Sermon preached at LifeSign, Burke UMC, Sat 8/6/2011
Text: Genesis 32:22-32
Jacob hadn’t been surprised when he saw the figure approaching him in the dark. He had not joined his wife and kids in crossing the river that night because he knew that there was someone or something he needed to face. “Brother, is that you?” called Jacob. The person didn’t answer. “Esau?” Jacob said. The man walked closer. “Friend, please tell me who you are and what I can do for you!” No sound except the man’s approaching footsteps. Jacob reached down and realized that he didn’t have his knife with him. He looked on the ground and saw no rocks small enough to throw. So Jacob took off his cloak and got ready to fight.
The first blow knocked Jacob into the sand and scraped the side of his face. Yet in a strange way, Jacob felt a deep comfort. For all these years since he cheated his brother Esau, he had been waiting for the beating to come. There were many nightmares. There were many times when his uncle Laban had looked at him in an odd way that made Jacob think that he’d been in contact with Esau. He lived every day under the terror that the truth would be discovered, that he would face an ambush when he returned from the fields. He knew that both of his parents had died. He knew that Esau had prospered while he had languished under that crooked uncle of his. But somehow Jacob wanted to think that he and Esau could be family again. So he’d sent messengers to his brother with gifts, hoping it had been enough time. And then he heard that Esau was coming with four hundred men.
Well now at least he didn’t have to wait to feel the pain. The punishment that he had dreaded for so long was pummeling him into the ground. Jacob didn’t know what to believe about this God of his grandfather Abraham who had appeared to him in that dream decades before. But he did believe in fate. He was getting what he had so long deserved. Somehow he almost felt clean, though he was covered in sand and sweat, because he was finally paying for what he had done. Tears started to stream out of his eyes since it felt like now he could ask for forgiveness.
Perhaps he wouldn’t even have to face his brother. His body would be found on this beach and everyone would be sorry for having assumed he was a good for nothing scoundrel. They would pity him; they would reproach themselves for having judged him. Who could have done differently? He was the second son, by all of 90 seconds. He had done exactly what his mother told him to do when he stole his brother’s blessing. His father had never once showed him any affection. Jacob was ready for his eulogy to be read.
But then a face flashed into his mind, the shepherd girl he had met so many years before when he was a lonely wanderer. Rachel, the one whose smile single-handedly made everything else in his life disappear, and the boy Joseph, that beautiful little boy that God had finally given them after so many years of trying. He had to live for Rachel’s sake. So Jacob fought back. At first, his opponent seemed surprised. But then Jacob found that the harder he fought, the man fought just a little bit harder. Jacob wrestled with every ounce of his being and he could not make headway against his opponent. The man landed a blow on Jacob’s hip. There was a loud crack and Jacob screamed in agony. He fell to the ground but he rolled and kicked and scratched and kept the man from choking him.
As Jacob’s efforts got more feeble, the man seemed to ease up on him. It was almost compassionate. That was when Jacob started to wonder who this man really was. It did not seem to be his goal to kill Jacob because he’d had quite a few opportunities to do that. And just as Jacob started to wonder if this man was some kind of angel or even a god, the man started to pull away from him. Jacob couldn’t quite get to his feet but he lunged at the man, grabbing his ankles just as he had grabbed his brother’s ankle on the way out of their mother’s womb.
The man said, “Let me go; it is daybreak.” And Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” So the man asked him, “What is your name?” And Jacob told him and the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but y’isra-el, for you have struggled with God and man and you have overcome.”
Y’isra-el. Can you say it? It means the God-wrestler. And this would not just be Jacob’s new name but the name for the nation of people that his descendents would become. God-wrestlers. Y’isra-el. A people who went through 400 years of slavery in Egypt, but they clung to their God and cried out His name until He gave them a blessing. A stubborn, thick-necked people who wandered in the desert for 40 years complaining every step of the way, but they wouldn’t let go of their God and He wouldn’t let go of them. When they got to the promised land, they had a few good centuries but then their kings went bad and worshipped idols so God sicked the Babylonians on them and sent them off into exile, but He still wouldn’t let go of His people. He stuck with them and they stuck with Him. It wasn’t pretty. There were cuts and bruises in the journey. It was a never-ending wrestling match, but somehow it was a beautiful relationship.
How many of y’all are God-wrestlers? I know I am. My heart is restless unless I’m wrestling with God. I feel uneasy unless God is challenging me, poking at my sinful tendencies, reminding me what kind of person He has called me to be, taking on my sinful egotism. When I can’t feel God pushing back, it makes me think I’m so covered in sin that I’ve tuned out God entirely. In addition to wrestling with my sins, I wrestle with the image of God that I’ve got in my head. If I’m not discovering new things about God, I get nervous. I wonder if I’m worshiping an idol, some idea of God that fits in a box. So I constantly interrogate the One who I’m worshiping. I’ve got hundreds of pages of journal entries asking Him questions that begin with Why. Why do you let powerful people get away with telling so many lies? Why do so many Christians who you clearly love too believe so much that makes no sense to me? I never get conclusive answers, but I keep clinging to God’s ankles, refusing to let Him go until He blesses me.
But what if that’s what faith is really about? Refusing to let go. When we have faith, it doesn’t mean that we’re not afraid, that we don’t have any doubts, that there’s no confusion in our minds. It just means that we’re sticking with God. We give him our anger, our fear, the questions that we want answered; and we keep talking to Him. We keep our arms locked with the one who refuses to loosen His grip on us. If we just flop and play dead, that’s not faith. If we pretend to agree with things we’ve never wrestled through, that’s not faith. Faith means wrestling with a God we cannot understand, and never expecting to figure Him out and be done with our wrestling.
This past week, I’ve been wrestling with God on multiple fronts. I wrote an article that got some people mad at me, and God used their comments to show me some uncomfortable truths about myself. I’ve also been part of a decision-making process at our church in which I’ve had to balance many different opinions at the same time. As I’m trying to hear God’s voice in the voices of others, He’s wrestling with me. Now I know, being a father, that I wrestle with my sons to toughen them up and help them grow. So it helps me to treat all situations in life that are rough or uncertain as times when my Daddy in heaven is wrestling with me to toughen me up. He lets off when I start to whimper, but when I get cocky, He plants my face in the dirt. I don’t understand this God who has the patience to let me keep taking swings at Him, but I know that He loves me.