A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 32 on Sunday, 24 November 2019
We all wrestle with God. You. Me. All of us. From the greatest saint to the most humble believer. Of course, we think we are the only one, that no one else feels what we experience. We feel isolated by shame or self-pity. But we all wrestle with God in our own way.
Some of us fight with God for supremacy. We want to be the master of our fate, the captain of our soul in all the storms of life, and we wrestle for control on the steering wheel of life. Some of us struggle instead with doubt and disappointment. Life feels like wandering through a wilderness without a map or a compass. And it hurts to see how far short our life falls of our hopes and expectations. And if that is not our own fault we look for others to blame. Even God. Some of us are so afraid that we will never be blessed that we take every short cut to tip the odds more in our favour.
We all wrestle with God. It is as useless as arguing with a mountain or blaming a cloud or fighting the tide. But we all do it. And I do it too. And the trick I’ve found in my wrestling with God is not to let go until he blesses me.
This is what we see in Jacob’s life. Jacob never just let things happen. He never waited for the right moment or the right way for what he wanted. Everything was struggle and fight. We saw in Genesis chapter 25 two weeks ago that Jacob took advantage of his brother Esau’s impulsiveness to “buy” his birthright for a bowl of stew. Last week, we saw in chapter 27 how Jacob cheated his brother out of his father’s blessing. He pretended to be his brother. Put on Esau’s clothes and put hairy goat skins on his arms to trick his blind father.
Jacob’s life’s motto was “God helps those who help themselves.” But although he seemed to win, Jacob ended up losing everything. His brother hated him. Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob had to run away and his mother sent him to her brother Laban, who lived hundreds of kilometres away. He had to leave his home. He had to leave his family. He had to leave the land that God had promised to give to his grandfather Abraham. And Jacob turned up at his uncle Laban’s with nothing but his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, the staff in his hand and the shirt on his back.
And there Jacob got a dose of his own medicine, when he found in his uncle Laban a man even craftier than himself. The cheater was cheated and the trickster was tricked. Jacob agreed to work for his uncle for seven years for his daughter Rachel and woke up after the wedding night married to her sister Leah instead. For the promise of another seven years’ work, Jacob ended up with both sisters. Two wives? One is more than enough. As Oscar Wilde said, “Bigamy is two wives too many.” For six more year’s work, Jacob earned all his uncle’s spotty and stripy animals. And Jacob’s flocks were made up of the undesirables and the cast offs.
After 20 years of exile with his uncle, Jacob received the word to go back home. But that message didn’t come from his mother. His mother Rebekah had thought that Jacob’s exile with his uncle was only going to be temporary. A couple of months. Maybe a year or two. She was going to call him home when his brother Esau calmed down and didn’t want to kill him anymore. But Rebekah died while her favourite son was still far from home. And she never sent Jacob any message. So the call to come home didn’t come from his mother. It came from God. “Go back to the land of your fathers and I will be with you.”
Without a word to his father-in-law, Jacob packed up his wives, his twelve sons, his daughter, and his flocks and herds of spotty and stripy animals. But just before he crossed the river Jordan to return to the land of promise, Jacob got an attack of the nerves. What if his Esau still hated him and wanted to kill him? So he organised a gift to appease his brother. Two hundred nanny goats and twenty billy goats. Two hundred ewes and twenty rams. Forty cows and ten bulls. Twenty female donkeys and ten males. And thirty female camels with their babies. If that didn’t work, if that didn’t calm Esau down, he split his family and herds into two groups so that if his brother attacked one group, the other might survive. Even humbled. Even older and wiser, Jacob is still playing the same games, manipulating things in his own favour. At least he has learned to give and not just to take.
And then he prayed,
“O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ”
Jacob at last has learned that he has nothing that God has not given him and that without God all that he has will come to nothing. Jacob is not yet a perfect man. Perhaps not even a good man. But he is not the same man who had cheated his brother twice and had been forced to run away.
That night Jacob sent his flocks and his herds and his wives and his children across the river without him. So that he was left all alone on the wrong side of the river, still outside the land of promise with everything that he left with in the first place. With nothing. When a man suddenly attacked him and started fighting him and wrestled with him from midnight until dawn. For hours and hours neither the stranger nor Jacob let the other go. So that as the sun began to rise and a new day dawned, the stranger touched Jacob on the hip and the joint dislocated, just to show that he could have crippled him at any time.
We all wrestle with God but none of us wrestle with him as equals. If we are able to put up a fight it is only because God tolerates us and makes allowances for our weakness. Like a father might wrestle with his four year old son. God does this because he wants to teach us and to test our strength, not overpower us and destroy us, although he easily could.
But even on one leg Jacob wouldn’t let him go. “Let me go,” said the stranger.
And Jacob, coming close to figuring out with whom he’d been wrestling, replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
And the stranger said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with people and have overcome.”
Here is the bombshell this story has been heading for. This is why the book of Genesis goes to such lengths to follow the career of a man who has so few good points. A man that only his mother could love. A cheater, trickster and weapons grade manipulator. This man named Jacob by his parents, which means grasper, because he was born holding on to his older twin brother’s foot, and grasped at everything in his life, is renamed by the God who he has been fighting with, not just all night, but all his life. He is given the name Israel.
It’s an ambiguous name. It could have a double meaning. It could mean, God fights, as in “God fights for him.” Or it could mean, he fights God. And it probably is meant to mean both. Israel. And it’s not just the name of one man. It becomes the name of a whole country of people descended from this man. Israel. A nation for whom God fought. Rescuing them from Egypt. Bringing them to the promised land. Carving out a place in the sun for them to grow. God fought for Israel.
And all the way Israel fought their God. Grumbling. Turning against him. Selling themselves to statues. Building altars to foreign gods. And for their sin, God sent them into exile to a foreign land with the promise that he would be with them and that he would bring them back.
The life of Jacob, Israel, is a prophecy of what would happen to the nation named after him. Having been promised the blessing, Israel would try to buy it or to steal it they would fight with people and with God. But the secret to their return from exile, the key to crossing the river that divided them from the promise and coming home is found in the example of Jacob who was just like them. And that secret was to not let go of God until he blessed them.
We are all like Jacob. Like Israel. Even we who trust in Christ and have been grafted into the new Israel, the new people of God. We struggle with God for control of our life’s steering wheel. We fight for control, but we can’t overpower God, who could dislocate our hip in a moment and sometimes does. Out of fear, we manipulate others, but all that we gain is only a gift from God and we have nothing without him. We sin, but that does not mean we are condemned. We doubt, but that does not mean that we are abandoned. If we do not let go. Even if we are humbled. Even if we are crippled. Even if all seems lost, if we do not lose our grip on God until he blesses us.
For no one wrestled like our Lord Jesus. Who prayed in the garden, “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” Who prayed on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet who crossed the river of death with these words on his lips, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Here is a man who wrestled with God and did not let go. And who was blessed. Whose struggle was rewarded with life. Whose undying grip was exalted to the right hand side of God.
We all wrestle with God. We are exiled by our sin. We feel exiled by our suffering. A river of judgment and disappointment lies between us and the life of blessing. But the cross of Christ forms the bridge and Christ himself leads the journey across. And the key to finding that blessing is to latch on to Christ by faith and to not let go until he blesses us.