In early July I was looking ahead at the lectionary readings for August and was struck by the Old Testament readings. In particular, the August 3rd reading from Genesis 32:22-32 about Jacob wrestling. I knew that I knew I just had to preach this passage. And that God wanted to speak to me as well. (Actually, most of my preaching has been whatever God has been speaking to me from a text and the congregation just gets to listen in.)
With Mom getting sick, and then dying, I wasn’t around for a Sunday morning until today… and I still felt I was supposed to preach that text. For lack of a super catchy title, I simply called it “God Grappler.”
Even though I had an outline, what follows are more my notes, or perhaps reflections, from this morning.
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Jacob remembers how badly he had treated his brother Esau and gets worried when God sends messengers (angels!) to alert him that Esau is heading towards him. Jacob got really serious about needing to do some soul searching and seeking God for some help and I notice that Jacob starts clearing out any distractions… He makes arrangements for his kids (11 boys) and his wives (2 actual wives and 2 ‘significant others’) and all of his stuff and servants to be in two different places. The text seems clear that he’s trying to ‘cut his losses’ in case the worst happens and Esau actually attacks. But I remember Jesus talking about separating yourself away from others and ‘getting alone’ in order to seek out God. Isn’t that where the idea of a prayer closet comes from?
So Jacob is alone… verses 9 through 12 talk of Jacob actually praying and asking God for help. No repentence is explicitly cited, but there’s a definite seeking God! Little wonder that God shows up later in the story!
Verse 24 says that “a man” wrestled with him till daybreak. Verse 26 seems to hint that this is a human form of God and when the man renames Jacob, his rationale is “because you have struggled with God and with men…” Jacob, in verse 30, names the place Peniel “because I have seen God face to face and yet my life was spared.” Hosea 12:3-4 says in one verse it was God and in the other that it was an angel.
In several other places throughout Scripture we read of God appearing in human form and being referred to as ‘The Angel of the Lord’ so I guess I don’t see this as much of a problem… It appears to me that this is simply a pre-incarnation theophany of Jesus. And if so, it would make sense that Jesus would not want Jacob to see him in the light and then find out that he had wrestled with God because it would have decimated Jacob’s understanding that to see God is to die. So to have encountered God face to face in the dark would do the work in Jacob’s life that God was after without completely undoing him. (Perhaps sort of like today’s cliche that God will only allow as much as you can handle.)
So, ‘the man’ says let me go because it’s almost morning… The response Jacob gives is, not surprisingly, ‘NO, not without your blessing!’
I struggled with this for a while, but then, reflecting back on that Hosea passage again I realized that even from the womb, this guy has been trying to carve out a place for himself… He grabbed his brother’s heel, he manipulated and schemed to get his brother to trade away the birthright, he tricked Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him instead… and then all of the back and forth scheming between his uncle Laban and he in the ancient ancestral homeland. I think there’s evidence here that this guy has a deeper unmet hunger for MORE than just the physical things like wives and herds and property. His hunger is for the blessings, the birthrights, the ‘spiritual’ dimensions of life. And he has tried to get that hunger met through his own scheming and manipulation.
Even when he encounters God as he flees from Esau, and we read the whole ‘Jacob’s ladder’ narrative, Jacob tries to make a deal with God. IF you bring me back… THEN I will serve you… It sounds to me like He wants the blessings and gifts of God without having to commit to a relationship with Him.
Twenty years pass and he’s met someone who’s given him a run for his money in the lying and manipulating end of things. He barely gets out of that encounter with Laban in one piece.
Now he’s here about to meet Esau. He’s scared. He’s invoked God Himself to come and intervene. And I believe God listens and answers… but not necessarily in the way Jacob had hoped or wanted. Instead of physical deliverance (which he DOES get later) from his brother, he gets a physical AND a spiritual intervention.
In verse 26 Jacob is still just trying to ‘wrestle’ a blessing out of this one who has engaged him in this struggle. The ‘man’ asks about his name and offers him a new one… ‘One who has struggled with God and with men’ and something CLICKS in Jacob’s head… He knows of MANY times when he’s struggled with men… but ‘when have I struggled with God?’ And I can see the lightbulb coming on and realizing this must be more than just some ‘man’ that he is struggling with now…
And Jacob does something he hasn’t done before. He asks this ‘man’ what his name is. He’s always wanted the things of God… but now he wants to KNOW more about this God Himself. And the Bible says THEN the mysterious wrestler gives Jacob his blessing.
It took the struggle to get Jacob where he needed to be to let go of his scheming ways and finally seek God. Many struggles with Esau and then Isaac, Laban, and now this ‘traveler unknown’ as Charles Wesley would word it in the 1700’s.
SO… how are we like Jacob now-a-days?
I see LOTS of signs of spiritual hunger… spirituality in our marketplace, our businesses, our boardrooms, our televisions, our movies, and even in our children’s literature. We want there to be more than just the physical reality. We want spiritual truths and spiritual realities. So Goosebumps books, and Harry Potter, and demonic horror movies, and even Disney shows, all try to capture us and enthrall us with the premise that there is some spiritual truth beyond what we see in the physical.
Like Jacob, we want a piece of that reality… but also like Jacob we have a past filled with unrepented sin and a desire to have the spiritual without getting to know the true God of the spiritual reality. And so we walk away from all those other spiritual things, still ‘hungry.’ Like Jacob, we’re still looking for the right ‘blessing’ even after we’ve gotten everything we’ve tried to lay our hands on.
I believe the answer comes with Jesus’ wprds in the Sermon on the Mount, when he admonished his listeners to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
It’s the act of asking and seeking and knocking and wrestling and struggling with God that defines us and strengthens us and matures us into who God wants us to be.
I think of the times I play hide and seek with my four year old son Josh… I may hide, but I WANT him to find me! I want him to SEEK me! Because the joy and excitement comes even more forcefully when he FINDS me!
Jacob never got the blessing he was looking for until he got past the ‘give me’ stage and grew into the ‘What is your name?’ stage. When he actually wanted to know this God… then the blessing came unasked for.
Jesus said that’s how it is for us, too: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
One of Jacob’s later descendants, Jeremiah the prophet, would write God’s prophetic words on this subject this way to Jacob’s distant grandchildren who were about to face another defining struggle: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you…” (Jeremiah 29:13-14a)
The Bible is supposed to be like a mirror… we ought to be able to see how we look by seeing ourselves in the mirror… and in the Bible. How do we find ourselves in Jacob’s wrestling story? Where do we fit in? And how do we now respond?
One more thought… From that point on, Jacob, or now “Israel,” was known by his limp… His wounding helped define who he was and helped people to know it was really him. Somewimes we have have been wounded or hurt, but yet found a blessing hidden in the midst of the pain… an unexpected positive in the midst of a whole slew of negatives… Perhaps, we carry the wound with us to remind us of how God can, and did, work in the middle of that difficult time. After all, even Jesus was ‘known by his scars.’
What are our scars? Have we struggled long enough to keep at it, until we get to know God Himself in the midst of the struggle?
Or do we settle for whatever happens to tickle the spititual hunger and never seek HIM?