Finding Life: Summer 2020
Wrestling with God Like Jacob
Aug 02, 2020
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32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
32:26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
32:27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
32:28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
32:29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
God of wonder, we come wandering into this space, seeking, asking, wrestling with a desire to see and know you. Shine your face upon us and give us yourself. That we may be touched with the divine touch that will wake us up we pray. In Jesus Name Amen.
Genesis. This is where it begins. The stories of God interacting with God’s people, starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the foundational patriarchs of a nation that comes to be known as Israel, which this story is the origin story of that name.
Meaning of names is usually a big deal. What does your name mean? And what does that say about you? Right now, I’m trying to think of a boy name, because we’re expecting a boy. Yes, you haven’t seen the belly growth cause online video only capture my upper half! It’s so hard thinking of a name that will determine his destiny for the rest of his life! I mean, he could change his own name and all that but still, we want to birth him into the world with a meaningful intention.
So this name change from Jacob to Israel is a meaningful moment. So what does this name mean?
When you are young you are taught things that are simple. Stories that usually have a more concrete moral of the story, good and bad. I heard this story growing up in ways that were generally simple and positive. Although, it’s pretty peculiar and reveals the complex nature of our relationships with God. For the most part I heard something like, hold onto God, and God will bless you. Or you grow a little older and maybe the story gets a little more complex, you can wrestle with God and if you do, in the end God will bless you. Again, still a nice conclusion wrapped in a bow.
But this character Jacob, is one complicated guy. I mean, he’s got two wives and two maids! But hey, that’s me judging him from our cultural context. At that time I think that was normal. A great example of why we shouldn’t just take things out from the Bible and apply it to our times literally, cause this is a biblical marriage! Anyways, the back story of Jacob has some sketchy parts.
He’s the guy that had a twin, named Esau. The story goes, Esau came out first and Jacob came out “grabbing Esau’s heel”, and that’s been the case for the rest of their lives. Jacob was a bit of a different boy. Esau was burly, loved to hunt, a man’s man you could say, and Isaac loved him. Jacob, he loved to cook and was loved by Rebekah. One day when Esau came back from hunting famished, and Jacob had a nice stew going, he wouldn’t give his brother some until Esau gave him his birthright, which is probably that as the first son Esau would get Isaac’s inheritance, which is totally unfair and I get why Jacob was eyeing it. Well Jacob gets his way. Esau gets some soup. Later when Isaac is getting older, Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothes and tricks his dad to give him a blessing, and by blessing I think they mean money. Jacob’s smart! But also, super sneaky! And later he fights with God to get his blessing again. I mean this guy is one of the Bible’s heroes and apparently a great example of faith. You hear these stories growing up, saying, be like Abraham, be like Isaac, be like Jacob. Um, am I supposed to cheat, trick, and fight to get “blessings” like Jacob?
And the poor guy Esau in Gen 27:36 says, “He has deceived me two times, he took my birthright and my blessings!” And asks his father Isaac, “haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
And Isaac replies, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?” Wow. So unfair. Life man!
So what are we to learn from this story? Be like Jacob and you’ll be blessed? I’ve been saying this thing, the last few times I’ve been preaching these days. As I reflect on the Bible stories I’ve heard again and again, in ways that are too simple to fit into the complex life experiences that I’ve seen, I’m beginning to realize again, maybe, maybe Jacob is not an ideal example of faith to aspire to but a picture of faith. A picture of someone who is the second child, the unfavored by his father child, who had to always cause a bit of trouble to get some attention, who didn’t have things come easy for him but he had to be a little sneaky at times. A boy who didn’t like to hunt but cook. I’ve heard a gay pastor preach on this text and how he related to Jacob’s situation and it was so good. Maybe Jacob is someone who struggled through, always misunderstood, the guy that cheated his brother and that guilt ate at him always.
I grew up hearing this story with the meaning of the word Israel as, one who prevails. One who triumphs. And that meaning is in there but there’s more. And by reducing it to those words we’ve created a theological conclusion that aligns with the strong worldly perspective and value of winning. Israel, yeah so strong, one who wins, that’s what it means. Well actually it says, “for you have striven with God and with humans” and the root words in Israel are more similar to the word for “struggle”. The definition might be close to “one who struggles with God” or “one who fights with God”.
A picture of faith then might be, not one who prevails or even is blessed, but one who wrestles with God. And isn’t that a more realistic, relatable picture that doesn’t put faith figures like Jacob on a pedestal but right here with us in the deep of it all, in the places where we have questions, places where we don’t get God, times and seasons in our lives when we’re like, “what are you doing God?” That I believe is a more sophisticated authentic, not sterile or afraid of intimacy faith. A real faith.
And this story also shows that sometimes God can feel like an intruder at night. God is often named as a protector and a helper, a provider, but in this text we see a God who is challenging. And even leaving Jacob with a limp, and you know maybe Jacob the trickster needed that limp to be humbled, because the next day he ends up facing Esau, remember his brother he cheated? So does God sometimes make us limp? What are we to do with texts like this?
I don’t think we should draw blanket conclusions to these stories because it’s just a story of one man, in a particular situation that was captured in some form. And the reality, it may speak to different people at different times, sometimes relatable, and sometimes not and that’s okay! We don’t all have to relate with all the characters, especially the big names of the Bible, because it might strike us at different times as we need it. I refuse to take this one story and say, see God is dangerous. Don’t mess with God. or see God strikes us to humble us. Sometimes that can be misused to people’s situations that can be really toxic or harmful. Some of that may be true for you at one time and may not be true for you another time. What is this text saying to you? You might have to meditate with it a bit more and think about your lives. I’d only like to open it up to say, look here’s one example of a complicated man attempting to do faith.
The lesson I’m learning today from this story is, see, God is relational and an interactive being. You see, I’m not always SURE of my faith. I am constantly deconstructing church baggage, constantly grieving so much of what is not yet, too often praying to God, God I don’t understand, rather than Jesus my faith is so strong. Sometimes to be honest, I don’t relate with a lot of praise songs in worship cause they sound so sure. And I wrestle and struggle with God and my faith a lot, and it sometimes makes me feel insecure like I’m not a good Christian, or is this religion even right for me? Why am I always protesting so much? I don’t know, maybe cause I’m a protestant, that’s where the word comes from right? Asking, seeking, not being satisfied with the status quo. And you know, this story is an encouragement to me because honestly, it’s true. I don’t fight with someone I don’t really care about. It’s not worth it. If someone really hurt me, but they’re like I don’t know, someone who I’m not that close with, I wouldn’t even bring it up, cause I don’t care. But someone who matters a lot to me, it’s important they know how I feel, and how they’ve impacted me, because I want to continue that relationship. You see, God of Jacob isn’t a God who is high on a throne watching down from a distance, but a God who you can get physical with. Someone you can throw down with. Someone you can get in your face with. And if doing that with God is not being a good Christian, then I don’t want to be a good Christian. I want a real relationship with a real divine being.
What have you been struggling with the Lord lately? Has that “shaken your faith” or made you feel uncertain about your faith? It’s okay. You’re just as complicated as Jacob I’m sure. And we’re all a mix of moral failures, sketchy decisions, questionable motives, and pure desires, aware of our guilt, and seeking reconciliation like Jacob did with Esau. In all of our limpings and in our blessings, may we continue to wrestle with God who touches us, finds us at night, and shows Godself to us face to face. May that intimate God of love be near you and with you today. Let me pray for us.
God who wrestles with us in the night, helps us to find you in the places where we are limping, helps us to find you in the places we prevail. And through it all would you humble us that we may fight or rest in your presence we pray in Jesus Name Amen.