This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Messy, Blessed Life". See series.
Jacob was facing the biggest crisis of his life. Esau, the twin brother he had conned out of both birthright and blessing, was coming his way with 400 men. Jacob couldn't turn back. He had vowed before God that he wouldn't return to the land of his uncle, Laban. Jacob had to meet Esau tomorrow, and for once, he had nothing up his sleeve.
Jacob had done everything he could do. He had no army. For all we know, he didn't even have a weapon. To prepare, Jacob had done just three things: he had divided his camp so that at least half might be spared; he had sent five herds of more than 550 animals ahead as gifts to pacify Esau; and he had prayed. The most important of these things was prayer. He reached back to grab onto God's promises and bent low to admit how unworthy he was of all God's goodness. He had prayed that most basic of all prayers: "Save me, I pray, for I am afraid."
The treasured life God had promised to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham was almost within in his grasp. It was just on the other side of this little river, Jabbok. And just like all the other times, there was Esau in the way. His old nemesis. This was the story of his life! Esau had elbowed his way ahead of Jacob when they came out of the womb, and now he was in the way again.
Jacob had nothing to do but count the dark hours. It was late and tomorrow was D-Day. One way or another, he and Esau would have it out, once and for all. Like I said already, this time Jacob didn't have a trick up his sleeve. No red stew. No goat-hair disguise. He knew he couldn't fight. He had sent all his animals and all his family across the river ahead of him—everything he had—and now he sat there alone. I think Jacob was earnestly trying to trust that God would save him, just as he had prayed. But as we all know, it isn't so easy to trust God when danger looms and it is the middle of the night.
God would eventually save him, but Jacob would have never imagined such a saving.
Why would Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, Omnipotent Lord of Hosts, ever need to struggle?
There Jacob was in the dark night, in a ravine by a river that mocked his own name—Jabbok. It was as if the river had sucked all the lights from the sky. I bet Jacob couldn't see his hand in front of his face—the darkness was that heavy, that foreboding. It may have been a river gorge, but it felt like a dark alley as Jacob huddled in the dark.
Then—from nowhere, with not so much as a rolled pebble to give him away—a mighty man threw his arms around Jacob. Jacob's muscles tensed and his heart jumped. Who was this? What did he want?
No! thought Jacob. I have waited 20 years to get back the land God promised me, and no one is going to stop me! I will not die here. I will not let it end like this! So he fought as though this life and the next depended on it.
In the blind groping and straining, Jacob frantically tried to figure out who he was fighting. Is it a robber? Why wouldn't he have just stabbed me and taken what he wanted? Is it Esau? But why would he come here alone when he has 400 men with him? Who then? The man did not fight to steal, nor did he fight to kill. He just wrestled Jacob as if the wrestling was the point. Who would do that?
It wasn't long before the wrestling match stopped being a struggle of strength and became a battle of wills. Jacob knew this was no ordinary man, but he fought on. What Jacob lacked in athleticism, he had in steel will. Even against this darkest foe, Jacob was prevailing by the sheer dint of his will.
Then, deliberately, the stranger touched Jacob's hip. No roundhouse blow. No wrenching twist. The stranger just touched it, and Jacob's hip seemed to come apart at the seams. He cried out, and his leg gave way. He clung to the man—not to defeat him, but for support. Who is this man whose mere touch can cripple? Jacob must have thought.
The inky sky grayed ever so little. It was still too dark to see, but dawn was at least whispering. No words had passed between Jacob and the stranger that long night. Gasps and grunts and Jacob's anguished moan—but no words. But then the mighty wrestler said the strangest thing: "Let me go, for it is daybreak." What kind of reason is that to break off the fight? Except for the one who lives always out of human sight!
Jacob now knew who he had been wrestling. It was the very God whose blessing he had been scheming to gain all his life. It was the same God whom he had last seen high and lifted up at the top of the stairs in his dream of the angels' staircase. God had then been robed in light, and now he was shrouded in darkness. Jacob suddenly knew he was as close to death as the dawn, for who could see God and live?
