A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 9 ~ Genesis 32:22-31
(out of lectionary order)
The scripture reading today is one of those famous scenes where most church people seem to know the reference but I suspect that’s usually as far as it goes. Jacob wrestles with God and comes away with a limp. It’s an iconic, archetypal story – instantly identified – but seldom examined. I mean, I’ve never preached on this passage before, but I’m sure I’ve probably referenced it. It’s a fascinating story – worth digging into. To do so we have to ask the question: What brought Jacob to that night of wrestling? Let’s find out!
The last time we talked about Jacob was when I referred to him a few weeks ago as cheating his brother Esau and deceiving his father Isaac, and him fleeing for his life into the wilderness.
There he had his famous ‘Jacob’s ladder’ dream which is the basis for the affirmation of God’s Presence that we use constantly here at Faith United.
Jacob said, Genesis 28:16 “Surely, the Lord is in this place! And I did not know it!”
We say: Surely God is in this place. Help me notice!
From there Jacob ended up in a far off land where his story gets super-complicated. He sees a beautiful girl named Rachel and will do anything to have her. He pledges himself to her father Laban for 7 years labour in exchange for her. At the end of 7 years Laban tricks Jacob (who, you will recall, was a deceitful trickster himself!) and sends the older sister Leah to Jacob’s bed instead. Jacob apparently didn’t realize it and wakes up in the morning married to the wrong girl! Jacob then works another 7 years and is given his beloved Rachel as a wife. 6 more years pass until we get to today’s story – and in the span of that 20 years 1 daughter and 11 sons are born through Jacob – 6 sons from Leah (plus the daughter), 1 son from Rachel, and 2 each from their maidservants.
(Just in case you were wondering what ‘biblical marriage’ looks like! But I digress!)
There will be a 12th son born later.
Anyway, our story today picks up with Jacob taking his two wives, two servant wives, 12 children, and all his flocks and servants away from that far country and he’s heading home to his father Isaac and his brother Esau.
He’s going home to face the music! It’s been 20 years. Remember, he left on the worst of terms.
What kind of reception will he receive?
What kind of reception does he deserve?
Will he have the courage of his convictions to stand before his dad and brother?
This is what Jacob is wrestling with.
The wrestling in our scripture reading becomes a physical manifestation of his inner struggle. But who is he actually wrestling with?
In Hebrew it reads straightforwardly as Jacob wrestling with a man until morning.
Genesis 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
It doesn’t initially say where this man came from, why he was there, or who he was. In the end we interpret the man as an angel of God, but it’s ambiguous.
But it’s weird, right?
I mean, where’d this dude come from?
Did they talk first, or just start wrestling?
Was there an effort to come to a non-violent resolution?
What was at issue?
What caused the ‘fight’?
And it says they are wrestling – literally. We may be tempted to interpret this as Jacob wrestling with his conscience. And maybe that’s exactly the right interpretation; but that’s not how it reads. Although, to read it literally suggests that the two men physically wrestled for hours through the night and unto daybreak. That seems unlikely.
If it’s an angel, well, I guess it must be a junior angel because Jacob appears to be the better wrestler. In verse 25 the man/angel sees that he’s losing and strikes Jacob on the hip and knocks it out of joint. I read that as Jacob’s hip is dislocated. Ouch!
Still Jacob won’t let his opponent go.
The man/angel says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
This is weird too. Why does daybreak matter to a man? Or an angel for that matter?
Jacob won’t let go until he receives a blessing.
Why does Jacob want a blessing from a stranger that he’s been wrestling with for a few hours? This leads us back to thinking it’s been an angel all along.
And we’re also probably supposed to recall that the last time Jacob asked for a blessing – from his father – he got it through deceit and treachery. He stole the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau.
Maybe this whole scene is Jacob’s penance for that?
Maybe this time he’s actually deserving of the blessing because it came from honest effort and an open heart.
Verses 27-28 So (the man/angel) said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
It’s always important in the bible when someone gets a new name. Jacob is given the name ‘Israel’. Israel is a compound word (from the roots sarah+el) that literally means ‘strives + God’ – God strives, God persists, God perseveres – and it also carries the connotation of one who strives or persists with God. Like Jacob did.
But it’s not just what he does – it’s who he is.
It becomes his name, his identity.
Verse 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel/Penuel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Jacob clearly understands that he was not merely wrestling all night with a flesh and blood human, but with the very presence of God.
Peniel and Penuel (in the next verse) are the same word; not sure why it’s spelled differently. This is another compound word (from the roots panim+el) that literally means face+God or presence+God.
