems a little arbitrary to us, but in the ancient world it meant everything. Esau was furious and threatened to kill Jacob and so Jacob ran far away to live with his uncle. He did well for himself, married two wives and had eleven sons, and 20 years later, God told him to return home to see his parents and his brother. Naturally he’s very nervous about this; as far as he knows Esau may still want to kill him. But he decides to go. This morning’s story catches up with Jacob at the end of his long journey home. It’s the night before he’s going meet Esau. He sends his family and his possessions ahead of him and spends this last night alone at the edge of the river, not knowing what’s in store for him on the other side.

“So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture Reading Genesis 32:22-30

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Message — 

Sometimes Bible stories, especially Old Testament stories just seem really weird and obscure and hard to understand. And then other times, something about the story grabs ahold of you and won’t let go. For me, this story is one of those stories. In my life and my journey of faith, this morning’s story feels like my story. 

I grew up in church and from a very young age I felt a strong sense of God. We all experience God differently, so I can’t describe it much better than that. I just knew that what I did at church and what my parents taught me at home, I knew that stuff mattered deeply. I could feel it, even in my tiny kid heart and mind and soul. I loved church, I always did, and we went to good churches where I was loved and taught about love. What all these churches had in common was that they feel on the conservative and evangelical side of the spectrum of American Christianity, and in many ways I am so grateful for that. In these churches, I learned to take my faith very seriously. I learned to sing. I learned to pray. And most importantly, I learned the Bible, and I loved it. I memorized so much Scripture as a child that to this day, verses come to my mind when I need them. I found myself in these sacred writings. And my parents backed all that up with what they taught me and how we lived at home.

But no church is perfect, and because we each hear things differently, I also developed some unhealthy beliefs. I don’t blame anyone directly for this; it just happened over many years. The most problematic thing for me was that I only learned to think in black and white terms. When we are young, this is natural. It takes our brains a while to be able to think in complex ways and so we teach children in black and white, including our faith, and that’s OK. But it’s problematic if we never progress beyond black and white thinking, especially in our faith.

I moved to Columbus when I was 28 to help lead a new church start, and it was wonderful. My pastor taught us things I’d never heard before and helped us think in new ways. My problem was that I didn’t have enough categories for some of these new thoughts. I only had two categories: black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. And the more I learned, the fewer things fit neatly into my categories.

John Wesley taught that Christians generally have four sources of authority for our lives: reason, what we can figure out with our brains; experience, what we have lived; Scripture; and tradition. Reason. Experience. Scripture. And tradition. The type of church and family that we’re raised in will probably lead us to value one of these more highly than the others. For me, I valued scripture at the top and experience at the bottom, because I thought that I was a worthless sinner who couldn’t be trusted. Saved, yes, but still broken. Now again, I’m not saying anyone ever explained it to me exactly that way, but that’s how I put it together.

So when I started to learn things that I didn’t have categories for, I felt really confused and really scared. Specifically when I learned things in and about the Bible that didn’t fit in my categories, my whole system of faith fell apart. I wasn’t angry at God. I didn’t choose to stop believing. My Christianity just broke, and I couldn’t believe anymore. The things that used to be so firm for me were not firm anymore.

Our faith can be constructed in many ways, say like a Jenga game or like a trampoline. A Jenga game has lots of little blocks and you can pull some of them out and restack them. But pull the wrong one, and the whole thing falls. A trampoline on the other hand is flexible and it’s held by springs. A few of those springs can get stretched out or even break and the trampoline will still be ok. My faith was a Jenga game, and my understanding of the Bible was the block at the bottom that got pulled out.

I will tell you friends that was the hardest, darkest, scariest time of my whole life. Worse than when my father died. Worse than when my first husband left me. My foundation had cracked and I didn’t know how to start rebuilding. It was my moment at the edge of the river, not knowing what was on the other side, and I was wrestling with God. I was wrestling for the life of my soul. And it took a long time. 

Now I stand before you today as your pastor, ordained by the United Church of Christ, so obviously I came through that experience. There’s no magic formula for how to survive a wrestling match with God. Everyone does it differently because we are all wrestling with different things. Maybe for you the wrestling is about suffering, either your own or a loved one’s. Maybe it’s the problem of evil in the world in general. Maybe it’s other Christians. But here’s a little of what I did to get through it. 

First of all, I didn’t give up. In this Bible story, Jacob keeps wrestling even though it’s not clear who is winning. Jacob says to this opponent, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a person of faith, so I stayed in the fight. And I stayed in that fight in community. I kept going to church. I kept celebrating Communion. I kept having conversations with other Christians. I kept trying to read the Bible. I kept trying, sometimes, to pray.

I also turned to those sources of authority that I had been ignoring. I allowed reason to guide me in my search. I leaned into 2,000 years of Christian tradition and realized that I wasn’t the first person to have this struggle. And most of all, for me, I began to trust my own experience. I grabbed hold very tightly of those times when I KNEW I had experienced God in a deeply personal way, and it didn’t matter if I couldn’t justify that to anyone else. 

The reason this Bible story matters so much for me is because I grew up believing that doubting was dangerous, that there was something wrong with me if I doubted, if I wrestled with God. But this story says something very different. This is the story where our spiritual ancestors receive the name Israel, which means “wrestles with God.” The core of our identity is to be people who wrestle with the hard things of life, the hard things of faith. As people who are spiritually descended from Jacob, we are people who wrestle. And we are people who are blessed. 

In the Old Testament, nobody claims to see God’s face, except for this one time. They see angels and clouds and fire and humans who turn out to be God and they see God’s back and God’s feet and they hear rushing wind. But Jacob is the only one who says, “I have seen God face to face.” The one who wrestled, the one who struggled, I would suggest the one who doubted and kept going, that is the person who sees God face to face.

Now obviously wrestling is not easy. A wrestling match with God will leave its mark on us. When God changed Jacob’s name, God changed Jacob’s identity. Wrestling with God will change who we are. It changed who I am. And it will leave us with a limp. And yet somehow in that changed identity and permanent wound is the blessing of God. My faith is now both harder and more meaningful than it was before I wrestled.

So what might this have to do with stewardship? Well, one of the places I’m still wrestling is over my own comfort. My privacy. My fear of scarcity. My safety. My privilege. Turning everything over to God is the work of a lifetime. Our money, our time, our stuff, our spare bedrooms, those are symbols of our control and independence. They are the things we have been given to steward, to manage, to look after, to use. Our sacred text teaches that none of what we have is actually ours. It all belongs to God, and we have the privilege of using it to bless the world. That’s hard. That’s something we wrestle with. And God is with us in that wrestling. 

In many places in the Old Testament, God is described as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who asked Abraham to leave what was secure and familiar to follow God into something unknown and new. The God who used baby Isaac to fulfill a promise in the most unexpected and ridiculous way possible. And the God who is seen by Jacob most clearly in struggle and doubt. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of bold moves, ridiculous promises, and wrestling. This is the God who reaches out to us, woos us, and invites us trust. The God of bold moves, ridiculous promises, and wrestling is the God who wants to use us to bless the whole world. Amen.

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