Genesis 32 – “Wrestling with God”
September 13, 2020
I was on the wrestling team for one season during 8th grade.
The season fell between football in the fall and soccer in the spring, so the timing worked out fairly well.
My best friend and wrestling partner, Andy Phillips, won state that year in wrestling.
Though my technical skills were lacking, I ended up with a decent record. I was 3 and 3.
In six matches, I pinned three opponents and won, and in the other three matches, I lost on points.
I never quite understood how all the points were gained and lost.
If I could overpower the opponent, I was fine. If not, I was in trouble.
I knew that I was not meant to continue wrestling in high school
when I discovered that serious high school wrestlers were always on a diet.
16 and 17 year old boys were fasting for a full day before a match
or not eating any sweets during an entire season!
One of my neighbors, Tommy Foster, even wore a silver-lined sweat suit with elastic bands
at the neck and wrists and ankles. He would wear that thing under his clothes for the whole day
before a match and lose 6 or 8 pounds before the weigh in. That just wasn’t for me.
First, as many of you know, I have always liked to eat,
and second, I sure didn’t want to sweat all day at school.
What I distinctly remember about wrestling is that for the two minutes of a time period, you go all out.
For those two minutes, you give it everything you have and try to leave it all on the mat.
And sometimes, if you are just about to pin someone, or they are about to pin your shoulders to the mat,
you hang on for dear life.
You have to hang on in order to receive any kind of blessing from the event.
Last week, in our narrative from Genesis 28, we met Jacob in the wilderness,
running away from the wrath of his twin brother, Esau.
He had tricked Esau and their father, Isaac, in order to receive the birthright blessing.
There, in the wilderness, Jacob had the dream of a young man, a dream of awe and wonder.
In that place that he called Bethel, house of God,
Jacob realized in his dream the connection between heaven and earth,
and Jacob realized that God was with him and for him.
Between that text, Genesis 28, and today’s text, Genesis 32,
Jacob spends some 20 years at the home of his uncle Laban.
Laban is his mother Rebekah’s brother.
Uncle Laban convinced Jacob to work for seven years in order to marry his beautiful daughter Rachel.
But alas, on the morning after the big wedding, Jacob woke up and realized that he had married Leah,
the less attractive older sister. Furious at himself for drinking too much,
and furious with his uncle for tricking him, Jacob agreed to work another seven years
in order to marry Rachel. So finally, after 14 years, he and Rachel were married.
After the wedding, Jacob worked another six years for his uncle,
gaining a significant number of livestock and possessions along the way.
And Jacob had numerous children with his wives: Leah and Rachel,
as well as their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah.
By the time Jacob prepares himself to return home,
he has eleven sons, one daughter and a significant amount of wealth and influence.
Though he had arrived at Uncle Laban’s house empty handed, with nothing but hope and a promise,
he departed Haran with so much more.
In our text for today, we learn about Jacob’s second lonely encounter in the wilderness.
This second encounter bears similarities to that first encounter 20 years before.
In today’s text, Jacob is once again alone in the wilderness at nighttime facing an uncertain future.
Once again, he is afraid of his brother Esau. This time, he has received word that Esau
is coming to meet him with an army of four hundred men.
Once again, after his encounter, Jacob attaches a special name to the place where this encounter happens.
Before we turn to hear God’s Word in Holy Scripture, let us turn to God in prayer.
Almighty God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, illuminate your Word today,
that it may not return empty, but accomplish all you intend, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear the word of God from Genesis 32 beginning in the third verse.
Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom,
instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord, Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob.
I have lived with Laban as an alien and stayed until now and have oxen, donkeys, flocks,
male and female slaves and I have sent to tell my lord in order that I may find favor in your sight.”
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.
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed and he divided the people that were with him
and the flocks and the herds and the camels into two companies thinking,
if Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac,
O Lord who said to me “return to your country and your kindred and I will do you good”,
I am not worthy of the least of all of the steadfast love and all the faithfulness
that you have shown your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan
and now I have become two companies.
Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him.
He may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.
Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good and make your offspring as the sand of the sea
which cannot be counted because of their number.”
So Jacob spent that night there and from what he had with him he took a hundred female goats
and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts,
forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.