But why here? Why now? What’s different in this moment?
What’s different is that when the sun comes up Jacob’s going to see his brother and his father. Remember, he’s already almost home.
He’s already made the big choice to turn around.
This is not a ‘repent and turn back to God’ sermon. Jacob has already done that. He’s heard God’s voice, listened to God’s calling, and upended his life and set course for home.
This isn’t a ‘listen to God and change your life’ message.
It’s a ‘do you have the courage of your convictions’ message.
It’s a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ sermon.
It’s a ‘you’re on the right path, you’re doing the right things, here comes the moment of truth where your faith journey meets head-on with your own resistance’ sermon.
This is Jacob’s final step.
The thing he’s wrestling with might be whether he should turn tail and run away from all this.
Jacob’s on the brink of coming face to face with things – but first he comes face to face with God.
He persists. He perseveres.
And he is blessed.
There’s always a ‘but’.
But he does not walk away unchanged by the encounter.
He comes away with a limp.
Let’s pause a moment.
I don’t want you to jump to the wrong conclusion. You might be tempted to think that wrestling with God causes pain – or that if you take on God you’re going to get hurt.
That’s not the message here.
Jacob’s limp is symbolic, not literal. Just like the man he wrestled with.
It’s a colourful way to describe a great theological truth: when you come face to face with God you are changed by the encounter.
When you open yourself to your deepest self – your most vulnerable self – the place where your deepest hurts and pains and failures and what-ifs hide – when you muster enough faithful courage to let God’s light shine in those dark corners you are going to be changed by the encounter.
You won’t physically come out of it with a limp – but spiritually, theologically, you will be changed.
That’s probably why we don’t preach this story very often.
Oh, we like the idea of Jacob wrestling with God, and we like the idea that God is powerful so Jacob leaves with a limp. God big – me small.
That kind of simplistic reading is easy to take – because it’s easy to walk away from.
But our real challenge here isn’t to walk away – it’s to wrestle ourselves.
And that probably scares us.
We don’t want to wrestle; we want to be spoon-fed.
Wrestling means getting down in the dirt and flopping around and grappling.
It means fighting for something.
It means striving mightily.
It means risking getting your butt kicked.
It means risking losing.
It means risking being exposed.
Wrestling with yourself is the hardest.
It means facing your choices, your habits, your beliefs, your assumptions, your mistakes – and having to deal with the consequences of them.
If you dare to wrestle with God – with a holiness that does not whither or bend or equivocate – then you’d better be prepared to work up a sweat.
And you’d better be prepared to really be changed.
Coming face to face with God in such things certainly requires courage.
There’s a song by the Canadian rock group The Tragically Hip called ‘Courage’. Lyricist Gord Downie was a poet, and naturally the meaning of the song is ambiguous – but I think it connects well with wrestling with your conscience, with God:
There’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.
And yeah, the human tragedy consists in the necessity of living with the consequences.
Under pressure, under pressure.
Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter.
But courage did come for Jacob.
And it did matter.
He found the courage to change his life and face the consequences.
He made the big decision, the grand gesture.
And now, he’s at the precipice of that big decision actually resulting in being lived out.
He’s left alone. The night before a big day. A day of reckoning.
A day where his past choices are coming back to bear on the present.
He’s at a turning point, even though he had already turned and committed to going home.
You see, it’s easy to commit to a grand repentance.
It’s easy to stand up and make a big speech about righting a wrong, or preach a sermon about confession and reconciliation and transformation – but it’s another matter entirely actually living that sermon out.
We know all the right words about anti-racism, and anti-colonialism, and Black Lives Matter, and Indigenous justice, and environmental devastation, and classism, and sexism, and ableism.
We’re awesome at making speeches, and putting out statements, and posting memes on our social media pages.
But then comes the moment when it actually impacts your life.
The moment when you have to actually live it out.
The moment when you realize that it’s actually going to cost you something personally – and facing it will leave you with a symbolic limp.
And that requires courage.
Repentance is easy; living it out, loving it out, is hard.
In a nutshell, this sermon is about having the courage of your convictions.
It’s about being sacredly hip!
You know what needs to be done.
Can you dig deep and do it?
Can you muster the courage to practice what you preach?
It helps to remember that we are not alone! This is no small point. It’s everything!
We are not alone.
We have a wrestling partner who’s ready to rumble anytime we are.
And the wrestling will change us – transform us.
Like Jacob we will be marked by it – and we’ll be blessed by it.
Knowing this, and embodying this is what makes people of faith different.
So Jacob called the place (the face of God, the presence of God), saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and now I’m sacredly hip.”