Wrestling with God
Text: Genesis 32:22-30
Proper 24, C
The Christian mother wrings her hands in desperation, as she waits the inevitable phone call about her way-ward child. Where did she go wrong? Didn't she raise him right? Didn't she send him to Sunday School and confirmation? Why is he always in trouble? Why is God not helping? The Christian man struggles to sit up in bed. Everything hurts. Everything is falling apart. Why must he suffer so? Didn't he lead a good life? Didn't he take God's words to heart and treat his body like a temple? Why is it failing him now? Why is God failing him when he needs Him more than ever? The young Christian couple slump in their chairs. Strewn on the table before them is a pile of bills they may never be able to pay. Why is it so hard to make ends meet? Will they have enough left over for food this month? Where are all the blessings they were promised? Where is God?
“Something must be wrong with my faith. It’s just so difficult. If God loves me so much, why is life so hard?” Perhaps you have heard these words from others. Perhaps you have said them yourself, outside a hospital room or late into a sleepless night. Somewhere along the way, we have learned to associate grace with an experience of ease and faith with a life without struggle. When struggle does enter our life, when things do not go as planned, when belief in God does not magically produce everything our hearts have ever desired, we begin to question whether or not we truly believe and, sometimes, we wonder whether or not this God is one we want to believe in.
This struggle is nothing new. Our Lord himself prepared His disciples for a lifetime of struggle. You see it in our gospel reading, as He encourages them to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). You hear it in His offer of rest to those who follow Him (Mt 11:30). Faith involves living in a paradox. Following Christ means bearing an easy yoke, carrying a light burden, dying to live, and wrestling with God.
22The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. In our Old Testament reading, we catch a glimpse of this paradox, buried deep within the history of God’s people. Here, we meet Jacob, soon to be named “Israel,” because he strove with God. What he learns, in a very literal way, is that faith means living in a gracious struggle.
This world’s wisdom says, “Everything comes at a price.” Sometimes, we are tempted to believe that our efforts to follow the way of Jesus, our hours in prayer, our dollars in donation, our years of Bible study, and our lifetime of service somehow earn us the gracious favor of God. Even if you don't expect the whole world on a silver platter, a little ease, a little less suffering, a little something to make the sacrifices worthwhile would be nice.
I wonder just how many times in his long and checkered history Jacob felt the same way? In our text, Jacob’s struggle with the angel does not earn him God’s blessing. In fact, Jacob has lost everything at this moment – everything he has spent the last twenty years and all his crafty wiles to build up. In the dark of night he finds himself left all alone on this side of the river; God’s angels are gone; his possessions are gone (sent ahead as a way of buying back his brother’s blessing); and his family is gone. Ultimately, the deceit with which he gained his father’s blessing is gone. He stands there with nothing in hand, and no further deceit or trick to hide behind. Jacob names himself before God – lays bare the identity he has been running from all those years – and, in that moment of confession, receives God’s blessing and a new name. So, too, our salvation lies not in our works or our efforts but in the will of God and the work of his only Son, Jesus Christ, who died on our behalf.
Being saved by grace alone can sometimes deceive people into believing that the life of faith is easy. To believe, they think, is to be delivered from suffering in this life and to have faith, they insist, is to name and claim your blessing from God. Yet, such was not the life our Lord envisioned as he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers live not in glory now, but in suffering, carrying the cross. This life of gracious struggle is not new to God’s people. In fact, it lies at the heart of their name, Israel.
25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
In our text, Jacob experiences God’s blessing, but only in the midst of great struggle. His understanding of God and His blessings comes slowly, painfully, and mysteriously. After a long night’s struggle, the man who assaulted Jacob is slowly revealed to be more than a man. With a dislocated hip and a dawning understanding, Jacob painfully holds on, crying out for blessing. Yet consider this, dear friends, even after God’s blessing, Jacob now “Israel” continues to live in a gracious struggle with God. Though Jacob has seen God, God and His workings still remain a mystery (Jacob’s request to know his name is never answered). Israel will continue to wrestle with the goodness of God all his life. A son will be lost, a family fractured, a grief persisting for more than twenty years. His home will need to be given up, and he will die as a stranger in Egypt. But through it all the blessing remains. We do not tell God what gifts He may bestow on us for our faith in Him. Rather, He comes with gifts in hand to give even to those who would seek to wrestle them from Him. Gifts of Forgiveness, life and salvation. Gifts of His Son, His Spirit, His Kingdom.
At the heart of this all-night wrestling match lies a profound mystery: God works graciously in the midst of struggle. On the one hand, though Jacob struggles with people and with God, he receives God’s blessing freely by grace. On the other hand, though Jacob receives God’s blessing, his life continues to be one of striving. Do not think that your life should be any different. There will be times when you are tempted to ask Where is God? Where are the promised blessings? Why must it be so hard? When you do, remember the tension of a gracious struggle is not evidence that something is wrong with our faith but rather the manifestation of an active faith, a life of gracious struggle before God. And by Christ's freely given gifts of forgiveness, in that struggle, in that wrestling, we shall prevail!