And In This Corner
So, Jacob was preparing to meet his brother, Esau. However, these two fraternal twins had some unresolved issues. Even in the womb Jacob grabbed at Esau’s heel, attempting to become the firstborn. Esau was born first, but Jacob used trickery to steal from Esau both the birthright and blessing of the firstborn. Today it would be like stealing your families’ inheritance from your sibling, and, along with it, a lucrative contract for the future and a guarantee of good fortune.
After such shenanigans, Jacob was forced to flee from his home or Esau likely would have killed him. Under the stars one night in the desert, Jacob had a dream where God descended a staircase to promise Jacob that God would always be with him, bless him and that his descendants would be a blessing to the world. Jacob went on to live with his Uncle Laban, marry two of his daughters, start a family of 12, and experience great success and riches.
Then one day, God told Jacob that he must return to his homeland and the place where God’s promises would unfold for Jacob and his children. And, of course, face Esau once again.
As a result, Jacob, a man known for being confident and always on top of things, was feeling uncharacteristically vulnerable. He set out with his entourage to meet Esau, only to hear that Esau was approaching with 400 men. Was it Esau’s intention to destroy him?
So, Jacob sent delegations in waves, each one bearing elaborate gifts to soften up his brother. Eventually, in cowardice and desperation, Jacob had sent everyone – even his own family – ahead of himself, leaving Jacob alone for an eventful evening on the banks of the River Jabbok.
And yet, he needed to be alone, perhaps. For there was someone he needed to see. For there, standing before him in the darkness of night, was a mysterious man who began to wrestle with him. Jacob couldn’t see who it was, but the man was formidable and said nothing.
Could it be Esau? No. Not hairy enough. Then again, since Jacob once disguised himself as Esau, maybe Esau was now disguising himself. That would be poetic justice, huh? There was little doubt that Esau was somehow a part of this encounter, yet his identity remained hidden.
They wrestled into the night, neither one gaining the upper hand, until finally, the mystery man struck Jacob’s hip out of joint. A surprisingly powerful move for someone who was unable to prevail!
Yet Jacob continued wrestling until the man said to Jacob, “let me go, it’s almost sunrise.” The implication seems to be that Jacob’s assailant did not want his face seen in daylight, that the wrestling match and his presence must remain an encounter in the dark night of Jacob’s soul.
But Jacob would not let go of the man. He said, “I will not let you go, until you bless me.” So, Jacob senses that this man is not just any man but is someone who possesses not only the power to suddenly cripple him, but also to bless him.
“What is your name?” asks the mystery wrestler.
And then the mystery man re-named him. “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have strived with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Now this was a dramatic name change. The name “Jacob” meant “trickster/over-reacher/heel.” Get it? Jacob reached for Esau’s heel. It’s where we get the expression, “So and so is such a ‘heel.’” Accurate about Jacob’s nature, but not complimentary. His new name, Israel, means: “God rules”, “God protects,” “God preserves.” A step up, I’d say.
Jacob tried to get the man’s name, but it was not forthcoming. The mystery man did do one last thing before he left: he blessed Jacob!
It never says who this mysterious wrestler is! Who do you think it is? An angel? A demon? Esau in disguise? Jacob’s conscience?
The wrestler is God. And so, the place where they wrestled is named, “Penuel”, literally, “the face of God.” God protects? God also puts hips out of joint!
So, the man who will now be limping for life is surrounded by grace, the grace given in the blessing; the grace given in the name “Israel.” A clear victory, but a qualified one. Meanwhile, Israel is born, not as a reward for faithfulness, but from a stubborn, conniving man named Jacob, in a knockdown, drag ‘em out, wrestling match with God! And yet, Jacob was also a man who did not run but engaged and wrestled with God to see where it would lead! And while God didn’t treat Jacob with kid gloves, God did make good on earlier promise: he blessed Jacob. And he gave him a future; boy, did he give him a future!
But what strange behavior for God! What kind of God would have a wrestling match with a mere mortal and end up in a draw? And how is this story our story? If, for instance, you got into a wrestling match with God, what would your strategy be? Go for the legs? Do you try to get behind him like Wesley did with the giant in the Princess Bride?
Hey, I’m just trying to be practical here. Let’s try to find our place in this story:
Jacob sought reconciliation with Esau, but before he could do that, Jacob had to deal with God. God was telling Jacob – and he’s telling us – that how we treat our brother, sister or neighbor is God’s business. In God the midnight wrestler, we clearly see not only an advocate but an embodiment of the wounded and angry Esau – the cost of Jacob’s misdeeds. God the wrestler confronts us with our wrongs against each other because these wrongs matter to God. So, when we need to reconcile with our brother, we need to reconcile with God too!
In this world, there is no such thing as a sacred/secular split. You know, there are Godly things and there are worldly things. Everything is sacred because this whole world belongs to God.
On Friday, millions of young people around the world took to the streets in protest. You know what their message was? That you and me – the generations who are in power – are stealing the future of the young because we are letting the climate heat up in a dangerous way. We’re benefitting from a lifestyle based on burning fossil fuels, but we’re robbing their futures because there will be hell to pay down the road!
So, perhaps we older adults are a lot like Jacob, while the millions of youth are becoming this formidable wrestler in front of us who will not go away! Greta Thunberg, the Danish teenager, will not go away, and she is waging quite a wrestling match! And make no mistake, that wrestler is not just Greta or a bunch of kids – it’s God! And God’s saying, “What are you doing with my creation, a world you will bequeath to your children and grandchildren?! We have to go to the mat, you and I.”
A similar scenario is playing out with youth who are wrestling with our nation’s conscience over gun proliferation.
Well, God would send many big-time wrestlers after Jacob’s time. They were called prophets and Jesus. And of course, our planet’s young people. In what other forms does God show up to wrestle you and help you face your past and present? Is it your biggest critic? A disgruntled family member? Black Lives Matter? They’re a pain in the butt, standing right in the middle of the freeway, aren’t they? And they’re ready to wrestle.
But this story is about much more than God holding us accountable. This story tells us a lot about the life of faith and about God’s grace. Sometimes it is said that faith makes your life peaceful and tranquil. But for Jacob, faith engaged him in a struggle. It’s easier in some ways to avoid struggle at all costs; to live a life of denial, hold grudges or blame others all the time. A life of faith will have none of that. It calls us to face our brokenness and our false gods and trust in God to reconcile our messy lives. Things like forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy things, because they’re worked out in the context of relationships, face to face. Forgiveness is not a transaction in God’s heavenly books. It’s costly to God, and to us, and might leave us with a limp. Facing God and our true selves can take a piece out of us.
No, Jacob’s faith does not make him tranquil, but leads him to struggle and to continue struggling until he is blessed by God. Soon after he would face his brother, Esau, and Jacob/Israel would see God’s face again. It was in Esau, his brother who chose to forgive Jacob. Reconciliation was now complete.
So, instead of wrestling with your brother or your neighbor to gain an advantage for yourself, wrestle with God, who will set you straight and even bless you! You may walk with a limp, but you’ll be surrounded by grace as God prepares a future for you. Amen.