Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 13)

Text:  Genesis 32:22-31
Then a man came and wrestled with him (Jacob) until just before daybreak. When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint.
The man said, "Let me go; daylight is coming."
"I won't, unless you bless me," Jacob answered.
"What is your name?" the man asked. "Jacob," he answered.
The man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel."
Jacob said, "Now tell me your name."
But he answered, "Why do you want to know my name?" Then he blessed Jacob.
Jacob said, "I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive"; so he named the place Peniel. The sun rose as Jacob was leaving Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip

Struggling with God

Jacob, the son of Isaac is the sort of character that lots of companies would love to have as one of their top executives.  Energetic.  Lots of initiative, to the point of being aggressive.  Few scruples when it came to getting what he wanted.  He was not one to take “No” for an answer. If he had something in mind, he wouldn’t give up until he got what he wanted.  Even when the chips were down as in today’s reading that tells about his difficulties at the River Jabbok, he was determined to turn it into profit.  He was not one to give up easy in the face of trouble.  As I said, the business world would clamour to have such a person on their pay roll. 

I reckon Jacob would have made a great car salesman.  I can just hear him say, “Hi!  My name is Jake from Rusty Car Sales. We have beautiful previously owned, low mileage automobiles and with no deposit and low payments you can be the proud of one of these beauties. No reasonable offer will be turned down”. They might be heap of junk, but Jake could sell a bowl of soup in exchange for his brother’s inheritance, he could sell anything.

The story of the wrestling match on the banks of the Jabbok is not an easy one.  But let’s try by looking at the background of everything that has happened so far in Jacob’s life.

Jacob was the second born of twins. He came into this world with his hand grasping his brother's heel, almost it seemed, trying to pull Esau back so that he could get out ahead. His parents named him Jacob, which means “grabber”.  This was sort of a prophetic foretaste of what kind of person Jacob would turn out to be. By hook or by crook Jacob wanted desperately to always be the winner by trickery, scheming and grabbing what he could get.

He spent his life getting out of one tight spot and quickly ending up in another. He had become his mum’s favourite at home, swindled his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and tricked his dying father into giving him everything.  Who could blame Esau for wanting to strangle his greedy money-grabbing brother?  

Now after 20 years Jacob wants to go back home.  Back to the brother who had threatened to kill him.  Back to the father he had cheated and lied to.  He is about to come face-to-face with the brother whom he has so grievously wronged. How will he react?  Jacob is worried.  Really worried.

In order to soothe the anger of his brother, Jacob organises flocks and herds to go ahead with his servants.  Then he wakes up the whole camp and sends his wives and children across the river. Maybe his thoughts were to soften Esau’s heart when he saw those who would be left widows and orphans if Jacob was killed.

Jacob is the only one left behind. It’s night. And Jacob is attacked by a stranger. Who is this stranger who jumps Jacob in the night?  The story only says “a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak”.  It's dark.  Jacob may have thought the attacker was a robber or even his brother who had sworn to kill him.  However, by morning, Jacob will say that he has fought with God.

This must have been quite some wrestling match.  Bloody nose for bloody nose.  Blow for blow.  Head-lock for head-lock.  Then the man touches Jacob’s hip and dislocates it.  But Jacob continues the fight.  Near dawn, gasping for breath, exhausted, they speak.
“Let me go, day is breaking,” says the man.
“Bless me first,” says Jacob. (Jacob had the happy knack of getting something even in the worst situations.)
“Well, what's your name?” asks the stranger.
“You are no longer called Jacob. You are Israel. You have struggled with God and people and have prevailed.”
“So what's your name?”

Jacob didn’t get an answer to his question.  What he got was a new name, a new identity.  The name Jacob has been associated with other names like “Trickster,” “Grabber,” “Schemer” and “Deceiver”. Now he is called “Israel” which means “God preserves” or “God protects”.  With the new name, there comes a new person, a new man, a new people is formed, called forth. Jacob, now known as Israel is the one who has faced God, struggled with God, been gripped by God, given a blessing, and renamed.  Jacob is forever changed.

