Our passage this morning is about a wrestling match. I know this may come as a shock to most of you, but I Am Not a wrestler. Well, if you don’t count wrestling with this passage or wrestling my fear of preaching my first sermon. So I have to confess that I don’t know much about wrestling. Nick, Stephen’s music intern this summer, is a wrestler at his high school. I’ll bet if you sat down to chat with him, which you should do anyway because he’s a nice guy, he could tell you what he loves about wrestling. No doubt some of you were wrestlers in high school or college. Personally, not knowing anything about wrestling, I had to do a little research. It turns out we have a National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and a couple of entries I found there surprised me. Maybe it surprised me as much as this story about Jacob surprised it’s original audience. These two Hall of Fame entries in particular caught my attention:
In the rough and ready style of the frontier, "catch as catch can" wrestling was more hand-to-hand combat than sport. Abraham Lincoln, an awesome physical specimen at 6-feet-4, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one recorded defeat in a dozen years.
Somehow I missed that tidbit of Abraham Lincoln’s story in my school textbooks. And the same is true of the next wrestler.
When he was 18, the big, shy George Washington held a "collar and elbow" wrestling championship that was at least county-wide and perhaps colony-wide. At the age of 47, the Continental Army commander had enough skills left to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers in one day.
Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, before they became two of the most celebrated presidents in American history and made decisions that define our country still today, wrestled their way to becoming the men we know from our history books.
In the same way we are surprised to learn our forefather’s wrestling history, the Israelites may have been surprised by this story of Jacob’s wrestling. As 21st century Americans, seeing more than just archaic stories in Genesis can be a real challenge. I find it helpful to imagine myself In the original audience, hearing it told at night, perhaps by firelight after a long hot day turns to a cold dark night and all of our tribe gather together to warm ourselves and to listen as the Sage weaves a riveting tale. The firelight would flicker on eager faces barely visible across the circle as we all leaned closer to catch every word. “The same night he got up…”, she begins. Ooooh, this was going to be a good one. Jacob was moving into the night, our story was going to be dark. I can almost hear the foreboding tone in the storyteller’s voice as she draws us all in. He is moving his family across the river under cover of the night. But he is left alone. “A man wrestled with him until daybreak.” We all jump at the startling news, glancing over our shoulders into the darkness to make sure the dancing shadows on the ground in front of us are only our own. Can this be Jacob she’s talking about? Jacob the trickster who cunningly strategizes his way to get what he wants and runs away from danger? The same Jacob we last heard weasel his way past his father-in-law with a sob story of 20 long years of unbearably hot days and freezing, cold sleepless nights. But that was just his latest con. Hadn’t he Always tricked his way out of trouble? He had conveniently left to get a wife 20 years ago when his brother threatened to kill him.
We are drawn back from our wandering thoughts by the mesmerizing alliteration of sounds. Jacob by the Jabbok avaks (the word used for wrestles), intones the storyteller. Snap! We’re riveted. This is a fight! Jacob, the runner, the conniver, the domesticated trickster is fighting! A man comes out of the darkness and wrestles him in dirt and grime and mud all night long. Who could it be, we wonder? “Is it Esau, the Hairy, Manly type who was even now marching to meet Jacob with his army of 400 men? Had he also risen up in the night and traveled alone to confront Jacob? Maybe it’s a spirit, a river demon, or Esau’s angel. Pausing long enough to allow the whispering to subside and all eyes turn back to her, the storyteller continues, “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.” Now the popping and crackling of the fire is the only accompaniment to the jaws dropping in amazed disbelief.
“Let-Me-Go, for the day is breaking,” demands the mysterious man. Whispers of triumph move around the circle for those who guessed it was a spirit. But Jacob’s response cuts their celebration short. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” Jacob stubbornly demands. We are puzzled. Where did this strength come from? Is this the same Jacob we heard pleading with God, afraid to face his brother the next day, trying to manipulate God the way he had manipulated Laban?
