Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22–33:11

For the next year we are following along together in a book called “We Make the Road by Walking” by Brian McLaren. I know a lot of you are reading this weekly on your own. We’re also using it in our weekly small groups, and I’m preaching on the Bible verses that McLaren reflects on each week. If you haven’t yet purchased the book, it’s definitely not too late. We’ll be here for a while, so I hope you will get it and join us on the journey. 

This morning we are looking at the Bible verses from Chapter 8 of the book, which covers basically all the rest of the book of Genesis, from Jacob to Joseph. In our time together, I want to invite you to reflect with me on a small portion of this story, one of my favorite stories in Genesis, and one that is foundational for our faith. It is the story in Genesis chapter 32 of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious being. 

Quick review: Abraham and Sarah are blessed to be a blessing and promised a huge family and a land of their own. Together they have only one son, Isaac, and at the end of their lives, they own one little plot of land. Isaac marries and has twin boys, the first one named Esau and the second one named Jacob. Jacob’s name means “trickster” and he lives up to his name. Although he’s technically the second son, he tricks his father into giving him the first son’s blessing, which was a very big deal because it meant getting the bulk of his father’s estate and basically being the patriarch of the family. Understandably, Esau is very upset about this: murderously upset. So Jacob flees for his life, to some distant relatives. He winds up marrying two sisters named Leah and Rachel. With those two women and their two female slaves he has 11 sons and one daughter (one more son comes after the story we read this morning). Jacob is incredibly prosperous and eventually the Lord directs him to return to his own family, including his very angry brother Esau. Jacob does as God directs him, sends lots of presents ahead of him to Esau, and divides his large family into two groups so as to make it impossible for Esau to kill them all. The night before Jacob was to meet Esau again, we have this story. Let us listen in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God.

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. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”

Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.

Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”

“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.

But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

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

This is a curious and wonderful story. It might not seem like it at first pass, but think with me for a minute about what this metaphor says about God’s relationship with humanity. 

Some of you may feel like you are wrestling with God this morning. Not a chess match, slow and intellectual and aloof. Not even a boxing match, where the goal is to hit without getting close. I’m talking about a wrestling match, every muscle you have, always moving, every bit of your strength, can’t tell who is winning, wrestling match. 

Some of you may feel like you’ve had that kind of wrestling match with God in the past, and like Jacob, you probably came away with a limp. In the metaphor of this story, we don’t win or lose wrestling matches with God. But we also don’t walk away from them unchanged. We walk away with a bit of a limp, not enough to cripple us for life, but enough to remind us that something happened. 

If you are in a wrestling match with God, stick with it, and if you want to follow the metaphor of this story, be bold enough to ask for a blessing. Jacob asks for a blessing, and he gets a blessing. He gets a limp, but he also gets a blessing. The story doesn’t say exactly what it is, but he’s bold enough to ask for it, and he gets it. 

What I find so beautiful and encouraging about this story is that it is in the wrestling that Jacob sees the face of God. I personally want to see the face of God in the good things. In the face of my child, or the brilliant colors of the autumn leaves, or when something really nice happens to me. We can see the face of God in those things for sure. But this story affirms that we also very clearly see the face of God in the wrestling. 

Jacob wrestles with God and his name is changed to Israel. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” We are the spiritual descendants of someone who was bold enough to wrestle with God, bold enough to ask for a blessing, strong enough to go forth from the wrestling with a limp, and honest enough to say that in the struggle, he saw the face of God. 

Beloved ones, if anyone has ever told you that you’re doing something wrong when you wrestle with God, I would say that person needs to read their Bible. Wrestling with God is a core part of our faith, of our identity as followers of Jesus who was a descendant of this wrestler Jacob-slash-Israel. It is not a bad thing to wrestle with God. Whatever that wrestling means for you, however it started, if you are engaging in it honestly, you just might see the face of God.

Jacob leaves this encounter changed. His name is changed, his body is changed, his identity is changed. He’s no longer a trickster, a conman. He’s one who has wrestled with God and seen God’s face in the wrestling. 

What comes after this story is also beautiful. Jacob goes out, limping, to meet his estranged brother, not knowing what will happen. What happened is that Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And Jacob said to him, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor.” 

We expect to find God in good things. And that is possible. But this story reminds us that we also find God in the wrestling, in the hard times, in the questions and the doubts and the uncertainty. And we find God when we are brave enough to attempt reconciliation with our enemies. When we know we do not “deserve” to be forgiven and yet we are received with open arms. In this too, we see the face of God. This means that we can also be the face of God for others, for those who have wronged us. When we have every right to exact revenge and retribution, when the person approaching us doesn’t “deserve” our forgiveness and hasn’t even asked for it yet, if we choose to extend grace anyway, if we forego our right to be right, in that moment, we will be the face of God. Amen. 

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