"I will not let you go unless you bless me," Jacob gasped. God's blessing had been his life's goal, and now the angel of the Lord fought to break free—to take Jacob's blessing and leave. Esau wasn't the threat after all. God himself was! So Jacob, holding on for dear life—to the angel's heel, perhaps—began to weep: You can't go! Please don't go! Please don't leave without blessing me! Please!
His tears muddied the dirt on his face. His hip ached like fire, and his strength was gone. Finally, his mighty will had given way and collapsed into tears and begging. He had no more tricks up his sleeve. He had no bargains left to make. He didn't even have a leg to stand on!
The stranger spoke again, and Jacob could never have anticipated the question: "What is your name?" the stranger whispered.
There in the dark, Jacob blushed. The man knew who he was, of course. But Jacob realized that the night's long struggle was the very story of his life. The whole night could have been called Jacob—"Heel-Grabber." To say his name to the stranger was to pronounce his own indictment. For who could or would bless a man whose well-deserved name was "Deceiver, Anything-To-Get-Ahead, Heel-Grabber." A man with a name like that didn't stand a chance!
"Jacob," he confessed—sounding exactly like a man who says, "Guilty, your honor."
The fight had stopped, and all was quiet. Jacob lay exhausted, clutching at his throbbing hip. A third time the stranger spoke the utterly unexpected: "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Jacob was stunned. His mind was spinning. Overcome? He was spent, crippled, weeping, and alone at the foot of an angel of God? Overcome? With Esau and his 400 men waiting for him? Then Jacob heard the name again: Israel. He was confused, because Israel did not mean, "He strives with God." That would be Yisreim-el. The man said his name would be Yisra-el.
Finally, Jacob saw what was happening. He had prayed, only yesterday, that God would save him. Now this name—his new identity—was a pardon. It was a strange, upside-down name for the man who had spent his whole life trying to butt in at the front of the line. His new name—his wonderful, new, grace-filled, born-again name was Israel, which means, "God strives." The real story of his life—the story worked out in the dark, behind the scenes—was not Jacob's futile striving to win, but God's relentless, grace-filled striving to pin Jacob down by his love.
This story is bigger than it looks—and it's as strange as any story in the Bible. In fact, in many ways it is the story of the whole Bible in a nutshell. It is the story of the Jews. It is the story of all those on whom God fixes his love. It is your story and mine.
I think the most important part of this story is when God changed Jacob's name to Israel. Look at Genesis 32:28: "Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome.'" The footnote in my Bible says "Israel" means, "He struggles with God." But that is not what "Israel" means. It means, "God struggles." A strange name indeed!
The reason for the new name focuses on Jacob: "Because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome." That seems to be a strange conclusion at that particular moment—with Jacob terrified of the approaching Esau, lying crippled and spent at the feet of God's own angel. Could anyone seem less like an overcomer? And even if you look to the past, where Jacob outfoxed his brother twice, along with his father and his uncle, why would God commend him for such overcoming?
I think the overcoming in Jacob's life started that night. He had always been an overcomer by tripping and tricks—nothing that warranted a new name. But that night, at precisely the moment Jacob fell and gave in to God, Jacob overcame God.
Then there is the name "Israel," which means, "God strives" or "God struggles." On the face of it, it is a jarring statement. Why would Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, Omnipotent Lord of Hosts, ever need to struggle?
God struggles with those on whom he has fixed his love so that we will stop our own ill-fated, short-sighted, bound-to-fail struggles to get life's best and rely on him. God wanted to bless Jacob's life. God had told Jacob so. He wants to bless yours, too—beyond your wildest imagination. But you cannot get God's blessings doing things your way.