Abruptly we are called back to the story with the stranger’s demand, “What Is your name?” Ha! That’s what we want to know. Who is This Jacob? “Supplanter, Heel-grabber, Jacob”, he responds obediently, declaring his identity. Without missing a beat the man counters, “You shall no longer be called supplanter, heel-grabber, Jacob, but instead, Israel, “God prevails”, “For you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Now the storyteller’s eyes begin to twinkle in the fading light of the fire, moist with hard-won wisdom. She looks around at all of us as recognition dawns and eyes well with tears. Israel, the name we all bear as our tribal identity. God prevails because Jacob wrestled successfully with God and with his family.
Is this God, Jacob wrestles with? How can that be? How can God wrestle with the Supplanter and be overcome? Or, did God prevail? The lines in the dark are blurred, our imaginations get lost in a dream-like state. What just happened? We were caught up in Jacob’s story just a minute ago, but now we are children of Israel caught up in God’s story. Who is this God?
The storyteller continues, “Please tell me your name,” Jacob asks. It seems the wind has been knocked out of Jacob too. His arrogant demand while feeling sure of his upper hand, has been deflated to a humble request. He is undone in the middle of the fight of his life – when the outcome in his favor seemed a sure thing. “Who Are you?” He seems almost afraid to ask.
“And THERE he blessed him,” the storyteller continues, as if reading our minds. Jacob knew who had grasped him. The proof was in the blessing. “He named the place Peniel declaring, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The story fades, as the sun rises on Jacob, passing this place of seeing God face to face with a limp because he has been touched, changed, wrestled from “Heel Grabbing” Jacob to “God’s prevailing” Israel. Feeling the heaviness of Jacob’s limp, we silently make our way back to our tents. The night will be short and our dreams will be full. Our hopes and pain and fear merged with Jacob and one another for a few short minutes in the story. But it’s unlikely they will ever be completely separate again.
Objectively, we know Jacob was a smart guy. From the stories that preceded this one to the following climax of his meeting with Esau we see that Jacob knows how to get what he had wants. From the beginning of Jacob’s story he was fixed on having God’s blessing and covenant promises. The wrestling story today is leading us into the final great opposition to his blessing and promise – reconciliation with his brother.
After sending messengers to his brother and receiving the report that Esau was marching to meet him with his army, Jacob was desperately afraid. He’d made his plan, sent Esau his first wave of gifts along with a humble message, and now, having done everything he knew to do, terrified to meet his brother face to face, he throws a hail Mary prayer God’s way, sneaks away under cover of darkness and releases his last and most precious possessions.
And this is where God meets him. Is Jacob serious about inheriting the promise? Is Jacob willing to do what it takes to apprehend the blessing he has tricked his way into getting so far? God-meets- him-here, in his darkest hour. With comfort? No, with opposition. What? How does that work?
Jacob had used his physical body at the beginning of his story. He grabbed Esau’s heel to claim God’s promise and blessing. Will he now grab God and not let go? Is he serious enough about God’s blessing and promise to let go of everything he has grasped in order to wrestle with God? The dust will get kicked up. Blood, sweat and tears will pour. He will be wounded and changed forever. To lay hold of what he wants he will have to lay hold of it with his physical self. No more tricks, no more games, no more leaning on the strength of his intelligence. He will be alone, afraid, and vulnerable.
What will it take for him to receive what he has asked for?
Naming and facing himself, his hopes, his weaknesses, his wrong, his past, his future? Naming and facing God, the one from whom he desires promise and blessing? Naming and facing his brother, the bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh that he has wronged and angered? There is no escape and no turning back. To move forward he must limp. There is no more running away. He has to wrestle with God and with his brother and prevail. He has to make things right with God and his brother. The way will be illuminated but not without wrestling in the darkness.
