In high school I knew a guy named John. John was a year ahead of me and he was a wrestler. He was a great wrestler. In fact, he was an undefeated Indiana state champion and had all kinds of college scholarship offers. He decided to go to college in Iowa, which is pretty well the center of the wrestling universe. (I don’t remember if he went to Iowa State or the University of Iowa – I wasn’t paying that much attention to Iowa in those days - but I have a bad feeling it was U of I.)
Wrestling is a part of the Iowa landscape – it is more popular here than in any other state. (And no, I’m not just talking about the Straw Poll.)
We all know something about wrestling. Even if you have never been to a wrestling meet, even if you couldn’t care less about the sport, we all have some experience wrestling, because wrestling is not just something that happens over at Hilton Coliseum. There is a lot of mental and spiritual wrestling that goes on in our lives. Life can be a real struggle. When the stress and the pressure and the uncertainty pile up, when times of grief and pain and sadness come, when we have to make hard choices, when events happen and our notions of how the world works and what our faith means are called into question, we can sometimes feel like we are wrestling – with others, with life, maybe even with ourselves. Maybe even with God.
We have been looking at the life of Jacob this summer. The lectionary followed the story line of Jacob’s life for a few Sundays, but we have gone on to fill in some of the rest of the story. You can read it through in Genesis and figure out why we left out some of it. As we have learned, it is quite a story. Wrestling seems a perfect metaphor for Jacob’s life.
He wrestled with Esau – he was born grabbing Esau’s heel and just kept wrestling with him, taking his birthright and blessing and then fleeing for his life, going back to the old country as his mother suggested to find a wife. He wound up in a wrestling match with Uncle Laban. He worked for Laban for 20 years. He worked seven years for the right to marry Rachel, but Laban pulled the old switcheroo and Jacob unknowingly married Rachel’s older sister Leah. Jacob then worked another seven years to marry Rachel, the one he loved. Being married to two women, two sisters at that, and having an obvious favorite did not exactly lead to marital bliss or family tranquility. More wrestling.
In the end, Jacob wound up profiting from his time with Laban. He made what at the time seemed like a good deal for Laban – after working 14 years for two wives, Jacob’s wage from that point would be the speckled and spotted lambs and black sheep of the flock – which would seem to be a small percentage.
As we read it, it doesn’t really make sense in terms of animal husbandry, it has a hocus-pocus quality to it, but Jacob has a way to make the flock produce young that were striped and speckled and spotted, and so his flock becomes very large. Jacob by now has 12 sons and one daughter, and he is very wealthy. But all is not well. Even though Jacob prospers, he’s not happy. After all, he’s still working for his uncle, and Laban’s sons are becoming upset that Jacob is whittling away at what is rightfully theirs.
Jacob is in a tenuous situation. Laban can see that an unusually high percentage of the flock is speckled and spotted and he knows Jacob is up to something, as always. It was time for Jacob to move on, time to head back home to see if his parents are still alive. It was time to face Esau. It was time to face the music.
Twenty years after leaving home, twenty years after taking both the birthright and blessing that belonged to Esau, twenty years after fleeing for his life, Jacob is still fearful.
First, he is fearful of Laban. He loads up all of his belongings and with flocks and servants and wives and children in tow, he flees in the dead of night. It is three days before Laban finds out that Jacob has taken his daughters and grandchildren and up and left. Laban catches up with the whole contingent and Jacob and Laban come to an understanding. They wind up pledging a covenant. “May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent one from another,” they say. It’s a verse you can find on charms and pendants that friends wear when they are apart – you have to put the two charms together to complete the verse. It sounds beautiful, but those charms leave out the next part, which says, if you mistreat my daughters or take another wife, God will see it (and the implication is, “I will hunt you down.”) I’d like to see the Christian bookstores try to sell a charm with that verse.
Finally Jacob and his household are on the move, on their way. Jacob may have been fearful of Laban, but he was more fearful of his brother Esau. He sends messengers ahead to meet Esau, hoping to find favor with his brother. And the messengers return, saying that Esau is coming to meet him. And he is bringing 400 men.
This did not sound like good news. Jacob is panicky. He divides his group into two companies, thinking that if there is bloodshed, maybe at least half of them might survive. He sends gifts ahead to Esau, hoping for his favor.
Jacob comes to the Jabbok River. He helps his wives and children and flocks cross the river, he gets all of his possessions across. Jacob is the last one remaining, the last one left to cross the river. And suddenly, there is a man there, wrestling with him. They wrestle until daybreak. Neither will give in. Jacob holds on for dear life; he refuses to let go. And somewhere along the way, Jacob realizes that he is not wrestling with Esau; he is wrestling with God. The Hebrew people believed that no one could look at God and live. So perhaps God is trying to protect Jacob by trying to end the fight. “Let me go, for day is breaking.”
But even with the danger of death, Jacob will not let go. He literally will not let go even if it kills him. The man struck Jacob on the hip and he is in pain, but he still will not let go. Some of you know what hip pain is like, but Jacob continues to struggle. Jacob says, “I will not let go until you bless me.”
And God, the wrestler, says, “What is your name?”
