The Rev. Ian Emile Dunn
Wrestling With God
August 25, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Genesis 32:22-32
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen
When I first became a Christian – a man who had died a couple years before I came to know the Lord was deeply formative in my growth. Rich Mullins was a Christian singer who in sang in a rich and authentic way from the heart and proclaimed the gospel with his words that worked to transform my own heart. To this day, I still feel indebted to this man, I will not meet until I get to eternity. This morning, I played a Rich Mullins album as I was driving to church and the perfect words came tumbling out of my speakers “we are not as strong as we think we are.”
We meet Jacob again, he is a man who is not as strong as he thinks he is. He is heading back into the promise land. Last week he was leaving that land, not under the best of circumstances. A lot has happened since last week, he fled to the land of his mother, he met and married both of his wives, whom he worked very hard for, and made himself a fortune, and perhaps swindled his father-in-law.
Though not always in the most moral of ways – Jacob was the description of a self-made man. If you want to think about it this way – if we were watching a movie, there’s a pretty good chance Jacob would be played by Clint Eastwood, or some other actor who always plays that resilient, strong willed, and not in need of any help from anyone type of man.
I start with description because these are the characteristics, minus seeming to have a penchant to be dishonest with family members – that are highly valued in our culture. We see it as good to be independent, it is good to be self-made, it is good to be driven, but these are not the virtues that we celebrate in the church – more exactly – we cannot get to God by creating our own path to him, we cannot get to heaven through our works.
We see this pattern spelled out from the very beginning – in Babble God knocks down the tower and confuses the langue so that man cannot get to him that way, Jacob sees a ladder to heaven, but it is God who come down to Him, dishonesty and not trusting God are repeated themes of lament in the prophets. Finally, in the Gospel accounts we learn that none can come to the father except through Christ. It is God incarnate in Christ who comes to save the world. It is God who comes to us.
We are not called to be self-reliant but to be wholly reliant upon Christ.
We are called to find our satisfaction and peace in Him and most importantly our find our deliverance in Him and not our works.
In order to understand the drama that is unfolding before our eyes this morning, we need to take a moment and back up and see what has led to this moment. Last week, we started this story with Jacob dreaming, and hearing from God that he will return to the promise land – this week we end it with the God bringing Him back into the promise land.
He spent years working for his father in law, Laban. His initial agreement with Laban was that he would work seven years for the right to marry his daughter Rachel, but Laban saw an opportunity to marry off his daughter Leah who “was weak in the eyes,” and so in some trickery he gave Jacob not Rachel, but Leah. Then Jacob worked another seven years for the opportunity to marry Rachel.
Now, I won’t rehearse the whole story but if you think soap operas have the corner on uncomfortable family dynamics – you need only read the story of Jacob’s time working for his father-in-law to realize that families can be tough, painful, bizarre, and unkind places.
Even here is a spark of hope, for all of our families of origins are different – but we see that God can use people from all sorts of backgrounds, and who carry with them the burdens of all sorts of harm done to them, and sin performed by them. There is, my friends, in Christ, always hope and there is no darkness that is too dark to be penetrated by His light.
Now, as we get closer to the scene that unfolds before us this morning, Jacob is on the run from his father-in-law whom he swindled and running right towards his brother whom he also swindled.
He sends a messenger before him telling his brother that he is coming and he is very rich. The response of his brother is not entirely surprising. He comes to meet him, not with love but with four hundred men, it can only be assumed that Esau is ready to fight.
This rightly terrifies Jacob and he prays and schemes. It is often in the shadow of adversity that we are fully humbled, and brought to our knees. It is here that Jacob finally prays and pleads with God. It is noted that His prayer is the longest recorded prayer in the book of Genesis. In his scheming he also sends his brother lavish gifts in hopes to calm Esau’s anger.
This is where we meet Jacob, preparing to enter into the promise land – darkness metaphorically and literally bearing down upon him, he is filled with fear having plead with God and attempted to buy off his brother’s rage.
