Pentecost 8: Wrestling with God

"Jacob Wrestling God 2" by Chris Cook

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and 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." 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." 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. 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. (Genesis 32:22-31)
Throughout the summer, we have been reading through some of the most important Old Testament stories that have shaped our faith. Over these past few weeks, we have gotten to know the character of Jacob pretty well. Today’s story is of Jacob wrestling with a divine stranger, but if you’ve paid any attention at all over the last few weeks, you know that Jacob iis a man who has been wrestling his whole life. He’s used to wrestling…and to winning. He is a man accustomed to having the upper hand.

Jacob wrestled right from the start, contending with his brother even in the womb, and grabbing his brother’s heel as they were born, not content to be left behind or second best. He was opportunistic and wrestled the birthright away from his brother Esau, simply by offering up a bowl of soup in a moment of hungry weakness. He wrestled his father Isaac’s blessing away from Esau simply by wearing goat skins and taking advantage of his old father’s failing eyesight. He was quick and wrestled himself away from home to escape Easu’s anger. He went off, fell in love, and wrestled with Laban’s own wheeling and dealing in order to win Rachel as his wife...and came away from many long years of wrestling with not just Rachel as his wife, but also her sister Leah!

Today’s story picks up after Jacob finally leaves Laban’s house, with wives and wealth, and gets hit with a terrifying piece of news: Esau is coming to meet him, and he’s bring along an army of 400 men. Once again, Jacob is in a position of wrestling. He imagines a match-up with his brother, and wrestles his way out of immediate danger first by sending money ahead of him as a bribe, and then sending along his wives and children across the river first, hoping that Esau will feel pity and call off the attack. True to form, Jacob is, again, wrestling that he might prevail and save his own skin.

And just when Jacob is finally alone, left on the near side of the riverbank with his life, for the moment, intact, he is forced to wrestle once again, but this time, for real. A mysterious man appears, takes Jacob down, and the two men wrestle until daybreak. Limbs flailing in the reeds along the riverbank. Muscles aching, bruises appearing, sweat and dirt covering their faces.

And as Jacob wrestles this divine stranger, he also wrestles with himself. He wrestles with all of his fear, his frustration, and his guilt. He wrestles with his own devious and cunning deeds. He wrestles with his identity. And for the first time in his life, Jacob is met with a wrestling match that he cannot win. After a lifetime of taking cheap shots in order to win the desires of his heart, Jacob is now entangled with an opponent over whom he will not prevail, no matter how strong he is or how hard he fights. It is simply not his time to win.

Just as day begins to dawn, the mysterious divine stranger sets Jacob’s hip out of place and calls the match. It is over. And Jacob has lost.

I attended a preaching conference last spring, and our keynote speaker talked at length about how previous generations of churchgoers had a more intimate knowledge of the Bible and all of its stories of faith. He remarked that for this group, he could ask any of them to tell him a Bible story that supported them, helped them, or related to their life, and they would be able to do it. But with our current generation, for many reasons, this same intimate Biblical knowledge doesn’t exist. We don’t know the stories well enough to hang our hats on them. So if you are someone today who needs a story that you can relate to - a story that you can identify with, take comfort in, and rely on, this story about Jacob might just be the perfect story for you.

Because it isn’t difficult to insert ourselves into Jacob’s story. We know what it feels like to wrestle and bargain for our own self-interests. We know what it feels like to want to get ahead at any cost. We know what it feels like to tell half-truths in order to save our skins.

And, I imagine, many of us also know what it feels like to wrestle with God.

We struggle with God when we cannot see or understand his plan for our lives. We contend with God in the face of death and destruction. We fight with God when we feel that our prayers have gone unanswered. We struggle with God when we fear our doubts and when we need answers for our skeptical souls.

I have a friend - another pastor - who loves to read books written by atheists and skeptics. He especially loves to read the angriest of these books! He does because he wants to learn and grow, and to wrestle with his faith in new and deeper ways.

We wrestle when we hear news of the terrorism in Norway or the devastating drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, and wonder how we can find God even in these difficult circumstances.

Last Sunday was my first Sunday back after a long summer of travel. I remarked during that service that it felt like coming home to be with all of you again. But as I looked around, I realized that part of the reason that worship felt like a homecoming is that I know you all so very well. I can look around and know what various things you are wrestling with in your lives - illnesses, fears, griefs, questions, hopes. So many of you are wrestling with deep and difficult things. Know that you are in good company.

