Toorak Uniting Church

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Struggles with God

Genesis 32: 21 – 31   Matthew 26: 36 – 39
Rev. Ian Brown
31 July 2005

Jacob and Esau were brothers. They fought!
Jacob had to leave. No wonder! He was a cheat, a liar and a con – man. And today we hear about Jacob wrestling with God!

Oh, not again! "Jacob, don’t you know what trouble you could get into?" – I can almost hear his mother, Rebekka remonstrating with him. "Jacob, you stop that this instant!"

But this is different from bickering children. Jacob is a grown man and we get the feeling that this wrestling match is at least metaphoric as well as symbolic of what is going on for Jacob internally. And there is something admirable about a person who will not be cowed, but stands up for himself and struggles to get his way, fights for what he wants, even fights with God.

Do you enjoy watching a fight?
Boxing is terribly out of fashion, and I don’t have a clue why anyone would want to do it, but it has many devoted fans.
Our media thrives on the drama of a good fight. Whether it is in the political arena –or in a far off war, or current affairs making news out of feuding family or neighbors.
The contest and the drama draw huiman interest like bees to honey.
But that is all spectating on fights.
When did you last have a fight, or good old tussle about something dear to you – or as often happens, - with someone who is dear to you?

Jacob’s is an experience we are all familiar with!
Some of us fight with loud voices, some with acid words, some fight with physical intimidation, and some do it with passive aggression, some by withholding and some by letting it all out. We humans have many ways to fight.
And I guess to be honest, many things to fight about.

So is fighting good?
We are all too well aware of the frightening problems of fights that get out of control.
Does this Jacob story condone physical violence?
How much should we struggle for what we want?
- Can I come back to these a little later?
Simply because I think Jacob has a good deal to help us with along the way, as we explore this cameo bout.

Jacob’s life has not really changed much. He is still the same old deceiver and the various relationships he has or which surround him are marked by deceit and cheating: Jacob and Laban; Rachel and Laban, and his wives Leah and Rachel. Laban’s sons complain that Jacob has taken ‘all that was our father’s’. What a family tree!
And Jacob’s earlier deception of Isaac and Esau spring to mind as well.
As Jacob arrives back at the border of the promised land, his home, struggle is again the order of the day. He has to deal with Esau whom he cheated long ago and he is fearful.

He prays to Yahweh, recalling his dream and God’s promise. The promise of descendents and of God being with Jacob, which has proved true so far, is now in jeopardy.

The lectionary reading picks up the story with Jacob taking his wives, maids and eleven children and sending them across the ford at Jabbok. Stop there for a moment and feel the anxiety behind Jacob’s actions. Send the women, children and servants off in front with a potentially angry brother waiting with some 400 men.
I don’t know what he was thinking, but I imagine he was feeling very nervous!
"How will I be received? 400 men!?
Is this the end for me?
What about God’s promise?
Have all my efforts been for nothing?
What will I have to pay for my sins?"
We might identify with some of Jacob’s "issues".

Then Jacob is left alone and has an encounter with "a man". At first the man has no identity until later in the story when we discover Jacob has wrestled with God.
In the Hebrew there is a play on Jacob's name (ya'aqob), the name of the wadi or creek, (Yabboq) and the verb to wrestle (ye'abeq).
It’s cute to know that even 3000 years ago it was a sensitive subject and they joked about their fights too.

The irony is in Jacob asking for a blessing.
He is always looking out for some advantage.
And it is easy to criticize a character like this from our comfortable distance.

But let me look for some positives too.
Jacob has a single minded devotion to his purpose!
He is nothing if not consistent! He is the sort of man you would want on your side, or working for your cause.
Jacob is no quitter!

Even when the odds are badly stacked against him he applies his mind, he plans out the way ahead, organizes the gifts, prays to God, wrestles – metaphorically – physically with God. He engages with God all through this crucial night.

And this point that God blesses Jacob and gives him a new name, the name of Israel and God announces his own identity. Jacob sees God face to face and lives.
The place is named "the face of God" Peni(u)el.
Struggling with God has a positive outcome!

Now, Jacob was not planning a fight with his brother, he comes bearing gifts and looking for reconciliation.
(There’s some things our world leaders and cause fighters could learn from!) - but Jacob does wrestle hard with God.
And God engages with him, however we conceive of it there is some serious business going on here between Jacob and God.
And Jacob is somehow changed through the experience and the new name recognizes this new aspect of his identity. Isra-el means rules with, or strives with God.

This sense of engagement with God, of struggling together is of the very essence of God’s people! They became known as the Israelites, those who strive with, engage with God.

As human beings, we all have things we struggle with.
At different stages of life we wrestle with different issues;
We struggle with not being the centre of the universe, with "I want, give it to me now."
We grow through struggling with; "who am I in this crazy world?" with "how much is too much? - of various practices and substances, with "do I have to?" with family, and "can’t I have friends over too?"
Through to struggling with why we keep making the same mistakes, why the suffering, loss and tragedy in the world and in our lives and all the questions of war and hate, religion and division, selfishness against harmony.
So many struggles to engage with!
Do you bother or let it go?
And if you "just let it go" where does it go?
I think there is cost and consequence either way.

Nowhere is that more clearly illustrated than with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He struggles with the reality of his situation, with the looming pain and approaching death.
Jesus is engaged with God, wrestling in anguish!
There is cost and there is consequence.

Jesus shares this same experience of our conflicted humanity.
Wants and needs against right and purpose, comfort and avoidance against costly struggle and sacrifice for others.
Jesus chose the costly way of struggle and we are all blessed.
Jacob wrestled with God and he was blessed, he was given the name, by which his people were called, and God continues to be with him and bless his family.

And wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could do our wrestling with God and be more resolved with each other as a consequence?

But there are no easy answers here either. Jacob doesn’t just fight once, and win a good result – it’s not even clear that he wins. No, this is an ongoing pattern. Jacob struggles with Esau, with his father Isaac, with Laban, his father in law – for years to get Rachel, and then with God before he faces his brother again – it’s often hardest with family isn’t it?

Thankfully this is not the story of a blood feud. Violence is not condoned. But wrestling, struggling and costly sacrifice are shown as positive ways of handling hard issues.
Family problems, pollution and climate change, divisive ideologies, religious intolerance, racism and greed; all hard issues that must be wrestled with.
And while I may not appreciate all of Jacob’s traits, I’m with him particularly in engaging with God and in struggling with the realities of life!
At least we have a hand in shaping our outcomes that way.
The only future that we can predict is the one we work to make happen!

May the God of Jacob be with each of us in our own struggles,
The God of Israel bless us as we grow through our engagement with life’s tough realities and give us the strength we need. Amen

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2005


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