Jacob does something peculiar – he sends his wives and children, along with all that he has in front of him across Jabbok. What Jacob has done is both condemnable and commendable.
Have you noticed that with so many of the stories about the patriarchs? Rarely are their actions simply black or white, often they are some form of gray.
What Jacob does is the antithesis of biblical manhood. St. Paul makes it clear, particularly in Ephesians, that husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives, as Christ laid his life for the church. Men, when hard times come – when terror and fear lie before us, it is our time to step up and walk towards the danger – spiritual or physical. Not because we have super human strength but because we are clinging to Christ – it is in this that we learn that Christ’s protection is sufficient.
This is a hard thing of course, and we know that as Jacob is trembling and fearful, so are we when we face those times of uncertainty. But it is through resting in Christ that we are delivered – spiritually or physically from the dangers that lie before us.
So the call of not only men but all Christian people is to place their trust in the Lord, to step out in faith, and walk towards what lies before us, trusting in Him alone.
But remember Jacob also does something commendable – the temptation has always existed to trust in our stuff, to trust in all the worldly things that we are given. I do not think that Jacob thought “I best not trust in my wives, and maidservants, and animals, I will send them away,” but in his fear he is about to be drawn into a deeper relationship with God – by eschewing his possession, he allows himself to see that nothing but God can bring him through the darkness.
And in all this – Jacob is alone.
We live in a time and a place where being alone – truly alone is difficult. When we go for hikes in the woods, our cellphones can still buzz and distract us – at coffee with a friend we get texts and notifications and phone calls to disturb our peace, no matter where we go we are inundated with distractions – yet studies say – we are in the loneliest time.
I count myself as blessed and rich for the friendships the Lord has given me. I have a few friends with whom I can cry – with whom I can sit quietly in their car while we go for a drive – who are the anti-thesis of Job’s friends – who do not try to fix me, but allow me to sit on my ash heap while I lament a hard season. And in the joyful seasons we laugh and rejoice together.
My friends – if you have a friend like this – you are rich and blessed – they are a rare gift – cultivate that friendship and love that person well. If you do not have a friend like that – I would encourage you to foster one.
As Christians we are challenged to love each other well. We are challenged to bear one another’s burdens and this is a difficult task. Again, I have found both with myself and having ministered to many fine men – that this tends to be far more difficult for men than for women. After all – we are strong, independent men – we do not need to share that our heart has been broken, we do not need to share that we are struggling – emotionally, spiritually, or physically.
But my friends – this is so wrong – this is perhaps the worst lie that culture has told us. Cultivate – true intimate Christian friendships, do not be too proud to share you struggles with your closest brother or sister in Christ – and allow the Lord to bless you through this.
But I digress – we were after all talking about Jacob’s aloneness, not his bountiful friendships. Even in having beautiful friendships – when times are hard – it is in the quietude of evenings by one’s self – that we find ourselves wrestling with God. Even in the wealth of the friends that I have, there have been nights where everything seemed too quiet and lonely – and these times are when we can lean more deeply and more richly upon God.
One of the paradoxes of the church is that Christ is redeeming for himself a wife – a body. Salvation is a corporate process but Christ is also redeeming each of us individually. There is an element of personal salvation.
The evangelical world’s emphasis on personal salvation has been both a gift and a curse – a curse because it forgets the need for a corporate salvation, salvation of the whole body of believers – but a gift because it reminds all of us that we need to lean all the more deeply upon Christ, need to come to know Him personally – in our hearts and minds – that we need to allow Him to form us in totality.
In our lesson – Jacob is about to learn this – but first he wrestles with an unknown man. We will learn eventually, that this man is God – but for now, he is simply a man that comes in the darkness.
Perhaps – in our age of media the drama of this scene is lost – so close your eyes and picture for a moment – a stream is running by – it is the depths of the dark of night – you know behind you is your angry father-in-law and in front of you lies your angry brother, the danger that surrounds you is not just in your mind, but it is very real. As the water ripples by you hear footsteps approaching (crunch, crunch, cruch) and a shadow of a man comes looming towards you. No words are said but he grabs you and tries to throw you to the ground and you fight back.