These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants,
“Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost,
“When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, “To whom do you belong? Where are you going?
And whose are these ahead of you?” Then you shall say, “They belong to your servant, Jacob,
they are a present sent to my lord Esau and moreover he is behind us.”
He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves.
You shall say the same thing to Esau when you meet him and you shall say,
“Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.” For he thought,
“I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face;
perhaps he will accept me.”
So the present passed on ahead of him and he himself spent the night in the camp.
The same night he got up and took his two wives , his two maids, his eleven children
and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream
and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
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. Then he said,
“Let me go for the day is breaking” but Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And the man said,
“You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel for you have striven with God and humans
and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why is it you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying,
“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket,
because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel
for you have (wrestled) with God and humans and have prevailed.”
There was a certain young English scholar named Clive, a professor of philosophy.
Clive enjoyed reading about secular humanism and teaching Greek and Roman classics.
Clive was a professed atheist. With the popular new hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”,
being sung in local churches, Clive wrote that a “young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully;
dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”
(The following excerpts come directly from Famous Conversions,
edited by Hugh Kerr and John Mulder, Eerdmans, 1983, pp. 199-202).
Clive said at some point in his young life something began to stir within him; his mind was unsettled.
Clive said he was allowed to “play at philosophy no longer.”
He said, “My adversary would not argue with me; he simply said, “I am”.
“I am the Lord.” “I am that I am.”
Young Clive had always wanted above all things, as he writes, “not to be interfered with.”
He had wanted to call his soul his own.
He had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than he had been to achieve delight.
Above all, as a professor of philosophy he wanted to be “reasonable.”
But reasonableness was not to be his end,
at least not in the way that he thought about reasonableness at the time.
Instead, what would be demanded of young Clive was total surrender and an absolute leap in the dark.
Clive writes, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalene,
night after night feeling whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work
the steady, unrelenting approach of him who I so earnestly desired not to meet.
That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me and in the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in
and I admitted that God was God, and I knelt and prayed,
perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England…
Who can duly adore that Love” he says, “which will open the high gates of heaven
to a prodigal who is brought in kicking and struggling and resentful
and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape?”
Clive writes, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men…
I had hoped that the heart of the reality might be of the kind that we can best symbolize it as a place;
instead, I found it to be a person.” Clive discovered that the heart of reality Clive was a person,
an “adversary” who unrelentingly came after him and would not let him go.
The former atheist professor’s name was Clive, Clive Staples Lewis, C.S. Lewis,
the same C.S. Lewis who, during the 20th century, would instruct more people
in the reasonableness of Christian faith than all theological faculties of the world.
C.S. Lewis was a quiet, scholarly, Oxford and Cambridge professor
who became one of the foremost Christian apologists of the twentieth century.
In his book, Surprised by Joy, he writes honestly about his wrestling with God.
With whom did Jacob wrestle at the river Jabbok?
One verse says he wrestled with “a man” until daybreak.
A later verse says he has striven with “divine and human beings.”
Later, Jacob claims that he has seen “God” face to face and has survived.
Long before any Old Testament books were written down,
long before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses,
long before the idea of monotheism, one God alone, was developed,
“tellers” of the tribal stories would gather around the campfires at night
and pass along the Oral Tradition, as it is called.
These keepers of the Oral Tradition did not share our modern vocabulary.
They had not taken any classes in biblical criticism.
They passed along very carefully what had been told to them.
What they passed along was that, whatever had happened at that river Jabbok that night,
Jacob understood it as an encounter with none other than God.
Was it a real, physical encounter? Was it a dream?
As Jacob looked back at the mystery of that strange night,
he seemed genuinely surprised by what had happened.
Whatever happened, Jacob walked away from the experience with a limp, an injury to his hip,
and somehow, by someone, Jacob had received a new name, “Israel”.
As the story is told, it sounded like an even-handed wrestling match until the injury.
The divine being, the representative of God, chose not to prevail too easily upon Jacob.
He may have been testing Jacob, putting Jacob’s perseverance on trial.
It seems as though it took little effort to knock Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Perhaps this wrestling partner had been holding back,
allowing Jacob to struggle with all his might until daylight came.
