Join us for Worship Service every
Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
in the Sanctuary and
online anytime via YouTube.
Contending with God
CONTENDING WITH GOD
Genesis 32: 22-31
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Last week, Jacob was fleeing his angry brother. Jacob had cheated Esau and Esau wanted revenge. He was plotting to kill Jacob. Time to get out of Dodge. Improbably, in the middle of Jacob’s fear and anxiety, Jacob is promised that he would not only return from his exile but that God’s blessings would be fulfilled: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” (Genesis 28:13b,14) Now, twenty years later, Jacob is returning home. Unfortunately, even with God’s promises, he still must deal with the brother he cheated. He had every reason to expect retaliation. Jacob had stolen from Esau and Esau had every right to retaliate.
Jacob hoped he could appease Esau with gifts so he sent out an advance party. “Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; 5 and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; Now I am sending this message to my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.” 6 The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Genesis 32:6-6) When Jacob learns Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men, it does not sound like a welcome home party. Jacob is frightened and begins to devise ways to protect himself.
Jacob divides his flocks into two groups, hoping at least one group would survive. Then he separates his family and hopes at least they will survive. Finally he separates himself. He has a long and well documented history of looking out for #1. Is Jacob hoping that Esau will be satisfied with two flocks and his family and —tired of killing—might then spare Jacob? Is this Jacob’s desperation plan to create time to flee once more? Much is unknown. But we do know that once again, Jacob finds himself alone, at night, and afraid. Which way will he go? Will he return home relying on the promises of God in the face of great danger—or will he flee and seek to preserve himself. It is a struggle he wrestles with all night.
In the story, Jacob spends the night wrestling with an unnamed man. The man’s identity remains unknown throughout the night and it is only later we learn that the man is God in human form. (“So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” ) This is a dilemma we’ve all faced. We have all wrestled with God through the night—and sometimes we had no idea that it was God who fought so fiercely with us. This struggle to discern shows up in the big things and in the little things. We make decisions everyday. The wrestling with God begins when we consciously ask, ‘how does my faith influence my decision?’ In real life, what differences do my values make in how I decide.
A number of years ago I was in a personal conflict with a colleague. I said aloud to a friend—”If this were the corporate world, we would give him a retirement party and watch the door hit him on his way out.” The man seemed intractable to me and I did not want to invest the energy required to engage him. My colleague quietly replied, “I know how the corporate world would handle this —But how would a Christian?” I hate it when my faith gets in the way of my self righteousness. My faith required me to wrestle. I spent a good two weeks trying to find a respectful way to engage. There was no happy ending. No group hug. But there was more respect and more space to be different.
Ron Johnson told a wonderful story about discernment in his early Christian life. His daughter was preparing for a piano recital but then, very close to the performance, did not want to go forward. Her reluctance led to a conflict between Ron and his wife about how to respond. Sitting in his car, he received the message—”Listen to your wife.” Never mind the obvious jokes about the wisdom of listening to our spouses, Ron set the stage for a different level of mindfulness and respect in his marriage. It would have been so easy to make his priority proving he was right—but instead, he felt his faith required he take the time to listen.
It is one thing to talk about mindfulness, trust and love as overarching ideals and quite another to wrestle with what they mean in real life. Jacob fled his family in fear but God promised Jacob that he would be able to return to the land. Now, returning with that promise, Jacob awaits a brother he betrayed. Should Jacob trust God’s promise and go forward to meet his brother? It is a lot easier to say yes when we are in church than it is to say yes when four hundred men are headed your way with violence on their mind. Self interest and self preservation are always in tension with God’s call.
It turns out that wrestling is probably more important than the particular outcome. Jacob held on— fiercely—to the fidelity of God’s promise. Even when injured, he hung on to God’s promise. In fact he refused to disengage until he was blessed. The blessing was Jacob’s new name. He was transformed. Instead of Jacob, the trickster and supplanter, Jacob became Israel, one who contends with God. Israel’s very identity was centered upon their fierce determination to hold on to God’s promises. Over a history that included defeats, exile, incalculable losses, pogroms and a Holocaust, Israel wrestles with God. They held on to God’s promises—even when it meant limping to meet a dangerous future.
A quick note here. As preposterous as it might seem that a human could prevail against God, it is actually quite ordinary. I have no doubt that in the big picture, love will prevail. It is a fundamental faith claim. We call it resurrection faith. But as soon as love takes human form, love is vulnerable. Ask Jesus. Love in real life is a whole lot more vulnerable and difficult than the grand ideal. Holding on to God’s promises when we are vulnerable is the wrestling match all of us must wage. Faith is the fierce expectation that God will honor her promises. In the face of danger, mortality and an uncertain future, love will prevail.
This is the faith we must rely upon in the midst of Covid. All of us are deprived of routine contact and interaction. ‘Normal’ support is much harder to come by. Living love is markedly harder when we are limited to zoom meetings. We cannot sing together. We can not visit our sick and it is difficult to share a meal. People we love have died without our ability to say goodbye. There is much to grieve. In the midst of these uncertainties, we must wrestle to find new ways to care for one another. Contending with God means trusting God’s promises and including God in every decision we make. We will have to take different risks. We will have to be proactive in different ways. It is already a struggle and it looks like we will be at it all night.
Ultimately, Jacob is transformed. We should require ourselves to ask how our faith influences our every decision making—when we are voting, when we are raising our children, when we pay our bills, when we confront the unknown. We will always be tempted to flee. We will always be tempted to secure our own best interest and deny our dependence upon God. But no matter what, have courage, contend with God. You will be transformed.
Wrestle–even as we face an unknown future in a hostile world. Rely on God’s way. His promises will be fulfilled. But know, if you choose this way, you may well be injured. Persevere, hold on to God’s promises. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.