Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
Title: Wrestling God
It may surprise you, but I am not a fan of wrestling. However, I did enjoy Netflix’s new series about wrestling called GLOW. GLOW is a new series, showing a fictionalized history of the late-’80s syndicated TV show GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling – which was an actual female wrestling league. Maybe some of you may remember this 1980’s pop culture in the heyday of Wrestlemania. This show tells the story of how these rag tag group of women, including struggling actors, past-their-prime athletes, and a B-rated movie director come together to wrestle their way through challenges they faced, both as individuals and as a group. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed watching this series. Beyond the entertainment value of watching 80’s hair, make-up, and fashion style – the show portrays how while these character are wrestling each other with highly choreographed moves, really, they are wrestling their own demons and those moves are always unexpected, as they cannot be choreographed.
In today’s passage, we do not have any gorgeous ladies wrestling each other – only Jacob wrestling with an unidentified man – no glitz, no audience, only the darkness surrounds Jacob who is at the center stage of this strange wrestling story of redemption and blessings.
A little back story. If you remember, Jacob and Esau are twins born to Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac and his wife Rebeka. When Isaac became old and blind, Jacob cheated his father and stole Esau’s birthright from him. When Esau discovered what Jacob had done, he became furious. In order to protect himself from Esau’s fury, Jacob had to run away and hide at his uncle Laban’s home. While staying at Laban’s home, Jacob married Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel and he became a wealthy man with many children and flocks.
After many years, Jacob was ready to return home and reconcile with his brother Esau. Esau, upon hearing about Jacob’s return, decided to come to meet Jacob, along with 400 men. When Jacob heard this news, he was not sure what to make of the size of this welcoming committee. Jacob was scared that Esau and his 400 men would come to kill him and his family. He prayed to God asking, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children” (Gen 32:9-11).
Jacob was a smart man and in order to appease his brother, he prepared droves of animals to be presented to Esau even before Jacob met his brother (Genesis 32:13-21)! After carefully planning how to encounter Esau, Jacob decides to sends his family and the rest of his flocks before him and he spends a night alone. That brings us to the beginning of our passage for today. Jacob goes to bed, but sometime during that same night, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24).
In this corner, we have Jacob the trickster, weighing in at 170 lb. In this corner, we have an unidentified man of substantial size…but not sure how much he weighs. And round one! They are neck and neck – a pretty even match – wow, the tenacity of Jacob is something to note here. There are no signs of easing up here. They have been at it – for some time now – how long will these men keep up their strength? We are near daybreak. Will this wrestling match ever end? Wait, it looks like the unidentified man has struck Jacob’s hip socket. Ouch, that’s gotta hurt! Jacob looks to be in pain. Will Jacob tap out? No, Jacob is still holding on to his opponent. The sun is about to rise, will the sunrise give way to the identity of this strong opponent? Who will tap out first? Jacob or his opponent? Aah, in a dramatic shift, the opponent released his hold on Jacob and wait, he is gone! Where did he go? Jacob seems to be okay, but he is limping from the sustained injury! What a match! Wait then, who won the match? You be the judge!
From the dialogue, we can deduced that the unidentified man was God. Jacob wrestled God and prevailed. Jacob “wrestled” with his brother Esau over the firstborn’s birthright and he “wrestled” with his father-in-law Laban for his rights. Now, Jacob will become “Israel” and he will continue to wrestle and prevail. That was his reward – a new identity.
What can we learn from this strange story of Jacob wrestling God and prevailing?
For me, this story of Jacob wrestling God shows us that life entails strife, conflict and struggle. We struggle with the unfathomable mystery of God who comes to us in human form. We struggle with our own fears and failures. We struggle with our grandiosity and greed. We struggle with our yesterdays and the baggages we did not get to unpack from our past. We struggle today because of the unknown tomorrow – with all the anxieties that accompanies the unknown tomorrow. We struggle and we wrestle with our own demons. But just as Jacob held on, if we can learn to hold on, we too can receive a reward. It is when we hold on and struggle through the suffering with tenacity, we receive our blessings. However, that blessing is not what we think it is. We tend to believe that meeting God leads us to healing, but in this case, meeting God led Jacob to be wounded by God. Meeting God had a crippling effect on Jacob in a profound and deep way that left him a completely different person. He was no longer the “heel/trickster/over-reacher/supplanter” Jacob, but Israel, the one strives and prevails. That was his blessings.
