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February 6: Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31

Luke 5:1-11


Jacob – the guy who we met in our first reading this morning as he wrestles with a stranger during the night – Jacob is an experienced wrestler. He has been wrestling since before he was born. While his mother, Rebekah, is pregnant, she feels her twin sons – Jacob and his older brother, Esau – wrestling within her womb, and she hears a message from God that this pre-natal combat will continue throughout their lives.

Jacob has also been grasping, trying to get a hold of something more, for as long as he's been alive. His twin brother Esau is born first, but Jacob comes out grasping Esau's heel – from the moment he entered into the world, he was grasping, climbing, trying to claim something more for himself.

A few years later, when Jacob and Esau are somewhere near young adulthood, Esau comes back from the wilderness, back from a hunt, starving. Somehow, Jacob the grasper convinces Esau to sell him his birthright – as the older brother, even though he was only older by a few seconds, Esau would have inherited the lion's share of his father's wealth. But in this moment, Esau is starving, and Jacob has a hearty stew – and, in a moment of foolishness, Esau says "Sure, if you give me some food, you can have my birthright." This, I guess, is a great way for Jacob to improve his lot in life, but it's not a great way to win friends or strengthen family bonds, and just about as soon as the bowl of stew is empty, when Esau's hunger is satisfied, Esau begins to regret – to hate – his conniving younger brother, that grasper who has wrestled his promised inheritance away from him.

And, it gets worse. Jacob keeps grasping. Years later, when their father, Isaac, is old and about to die, it's time for Isaac to bless his children. In the ancient world, blessings from an honored family leader were seen as powerful – Isaac, you see, is the inheritor of the promise God made to Abraham, the promise that God would bless the world through Abraham's family and descendants. And Isaac is about to pass on that blessing, to name the one who is next in line. Isaac wants to give that blessing to Esau – but Isaac is blind. And, so, Rebekah – Isaac's wife, and the mother of Jacob and Esau, decides to play favorites. Y'all, by the way, if you think your family is a mess, I think these guys might have you beat. Rebekah schemes together with Jacob, and they put him in Esau's clothes, and plot an elaborate deception – and, somehow, it works. Jacob thinks that Isaac is actually Esau, and so he blesses him, passes down the blessing from God that he had received from his father, Abraham. The power of that kind of blessing may not make sense to us, but what we know is that, again, Jacob has taken something that did not belong to him, he has wrestled, fought, until he got what he wanted.

Again, as one might expect, this does not make Esau happy. He's been robbed of his inheritance, he's been robbed of the blessing that should have been his – and, so, Jacob, sensing that things might soon get violent, leaves town. He goes to a far-off land – his family's ancestral home – and there runs across his uncle, Laban. Jacob falls for Laban's younger daughter, Rachel. Now here's the part of the story when Jacob, the trickster, gets tricked. Laban tells Jacob that if Jacob works for Laban for 7 years, Laban will give him Rachel as a payment for all that work. Now, for us, in the modern world, this sounds kinda icky – using women and marriage as payment – but it's just how the ancient world worked, at least some of the time. It's worth noting that the Bible, in telling this story, doesn't endorse it – it doesn't say that any of this, the lying and tricking and treating women as property – the Bible doesn't say that this was good, or that we should emulate it. Not at all. One of the key rules for interpreting the Bible is that it's important for us to remember that there's a difference between reporting and endorsement. Sometimes, the point of a story in the Bible is, "Hey, this thing these people did was awful, but God loved them anyway, and God worked through their sin and failure to do something good – God can overcome even our worst impulses and the worst parts of human society and bring beauty from ashes."

Anyway, Rachel is promised to Jacob as payment for seven years of work. But, when the time comes for them to get married, on their wedding night, after a big day of partying, Laban slips his older daughter, Leah, into the tent with Jacob. When they awake in the morning, Jacob discovers that he's been tricked – and that he has a wife, but that it's not who he thought it was! I have certain questions about how on earth Jacob could not notice this until the morning after, but, that's not the point right now. The point is, Jacob has been tricked. So, Laban says, "Listen, in our culture, it's not proper for the younger daughter to get married before the older daughter. But, I'll make you a deal: work with me seven more years, and I'll give you Rachel after all." So, Jacob does, and in the end, he is married to both sisters. Shocking no one, marrying two sisters, one of whom you really love and the other of whom you married first – this is not a recipe for a happy family, and it's a hot mess – lots of drama, lots of trauma, and some violence too, just for good measure. But that part isn't the point today.

So, after all of this, after years of working for Laban, Jacob has returned to his crafty ways – finding ways to make himself richer while slowly draining Laban's wealth away – and, finally, he decides it's time to get out of town, to head back home. And that's where we meet him today, returning to his homeland. He's just heard that Esau, his older brother, who he betrayed, whose birthright and blessing he stole, who surely wants to get his revenge – Esau is on the other side of the river. Jacob sends his household on ahead of him, along with an overwhelming multitude of gifts for Esau – Jacob seems to be trying to overwhelm Esau, to say "look at my large family, aren't you impressed" and also to bribe Esau "here, take this gift, just please don't kill me." Anyway, after sending his family and the gifts for Esau across the river, Jacob settles down for the night, getting ready for the confrontation that he's sure will come in the morning.