Wrestling in the darkness, vulnerable and afraid does Not sound appealing to me. My flight instinct is much stronger than my fight instinct and honestly, I hate being uncomfortable. In fact, I spend a lot of time and attention on comfort. I will do a lot to avoid discomfort. By and large, this characteristic has served me well. This aversion to discomfort motivated me to become a Christian at a young age. Fear of deserved punishment turned me into a goody-two-shoes. I worked hard to “be perfect as my heavenly Father was perfect,” just as my Sunday school teachers taught and my devotional readings admonished. I wanted All the promises and blessings I found in the Bible. And I succeeded, in being comfortable. I was the annoying kid other parents would measure and admonish their own by. I married a wonderful Christian man and we started a lovely Christian family. We were pillars in our Church community as lay leaders of high standing. And I continued to press God for more. Yes, I had been blessed beyond what I deserved, but there had to be more. Oh yes, there was, but it came from a different direction than I was looking. My personal life began to unravel. I got fired abruptly, via email, from a part-time job I had loved. At the same time, our church community was expanding and changing, demanding more than we give. If this was not uncomfortable enough, we received shocking news that my grandmother, with whom I had always been very close, had died suddenly and unexpectedly overnight, even though she was relatively young and in good health. Two weeks later I went in for my second trimester appointment with my obstetrician to find that there was no longer a fetal heartbeat and an ultrasound revealed a second, smaller fetus, also lifeless. I would need to be scheduled for a DNC as soon as possible.
Was this what seeking God’s blessing and promises looked like? I had lived through hard times with God before, that was not new. But this challenged nearly every identity I possessed. Church leader, Granddaughter, Employee, and Mother – all shattered simultaneously. Who was I anymore? Who was God? Everything I thought I knew about God fell apart in the long months of painful losses. Would there be anything on the other side of this dark place? I didn’t know. The future I had hoped for was gone. The aching was indescribable. I honestly don’t remember much. What I do remember is a presence, a presence I had known from childhood, that held onto me. I didn’t Know anything for certain about God or my future but I held fast to the conviction that God was good. The rest would have to wait for the dawn, if a dawn was to come.
From the darkness, from the ashes of my plans to live into God’s promises and blessing grew a new life and new dreams. Fifteen years later I have two more children and I’m in seminary. How I reconciled to God, conceived a dream I didn’t have before, and moved into a larger promise and blessing than just comfort and getting my desires met is a story too long to tell here. But as I limp into my future it is a brighter one. Of course it’s brighter. You are in it today, here, with me, now.
Today. Today Is the gift, the blessing, the promise we all share. Today is, though, in many ways for us collectively as a church and a nation, the night God wrestles Jacob. We are at unrest with our family, in our homes and churches as well as on our streets, in our cities and across our nation. As we sang together last week, God made us all from one blood and we have mistreated one another. We stand just before the dawn wrestling with God in fear of what the day of confrontation may bring. Will there be reconciliation? We are going to have to get physically engaged. It’s scary. In many ways we’ve planned and started to do what we know how to do to make things right but there is more to come. We don’t see any guarantee that the strife will end well. Violence looms on the horizon. We will have to wrestle. It will have to cease to be a mental exercise. We have to face God.
God is engaging us face to face. We have asked God’s blessing on our lives, our families, our churches and our nation. God is wrestling us to bring it about. We Must Be Changed, to reconcile with our brother. This is How we receive the promise and blessing of God. We Will be uncomfortable. We Will have to engage our weakness and vulnerability. We Will be wounded. This is what it means to walk as Christ on the earth today.
May this prayer to embrace discomfort, to engage our physical selves in the midst of our fear and vulnerability, focus our attention today and in the coming week on how God is wrestling us into action for reconciliation. Let us pray together…
Oh persistent God,
Deliver us from assuming your mercy is gentle.
Pressure us that we may grow more human
Not through the lessening of our struggles
But through an expansion of them that will undamn us and unbury our gifts.
Deepen our hurt
Until we learn to share It
And ourselves openly and our needs honestly
Sharpen our fears
Until we name them
and release the power we have locked in them
and they in us
Accentuate our confusion
Until we shed those grandiose expectations
That divert us from the small, glad gifts
Of the Now and the Here and the We
Expose our shame where it shivers,
Crouched behind the curtains of propriety,
Until we can laugh at last
Through our common frailties and failures
Laugh our way toward becoming whole
From just going through the motions
And wasting everything we have
Which is today,
A chance, A choice, Our creativity, Your call.
Oh persistent God,
Let how much it all matters
Pry us off dead center
So if we are moved inside
Or sighs, Or screams, Or smiles, Or dreams,
They will be real and Us
And who you are, and who our sisters are
And brothers are….. In the discomfort of Christ
we offer this prayer, Amen.