A Wrestling God
Posted on September 23, 2019 | Posted by Annie Saunders
A friend of mine recently got some bad news. Not like job loss or funeral bad, but the next level. Junior Varsity bad. But he’s had a lot of JV bad news recently, so this stung. Anyway, he texted me about it and I said I was sorry and that I would pray for him and his family. He then said “God and I are going to have a great talk one of these days. I’ve got questions…” I replied “I’m actually giving a sermon soon on Jacob wrestling with God. I should just let you do it.” He wasn’t so keen on that idea. So, here I am.
I love my friend’s faith. It’s a faith I’ve seen more and more of recently. A faith that’s willing to get frustrated with God, to ask God tough questions. I think when we drop the formal, unapproachable view of God, we’re able to engage our faith more. We’re able to wrestle with God.
And that’s cool. But I don’t think that’s what this story is actually about. I love hearing that our God is one we can wrestle with. But in this story, God comes to wrestle with us and I think that small distinction makes a big difference.
If you had to pick a Biblical character to name a whole nation or people after, if you were going to pick a Biblical role model, it would probably not be Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob is not your ideal hero. Really, he’s a con artist.
About Jacob: He has a twin brother, Esau. Esau is technically the older of the two, and so his birthright was to get a special blessing from his father, not to mention a double portion of the inheritance when the time came. But Jacob, with the help of his mother and through some of his own cunning, steals Esau’s blessing from their ailing father, Isaac. And once given, that blessing cannot be taken back.
Esau is furious. He vows to kill Jacob, who runs away to a foreign land. Now, if the Bible were a nice moral story, Jacob would fall on hard times, and suffer in his exile. But the Bible isn’t a neat and tidy morality tale. Instead, Jacob prospers. He marries two women, has at least thirteen children, and is happy. He even gets a special blessing from God while sleeping on a rock one night. Later, he cons his father-in-law out of a lot of wealth, and off he goes back to his homeland, happy as a lark.
There is but one problem on the way home: Esau. Jacob is hoping that God’s angels who accompany him – yep, that’s in this story, too – he’s hoping, kind of assuming the angels are a sign of good fortune and Esau won’t be a problem. But then he gets a report that Esau is coming towards Jacob with 400 men. Gulp. Now Jacob is terrified.
So he devises a plan. He stops right where he is and decides to send droves of goats, sheep, camels, and donkeys out ahead of him. The idea was that after receiving wave after wave of gifts, Esau’s anger towards Jacob would be pacified. It would be like if you were headed to a family reunion, but you discover your brother, the one who’s mad at you for forging dad’s will and taking the house for yourself, your brother will be there, along with his lawyer and mobster friends.
So a week before the reunion you mail a bunch of Hallmark cards with five figure checks in them.
Perhaps, Jacob hopes, he can avoid the reckoning with his brother that is to come. Perhaps he can avoid the reckoning with his own sins and past. Perhaps with this buffer between Esau and himself, he’ll be ok. He goes to bed that night hoping that come morning he’ll awake to news that Esau has received the gifts and all’s well and good.
But it is not a restful night. Out of nowhere, a stranger comes to Jacob in the moonless dark of the wilderness and essentially attacks him. The stranger grabs hold of Jacob and wrestles him all through the night. It’s an odd story.
What’s absolutely clear here is that the stranger is uninvited, unwelcome. Jacob had a whole plan for the evening and morning, and this was not part of it.
What’s less clear is who this stranger is. Some have argued it is some form of Jacob’s conscience, though that might be a bit too abstract. Others argue this is Esau, or someone sent by Esau. Others claim it is an angel sent by God, which is how a lot of artists depict the scene, with Jacob locking arms with a winged being.
But most scholars and readers think the stranger is God. After all, the stranger says to Jacob “You have wrestled with God.” Now whether the stranger is technically Esau or Jacob’s conscience or an angel sent by God or some form of God in the flesh, for me: Of course this is God! Of course God has come to wrestle Jacob, in some form or another.
Jacob sought to avoid a true reckoning with Esau, with his past, with his ill-gotten blessing. But God won’t let him. Jacob hopes to side-step, downplay, or outright avoid the coming clash, but God forces the issue.
This is not Jacob wrestling with faith. This is not Jacob demanding an answer from God like Job did, or like my friend hopes to. Jacob was perfectly content where he was. But God was not. And that’s what this story is all about.