And when daylight came, even after he was injured, Jacob held on fast
and would not let go until he received a blessing,
Why was God wrestling with Jacob in the first place?
And why was the experience based in conflict?
Why didn’t they just sit down under the oak trees and enjoy a nice meal,
as did Abraham with the three visitors?
As a young man, Jacob had a dream full of awe and wonder, realizing the presence of God at Bethel;
as a middle aged father, Jacob’s dream was full of conflict and struggle, a wrestling match.
By the time someone reaches middle age, many have held God at an arm’s length,
seeking to avoid encountering God altogether.
Others have entered that encounter but quickly given in,
just going about with whatever someone else has told them to believe.
Not everyone, it seems, is willing to struggle with all their might and hang on for dear life
until they receive a blessing from their encounter with God.
Oftentimes in the biblical narratives, someone encounters God while they are alone, in silence.
Today, many human beings cannot stand being alone in silence.
Many will get in their car and immediately turn on some music.
Many will turn arrive home and turn on the television as soon as they enter.
A surprising number of people, even whole families, will eat all their meals in front of the television!
Have you noticed how many people always have their phone on, always scrolling or playing a game?
Have you notices how others must always have a book to read or a job to do
or some activity to get away to.
Many human beings will not simply sit still and be silent,
because in silence, we have to deal with ourselves and ultimately, we have to deal with God.
In his time of silence at the riverbank, all alone, Jacob struggled mightily with God.
In the quiet of his study, C.S. Lewis struggled mightily with God.
In the end, they both received a new identity,
even though they walked away somewhat wounded from the struggle.
I offer you a challenge this week.
I challenge you to take an hour alone somewhere, with no distractions.
Preferably today, or maybe later this week at a designated time, turn off the smartphone.
Seek a place where there is little or no distracting noise.
Leave behind the television or the earbuds or the book…..nothing but you and your Creator.
Temptations will come to drag you away from this experience.
There will be struggles that arise within your soul.
You will be tempted to do something else, to avoid this situation.
But do it! Take one hour of silence in the midst of our busy world. And listen.
And be prepared to wrestle. And be prepared hang in there and hang on for whatever blessing may come.
Once Jacob crossed the River Jabbok, he would enter the land of Canaan,
the land promised to his grandfather, Abraham, and to his father, Isaac.
Before Jacob could receive the Promised Land,
before he could face his brother and deal with his brother’s potential wrath,
first he had to encounter God.
During this pandemic year, you may be wrestling with some personal issue,
like Jacob needing to face an estranged member of his family.
You may be wrestling with some deep questions of faith and life, as did C.S. Lewis.
You may be wrestling with genuine concern for our nation
and what you could do personally for country or community in this divisive and uncertain time.
Earlier this summer, our session affirmed an invitation to become a Matthew 25 congregation.
As a Matthew 25 congregation, we have committed ourselves to participate in:
-building congregational vitality
-dismantling structural racism, and
-eradicating systemic poverty.
All three of these are huge, daunting challenges for one person or for one congregation,
or even for an entire denomination.
All three of these foci can and will cause disagreement about the most helpful ways forward.
But the challenges will be worth the effort.
Any small introit we can make into up-building a congregation,
or dismantling some structure of racism,
or making some small impact upon systemic poverty
will be like adding one more drop to a large bucket of need.
Eventually, many small drops, added together, will fill the bucket.
We look to these ancient biblical narratives because they communicate truths about the human condition,
and about our humanity before God.
What we learn from Jacob is that we must lean into the struggle
as we wrestle with our holy and almighty God.
We learn that we must strive with the possibility that, by God’s grace,
we might just be changed, perhaps forever, by wrestling with whom our Creator calls us to be.
We learn that we must open ourselves to the idea that, if we are potentially transformed by grace,
the lives of countless others could be impacted in deep and meaningful ways.
This was true for Jacob; it was true for C. S. Lewis.
It could be true for this congregation and community.
Without a mighty struggle, Jacob would never have lived into the promises that God intended for him.
Though I may not have been the greatest 8th grade wrestler of all time,
I did learn a few things….While you are on the mat, you have to give it all you got,
and sometimes, you have to hang on for dear life in order to receive the blessing.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church