Good morning! It’s great to be with you this morning. I want to extend a warm welcome to all our visitors this morning. With the men’s retreat this weekend, our congregation looks a bit different than usual! This is my first time preaching for the church I am very honored to be here. I’ve been attending Bethany for 3 years and on staff for 1, and secretly have been looking forward to this day the entire time. I graduated from Seattle Pacific University in June with a theology degree and it has been a great joy to take the theology that I learned in the classroom and put it into practice in the church. I was given the option of choosing today’s passage, and so I went to one of my favorite places- the narratives of the Old Testament.
Today’s passage is from Genesis 32. Before we read it, it is important to know the context of this passage. As my theology professors would tell me, “taking the text out of context is a pretext for its misuse as a proof text.” Before this important scene, Jacob is on his way to meet his long estranged brother, Esau. Remember? The brother that he cheated out of the all-important birthright? If you think your family has problems, know that the biblical families are right along side you! Jacob is on his way with his family and his massive estate, but he is terrified of Esau. For the first time recorded in Genesis, Jacob prays fervently aloud to Yahweh to save him. He sends ahead messengers and hundreds of animals as gifts to Esau and spends the night at the camp. If you’re able, please turn to page 28 and stand as I read Genesis 32:22-32.
The same night he 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 Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
The word of the Lord (thanks be to God). What a story! What a confusing story! Who is Jacob wrestling with here? Is it a man? Is it an angel? Is it God? A “plain sense” reading of the text here does us no good. We must dig a bit deeper. This is what excites me most about the Bible- it does not exist on its own. It does not make sense on its own. The Bible invites us to have a seat at the table, so to speak. It invokes our participation and interpretation. We are charged with the important, the dangerous task of interpreting scripture for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, as Paul writes in 2nd Timothy 3. It is a daunting task to interpret scripture for the life of the church. What if we disagree with someone about how it should be interpreted? What if we get it wrong? How can we know?
We must trust that the Holy Spirit is with us today as we make sense of this text. I may not have all the answers, but along with the rabbis, priests, and reformers who came before me, I am here to offer an interpretation today. Maybe people disagree with whom exactly Jacob wrestled with, and every interpretation results with vastly different meanings.
The text says that Jacob wrestled with “a man” and yet later he is blessed because “he struggled with God.” Is it a man or is it God? Could it be both? I think the text is purposefully ambiguous here to make us wonder just as Jacob wondered. Jacob seems as confused as the readers as to who he is dealing with here. He demands to know the man’s name, but gets no answer. All he knows is that he has seen the face of God.
This summer was particularly difficult for to follow a God I can’t see as I saw the world around us seemingly fall apart. As bombs fell on Palestinian civilians, west Africans died from Ebola, black teenagers were shot by white policemen, and Arab Christians were killed for their faith, I have to confess that it has been very difficult to see God in all of this. God seemed far away and unengaged and I honestly didn’t want to do the hard work of looking for God. My heart hurt too much for the world to pray much more than, “Lord Jesus, help us.” I felt like all I could do was grasp on to the wisps of truth that I knew about God.
But Jacob’s story reminds me that is not what God desires. Jacob’s name meant “he grasps the heel” because that’s how he entered the world—grabbing onto his twin brother’s heel. The name evokes the meaning ‘the deceiver,’ a name he lived up to with his interactions with his brother and father-in-law. But this nighttime wrestling match with the mysterious man changes him in many ways. After a long, exhausting night of wrestling, Jacob receives a new name—Israel, which means, “he strives with God.” Jacob’s name originally was all about him—it was a one-side and deceptive description of his character. But his new name is instead about a relationship with God. Jacob changes from someone grasping onto lies, truth, or whatever he can get his hands on, to a man who wrestles with God at the most difficult time in his life.
This encounter, this name change, changes Israel’s relationship with God forever. Because God shows God’s self not to be a distant God that humans must be failing to grasp for, but a God who meets us in the mess of life. This is a God who comes to us in the darkness, in our weakness, and in our struggles and struggles with us. As we read in our New Testament text this morning, Isaiah’s prophecy that the virgin will give birth to a son and name him Immanuel was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. With a name that means “God with us” it is easy to assume that this is a new thing. It is easy to believe that Jesus on Earth means the beginning of God’s personal, intimate interactions with us.
But Jacob reminds us that this is not something new. No, God has been with us since the very beginning when God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve and God was with us when God wrestled with Jacob in the middle of the night.
God invites us to step into the mess, into the darkness, and into our doubt and meet God there. Despite our misconceptions of darkness being a symbol of God’s absence, God shows up in the darkness as well. Jacob could have avoided this nighttime encounter, this life changing wrestling match, but his life was too broken to walk away. The word for “wrestle” is only found here in Genesis 32, but it is meant to evoke the Hebrew word for “dust.” The imagery we are presented with is a dusty, dirty interaction that is full of both struggle and tender embrace. God meets Jacob in the wilderness, and in doing so, gets dusty. This dust that humans were made from, this dust that makes us unclean, this dust we find in the wilderness, is the dust that God gets covered in so we can be blessed.
When our world and our country are falling apart, we no longer have the option of having a faith that turns a blind eye to suffering and simply say, “I believe.” No, the problems of this world are vast and it demands that we wrestle with God for the answers that we long for. We must wrestle with God as try to have tender hearts for the suffering of our brothers and sisters, but without collapsing under the weight of the world. The wrestling is messy and painful. Wrestling with God is not easy—it requires great sacrifice and doesn’t leave us unscathed. As morning came, Jacob was not the same person. He had a new name, a new identity, and a new limp. Jacob was physically marked by this night.
Indeed, meeting with God in the messiness of life is costly. It costs us our imaginary sense of security, it costs us the Sunday-school answers we’ve been comfortable with; it costs us an unbroken heart that hasn’t engaged with the suffering with others. To wrestle with God means that you will not leave the same person you started as. To me, that is as terrifying as anything else. I’m comfortable where I’m at and the idea of really wrestling with God, opening my heart up to pain, my life to discomfort, is terrifying.
But even more terrifying is the idea of not doing so. What would Jacob’s life have been if he had let go? What would have happened if he had quit when it got difficult or when the man hurt his hip beyond repair? Would there be an Israel? Would he have ever got his blessing? It is after this nighttime wrestling match that Jacob faces his fears—he meets his brother Esau. Instead of hurting him or getting justice for all the wrong Jacob has done, Esau runs to him and embraces with a massive hug and slobbery kiss. Like an Old Testament Prodigal Son, Jacob sees the face of God in the extravagant, scandalous love of his family.
What about us? What will happen if we don’t engage? What blessings will we miss, what justice will we fail to enact? What love will we never get to receive? As it is with Jacob, we often see the face of God through the love of others.
The Christian life is not an easy one, although we may wish it to be. Wrestling with our faith, with our doubts, and with our fears is no easy task. And yet, God is willing to meet us there. God with us, is right there in the mess. It seems like the last place on Earth you would imagine a great and perfect God, and yet it is where God meets us. Are you willing to meet God there?