Yes, my friends, if there is but one thing that connects us deeply to the character of Jacob, it is most certainly this: that we, too, have stood on that riverbank in the dead of night, struggling and shoving and kicking and screaming, wrestling with our creator, hoping to prevail.

The Atlanta-born artist Chris Cook has painted four depictions of Jacob’s divine wrestling match. The second one, pictured above, is painted in mostly subdued green and blue tones. Cook has painted the match using intentionally simple forms: the easy shape of blue and green hills, the upper half of the painting filled with white dotted stars across a dark blue sky, a swirling blue moon, and then two figures, set right in the middle of the canvas, large and strong to the eye.

God is painted as a large, marshmallowy figure, with huge soft limbs and giant hands and feet. Around his head, a divine yellow glow. And in the arms of this big, soft figure is Jacob. Jacob, by comparison, is painted as a disproportionately thin, wiry man, his whole body being the width of one of God’s legs. He is a caricature of weakness: spindly limbs, tiny fists aimed at God’s face, a comically small head resting on this long stick of a body, his unpainted face staring up at the hulking figure of God who holds him.

But when you look at the painting, before you notice the bold brush strokes, or before you notice the bold contrast between the huge figure of God and the skinny figure of Jacob, you notice something yet more striking.

The two figures, though wrestling, appear as if they are dancing. God’s arms hold Jacob in a partner’s stance. The legs of both figures are right in step with one another. The characters do not look tangled at all. They are in rhythm together, in sync. The feeling evoked by the entwined characters is not one of struggle but of grace. If you were to look at the painting without its title, you might at first assume that it is a painting of a divine dance or of a divine embrace. The painting evokes the idea of Jacob’s wrestling match as a tender, emotional, grace-filled event.

This painting answers for us the important question, “Why do we wrestle with God?” We wrestle with God because wrestling is intimate. In order to wrestle, you have to be up close and personal. You can’t wrestle from afar; you have to be touching. You need to grab one another in awkward poses, you need to coordinate your movements, you need to embrace. Wrestling brings you together. And when we wrestle with God, we, like Jacob, can get close enough to see God face to face.

Have you ever picked on your brother or sister because you didn’t know how else to give them attention? Remember the boys that chased the girls on the playground and pulled their braids to show them that they liked them?

Even if we are angry with God, disillusioned with faith, and full of doubts, if we are yet willing to get close enough to God to pull on his pigtails and wrestle him to the ground, then we are still following the deepest desire of our heart: to see God face-to-face. And the story of Jacob teaches us that in seeing God face-to-face, we will be blessed.

Jacob loses the wrestling match there on the riverbank, and loses badly. But the story goes on to tell us that even on the losing end of this wrestling match, Jacob receives not merely a limp, but a new name, a new identity, a new purpose, and the full blessing of God.

Jacob teaches us that wrestling with God, seeing God, and being blessed by God all go hand in hand. For us, out there in the world, our calling is to wrestle with God in our own faith-lives, and to wrestle with the brokenness in our world on behalf of that faith. The purpose behind all of our wrestling is to see God ever more clearly, and to discern God’s plans and dreams for our lives. And we live, every day, in hope that out of our wrestling, our struggles, our doubts and even our fears, we will find blessing.

I leave you, this day, with a blessing that I came upon in some recent reading. It picks up on what we heard in Jacob’s story, about the connection between wrestling, blessing, and seeing God. It lifts up your own struggles, and asks God to give you new chances to wrestle with your faith, that you might truly see God face-to-face:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy. (Fourfold Franciscan Blessing)

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
I pray that you continue to wrestle, all the way until daybreak, and that in your wrestling, you will come to know God more deeply than you have ever known him before, and that you will indeed be blessed by your encounter.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! God, oddly enough, seems to accept and even value honest wrestling with Him. We seem to think we have to hide our doubts, questions, and struggles from one another (a whole other topic) and from Him (as if we could!). God on the other hand, says "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden..." and even if our approach is filled less with praise and more with struggle and doubt ("if you were here my brother would not have died"), we find grace, and when daybreak comes (and it will!) "...you will find rest" -- and peace and love and grace and joy.