Plymouth United Church of Christ

Sermon, Year A Proper 13, July 31, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011

Focus Scripture: Genesis 32:22–31 (Jacob wrestles God)

A fantastic story! Jacob wrestles with God! And wrestles all night until daybreak. A physical struggle with God in the dirt and the dust, and maybe even towards the river into the mud. Who knows how much territory this wrestling covered. As they battled each other all night, Jacob holds on!

He doesn’t win. He doesn’t win. I should think that anyone who wrestles God ought not to win. But— but he doesn’t lose, either. He doesn’t lose. He brings God to a stalemate. Manages to bring God to a stalemate and he gets a blessing out of it. That’s pretty impressive. I think something we can remember. That even as Jacob struggled with God, he still got a blessing. And maybe it is in God’s nature, as God wrestles us, or challenges us, or disciplines us, does whatever, I think it is God’s nature not so much to try to win, not to beat us, not to win out over us, but to challenge us to bring everything we have in the struggle. To not let us do it the easy way, but to make sure that we bring all that we have in the struggle to become God’s people. Something to think about.

Jacob wrestles with God. That’s often historically how we have referred to this story. This is the story of “Jacob wrestles God”. But that, to me, seems to suggest that Jacob sought God out to go wrestle with God. And he didn’t. We should call this “God wrestles Jacob”. Because Jacob is just hanging out. He’s sent his family ahead of him, and he’s there all alone in the middle of the countryside, in this desert area, minding his own business and God appears out of nowhere, unbidden, unasked for, without any warning. God just shows up and starts fighting. Imagine you’re at a campfire one night, you’ve been sitting around the campfire with your family, and they’ve gone back to their tents or Winnebagos or whatever and you’re just sitting there by the campfire all sort of nicey-nicey by yourself enjoying the calm and the peace and the quiet, then all of a sudden Bam! someone’s got you in a headlock. Out of nowhere!

And this happens on a very interesting evening. This isn’t just any night chosen at random. This isn’t just one of many nights that Jacob has been out there alone in the desert over the years. This is a very specific night, it’s a crossroads between two phases in Jacob’s life. And he doesn’t know that yet, before this wrestling begins. He doesn’t know that he’s quite at as much of a turning point as he is. Though he probably imagines that something is going to change in his life the next day because of what he has been doing. But he is there all alone this evening. This is the first night that he’s been alone. At least as the text says. All this time he’s been with his wives and his children and the extended family. So there always have been people around him.

Other times he was alone, not at night but other times he was alone, at least as the text says, was once when making lentil stew that he then sold to Esau for Esau’s birthright. Then another time he was alone was right before Rebekah came to him, his mother, and said, “Jacob, today is the day that we can trick your father Isaac into giving you his blessing instead of giving it to Esau.” And another time he was alone was when he plotted and planned how he was going to steal Laban’s flocks and his wealth before he runs away with his family. He seems to be one of those guys that ought not be left alone. It’s okay if you keep him busy, but if you give him a moment to himself, he’s going to get up to some mischief.

So at this point, this evening, what brought him out to the desert, is that he’s packed up his family: wives Leah and Rachel, their maids Bilhah and Zilpah, his eleven sons, one daughter, and most of his uncle’s wealth that he’s stolen and his flocks, and Rachel has stolen all of her father’s idols. And brought them out into the desert to get away from Laban, to steal all of his stuff. And Esau, his brother, also still wants to kill him for stealing his birthright decades before. At least as far as Jacob knows Esau still wants to kill him. They haven’t seen each other since Jacob fled from Esau many, many years ago. And on this night, Jacob knows that Esau is just a few miles away. The reason he’s alone, is that he has sent ahead of him all of his family, all of his wealth, all of the flocks, so that Esau would see them first and that the family could give these things to Esau in an attempt to still his rage so that he would not want to kill Jacob any more. Jacob is willing at this point to give up almost everything he has to preserve his life. Behind Jacob is Laban, his father-in-law, who has now realized that Jacob has stolen so much of his stuff and is quite likely to come after him. So Jacob is all alone. Possible death and financial ruin before him. Possible death and financial ruin behind him. And just this one night that separates the two possibilities.

So it is on this cusp of his trickery of Laban, and his day of reckoning with the brother he tricked, that God shows up out of nowhere and comes to Jacob and forces him to wrestle. Fights with him. Forces him to spend the night struggling in this wrestling match. And Jacob becomes a new person out of this. He really does. After this encounter, he is left with his hip out of joint, he now has a limp, spends the rest of his life with it. He’s hobbled, but he is also a better person. He has had his ego also knocked out of joint. He’s much more humble. More contrite. Not so self-centered anymore. Not such a jerk. Not so self-focused. Worried more now for his family and the people around him. If there is ever a wonder about the validity of someone’s claim to have had such an encounter, of if you have questioned your own experience, that can be a good way to figure that out. Were you left more humble, more generous, more merciful? If so, that likely was an encounter with God, the living Spirit.

