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Wrestling with God

A Homily from Genesis 32:22-31

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Center Congregational Church, Atlanta, GA

August 4, 2002 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible continues the long story of Jacob. In earlier chapters, we have seen how Jacob’s shrewdness allowed him to steal his brother’s inheritance and his father’s blessings. We’ve seen Jacob alone and hiding as his brother Esau sought to kill him. It was at that point that God sought Jacob out, giving him a vision of the work of Heaven on Earth and promising a prosperous future for Jacob.

God was faithful to that promise, and as our story begins Jacob is wealthy and successful. From all appearances, he has everything a person of his time could be expected to want. Wherever Jacob goes, he brings a small city of family, servants and workers, children, tents, and a plethora of camels, cows, sheep, and goats. If ever this man questioned who he was or what his life meant, he only had to step outside the canvas walls of his home and see all of the people who owed their livelihoods to him.

Even that is not enough for Jacob. He earned his name at his birth because he entered the world grasping after the heel of his elder brother. Ever since then, Jacob’s life had been defined by the things he grabbed for and the things he took. It’s not surprising, then, that Jacob was not satisfied, and it’s not surprising that the one thing he wanted was something that he could get only from his brother Esau.

The nature of the thing, though, was surprising. Jacob wanted forgiveness. He wanted to be reconciled to his brother. It turned out that even Jacob’s tremendous affluence could not fill the hole that was left in his life when he tore his brother out of it.

That is a hard lesson for many of us to learn. On the surface it seems like the people we love are the ones who can truly make us miserable, and the things we can control are the things that make us happy. As logical as that might seem, the reality is that fulfillment and prosperity are not the same things. We can have every thing and still have nothing without the people who give meaning to our lives.

So Jacob sets out to seek reconciliation with his brother – and he is afraid. His brother had threatened to kill him, and Jacob took the threat seriously. Even without the possibility of murder in the equation, Jacob had good cause to be afraid. Vulnerability is a necessary part of reconciliation. By seeking his brother’s forgiveness, Jacob had to face the darkest side of his own clever nature. When the chips were down, Jacob’s quick wit could turn into deceit and manipulation, and facing his brother meant facing the truth about who he could be.

It also meant the possibility of rejection. In asking for Esau’s forgiveness, Jacob was about to give Esau the power to wound him – to declare him unworthy.

Yet still Jacob decides to go through with it. The end result of healing the relationship he broke is worth more to him than the pain (and potentially even agony) of the process. Nevertheless, Jacob’s fear lends him caution, and he sends an extravagant gift – broken into stages – ahead of him. His hope is that the waves of generosity he sends his brother’s way will batter down his brother’s anger – and that when he finally arrives his brother will welcome him.

He says, in fact, that he hopes to see his brother’s face. Doing so is his one goal for his long journey.

Our text finds him at a pivotal point in that sojourn. All of his workers have been divided into two camps and sent away – in the hopes that if Esau finds one camp and destroys it he will think that he killed Jacob’s entire family. The many gifts of animals and their handlers have been sent on ahead; and Jacob’s wives and children have already gone ahead of him as well.

Jacob is something that was very rare for a person of his means. He is alone. He is in that dark space on this side of hope, where he wants to believe his next few steps will take him to a better place, but deep in his gut he believes they might actually lead to his death. On the other side of the river Yabbok waits his brother and his future.

It is there, in the dark of night, alone and afraid, taking the first tentative steps toward healing, that Jacob meets God – and God attacks him.

As Jacob steps into the river, a stranger, a human man, begins to grapple with Jacob. I should point out that scholars go to great lengths to point out that this instance, and the testosterone-laden, masculine imagery of this text, are not arguments to think of God as a man. In this case, Holy God who transcends gender has taken the form of a man. For those of you who are uncomfortable with such a male God; think of it as a poorly fitting suit that She put on for the evening.

So there Jacob is, assaulted by God. As if things weren’t already bad enough. For once, Jacob is on the right path. Did God attack him when he lied to his father? Did God attack him when he cajoled his hungry brother into trading an inheritance for a bowl of soup? Did God attack Jacob as he ran and hid from justice? No!

Yet Jacob finally does something genuinely positive and without deception – and before he can even face his brother he must do battle with God.

Why? I don’t know. It has always seemed to me that the Bible is better at telling us how things are rather than why they are that way. This would certainly seem to be one of those stories. Whether or not it makes sense, it seems to be true.

The smoker who finally tries to kick the habit only to lose their job or wreck their car or find their life falling apart in a million ways can relate to Jacob. The liar who finally starts telling people the truth only to find that their friends like them less when they do can relate to Jacob. Any of us who’ve turned around and tried to swim upstream against our own weaknesses can relate to Jacob.

But it is at those very times we expect God to strengthen us, to comfort us, to support us. When we sense God’s hand in our lives, we expect it to lift us up – not try to fling us to the ground. There is strong, strong biblical evidence for that expectation. God is a God of hope, and we can count on God to be our strength when we have none.