And, then, it happens. In the middle of the night, he encounters a stranger. It's not clear who this stranger is – across the last three millennia, there have been many theories. Maybe it's Esau, coming to test his brother; or maybe it's a bandit; or maybe a spirit of the river. Or maybe, some say, it's Jacob's own shadow side, the dark parts of himself that have led him to lie and steal so much along the way, and maybe he has to wrestle with, defeat, the dark side of himself in order to reunite with his brother Esau in peace and humility. Or, maybe it's an angel. But, Jacob, Jacob think he knows who it is. At the end of this wrestling match, after wrestling all night, after Jacob has demanded that this stranger bless him – much like, as a young man, he'd demanded a blessing from his father that was not meant for him – at the end, Jacob is renamed. The stranger says, "Jacob, from now on you will be known as Israel, because you have wrestled with God and men and have won." And, then, after the stranger departs, Jacob, now Israel, renames this spot, calling it Peniel, a name that means "face of God," because, as he puts it, "I have seen God face-to-face and I have lived." After this mysterious, maybe divine, battle, the rest of his reunion with Esau is almost anti-climactic. Esau, it seems, has mellowed. Esau has chosen forgiveness over revenge. And, so, when these brothers meet, they embrace, and they are reconciled, and, eventually, they reunite to bury their mother, Rebekah – the one whose scheming had multiplied the animosity between her sons. Jacob, after wrestling all night, is welcomed home with a joy he didn't expect and a love he doesn’t deserve.

But, what are we to make of the part of the story we read today, this scene of wrestling, of unexpected divine combat? Well, part of what this story does is set the table – set an important expectation – about what it means to be the people of God. Jacob – the ancestor of Israel – here stands in for God's people as a whole.

And, here, in this story, we discover that part of what it means to be God's people, part of what it means to be a member of God's beloved community, is that we are the people who wrestle with God. It happens throughout the Bible. The book of Job is 42 chapters of Job and God wrestling – Job demanding God explain his suffering, and God responding, and duking it out with Job – and Job walks away changed, but he doesn't necessarily get an answer. The prophet Jeremiah spends much of his life begging God to get off his back, to leave him alone, to let him be free of the calling, of the need, to speak words that challenge his people's sin – and, yet, God never lets go of him, continues to pour out the complicated blessing of getting to speak for God – even when the words God gives him make his life unpleasant. This is part of the brilliance of the witness of the people of Israel, the story of the Bible as we find it in the Old Testament and the New Testament. We are never promised that life with God will be easy – in fact, the opposite seems to be promised: if we take God seriously, it might just turn our lives upside down. And, in a world that often doesn't make much sense, when it's sometimes hard to understand what God is doing, when sometimes things are so hard that we wonder if God is even real, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is say "God, I'm not letting go." Part of what it means to be the people of God is to live in that space in between question and answer, in that space where we trust in God even when we don't know what that means, where we search and fight for answers that we might never get, where all we can do is hold on for dear life and beg for God to bless us.

Jacob does that – he begs for God to bless him. And, honestly, this is the moment when Jacob learns what blessing really is. Jacob begins his life thinking he knows what blessing is – he things that his life is about getting as much as he can, even if he has to climb over others on the way to the top. He thinks that being blessed is about getting all the stuff he wants – possessions and money and wives and whatever else. He thinks blessing is always uncomplicated, always leaves you strutting, head held high.

But, it's funny, when God actually blesses him – when he is wrestling with God, demanding a blessing, he leaves that encounter with a limp. All the blessings he tried to grasp for himself, steal from others as he wrestled his way to the top – all of them ended up costing him – hurting relationships, leaving him ever-more isolated. The blessing from God leads directly into his reunion with his brother – into relationships being restored – but it also leaves him limping. God's presence in the world, it seems, takes the form of weakness. God's blessing, we are being told, doesn't always look like we would imagine blessing to look. Sometimes God's blessings are the opposite of what we think we want. His descendant Jesus, the One who is the culmination of God's promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the one who is God's ultimate blessing to us – his blessing takes the form of death on a cross, and, as with Jacob, we see God showing up in weakness.

Because, that's who we Christians believe that God is. When you wrestle someone, you're gonna get dirty. Wrestle someone at night, next to a river, and you are going to get cut and scratched and bruised and covered in mud. And our God, the God who liberated Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that is not someone who remains distant, aloof, far off. Our God gets down into the mud with us. Our God gets her hands dirty. That's the story of Jesus – God sees that we need to be saved, and instead of issuing some decree from on high, instead, God becomes one of us, born in the muck of a stable, born into poverty, born on the run from the law. Jesus Christ, God with us, as an adult, has no place to lay his head, is a homeless wanderer, who gathers around himself a community of the outcast, the rejected, the hungry, the overwhelmed, the broken. He walks through the literal mud, he is bloodied and beaten, he wrestles with temptation, fights off demonic forces, goes toe-to-toe with evil – and also wrestles down our pride, and our imagined self-sufficiency, and our aspirations to religious and political and economic and personal glory. Jesus gets down in the mud with us, in order to save us.

That's who the God who we meet in this story is. God is the one who steps into the dark nights of our lives, who wrestles with us when we don't know what to do next, who gets down in the mud to save us. God is the one who enters into the grime and filth and pain of this world in order to bless us – even if that blessing isn't exactly what we would have planned, even if that blessing leaves us with a little bit of a limp. God is the One who gives us a new name, who makes us part of God's muddy, messed-up, wrestling people. God is the one who gets God's hands dirty in order to bring us across the river of death into new life.

Jacob wrestled with God, and discovered an unexpected blessing. The God of Jesus Christ wrestles with us and brings us into new life. Amen.

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