My St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball, and the playoffs will soon be here. Football season has started. While the Cyclones have not set the world on fire, we can at least look forward to playing Kansas next. Tennis, golf, NASCAR – they are all in full swing. For those who are hockey fans, preseason hockey has already started and opening night is October 7. You can head over to Hilton to catch an ISU volleyball match, and basketball practice begins in a couple of weeks. This is a great time of year for sports fans.
You may have your own favorite sport, but if you had to name the quintessentially Iowan sport, it would probably be none of these. Wrestling is popular in Iowa as it is nowhere else. And I’m not just talking about that great wrestling tournament known as the Iowa Caucus.
A high school wrestling website rated Iowa #1 on its wrestling-crazy index, a measure of nationally rated wrestlers per capita in each state. It wasn’t even close.
All of us 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 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, we can sometimes feel like we are wrestling – with others, with life, even with ourselves. Maybe even with God.
Last Sunday, we looked at the birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. This week we move ahead a generation. Isaac marries Rebecca, and they have twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Esau is born first, but Jacob comes right after, grabbing Esau’s heel. He is named Jacob, meaning heel-grabber or usurper.
Jacob wasn’t just born grabbing Esau’s heel; he kept wrestling with him. Jacob gets Esau, who is famished and not thinking very clearly, to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob will receive Esau’s larger share of the inheritance as the oldest son. And then with the help of his mother, Jacob tricks his father Isaac, who has lost his eyesight, to give him the blessing that belonged by right to Esau. Isaac pronounces a blessing of God’s favor on Jacob, thinking that the son before him is Esau, and once spoken, the words cannot be taken back. Esau finds that Jacob has yet again stolen what belongs to him and is enraged.
It seems a good time to skip town, and so at his mother’s suggestion, Jacob goes back to the old country to find a wife. There he worked for his Uncle Laban for 20 years. He worked seven years for the right to marry Rachel, but Laban pulled the old switcheroo at the wedding, and Jacob unknowingly married Rachel’s older sister Leah. Jacob the trickster is tricked himself. 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. By now has 11 sons and one daughter, and through cunning and trickery – through wrestling with Laban - he has become very wealthy. And yet 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, and it is entirely of his own doing. 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 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 sentiment you find on charms and pendants that friends may wear – 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.
In this instance, “God will watch between you and me” is not actually a statement of care. It is more like saying, “My eyes are on you, mister, and if you mess up, mister, by God I will hunt you down.” You don’t find Christian bookstores selling charms with that part.
Finally Jacob and his household are 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. He is coming with a small army.
This was not 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.
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 the one he is wrestling with is God.
The struggle goes on and on, and Jacob still refuses to let go. The man strikes Jacob in the hip and he is in pain, but he still will not let go. Jacob says, “I will not let go until you bless me.” And God, the wrestler, says, “What is your name?”
What is it with Genesis and names? Two weeks ago, we looked at the story of creation, with the man naming the animals. Last week, it is Abram and Sarai, and God changing their names to Abraham and Sarah, the forbears of a great nation.
Names can carry great meaning, and this is true yet today. This week we welcomed a new member into our church family, Ethan Robert Phomvisay. His middle name is after Mindy’s father, who passed away a couple of years ago. There is a hope that this child will have something of the spirit his grandfather had. Ethan was also given a Lao name by Aiddy’s parents: Nelamith, which means “Amazing Spirit.” Names can embody the hopes we have.
This wrestler by the riverside who is in fact God asks Jacob his name. Names had an even greater power in that day and were considered to not only describe a person but in some way they were prophetic regarding a person’s character and destiny. In a sense, by asking his name, God is asking Jacob, who are you?
Jacob’s answer, as much as anything is a confession. “I am Jacob.” Jacob is admitting to who he is. I am a schemer. A trickster. A shyster. A manipulator. A cheat. I am Jacob, the one who deceived his father and betrayed his brother. I am Jacob, the one who will outmaneuver anyone I can. I am Jacob, the heel-grabber. . . . bless me. Bless me.
It may be the first time Jacob has claimed his name, 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 somebody else’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 faults 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 struggles with God, the God-wrestler. It is a positive affirmation of who Jacob is.
Walter Brueggeman sees the wrestling with God in terms of 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.It is hard for us to imagine wrestling all night with God, demanding a blessing, as Jacob does. We tend to tread lightly around the holy. We don’t want to mess with God. But look at Jacob. Look at the way the people of the Bible struggled with God. You would be hard pressed to find a significant character in the Bible that did not face struggle. And in our New Testament scripture, we have the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, struggling mightily with God, praying that this cup might pass.
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… That is, [our] prayer assumes that in our condition we have no rights to press or insist upon God. On the other hand, [our] prayer is influenced by modernist secularism which does not ask much... 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.
To struggle with God, to wrestle with God, means that we take God seriously. It means that we include God, that God is there with us as we face the difficulties of life. We might want to think that if a person struggles with God, it is a sign of weak faith – but I think it may be just the opposite.
Wrestling is a pretty intimate sport. In baseball, a batter is 60 feet 6 inches away from the pitcher. If you swim or run track, there is no contact with your opponent. Even in a sport like football, you are wearing pads and helmets and you are not in contact all the time. In wrestling, you are up close and personal. To wrestle with God means that you and God are right there, together, fully engaged, in close contact, right in the midst of your struggles.
In Pope Francis’ address to Congress, he mentioned four Americans who were examples of faith and courage. Abraham Lincoln, who led our nation through the civil war and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement. Dorothy Day, an advocate for the poor and homeless who started the Catholic Worker Movement. And Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was a writer and social activist. His autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, is a devotional classic.
Besides being uniquely American and being proponents of liberty and justice, what these four had in common was enormous struggle. They all endured harsh criticism, even threats, sometimes even from their own communities. They confronted inner struggles. They all had to face a dark night of the soul. I think you could say that they all wrestled with God.
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 had to struggle with these questions in a personal way. 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, through a wrestling match, beyond anything that he imagined, Lewis finds his way to a faith that has been strengthened and proven through the fire.
Anne LaMott said, “God loves you just the way we are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” In the midst of our struggling, in the midst of our wrestling can come transformation.
Jacob is transformed by the experience. Oh, he still has his issues, to be sure, but he is never the same. When he meets his brother Esau, he is able to say to Esau, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
We always look at this story from Jacob’s point of view, which is only natural. There is some of Jacob in all of us. But the picture may be different from God’s point of view. One writer imagined this scene as 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.
What is amazing to me is that the nation of Israel traces its name to this incident. Jacob’s name becomes Israel and his descendants carry that name to this day. It is an odd story, a strange story, yet it is one of the formative stories of the Hebrew people. Walter Brueggeman asked, “What kind of God wrestles someone like Jacob to a draw?” And the answer seems to be, a God who desires a relationship. God wants to be with us in our struggles.
This story is not an invitation to go out and try to struggle with God. Here, God initiates the whole thing. Jacob wasn’t looking for a stranger to wrestle with. We don’t have to go looking for struggles; they just come. But when they do, we need to ask where God is in this struggle.
Life can sometimes it can be painful. But as we struggle, God is there alongside us, holding us, blessing us, transforming 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.