In this moment, however, apparently strength is not what Jacob needed from God. Instead, God gave him the chance to find the limits of his own strength. Throughout the night the wrestled, and with his lungs gasping for every breath and his muscles trembling with strain – Jacob learned that the road to reconciliation – the path laid out for him years ago by God – is slick with sweat and very dangerous.

Two very important things happen in that battle. Jacob does not let go. And neither does God. As the sun begins to peak over the horizon, God realizes that Jacob’s grip is not going to slacken. The text says, “[God] was not going to win.” And so God delivered a crippling blow to Jacob.

The Hebrew text says euphemistically that the blow was to Jacob’s thigh. We know from reading other stories from that time and region that it was not in his thigh, but somewhere much more intimate but in that general region that Jacob was wounded. Jacob was hammered in the groin by God.

For some of us, that describes how we’ve felt at the end of a really bad day. Whether we viewed the church, our jobs, are families, or even ourselves as God’s instrument; painfully crippled by God’s hand isn’t a half-bad description.

Yet Jacob still hung on. Presumably through clenched teeth and perhaps an octave or two higher than usual Jacob says, “I will not let you go…” That’s why this is a sermon for church and not for the street corner. It is not for people who have given up on God, but for people who – even after being wounded and perhaps even blaming God – still believe that God might have something to offer them. Like Jacob, believers are people who – even injured – hang on to the promise of God.

Why God wanted to go is one of the many mysteries of this text. Some commentators [e.g. New Interpreter’s] have pointed out that we are told elsewhere that for a human to see the face of God will kill them [Ex 33:20]. God’s request is actually an act of mercy to Jacob. Far from trying to escape Jacob’s strength, God is trying to save Jacob’s life.

Lacking a better explanation, and knowing what we do about God’s mercy, this seems a plausible explanation. It even makes the wound a bit more understandable. If hitting Jacob where it hurts might save Jacob’s life, it’s worth the risk. Of course, that doesn’t explain why an omnipotent God would choose this path at all – or why any number of wounding experiences which serve no positive purpose could be justifiable.

Perhaps some of the answer there is in God’s mortality at this one moment. We know God is mortal because Jacob can hold God. If God were to manifest all of the divine power of Heaven, Jacob wouldn’t stand a chance. Yet in this form, God is human and can be contained. It is as if, out of a desire to meet Jacob, to join Jacob on his journey, God has chosen to enter Jacob’s playing field. That means choosing to be mortal, choosing to be limited, and choosing to be with Jacob. In that regard, then, Jacob is the one who chose the path. God simply chose to join him.

But Jacob is either too stupid or too smart to let go. Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The one who stole the blessing of his earthly parents has now earned one from his Creator, and he’s not letting go until he gets it.

God ignores the request. Instead, God asks, “What is your name.” When Jacob tells him, God replies, “You are no longer Jacob, but Israel because you have wrestled with God and with people.” Israel – literally “God rules over and provides for” will be his new identity and the name of the Chosen People of God.

What does it mean to be chosen by God, to be the people of God? It doesn’t just mean to wrestle with the world, to contend with the difficulties and temptations of our lives. It means to wrestle with God.

This is a far cry from what we often paint as the experience of faith. Too often, we tend to picture the mythical ideal Christian as someone who has complete acceptance of their relationship with God. They are at peace with God’s plan and their role in it.

The story of the founding of the nation of Israel paints a drastically different image. Wrestling with God, struggling with God, challenging God, is part of the very nature of being the people of God. If we deny or ignore that, then we are ignoring part of who God calls us to be – part of who God named us to be at the river Yabbok.

Jacob is not satisfied with the new name however. He wants more. He asks to know the very name of God. God asks “Why do you want to know my name?” It would seem, considering the way God’s name is treated throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, that Jacob wanted to genuinely know the nature of God. Jacob wanted an intimacy with God that he wasn’t ready for, one that Moses would glimpse, but that none of us would find until Jesus. So, instead of a name, God gives Jacob the blessing that he had asked for in the first place.

Presumably Jacob lets go. He names the place Penuel – literally “before the face of God” because he had seen God’s face there. Suddenly, we are brought back to Jacob’s original reason for crossing the river. He wanted to see his brother’s face – to overcome his own demons and right one of his greatest wrongs. To heal his family and his heart. To find forgiveness. In turning to seek the face of forgiveness Jacob found also – after much struggle – the face of God.

As the sun rises, we watch as Jacob heads off, limping, toward the horizon where his forgiveness awaits him. As a Christian, I cannot help but see, walking beside him, the nail-scarred person of God-made-flesh; who understood better than any of us the high cost of faithfulness.

The story of Jacob’s solitary battle raises more questions than answers, and is more a story of mystery than a fable of morality. There are no clear cut lessons it can offer us. We can, however, point to the limping figure of Jacob and know that our wounds, our struggles, are not signs of our failures; but reminders that we too have wrestled with God for we are the beloved children of God. In the name of the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us. Amen.