With great relief and gratitude Jacob acknowledges that he had been spared through God's gracious goodness, when all he deserved was to be crushed thoroughly and completely.  He had always thought of himself as a self-made man, a person who was in control of his life, but now he realises that in God’s eyes he wasn’t some great hero of earth-shaking significance after all.  Rather, he was a pesky bug, a little buzzing nuisance, an arrogant sinner.

And yet, wonder of wonders, God came down in human form, came down to Jacob’s level and engaged him in this wrestling contest. He did this because he loved that pesky, buzzing, wiggling little arrogant speck of a person.

He loved him!  He blessed him!  No one gets to see the face of God, least of all a man like Jacob. It’s no wonder he says in amazement, “I saw God face to face, and I am still alive.”

Jacob is weakened by his encounter with God's power. But strangely, he is also now much stronger - stronger because now he leans on God's power.

God has come down to interact with and for us, too. This time it is Jesus, God the Son who comes down.  He became human. 
He wrestled with those who would not heed his call to “repent”, turn away from their sin. 
He wrestled with Satan and he won! 
He wrestled with sin and death and triumphed over both through his death and resurrection.  He won, and so as the victor, gives a blessing to each and every person.  He declares that we are his children; that he loves us, forgives us and will always walk with us.  He came down and wrestled us away from Satan and brought us into his kingdom.

The amazing thing that Jacob's story illustrates is that, whatever our past, whatever our previous priorities, Jesus never gives up on us.  Jacob was an annoying man and was completely undeserving of so much of God’s attention.  And yet it is so amazing, so typical of God that just when we think that God would wipe his hands of such a low-life, God does the unimaginable – he loves him and blesses him.

Jacob was involved in a physical wrestle with God but there are times when we find ourselves wrestling with God in other ways.

As we watch small children carried on stretchers bearing wounds inflicted by adults who are engaged in some stupid relentless conflict, we wrestle with the question why these innocent little ones have to suffer like this.  Where is God?  Why does he hide himself at times like this instead of coming with power and stopping this terrible mess?  Jacob left a trail of destruction and hurt people wherever he went but God’s love was always there and God always had a plan.  Sometimes we just have to trust that love even though we don’t understand it.

There are times when we have to wrestle with our own failings – the times we are disappointed in the way we have responded and acted.  Like Jacob, we are assured that
God’s forgiveness is greater than our greatest sin,
his renewal is greater than our deepest failing,
the life he gives is more secure than death,
and that he will be there when we have to wrestle with some of life’s disappointments, doubts, and confusion.

There are times when we have to wrestle with all the calamities, dangers, tragedies and upsets that stops us in our tracks and upsets our best laid plans.  We wrestle with questions like
“Where is God when I need him?”
“Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”
“What have I done to deserve this?”

We struggle with God for direction and purpose in the church.  What does he want us to do?  What new paths does he want us to walk?  Why is he taking us this way when we want to go another way?  Why isn’t the church as big and as successful as many secular organisations? 

We wrestle looking for answers, for help, for strength and in his grace God allows us to wrestle with him as we try to come to terms with what has happened or is happening in our lives.
Sometimes God uses this wrestling and struggling so that we are led to the obvious answer – that is, trust him that everything is in his loving hands and nothing can cause him to love us any less. 
Trust him to use what happens in our lives – unemployment, or problems with our children, health issues and the struggles in our life – to deepen our faith so that we will look only to him and depend on him when life’s problems get us down. 

Suffering is not part of God's plan for us but he will use it to guide us and lead us closer to him if he has to. And, perhaps he already has for some of us here.

And as we wrestle with God, like Jacob, we may come away from it with some lasting injury,
but like Jacob, in our wrestling we will encounter God’s power and learn to lean on him and again experience his grace and mercy,
and like Jacob, we are made new with trust in God, and refreshed in our relationship with God, assured of the blessing of God.

May God’s Spirit use the struggles that we have in this life to draw us closer to our Lord. 
May God’s Spirit use the problems we wrestle with to once again reassure us of the love and grace of our God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
3rd August 2014

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