Here's how it often works: You're in the midst of some challenging situation in life—a crisis at work or something with your marriage or a health scare. You do everything you can to manage it, to make it work. But what has worked for you before, doesn't work anymore. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you struggle, it is like the deck is stacked against you. It is like someone behind the scenes is purposely making this as difficult as can be. Finally, everything falls apart. You lose the job, your marriage, your health. You're crushed. There's no more fight left in you. What has always worked won't work any more, and you have nothing left. You just spent a terrible night at the Jabbok River. You just wrestled with God.
When I was in high school, I helped teach life-saving classes at our local swimming pool. Actually, I wasn't the teacher exactly. I was the victim. I was the drowning person in need of rescue. I'd go out into the deep end and play the part of the frantic, drowning man. I'd splash and gasp and cry for help and some junior high kid would swim out toward me. If he got too close, I'd latch onto him in a death grip, my arms and legs twined desperately around his. If it had been the real deal, we both would have drowned. The way to save a drowning man who is conscious and panicky, is to stop just beyond his reach, tuck and dive deep under him, and from behind him, with your hands firmly gripping his legs and sides, climb up his body. Then you throw your arm across his chest and grab him hard in his arm pit. It hurts. It's supposed to. It's supposed to hurt enough, in fact, that he goes limp. He then stops fighting you and lets you carry him to safety. In other words, the only way to save him is to defeat him first—even hurt him if you must. That is what God did with Jacob there by the Jabbok. He conquered him in order to save him.
How does the Almighty God struggle with us so as not to destroy us?
That brings me to a second question: how does the Almighty God struggle with us so as not to destroy us? God wrestles with us in order to break our will without violating our will. Every wrestler has moves, and so does God. He used three of his favorite moves on Jacob. Maybe he's used them on you, too.
First of all, verse 25 points out that God will sometimes handicap us. In some ways, God doesn't fight fair! Whatever it is that makes your will so strong, God will touch it and cripple it. My old friend, Kent, says that the best thing that ever happened to him was a brain tumor, because it brought him to his knees before God.
God will also threaten to leave us. Consider what the stranger says in verse 26: "Let me go, for it is daybreak." One of the strange things about this story is that Jacob first wants to get the attacker off his back, while later he won't let his attacker go. Who's wrestling whom here? God beats up on us, takes what is precious, reduces us to desperation, and then somehow in the angry darkness, when we've had it with God, he says he's leaving. It is right then that we realize we cannot let that happen at any price. If he leaves, we will not only go unblessed, we will lose our soul.
God also makes us face ourselves. That's what happened in verse 27 when the man asked, "What is your name?" He was asking, "Who are you, really?" God breaks our wills by making us face our grasping, self-centered, desperate selves. You live with yourself so long, that you get used to your ways of doing things. They look normal, right, reasonable. But in that dark night, God will say, "Who are you, really?" Facing what we are is crushing—even humiliating. It is also necessary.
One final question: what do we do when God has won? Answer: beg for mercy! The prophet Hosea tells us that is what Jacob did. He wrote: "In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor." That is the way to win a battle with God—weep and beg for his favor.
As painful and costly as it is, God does all of this so that we will stop struggling with him and trust him. It is a lesson that we all must learn. Ever since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, God has been trying to draw us back to him as recreated men and women. But we cannot return the way we left—doing life our own way, not trusting God's Word. Isaiah was still preaching to a head-strong nation of Jacob when he said in Isaiah 30:15, "This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: 'In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.'" He describes all that they will do instead of trusting God. Then, in verse 18, he says, "Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!" In New Testament terms, we confess our sins and put our faith in Jesus. He is the only way to cross safely into the land of God's blessings.
Here is how C. S. Lewis, a brilliant British scholar and writer who was also once an agnostic, described his conversion—words he could have written for Jacob himself:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him of whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 [May 22] I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? … The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compassion is our liberation.
Israel. God Struggles. That name is a tribute to the humility and love of God. It is the name God wants to give you.
Anyone here weary of struggling with God? The old Black preachers would say in their sermons about the Prodigal Son, "Son, your arm's too short to box with God." Isaiah said it this way, "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength."
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.