Where have we heard this before? Twenty years earlier, Jacob schemed his way to receiving the blessing of his father Isaac, the blessing intended for his brother. The last time Jacob asked for a blessing, Isaac had said, “Who are you? Tell me your name.” How many times had Jacob replayed that scene in his mind? How many times had he been unable to sleep, remembering that he had said, “I am your son Esau.”
And now, here it is again. “What is your name?” But this time, he answers, “I am Jacob.” The Schemer. The Trickster. The Shyster. The Manipulator. I am Jacob, the one who deceived his father and betrayed his brother, the one who will outmaneuver anyone I can. I am Jacob . . . please bless me.
It may be the first time Jacob has fully owned up to his identity. This time he is not stealing the blessing that belongs to someone else. He is not lying and cheating in order to get what is another’s. He is asking for a blessing that suits him, and before he can get it, he has to stand honestly before God with all his virtues and shortcomings plain to see. When he finally does this, finally admits that he is who he is, God offers him a new name.
“You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and humans and have prevailed.” Jacob is now Israel – the one who strives with God, the God-wrestler. It is a positive affirmation of who Jacob is.
Walter Brueggeman sees the wrestling with God as a prayer. He writes,
The prayer is an honest, unflinching conversation between partners, albeit disproportionate partners, who have a shared interest which Jacob is not timid in pursuing.Brueggeman is right. We don’t talk to God the way Jacob did. We don’t wrestle with God like that because we either think we shouldn’t talk to God in that way or we don’t think God can really do anything about our situation.
I propose that too much conventional church prayer is excessively soft and accommodating, and has lost the defiant edge that belongs to petitionary prayer. Such prayers are softened in our common usage, on the one hand, by defeatist piety too much shaped by moralism. That is, prayer assumes that in our condition we have no rights to press or insist upon God. On the other hand, such softened prayer is influenced by modernist secularism which does not ask much, because God has become a stable object but no active subject. I.e., we do not pray vigorously because we do not imagine a God who could respond vigorously or effectively. Our sense of self is too humiliated and our sense of God is too emptied to pray with the nerve and robustness that father Jacob readily utters.
Not Jacob. Roberta Hestenes asked, “What is it that Jacob wanted more than anything else in life? What is it that we, in the deepest longings of our being, want more than anything else?”
She answers, “Sometimes we don’t even know how to put our longings into words. But the word for Jacob was the word “blessing.” I want to know the smile of God. I want to know the favor of God. I want to know that what I am doing with my life is pleasing to the one who made me, that my life has purpose and significance that honors the God that has called me and made promises to me.”
Jacob wrestled with God, he held on until he was blessed, and he was forever changed by the struggle. Anne Lamott says that God loves you just the way you are and God loves you too much to let you stay that way. Twenty years earlier, God told Jacob that God would be with him and protect him and bless him, which is another way of saying that God loved him. Since that encounter, Jacob has gone on being himself, grasping and scheming his way into more than his share of his Uncle Laban’s wealth. God has loved Jacob all along, but this is his moment of transformation. And it comes through struggle.
In our New Testament lesson, Paul writes to the Philippians and says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Through the struggle.
At the beginning of the movie “Shadowlands,” C.S. Lewis lectures confidently on the problem of evil. “Suffering is the megaphone through which God gets our attention,” he tells his students. He speaks as somebody who has all the answers, because he has never really struggled with these questions. At the end of the movie, Lewis’ wife has died of cancer. Lewis knows that he needs to talk to her son, Douglas, to try to offer a comforting word. He decides to tell the boy about his own mother’s death. Lewis says, “When I was about your age my mother got sick and I prayed so hard for her to get well.” Douglas interrupts, “It doesn’t work, does it?” For what looks like the first time, Lewis isn’t sure how to answer.
Finally he begins to cry, “No. It doesn’t work.” Out of grief, through struggle, beyond anything that he imagined, Lewis finds his way to a faith that has been strengthened and proven through the fire.
Sometimes we have to wrestle with our faith, wrestle with what we believe, wrestle with our notions of who God is and how God operates, in order to come to a deeper and stronger faith.
We always look at this story from Jacob’s point of view. But it may look different from God’s point of view. One writer imagined this from God’s viewpoint and sees God holding Jacob through the night as Jacob wrestled with himself. A lot of the wrestling we do may be wrestling with life, wrestling with choices, wrestling with circumstances, wrestling with ourselves in the presence of God.
School is about to start. Students are already arriving. Some of our students who live in Ames will be going away to college soon (at least one of you right after the benediction!), and through it all, through our experience at ISU - or UNI or DMACC or Cincinnati or the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, or wherever, there will be plenty of wrestling going on. And it’s not just students: there are all kinds of kinds of changes in life that all of us have to face. There will be struggles and hard choices and decisions about friends and values and time and vocation and priorities. There are decisions we all have to make about what is good and what is just and what is right. If we take God seriously, there will be struggles about where and how we fit in God’s world and how we will live out this life that God had blessed us with and what part we will have in making known God’s goodness and justice and mercy and love.
Life involves struggle, and sometimes it can be painful. But as we struggle, God is there alongside us, blessing us, transforming us, holding us until we see the sunrise. God loves us just the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay that way. Amen.