22 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. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 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. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[b] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
It’s time, I think, for a change of pace.
For the past several months, I have been doing a lot of preaching primarily on the New Testament. In fact, I looked back, and the last time I preached on the Old Testament was in March, when I preached on Isaiah. Wesley once said that he was a “man of one book,” meaning that the New Testament and Old Testament ought not be separated but bound together as one, cohesive story of God and God’s people.
So I’m taking this time to shift gears, and for the next eight weeks, I’m going to be preaching on passages from Genesis and Exodus. I’ll be following the lectionary passages, and what’s interesting is that when I took the time to examine them all, a theme began emerging: a theme of liberation. Being set free is one of the most consistent actions in the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, and God’s continued work in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus set us free from sin, completing the mission God set out to do with his people Israel. But the work started a long time ago. So I want to explore how God set people free in the earliest history of his people, and how we might encounter God’s liberating presence in our own lives. For the next eight weeks, I’ll be starting a sermon series called “Set Free: God’s Liberation of Israel” and see the liberating work of God from the very beginning, and find ourselves in the midst of new liberation every day.
So to start, let’s go to a story that is probably one of my favorite Old Testament stories, because it is so formative for the history of the Jewish people, but also my own faith: Jacob wrestling with God.
That this story is so important to the Jewish people is no secret. Jacob did eventually get a new name from God, that name being Israel–a name with many translations, but ultimately comes back to this event, a name which means “he who struggles with God.” Other translations it’s “God’s triumph” or “is triumphant with God”. It’s a weird name for a person, and an even weirder name for an entire people, but it’s the name they revere and keep to this day. That means that this event, right here, is the birth of Israel in a way. And Israel’s story is not only a story of struggle, but of liberation. It’s from this initial struggle that a nation, a history, and faith is born.
Jacob’s Long Winding Road
To arrive at this legendary wrestling match, you need to know how Jacob got to this point. Rather, how Jacob hit rock bottom.
Jacob’s whole life is defined by his craftiness and his nature as a trickster. He was named Jacob because that translates to “He who replaces” or “He who supplants” because as he was being born, he was grabbing his twin brother by the ankles. He grew up, and tricked his brother Esau many times, once by getting Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup, and another by getting his father Isaac’s blessing by impersonating Esau. So to start out life with such an antagonistic streak in order to gain personal wealth and power is an audacious way to be.
But it doesn’t stop there. From here, he runs away from Esau’s wrath and lives with his uncle Laban. With Laban, he has an able teacher in the ways of craft. Their story is of constant loving one-upmanship. Jacob tricks Laban into giving him more livestock than Laban intended. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah before he can marry Rachel. On and on, they’re constantly trying to out-trick each other, making each other smarter. Until one day, that is, when Jacob can’t out-trick his way out of a situation, which brings us to the wrestling match with God.
See, Jacob got word that his brother Esau was on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men, and quite frankly, that’s a pretty dangerous situation. Jacob knows he’s in a tight spot.
His past ways finally caught up to him. He did have a plan to get out of dying…but that meant that he would have to lose a lot of his wealth that he had worked so hard to attain. He sent ahead of him 3 waves of people bearing his livestock and riches to meet his brother, and when they did meet him, they would give his belongings to his brother as a gift. To live meant to lose all he had gained by trickery and deceit.
See, that’s the trouble with investing everything into being a trickster. By all means, being a trickster has advantages. When your opponent outclasses you in strength and power, you have to rely on your mind to get you out of trouble. That the Jewish faith reveres Jacob and his trickster ways can tell you a lot about their mindset. Outsiders love a good trickster story. Outcasts. Smaller countries in the midst of larger, powerful nations. Owing your status based on the power of your mind can be a powerful history to draw on, and a guide for future action. There are far worse people you could base your history on than a trickster. Though he was devious, he still was history for a whole people, a forefather to trace your life to.
As anyone can tell you, being a trickster has disadvantages too. In your own life, it can cost you relationships. It can cost you credibility. In Jacob’s case, it might even cost you your life. It begs the question: what is your life worth? Is it your possessions that matter? Or is it the possibility of a future? Would you be able to say you would start from zero if it meant you could live another day, possibly in peace with someone you wronged?
A Blessed Struggle
Before the day on which he was to meet his brother, Jacob has this dream that I read to you, in which he wrestles with a mysterious man, who turns out to be God.
Jacob struggles with the mystery wrestler until dawn, and then the mystery man wounds Jacob to where he could not fight anymore. Holding on for dear life, Jacob then demands that he would not let go until he received a blessing. An odd request, but this is the kind of thing that Jacob has done his entire life. He received many intangible blessings in his life: his birthright, his inheritance, and many other things. A blessing means many things, but in this case, it is the spoils of victory. Jacob wants something in return for his long fighting match with the mystery man. The mystery man, of course, acquiesces, and grants him of all things, a new name–a very God thing to do. That name, Israel, which I discussed earlier, is the turning point for Jacob’s whole life. It’s a transformation, from scoundrel to full humanity. Jacob was defined by his desire to supplant and gain. Israel, now, is defined by struggle, yes, conflict, but also triumph. Victory is his name, and so will be his future, but only after much conflict.
Jacob, the following day, meets with Esau and is surprisingly not attacked, but embraced. Moved by Jacob’s gesture of goodwill and giving, something Jacob had never done for Esau, he embraced him as a brother, reunited in love.
Jacob, in the end, not only retained his hard-fought wealth, but gained something as intangible as a name: he gained a true brother. That chapter of his life is no more. balance. Everything being in order, nothing out of balance, he then goes on to have more blessed life with his neighbors.
Israel would never forget this story, nor it’s mark on his life. After all, the struggle left him with a limp for the rest of his life.
A limp, like a scar, is a reminder of a story. It’s a lasting wound that never goes away, changes how you approach life. Anyone with some kind of physical impairment can relate to that. If you are hard of hearing, you need a hearing aid, and that requires adjustments to your life. If you have diabetes, it requires you to change your diet and habits. If you have poor eyesight, you need to take care of your glasses and contacts. To live, we always must make adjustments to your life. But what kind of adjustment is required when you have a limp from fighting with God?
I always go back to this story because understanding that Israel, and by proxy we, will always have struggles with God. Struggles with belief, with God’s actions, with sin in this world–all of it will be with us. We won’t have a day without some kind of conflict, until the very end of days. But it is through that conflict, we might find balance, even if we sacrifice a bit of ourselves to find it. Balance requires adjustment, and so to right ourselves with God, we must ask ourselves: what must we adjust in our lives to be in balance, in harmony, with God?
To be a follower of God requires not only faith, but sacrifice of ourselves. It means giving up something about ourselves so that we might be more like God.
We do so treasure our sins. Jacob treasured his ability to trick his way out of danger. But he couldn’t trick Esau anymore, and you can’t trick God when you wrestle with him. He had to sacrifice his safety and get his hands dirty, and actually face his conflicts. There is a time for safety, and there is a time for confronting your problems and dealing with them.
Through this blessed wrestling match, Jacob gained freedom and liberation from the prison of trickery and deceit that he built for himself. Jacob was changed into Israel, he who struggles with God. Who will you become when you encounter God? And what will God free you from? Ponder this, and pray for the freedom that is possible when you wrestle with God. Amen.