Sunday, September 22, 2019

God Creates Family: Wrestling With God

Have you ever seen a wrestling match in person? Now, I’m not talking about professional wrestling - although, I'll be honest, I’ve seen a few of those matches. I’m talking about real wrestling. Where you have two men (or women) in close - really close - proximity to each other. Using grappling-style techniques like clinch fighting, throws and takedowns, pins and other holds to gain points. It’s a combat sport where there is little to separate you from your opponent. One of the oldest forms of combat - there are drawings from 15,000 years ago that portray wrestling matches.

I first really became aware of wrestling in 1988. That was the year of the Olympics in Seoul, Korea. It just so happened that there were two sets of twins wrestling that year - two sets of twins from South Dakota. (That’s was a big chunk of SD’s population then! haha) One of the sets of twins - Jim and Bill Scherr - was from Mobridge, the town where I went to high school. So, naturally, my interest was really piqued and I followed them throughout the competition. 

It takes incredible strength to be a wrestler. Strength, flexibility, and just overall scrappiness to be a good wrestler. But, it’s not just about the physical. Wrestling is really a mind game. Developing strategies, psyching out your opponent, pacing oneself. Being a wrestler and participating in a wrestling match is a full mind and body contact sport.

It's this sport - wrestling - that is central to our story today. A wrestling match between Jacob and God. Between Jacob and, well maybe, God. 

A lot has happened since last week’s story. Who remembers who we were talking about last week? Yes, Sarah and Abraham. And, near the end of the story, we met Isaac, the son born to them at ages 90 and 100, respectively. The beginning of their family. The beginning of God’s family, of God’s special people.

Since then to today, we’ve jumped 10-12 chapters in Genesis. In the time between, we’ve seen Isaac married. To Rebekah. Rebekah, like Sarah, was painfully barren until her later years, when God blessed her and Isaac with a child. Well, actually, two children. Sons. Twins. Esau, the first born. And Jacob, second born. They came out of her womb with Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel. It’s why Jacob was named Jacob. His name means “heel.” 

Jacob was a heel. A trickster. A deceiver. Stealing Esau’s inheritance, something that Esau would have been entitled to as the oldest. Yet, tricked out of it by his younger brother. Then, in chapter 27, Esau is tricked once again. This time, Jacob, with his mother’s help, deceives Isaac into giving him his spiritual blessing. This deception was the last straw for Esau. He swore to kill Jacob. It was only with Rebekah’s help that Jacob was able to flee - to run away to the east to stay with his uncle, Laban. It is here where the trickster is himself deceived. In this new land, Jacob meets Rachel, falls in love, and is tricked by her father, Jacob’s uncle Laban, into marrying her older sister, Leah, before he can marry the woman of his dreams. The trickster tricks the trickster. 

As the years pass, Jacob’s household grows and grows. God has continued to bless him with children and with wealth. By the time our story opens today, Jacob is a rich man and has 66 children. Sixty-six! He has convinced Leah and Rachel that it is time to return to Jacob’s homeland. Which they do.

But, the closer they get, the more anxious Jacob becomes. He knows that, when he left, his relationship with Esau was completely broken. He is fearful that time hasn’t healed the wounds between them. That, if he returns, Esau will kill him. Jacob is worried. In the verses before our reading today, we learn that Jacob has sent messengers to go Esau, to tell him that Jacob has been staying with Laban and that he is now returning with much wealth. It is this wealth that Jacob hopes will impress Esau, erase the hard feelings, and buy his good favor. Because Jacob is convinced that Esau is bent on revenge. Jacob’s fear is real and reasonable.

It is here where our reading today begins. With a prayer. Spoken by Jacob in his fear and anxiety.

Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’”

Jacob spent that night there. From what he had acquired, he set aside a gift for his brother Esau.  --Genesis 32:9-13 (CEB)

Have you ever prayed a prayer like this? Where you’ve done what God has told you to do or gone where God has directed you to go and you are terrified about what will happen. And you pray to God. And you say, “Remember, God? You were the one who told me to do this. You were the one who said it would go well for me.  But, it doesn’t feel like that - that everything will be okay. In truth, it feels like everything will fall apart. And that, in some way, I will be badly hurt by this, by following where you have led me.” 

Have you ever prayed like this? Afraid. Fearful of being badly hurt.

Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”  --Genesis 32:22-30 (CEB)

As Jacob is all alone on the other side of the river, the wrestling match begins. His opponent know his tenacity. His ability to trick and to deceive. This Jacob the Heel. As the dawn approaches, Jacob’s opponent becomes concerned. Is it that he doesn’t want Jacob to see his face? Remember the words from Exodus 33 - “No one who has seen God face to face has lived?” Jacob’s opponent wants his freedom. But Jacob holds on and will not let him go. Demanding that his wrestling opponent bless him. Maybe if he can just hold on long enough, he can get it. That blessing. 

Finally, Jacob’s opponent declares that he will now have a new name. Israel. Meaning “one who struggles with God.” And, although this mysterious stranger refuses to tell Jacob his name, he blesses him. It is then that Jacob names this place, Peniel. Which means “face of God.” And we now know who this wrestler is. God. Jacob has been wrestling God. The God of his ancestors. 

Do you wrestle with God? With the God of Jacob’s ancestors? With the God of our ancestors? It is not easy - this life in God’s kingdom. Just as Jacob wrestled with God, we do, too. Perhaps it is with fear, like Jacob’s, that you wrestle with God. Seeking - no, demanding - God’s blessing. God’s assurance that everything will be okay. That everything will go well. Or perhaps it is with stubbornness. That you struggle with God's will for you or your will for yourself. Or perhaps it is with doubt, that you wrestle with God. Seeking that small blessing of faith that seems to elude us at times. 

Do you wrestle with God?

Jacob was forever changed that night as he wrestled with God. It wasn’t only his name that changed. He, himself, was changed. Wounded in the struggle. Walking from that point on with a limp. Perhaps it was that wound that was a reminder for him of God’s presence. Of God’s blessing. Of God’s love and faithfulness that night. Just as the wounds on the hands and feet of Christ are a reminder for us of God’s presence. Of God’s blessing. Of God’s love.

We are all walking wounded. Whether it is because of messes we have created, relationships we have fractured. Or wounds that have been inflicted upon us. We, like Jacob, all walk wounded. Yet, may we remember that as we, in our tenacity and in our faith, continue to cling to and, yes, to wrestle with God, we, too, like Jacob, have received God’s blessing. We, too, like Jacob, live. Wounded, but alive in Christ. And we, too, like Jacob, will see God face to face. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 22, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 15
Readings: Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30; Mark 14:32-36

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