Which makes it a tough story to accept. Two obvious questions jump out. First, how is it that God wrestles a human and doesn’t win right away? The match appears to be a draw. A draw with God! How is that possible? And second, why? Why does God do this?
If these questions lead you to wonder if we’re reading this story wrong, you wouldn’t be the first. But before we let our preconceived notions of God tell us that this must not be God, let me pose a question: isn’t this just how it is?
I mean sometimes we seek God out, but other times it feels like God seeks us. Demands an audience, as it were. Especially at night. Especially the night before a reckoning.
A decision must be made about whether you’ll stand your ground or not at work, or whether you’ll say yes to that task someone thinks you’re just right for. You’ve got to decide if you really are as committed to education or the environment or faith or your city or your country as you thought you were, because if you are, well that might mean something, huh. You’ve got to decide if you’re going to apologize for hurting someone, apologize for something you keep claiming isn’t your fault, but you aren’t so sure about that anymore. You’ve got to decide if you’re going to change.
During the day, you can distract yourself from such predicaments. You can plug away at work, clean the kitchen, play some video games. But at night, lying in bed with only your thoughts to keep you company, there’s no avoiding it. The dilemma comes for you. Like it or not, welcome it or not – most likely not – you are forced to reckon.
Do you think that might be God? Do you think that might be God coming unwelcomed, lifting up your situation before you, forcing you to see it in the dark when there isn’t anything else you can see? We’re pretty quick to point to God when a surgery goes well, when disaster is avoided, shoot, some people even mutter a “thank God” when they find a parking spot. But are we willing to see God in those unwelcome night-time wrestlings? The ones that come for us?
As terrifying as that is, I kind of hope so, because if that’s God, then that would mean God really cares about this stuff. For God to force the issue, to force us to reckon with our past, with the hurt we’ve caused, or with whatever good we might be called to do. For God to wrestle with us over that would mean that this stuff matters, it matters to God.
We like to think that our piddly lives don’t matter. Actually we don’t like to think that, unless we’re trying to avoid something hard, then we say: eh, it doesn’t really matter anyways. But if God’s the one keeping us up at night, well, maybe it does matter.
Which sort of answers one of those questions I asked earlier: Why? Why would God wrestle Jacob in the middle of the night? Well, because this stuff matters, and God isn’t going to let us pretend that it doesn’t.
And what of that other question? When this wrestling bout begins, how is it that God doesn’t just squash Jacob before the ring of the bell fades? The God who created the earth, who turned Jacob’s second cousin into a pile of salt and destroyed the whole town of Sodom just a handful of chapters earlier. Never mind the Red Sea or the Resurrection. Shouldn’t this God just wallop old Jacob? Well, yeah.
But then again, that wasn’t the point. The point wasn’t to destroy Jacob. The point isn’t to destroy us. The point is to open our eyes that we might take this stuff as seriously as God does. The point is that God’s picked us to make this world bearable, God’s picked us to be the bearers of God’s grace and love. God chooses us, and that means grace and love and purpose and all that other lovely stuff. But it also means God isn’t going to just sit by and watch us screw it up. Ready or not, God’s coming. For the sake of this world, God is coming.
Which brings me back to Jacob and why maybe he’s the role model we need after all. Sometime during that fateful night, something changes. Jacob shifts from facing an uninvited assault to refusing to let the assailant go. Jacob holds on.
When he was born just after Esau, Jacob held onto his brother’s heel, refusing to let go of the blessing given to the first out of the womb. It’s how he got his name, which means heel. And here he holds on to God and that’s how he got his blessing and new name, Israel, which means wrestles with God. When God confronts Jacob, Jacob leans in.
Could we lean in? Could we not flee the night-time reckoning thrust upon us, but let it come, wrestle with it? Knowing our adversary is God, could we lean in to the wrestling? Trusting that this is the same God who did not kill Jacob, but would later be killed for our sake. Trusting that this is the same God who delighted in our creation, who calls us beloved, who blessed Jacob with a new name – Israel, a new identity that would define his family from that point forward. Could we lean in to the wrestling, trusting in the ultimate love of our adversary and come out blessed to be called those who wrestle with God? I hope so. Because God’s coming. Thanks be to God. Amen.