Wrestling with God
Wrestling with God
Soon after my wife and I married, we began decorating our house by putting things on the walls. When we came to the kitchen, I came up with an idea.
I had been given a plate by some friends many years beforea nice china plate with a bird on itand although I didn't find the plate particularly attractive, I knew that plate belonged on the kitchen wall. The plate sparked a conversationan argument, reallyabout what would go on the wall. Back and forth we went about the bird plate. Finally I said, "I want the bird plate on the wall. I can't even tell you why I'm so upset about getting the bird plate on the wall, but I want it there. We can talk about it more tomorrow, but for now, I'm putting the bird plate on the wall."
The truth is, I just wanted to have my own way. I wish I could say I had never done anything like that before or since, or that I've only argued over bird plates and more trivial things. However, I've argued with my wife and others over things both more and less important than the bird plate. In many cases, my motive for arguing was simply my wanting my own way.
We all want our own way.
Sometimes when we demand our way, we're simply expressing our opinion. Sometimes it's as if we're trying to say, "I exist. I have a vision for what can happen. I like it this way and not that way." Sometimes it's just an expression of our lives. Trouble comes when we want our own way more than we want anything else. Demanding things be done our way reveals that something deeper is at stake in our lives. Something is unsettled, and, for some reason, we believe getting the bird plate on the wall is going to address this deep concern.
The story of Jacob is the story of a person who desperately wants his own way. Jacob expends an incredible amount of energy to ensure the story turns out exactly the way he wants.
We all seek a blessing.
We adults have learned that it's not easy to use the language of selfishness and self-absorption, so we come up with ways of asserting our desires cleverly masked by language games we've learned to play. In that way, we are able to talk about how desperately we want our way without sounding desperate about having our way! Jacob had learned a game like that as well.
For Jacob, it was a language of "seeking a blessing." He lived in a culture and religious context in which the importance of seeking a blessing was something everyone understood. Not only that, but in this particular family, blessing had an especially significant place. Jacob had grown up hearing about God's blessing to Abrahamhow it would be through this family that God's blessing would extend to the world. Jacob had heard about the miraculous birth of his father, Isaac. This wasn't just any blessing. This blessing had major stakes.
The trouble was, Jacob felt he lost the blessing to Esau at their birth. As a result, he came into the world angry and frustrated that life was not going to turn out the way he believed it should. His name means "heel grabber"striver, coercersomeone who's struggling to get things the way he wants them. We see as his life unfolds that he is aptly named.
Eventually, Jacob cheated the blessing away from Esau, and then he ran away. He hid from his family, severing the relationships that had been most significant. As far as we know, he never saw his mother or father again. Jacob and Esau were the sole survivors of the family and, as such, were the ones through whom the blessing would be passed. Yet in the decades of his absence, Jacob had to worry about his relationship with Esau. That was the price of getting his own way.
We all seek an identity.
A friend of mine retired after working nearly 40 years as a therapist. Looking back on his years of practice, he said, "I've spent time with people from all walks of life and all religious persuasions and beliefs. At the core of all those conversations, the central question that every single person has been asking is this: 'What must I do to be saved?'"
What must I do to be saved? How do I get a blessing? Who will finally bless me in a way that will set my identity, my life, my relationships, and my world at peace? This was Jacob's question. As the second son, he had to fight and connive to receive the blessing and inheritance. Yet, once he had it, he realized it wasn't enough. Jacob wasn't at all clear about his identity or value. He seemed to be constantly struggling to gain more things, to have more power, more influence, more livestock, and the bride he wanted.
Like the story of Jacob's life, our stories are often records of our struggling to find the people who will bless us. A friend of mine, Jim, was born the third of three children. He didn't get the athletic body or outstanding mind his older brothers had, as his parents often reminded him. There was little or no blessing passed on to Jim. When I told him God might want to bless him, he was astonished that there just might be an identity more adequate and true than the one he had received from his parents.
We must wrestle with God.
This text is shrouded in mystery. It tells of an encountera wrestling matchbetween Jacob and a man, in which something incredible was at stake. Jacob's opponent was divinely appointed to bring God into Jacob's midst. It might have been an angel, or even God himself. But what is clear is that the situation bears all the signs of the kind of blessing God alone can give.
After preparing a gift of livestock to assuage Esau's anger, Jacob separates his family from the rest of the camp, and then goes off on his own. The text simply says, "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." What we see is a sense of clear engagement. Jacob and this other person wrestle, and not just for a brief time; they wrestle all night. It's only when morning is beginning to break that the man finally says to Jacob: You've got to let go.
We must receive a new identity.
The man asks Jacob his name, and Jacob tells him. By simply stating his name, Jacob summarizes the events of the evening. His name indicates someone who will struggle and strive to get his own way. That was his identity. But his opponent responds by saying, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed." By giving him a new name, the man gives Jacob a new identity, a new set of values, a new affirmation about who he really is. He gives Jacob the blessing he needed most. Yet it's interesting that before blessing him, the man puts Jacob's hip out of socket. In this way, the text seems to suggest that wrestling with God gives us a new identity, but it doesn't leave us unscathed. Conducting business with God, and confronting the truth about who we are, will change us. We will not continue to be the person we were before.
Jacob received a physical reminder of a wrestling match that he neither won nor lost. By putting his hip out of socket and also giving him a new name, God not only demonstrated his power but also gave Jacob a new identity and a new sense of value. God affirmed and blessed him in the way that no one else could.
We must know God.
It's not surprising, then, that Jacob asks the very question that Moses will ask much later: "What is your name?" The man gives no response. Instead, he just asks a question: "Why is it that you ask for my name?" God will reveal his name, but not until he's with Moses on the mountain. When he does, it will be to demonstrate his authority. But here with Jacob, the conniving stealer, he wrestles all night, puts his hip out of joint, and gives him a new name.
We are people desperately in need of receiving the blessing of a new identity and new value that simply cannot be bestowed by another human being. Who can change us at such a fundamental level? Who will stay with us when we fight like Jacob did? This text suggests that God will. God will wrestle through the whole night, because he alone can give us a new name, a new identity, and a reminder of the encounter that changes everything.
Though Jacob leaves this encounter with a new name, his interaction with Esau is, at best, unsatisfying. Though he's received the blessing, the whole script has not been changed. There's a process of transformation that has yet to take place. He may limp a little, but he does not yet reflect God's love and truthfulness. In a sense, Israel is still Jacob. But now the God that wrestled with him is involved in his life.
Know that the God that blessed Jacob is a God who never has to be urged to bless us. He's a God who longs to encounter us, to wrestle with us, to give us a new name. What's more, he will give us a limp as a reminder of the life we leave behind in order to receive the gift of blessing that is ours in Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament we hear the words, "in our weakness, God's power is made perfect." God meets us in our weakness when we're honest enough to struggle with him. God longs to bless us, to invite us to receive the blessing that is God's alone to give. Will we be that honest with God? Will we wrestle that directly, that courageously, that persistently?
The love of God in Jesus Christ is for all of us who simply want our own way more than we want anything else. Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." That's a promise of blessing. Have you got it? Have you opened yourself to receive the blessing of God in Jesus Christ, to say yes to the blessing that God alone can give?
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Wrestling With God."
Mark Labberton is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in Berkeley, California.