Wrestling with God

Sunday, September 22, 2019
Pastoral Intern Teleen Saunders

Genesis 32:9-13; 22-30

Grace and peace to you my Augustana friends.  It’s a joy to be with you for my first time in the pulpit this morning.

Now before the seminary, I was an elementary school teacher.  So it seems appropriate for me to start with a pop quiz.  Don’t be nervous.  It’s not painful.  Just give me a head nod if you recognize the name:

Verne Gagne

“Whipper” Billy Watson

Hulk Hogan

Jesse “The Body” Ventura

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

You see where I’m going with this.  And if you didn’t recognize any of these names, the connection is that they are all professional wrestlers and all names I never thought would be in my first sermon at Augustana.  It seems one more name needs to be added to the list and that of course is Jacob.

Now it’s interesting to note that many professional wrestlers have nicknames like “The Crusher” or “The Iron Sheik”.  I’m not sure how they received these names.  Perhaps they had a creative promoter or an adoring fan-club.  But did you notice that Jacob is also given a new name, “Israel”, a name given by God, the ultimate promoter.

Now before we delve too deeply into the story, it’s worth looking back at Jacob’s lineage.  Jacob is the grandson of Abraham, our reading from last week.  The three characters, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are commonly known as “The Patriarchs”.  These are the seeds from which our church is formed.  These are our forefathers.  And if you are unfamiliar with the stories of these families, I encourage you to read about them in the book of Genesis because God also works through Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, strong mothers of the faith.  It’s also important to remember that these stories are not so much concerned with historical accuracy than with the message of God’s relationship with God’s people and consequently, God’s relationship with us today.   These are stories of promise and stories of hope.

To start with, God promised Abraham three things:  To be faithful, to give him land, and to give him as many descendants as there are stars in heaven and sand of the sea.  So, let’s take a closer look at one of the descendants, Jacob.  Jacob was born a twin.  Esau was the first born and Jacob emerged gripping Esau’s heal.  The name “Jacob” literally means, “He takes by the heal,” or “He supplants.”  Now this name is very appropriate because Jacob does supplant his brother.  The Abrahamic promise was supposed to pass to Esau as the firstborn.  However, Jacob took advantage of their father’s poor eyesight and accepted the blessing by trickery.  The word “heal” is a wordplay that works in both Hebrew and English.

Yes, Jacob is a heal.  Even worse, he’s a cheat.  In the World of Professional Wrestling, Jacob would be the guy that brings a folding chair into the ring.  So why in the world should God’s blessing pass through such a flawed individual.  What kind of God knowingly enters into a relationship with someone who doesn’t play by the rules?

It can only be a God who doesn’t play by the rules himself.  A God not of malice and revenge but a God of grace and mercy.  A God of hope.

It’s no mistake that God renames Jacob Israel.  This is the start of the church.  These are God’s people, God’s promises.  This is us!   God knows that we, the church, the children of Abraham, are all flawed.  We too are imperfect.  And if God can give hope to someone like Jacob, then surely God can give hope to someone like us.  And perhaps the blessing goes to Jacob not in spite of his flaws, but because of his flaws.[1]  Because we need hope not in the midst of perfection but in the midst of our humanity.

Standing at the edge of the Jabbok river Jacob is literally at a precipice.  Behind him is his past of arrogance, deceit, and betrayal.  In front of him is his future.  All of his worldly possessions, his two wives, eleven children, and an angry brother out for revenge.   And here is Jacob; all alone at the river’s edge, until he’s not.

This text seems intentionally vague as to Jacob’s unnamed opponent.  The passage simply reads, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”   And when daylight threatens to expose the identity of the opponent, the match ends.  Yes, Jacob wrestles.  He wrestles with his identity, his past, his transgressions, and his very life.  What I like about this text is that Jacob’s unspecified opponent could be anything. Some scholars suggest that Jacob is wrestling with angels.  Others propose that he is wrestling Esau.  And another group points to an ancient legend where a demon lurks in the Jabbok.[2] If you’re looking for a literal interpretation with explicit details, I’m afraid you will not find it here.  And I’m OK with that.  I’m OK with keeping our opponent in the dark because there emerges a universality to this story.  How too, are we like Jacob, wrestling with our own issues, standing at our own precipice.   Perhaps you are wrestling with broken relationship?  Or maybe it’s an illness, a fear, a bully, a lack of resources, a direction in life, or simply the daily news?  Whatever it is hold on to God in whatever way necessary. Because God will never let go of you.

In fact, an interesting twist to consider is that Jacob is not wrestling with God as an opponent.  Perhaps Jacob is wrestling with God on his side.  This God who knows Jacob so well.   And when we too wrestle “with” God, we too find that God is our ally.  This is tag-team wrestling where God’s final move is a blessing.

So let’s go back and see how Jacob does it.   Let’s see how Jacob emerges victorious through the long night so that we can be like Jacob and finish blessed.

First, Jacob comes to God in prayer.  Our reading opens in a desperate plea of repentance where Jacob gets down on his knees and cries out to God, “I am not worthy!   I am not worthy of your love.  I am not worthy of your faithfulness.  I am not worthy of your graciousness.  I am but your lowly servant and I am afraid.”  Jacob prays and God wants us to pray too.  It doesn’t matter if you get down on your knees, if you silently meditate, if you go for a walk in the woods, if you sing or bring it into the congregation as a prayer concern.   Do it all!  God wants us to find hope through prayer.  And God promises to listen.

Secondly, Jacob remembers who he is.  He is the son of the promise in the lineage of Abraham and Isaac.  He is literally the symbol of hope.  We too have an inheritance to claim as spiritual descendants of Abraham.  We are baptized children of God, and we inherit the glories of the resurrection.  Christ was on our side when he overcame death so that we might not die but have eternal life.  This is our hope.  And this promise is alive in us today.

Finally, Jacob asks for a blessing because he knows that God is good.  God is loving.  God is faithful. And God is so gracious.  Let us too be like Jacob and bask in the arms of our loving God.

This doesn’t mean that life will be free from human struggles.  There are natural consequences to sin – broken hip sockets and all.   And the pain of sin can linger much like the injury to Jacob.  But God is on our side, in our corner, and on our team.  So let us live in the hope that God will continue to bless us in all our days and will bless the generations that follow as well.

Then perhaps we too will need a new name as God’s people:  Augustana “The Blessing, The Promise, The Hope” of West St. Paul.

Amen

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 263.

[2] Odell, Margaret. “Working Preacher Genesis 32:[9-13] 22-30 Commentary.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, September 22, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/.

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