god loves good wrestling matches
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am convinced that God loves a good wrestling match. We see it clearly in today’s this fabulous account of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, wrestling on the banks of a river with a “man,” who is identified as God by the time we reach the end of the story. Jacob wrestles with God.
This wonderful story is only 10 verses long. But it’s fascinated seekers and believers and scholars for millennia.
First let’s set the scene. Jacob is coming home after some 20 years in exile after he stole the blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother Esau. He was so afraid that Esau would kill him for his deception, that he had run far away, to his family’s ancestral home in the Fertile Crescent—probably somewhere in or near present-day Iraq. He knows that on the next day he’ll be meeting his brother Esau, who is accompanied by 400 armed men. Jacob fears attack.
And so he sends his wives and children on ahead of him in separate bands. Maybe if one group is killed, the other will escape. He sends all his possessions on ahead of him. And he crosses back over the river to spend the night alone.
Why? We have no idea why, because the text doesn’t tell us. Maybe it was to clear his head and ready himself for the meeting with Esau. Maybe it was to petition God for help, in the quietness of the wilderness. Scholars have wondered if the river is significant here: crossing a body of water almost always signifies a soul-changing journey of some kind in all sorts of world literature.
So as Jacob is alone at night by the river this being comes to him, and apparently provokes him to a wrestling match.
Now think about what happens as the story goes on. The wrestling match lasts all night long. Neither of the wrestlers gives up. And as the sun is soon to come up the “man” tells Jacob to let him go. And Jacob, persistent Jacob, will not let him go before the “man” blesses him.
And so what happens next, in verse 28, is riveting. The “man” changes Jacob’s name to Israel. The “man” gives him a new name, that means “He wrestles with God or He contends with God.” And so the “man” identifies himself as God. And that explains why he needs to leave before the sun comes up: because in the OT it’s clear that no one can see God’s face and live.
It’s interesting too that God will not positively identify himself by giving his name. He could have told him “I am that I am” as he would tell Moses, but no. Instead he changes JACOB’S name, because he has wrestled with God and with humans, and stood his ground. God is identifying himself as the Holy One, who will continue to protect Jacob. God will leave Jacob before the sun is up. God allows Jacob to hold his own. That’s pretty remarkable.
But God strikes him on the thigh, and marks him permanently. Jacob walks away with a significant wound. But his life is spared. His life is actually enhanced, as you’ll see if you read further in Genesis.
Now, the picture on today’s bulletin cover is interesting because it reflects the pulse in Western art whereby God wrestling with Jacob is portrayed as an angel—a kind of divine being, not necessarily God. So that leaves a little to be desired, but perhaps the artists resorted to angels because no one can portray God anyway.
But the thing I really like about this image is that it’s not clear if these two figures are wrestling or embracing. It’s not clear if there is divine protection or divine threat. And that seems to be fully in accord with what’s happening in the story, and with what seems to happen in our own lives, too, now and then.
Now, Jesus takes the story of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, and works with it. Jesus tells the story of the widow hounding the unjust judge until he grants her petition. He commends the widow’s perseverance and tells us in so many words not to be afraid to pester God as well—to persevere in prayer—to be the squeaky wheel that sooner or later gets the grease.
And our pestering behavior is OK with God. It’s even sanctioned by Holy Scripture.
We’ve talked about complaining to God in prayer. And we’ve talked about thanking and praising God in our prayer. Now Jesus simply tells us to keep it up. Whatever we desire for the good of the world or the good of our loved ones, keep pestering God about it. And the God of justice and mercy, who sees all and loves all, will respond. This is true because, according to our psalm, our “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” It’s always been true, and always will be true.
But sometimes it seems like forever that our prayers are stymied, and God doesn’t answer. We’ve been praying for peace in Syria, and Israel, and Palestine, for years and years now. We’ve read countless newspaper articles and seen countless reports on TV and Face Book. We’ve seen those heartbreaking images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family tried to get to a better life. We remember that poor child in Aleppo sitting stunned in the back of an ambulance.
Peace is surely God’s will for the world. Yet God hasn’t answered yet, for reasons we just don’t understand. Perhaps God is equipping people to make the necessary changes, and they won’t. Perhaps God is as broken-hearted as the rest of us.
Yet. We’re told today in the gospel not to lose heart. That’s a tall order, given what’s happening right now in the world. That’s a tall order, given the state of the presidential election campaign right here in our country. But it’s the ONLY way we can get through this difficult time with any kind of integrity: To help each other not to lose heart. To be kind. To do the right thing.
So may we each continue to wrestle with God in our prayer, imploring the Holy One to break logjams and help this world find peace and wholeness. May we find hope in praising God and in giving thanks for the beauty and the peace that IS around us. And may we have the perseverance of Jacob and of that wronged widow, to pester and pester and pester until we receive the blessing of peace and the blessing of answered prayer.