For those who heard this story thousands of years ago – the drama would have been undeniable – and we need to feel the tension of what is building here.
We can read this metaphorically as well – too often we tend to want to wrestle with God. Many of us wrestled with God before we came to place our trust in Christ – bucking against the beckoning of his call, and preferring our will to his. Many priests and pastors I know – ran like Jonah in the opposite direction of God’s calling – before he made it impossible for them to run anymore. When we sin – so often we find the most ridiculous justification to continue in our sin – yet God dogs us, calling us to repentance again, and again, and again. The list can go on and on – but I suspect that if we have taken our walk with God even remotely seriously – we have all wrestled with him on the bank of a Jabbok, as he calls for us to trust in Him and not ourselves.
As dawn arises the mysterious man having not prevailed, touches Jacob in the hip – like so many things – we lose a little bit in our translation. It is more likely that the man whacks Jacob’s hip than gently touches him and in this his hip goes out of join.
Here again – if we take a minute and picture this in our minds we can see the drama continue to unfold. Strong, resilient Jacob has been hit in the hip and he staggers and stumbles for the first time – after hours of wrestling. Perhaps he’s brought to his knees, or he grasps the man so he doesn’t collapse in upon himself. Yet, even here Jacob does not relent – he does not give up he clings.
We are never given the reason why the man does not wish to be seen in the light of day. If it strikes us as odd – we are not alone – it is baffling to many commentators. It seems likely the man does not wish to be completely seen – for although Jacob will claim to have seen him face to face, in the dawn of the day – it is likely he did not see him clearly. Much as we now see reality through mirrors dimly – but one day we will see clearly.
Even still – Jacob will not let him go and cries out that he will persist until the man has blessed him. It is still four verses until Jacob pronounces that he has seen God – but by now it seems that he is figuring out that he is not wrestling with a mere man – but something more.
Here again – we can read this metaphorically – when God finally has hold of us – has finally brought us to our knees and we forsake our pride – don’t let go, but cling – cling as tightly as you can until he has also blessed us.
Then reside peacefully in Him.
The man asks Jacob what his name is – and then tells him that his name is no longer Jacob but Israel for he has striven with God and man and prevailed.
Theologians have wrestled with exactly how we should understand the word Israel – and one commentary puts this particularly well and writes:
Is God striving for Jacob or against him? The answer appears to be, both. In this narrative God strives against Jacob when he attacks him in the dark and cripples him. God knocks the self-sufficiency out of Jacob. But, according to God’s promise at Bethel, God also strives for Jacob, never forsaking him. God certainly strives for Jacob when he softens Esau’s heart so that the brothers reconcile and when God gives the land to Jacob/Israel. In any event, the narrator explains that Jacob received the name Israel, “for you have striven with God.”
Here is the key – God strives for his people and wants us to know His love, wants all people to come to know Him – but at the same time – he will wrestle with his children in the dark nights of their souls – he will make them no longer self-sufficient but completely dependent upon Him.
As we think about this story – we can’t help think about St. Paul – who was also a strong, self-reliant man – if the way to heaven was through works – Paul would have been there long before he met Christ. If works brought us to God then he certainly didn’t need God to get there.
Yet on a road – Christ met him, knocked him down, and blinded him. Christ changed his name from Saul to Paul – and gave him an impediment that he would have until his death to remind him of his need for Christ, to remind him that Christ’s grace – not Paul’s strength – was sufficient.
There are two things to be gleaned here – first when we finally come before God – we probably will not be given a new name like Jacob, Peter, or Paul – but in a very real sense we are given new titles.
I love how CS Lewis refers to the children in the Chronicles of Narnia – they are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. The New Testament takes a harsher tone and calls those who do not know Christ sons of darkness. But when we place our trust in Christ – our title is changes from Daughter of Eve or Son of Darkness, to Sons and Daughters of God.