Some scholars have suggested, and I really like this idea, that Jacob wasn’t necessarily wrestling God, but that Jacob was wrestling with himself. He knows that he’s at a crossroads in his life, at least with Esau ahead of him and Laban behind him, both who probably want to kill him. Struggling within as he realizes that all of his trickery has finally come up to meet him for a day of reckoning. And so his struggle this night could also be a symbolic internal conflict: “Do I keep being who I have been, which doesn’t seem to have worked so well for me; or do I become the person who God made me to be? Or wants me to be? Is it time for me to change?” This could be the question going through Jacob’s mind. And I think maybe so often when we are asking ourselves those questions, it is a way of wrestling with God. Saying, well, maybe it’s time for me let go of who I think I ought to be and become who God made me to be, and who God wants me to be. And at dawn, as the sun comes up and the light breaks through, perhaps Jacob is reminded that God is light, and that in God’s light, in the daytime, there’s no place to hide secrets any more, or to pretend to be something other than he is. And as the sun comes up, the trickster receives a trick blow—God knocks his hip out of joint, and then demands to be released. But Jacob demands a blessing. “I will not let you go unless you give me a blessing”.

Even with a hip out of joint, Jacob seems to have the upper hand. And he demands a blessing, in a sense just as he did from Esau and from Isaac, and sort of stole from Laban. So he demands this blessing, and he’s probably fully expecting to get something pretty nifty and pretty neat. But instead this being that Jacob is wrestling says, “What is your name?” He answers, “Jacob. My name is Jacob.” And the man answers back, “You shall no longer be called Jacob.” I imagine that maybe at this point Jacob let go his grip a bit in surprise. “What? No longer going to be called Jacob? That’s always been my name.” At this time, the power to name was a divine power. So to offer someone a new name or to suggest that their name is going to change is a sign that something divine and powerful is about to happen. And so maybe Jacob is wondering, “What? I’m no longer to be called Jacob?” (his name means “supplanter”; the one who receives, in a sense, by taking, not by earning. The one who takes what he wants). “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but you shall be called Israel, because you have striven with God and with men and you have prevailed.”

The Supplanter becomes the Striver. And his name becomes the name of his people and of their country, which we still have: Israel. The supplanter becomes the striver. He decides to change. This is his moment. He accepts the name. He decides to go with it. And the place he was at he renames Peniel: “I have seen the face of God.” That is what it means in Hebrew. “I have seen the face of God, and I have prevailed, I was not killed when I saw the face of God.” He has a limp and he has a new name and as this being that he has wrestled all night, as that being disappears, Esau shows up on the horizon.

Jacob has just finished one massive battle, this all-night-long struggle, this wrestling with this man whom we know to be God. As soon as he disappears, Esau shows up and Jacob knows that there’s now going to be another battle. He has to face his brother who wants to kill him and from whom he has stolen his birthright. And I’m sure Jacob is tired, and dirty, and spent, and his hip is out of joint and he’s thinking there’s no chance. I have no chance of surviving this battle with my brother.

But miraculously as Esau arrives and shows up, Esau e says to Jacob all that stuff that happened doesn’t matter any more. It’s all in the past, I’ve been over it for years, I don’t care any more. All I want is my brother. All I want is to have my brother back. He doesn’t even want any of the stuff that Jacob has sent.

So they reconcile. Jacob is forgiven. And they are brothers again. By God’s intervention, Jacob has become a new man, the one that God intended, the one who now can rightfully carry on the blessing that God gave first to Abraham. But he didn’t become a new man and didn’t figure out who he was supposed to be until this dark night of the soul that he had while wrestling with what is eternal and true and in that wrestling realizing that what is eternal and true is not Jacob, or us, but that what is eternal and true is the One who made us. The One who created all that is and the One who watches over us. The One who holds us in hands of love in grace and compassion. The One who wrestles with us whether we’re ready or not to help us overcome the worst parts of ourselves so that we might become, as did Jacob, the person that God has made us to be. To be new people.

Let us pray: Surprising God, who meets us in our darkness to wrestle us to the light, make us strong enough to endure your challenges, to give up who we think we are or who advertising or others tell us who we should be, to become who you make us to be, who you call us to be, like our ancestor Jacob who became Israel, Abram and Sarai who became Abraham and Sarah, Saul who became Paul. Do not let us be satisfied with who we think we are, but let us be ever striving to be the people you made us to be, and the people you want us to be. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.


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