What does this mean for us that our God is God who can be wrestled down and prevailed against? What kind of God allows to be prevailed against a human? What kind of God blesses us with wounds that will not disappear? According to theologian Walter Bureggemann, this story of Jacob wrestling God “reflects some of Israel’s most sophisticated theology…theology of weakness in power and power in weakness turns this text toward the New Testament and the gospel of the cross.” What kind of God? We know what kind of God…the kind of God who would send Jesus to be born of an unmarried teenaged girl in a stable…the kind of God who would allow Christ himself to bear the sins of humanity on the cross to die…the kind of God who would entrust the biggest news of his resurrection to be shared by a few women, whom society did not even take seriously.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, encountering God always leaves an indelible mark on you. What indelible mark are you wearing? How have you received this mark?
Perhaps you are wrestling with somethings that are too difficult to identify or too painful to name. Some of you are wrestling a sense of failure, a difficult financial situation, a hurtful relationship, a mental illness, or a physical challenge. Some of you are wrestling what it means to know God’s love in grief and loss. Some of you are wrestling with what it means to live as God’s people in the political and personal landscape of your reality. Pastor Henry reported back that he is wrestling with learning his Spanish irregular verb tenses at the moment! The truth of the matter is that we are all wrestling something important. I have been wrestling all my life with my sense of call to serve God. I have not prevailed, for I am still wrestling God, asking God to let me go, but God’s love will not let me go. My indelible mark is in my ordination and I know that is a blessing – not the kind of blessing I had envisioned but an undeniable blessing I am grateful for.
True blessings we receive are beyond the visible and tangible blessings of wealth. Popular Prosperity Gospel and their preachers may have us believe otherwise, but there’s more to God’s blessings than wealth and health. True blessings we experience is encountering God, surviving the encounter, and walking away as a different person altogether because of that encounter, walking away as “wounded healer” to use Henri Nouwen’s phrase.
This enigmatic passage reveals to us God who will not be neatly explained away to our human liking – this is God who refused to be identified – God who will engage human beings at God’s choosing – God who is strong enough to overcome a wrestling match, but cannot escape a human grip – God who is too holy to see face-to-face and survive, yet God who is not too holy to wear human form to wrestle – God who blesses by giving a new identity. How are we do understand this God? Perhaps we are to accept the mysteries of this elusive God. Perhaps, we are not invited to understand but to simply hold on to the struggle, entrusting ourselves to God who is present in the midst. We are a people of faith that seeks understanding, but we are a people of faith, faith that is beyond understanding as well.
So who won the wrestling match? God? Jacob? I like the Professor of Old Testament, Beth Tanner’s description:
We live in a culture that celebrates winners, those that defeat the other. They appear to defeat their doubts and losses. But if the truth is named from the pulpit, these wins are a deception. In life, often all we can do is hang on. We cannot defeat grief or heartbreak; they will leave a mark. We must be like Jacob and refuse to let go of God until a blessing provides new insights that will once again transform us. Just as God fights for us, sometimes we must fight our questions and doubts and our pain and refuse to let go until we are blessed enough to continue on this journey with God. Today if we dare, we can lift up and even celebrate our struggle for a relationship with God and the mysteries of life. Not as a platitude, but by remembering God does not give up on us, and it is our job not to give up on God.
Friends, today, you will receive the mark of the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, through our communion celebration. May the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation nourish and sustain you through all the wrestling matches you will encounter. Remember, blessings come to those who hold on until the daybreak. The blessing is in having seen God’s face in the struggle. Amen.