Think about that for a moment – when you learn to trust in Christ – when you find your salvation in Him and Him alone – you are given a new title – daughter of God – son of God. You have been adopted and can now come before the throne of grace – not in your might – but as a beloved child.
Wrestle no more, but rest in Him.
Next – to name something is a powerful thing, it requires a certain authority – I do not have the authority to walk up to you and say – you will no longer be called your name, but I’ll call you Mr. Fluffy Bunny.
I could, but you’ll look at me like I’m crazy.
We allow our dearest friends to give us nicknames – but it is not until they are close that we allow for this to happen. But, this strange man does just that. It is because God has the authority to name us – and so, God can give Jacob the new name Israel, and call Simon Peter, and Saul Paul. In the renaming we are starting to see who this really is.
Jacob then asks the man for his name – but the man refuses – many Christian theologians have noted that all of humanity longs to know God, and we wrestle with our brokenness until we learn to rest in Him. St. Augustine famously said – that our hearts are restless until they rest in thee O Lord. By now, it seems that Jacob probably knows who he has been wrestling with. By now, he knows that he is at the mercy of not a mere man – but of God.
And now God blesses him. There is a beauty here – we do not know what the blessing is – simply that he blesses him. In hearing words and feeling the laying on of hands – especially from people who are important to us we find comfort and strength.
Friends – take heed – we can be a blessing to our spouses, to our children, to our parents, and to our friends – but it takes effort. Husbands – give your wives hugs – tell them they are beautiful and mean it, compliment them when you know they’ve gone out of the way to do something kind to you and encourage them in their struggles.
Wives, do the same, for too many marriages are plagued with silence and lack of affection – break this mold and love well.
Parents, hug your children even if they are adults, tell them you are proud of them, bring them to their Lord and show them His beauty.
Friends – encourage one another and walk with each other, do not be ashamed to give each other hugs, and see each other cry and laugh through the good and the bad.
Do you all know how richly blessed we are to know Christ? Do you all know how rich we are to have Him in our lives? If we are so richly blessed – then let us bless the each other likewise.
Finally, Jacob acknowledges that the night has not been spent wrestling with some man – but with God himself. Much ink has been spilled on what this means – was it Christ that came and wrestled with Jacob? Was something else going on here? It is hard to say – but we do need to acknowledge the amazement and the grace that happens. For here Jacob saw God and did not die.
This is given to us as well – we are invited to see God through Christ – and on the last day we will dwell in His glory forever. As it stands our sin precludes us from truly enjoying God’s glory. It is too much for us. But we look forward to that day when we can.
So the story ends – humbled and hurt – Jacob crosses over to meet his brother. He has no promise that all shall be well, but he knows that God has striven with and for him, and so he trusts that God’s sovereignty is enough.
Again – we cannot help but think of St. Paul who was given a thorn in the flesh to remind him that Christ’s grace is sufficient. Likewise Israel is given a limp – an ache to know that he must not lean on his own understanding and strength and power but lean fully upon God. The text tells us that so profound was the effect of this – that to remember this – to this day the people of Israel will not eat the sinew of the thigh.
Friends – we must remember what God has done for us, we must rest in that – day in and day out. We may not have a limp, our eyes may not be weak, but there may be areas that God has allowed us to struggle – so that we can remember that it is in Him alone that we find our peace and it is in Christ alone that we find our salvation.
Because we will jump ahead again next week – I want to briefly tell you the end of the story – Jacob meets his brother Esau and instead of wrestling, Esau embraces him, accepts his gifts, and peace between the brothers is restored. They do not stick together, but part ways, but there is restoration none-the-less.
In life we will face many challenges – we can rise up against them, we can become self-reliant, self-made men and women or we can become completely reliant upon God, trusting him to bring us through the darkest of nights, into the day light. If we are facing adversity – we do not know what the out come will be, but we do know that God is with us, and we can persevere. We do know that in that adversity that we will learn and grow to cling to Christ all the more.
So, let us be men and women who are completely reliant upon Christ, who find our strength in Him, who learn to see him face to face and delight in all that he is and all that he has done for us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.