August 3, 2008
Wrestling with God
My little brother took up wrestling this year. This wasn’t necessarily his first choice of sports, but at fifteen he finds himself still smaller than many of his classmates. Dakota attends a large high school in suburb of Kansas City (also my alma mater), and the competition for the sports programs is fierce. So instead of some of the other sports he has played all of his life like football and baseball, Dakota had an opportunity to join the wrestling team.
Dakota wrestles in one of the smallest weight classes. He is still shorter than many of his classmates, although growing by the day. He is 100% lean muscle, and although this is his first year to even attempt the sport, he got a varsity letter because he was able to compete in five varsity matches.
Living so far away from my brother I wasn’t able to get home to see any of his school meets last year. However, I did see him compete with his club team once. As we watched the match, my dad told me of a funny incident earlier in the year. He told me that when the students arrive at a match they have to sign in with their name and weight, and then they are matched up for competition. Well my brother signed the sheet and waited for his name to be called. When it came time for his round, he stepped into the ring only to be standing in front of guy that was a head taller than him and probably weighed 20 to 30 more pounds. My dad said everyone was looking at the pair as if to say, “Something isn’t right here.” They even introduced the wrestlers by name and began the round, but shortly thereafter the official stopped the boys, separated them and said, “One of you didn’t sign up correctly.” My 118 pound brother should not have been competing against a guy weighing 140! Talk about an unfair fight!
Well, if you really want to talk about an unfair fight, let’s take a closer look at our scripture story this morning. Jacob, who is the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham, is on the move with his family. Prior to this event, we see what kind of person Jacob is, he’s actually a bit of a trickster, or con man- he does what he needs to do to get ahead. Even as he was being born Jacob was working to claim blessing for himself. Jacob grabbed his twin Esau’s heel trying to be the first born to claim their birthright. When this did not work, the crafty Jacob conned his brother into giving him the birthright of the first born in exchange for a simple bowl of stew when he was hungry. So Jacob was now entitled to the land and inheritance of his father Isaac.
After receiving his inheritance from his father at his deathbed, convincing his father it was the elder son Esau, Jacob leaves his home place to venture out into the world and start a family. As he leaves, Jacob flees, in part to escape the wrath of his brother, whom he has deceived.
Jacob sets out for Haran and has his first encounter with God. God gives him the famed dream that we know as “Jacob’s ladder.” In it he sees people ascending and descending a ladder from heaven and hears God’s blessing for his future. God tells him, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” It seems Jacob is another unlikely hero chosen by God. Not a person without flaws, but a person just like any other that God can use for God’s purposes.
Jacob then arrives at the home of Laban, who is to be his father- in- law. At Laban’s house, Jacob was tricked into service for several years, thinking he was getting one daughter’s hand in marriage, but getting the other’s instead. After acquiring Laban’s two daughters, their maidservants, many children, and flocks of animals, Jacob once again is on his way. Jacob made his way from Laban house with most of his possessions, tricking him into giving him all the healthy animals, while Laban keeps the weaker ones.
Jacob discovers that his brother Esau is after him once again, and so as he crosses the Jabbok River, Jacob sends his family and all of his possessions ahead of him and he waits on the other side alone for the evening. That’s when the great wrestling match begins. A man comes to wrestle with Jacob and the two struggle all night. The man puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, because he is not able to prevail against Jacob. Jacob asks the man for blessing- as if he knows whom he is wrestling with, this man who is able to give him blessing. The man, who we are beginning to understand is God, asks him his name. He tells him it is Jacob, and God tells Jacob that he is giving him a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and humans and you have prevailed.” Jacob asks the same courtesy, he wants to know the name of his opponent, but instead receives a blessing. Perhaps that was all the answer he needed, because for him it is confirmed, he understands that he has been wrestling with God. Just as he wrestled blessing away from his father, and his father in law, he has wrestled a blessing from the mouth of God.
What an amazing wrestling match! In one corner we have the unlikely hero Jacob, a man of questionable character, and in the other we have the almighty God. However the two opponents seem to be on the same level for the purposes of this match. It seems to me the purpose of this match was not for Jacob to triumph over God, but perhaps for Jacob to triumph over himself, and to realize that God had bigger plans for him. God was going to use Jacob, to bless nations of people. Jacob was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob’s life had been transformed in this wrestling match and he was able to claim the name Israel, one who struggles with God.
We all struggle with God. In fact at one time or another, I believe we will all wrestle with God. Of course I’m not talking about physical wrestling in this “God come to earth” form that Jacob experienced. But we will struggle to understand the how’s and whys of circumstances in our lives and we may feel as if we are wrestling. We will confront emotional issues that will leave us physically worn, gasping for breath, wondering why we are having to struggling so hard. Many of us here this morning are in the midst of this kind of struggle right now. We are pushing and pulling and making the demand, “God, I will not let you go until you bless me!” We are making demands of God, and asking hard questions. And I want to tell you that I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think our struggling with God has a purpose. Our wrestling with God serves the purpose of allowing us to be in relationship with God more closely.
Does this mean when we grab God and demand blessing that we will receive it? I’m afraid not, you and I both know that we are way out of our weight class when we wrestle with God. God is in control, and God can see the big picture. The blessing we demand may not be the blessing God has in store for us. Scripture says that, “God is working all things together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purposes.” Do you believe that? I truly do believe that God works for the good in our lives. And I also believe that our human limitations often keep us from seeing that good as fully as God can. And so sometimes we pin God down and demand blessing. And God obliges our struggle. God struggles with us because in struggling with God we are turning toward God instead of away from God. I think we come to know ourselves more fully, and we come to know God more fully when we wrestle, and question and demand blessing.
And hopefully in our time with God, our need to fight and struggle will come to an end. We get tired of struggling against God, we get tired of demanding blessing, and maybe we can relax. We can relax and realize that it is a lot easier to work with God. Peace comes when we can remind ourselves that God is working all things together for the good in our lives. Our bodies can relax, our minds can relax and we can be obedient to God’s call on our lives.
If we are truly blessed, if we are truly able to struggle with God and work through whatever issues we are facing with God’s help, then perhaps we will even discover that like Jacob, we have been blessed. We might even discover that in the process of struggling with God we have a new purpose, a new focus. I think in wrestling with God and then receiving God’s blessing, Jacob was given a second chance. God had a record of exactly what kind of person Jacob was, he was a self-serving, con- man in many respects, but God was still able to use him as the founder of a whole nation of God’s people. Jacob received a second chance from God.
I have heard it said before, and I truly believe that our God is the God of second chances. Jacob was transformed by his wrestling match and given a second chance. I know that if I opened the pulpit up right now for you all to speak, there would be many of us here this morning that could share stories of being given a second chance by God. And there are probably many of us here this morning that need to be reminded of the good news that God is a God of second chances. Some of us are still wrestling with God, and that is ok. Some of us are ready for that second chance, and all it takes is a conversation with God, asking for a second chance. If you are searching for a new name, a new identity this morning then let me tell you that your new name is: forgiven. The God of second chances is calling you claim this name and to share the good news with others. May we all leave from this place ready to share God’s love in the world. Amen.