Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 6, 2023
Scripture: Genesis 32:22–31
I have been reading some biographies of historical figures over the last several months. And as I reflected on the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel or with God, it occurred to me that, before Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Elie Wiesel, to name a few, could accomplish significant things, they had to face God, themselves, or some challenge that prepared them for what we came to know them for. For each of them, there was a Jacob moment of struggle, a facing of God, that had to take place before any of those remarkable people could do the work to which they were called and go down in history as making a contribution to the world that survives them. But in some ways, that’s the easier way to think about what they did—that they had to face God in some way to move forward. A much more challenging way to think about this is the idea that perhaps God wanted to face them and wrestle with them. Not so much to test us, which I think religious people place too much focus on, but to help us face whatever it is that is holding us back from what it is we are called to do.
As long as we have been reading this story, we have struggled to understand it and make it make sense. In what sense can it be said that Jacob wrestled with God? And what does it mean for us to wrestle with God? In our postmodern context, is wrestling with God what we mean when we talk about things like the dark night of the soul or therapeutic breakthroughs? Or is it truly embodied, physical? It is the genius of the authors that it is written so that to declare a winner or identify the stranger as God too concretely diminishes the struggle involved in facing God. It is as if the writers are convinced that to understand Jacob’s struggle, we, too, must struggle with the text for the wisdom it holds.
In our reading today, until this moment in Jacob’s life, he was known as the supplanter, trickster, and usurper who tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright and cheated him out of the blessing of his father Isaac. Impatient and cunning, this grandson of the patriarch and matriarch of the faith, Abraham and Sarah, began his life in struggle: Struggling with his twin brother in their mother’s womb as if to be wrestling to be born first. But throughout his life, he has been contending with people to gain the advantage . . . contending with his brother, father, uncle Laban, and his wives, Leah and Rachel. And despite his character, deceptiveness, and ambition, Jacob appears exempt from the lessons of our usual biblical morality plays. He is a cheater who wins. He’s the impulsive, clever, dishonest one who gets what he wants. He’s a successful person with great abundance, possessing enough of everything to buy his way out of trouble. And yet, God appears to be beckoning Jacob for something bigger. Jacob saw it in a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven and God promising to be with him always.
But Jacob was fearful and anxious, living in fear of the brother he had wronged. Twenty years before this moment in his life, his brother threatened to kill him for tricking their father for his blessing, and Jacob had to flee. But God is now calling Jacob to go back home. And he is afraid. Jacob knows that Esau has a right to be angry, and even as he prepares to return home to face the consequences of what he has done, he prays to God for deliverance from the wrath of his brother. Ever the clever plotter, Jacob hedges his bet and takes a portion of his immense abundance to offer as a gift to his brother to appease him. But on this night, alone on the banks of the river Jabbok, Jacob has to take a meeting he didn’t plan.
Somebody (the text says a man or an angel) wrestled with Jacob all night. Can you imagine that? Compelled by God to return home to an uncertain future and already wracked with fear and anxiety about an impending confrontation with his brother, Jacob is wrestling with a stranger in the middle of the night. As Jacob wrestles mightily, he discovers that his previous tricks and strategies appear useless. There will be no quick victory here. Some things cannot be secured through plotting, deceiving, and fighting. Sometimes we have to face God, face ourselves, and face our past before we can arrive at the appointed destination. So before Jacob can return home, before Jacob can face his brother, he has got to face God. Yes, this heir to the legacy of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, this bearer of the promise of God to his ancestors, is bound up with God. And no matter how clever, successful, or ambitious he may be, no matter what dangers lie ahead, there is no escaping God. Whoever this is, this struggle won’t be won through deception, cunning, or overpowering an adversary. Jacob has to hold on.
Jacob will not be able to secure God’s blessing the way he beat his brother out of a blessing. And even as the man struck Jacob on the hip and wounded him, Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Perhaps, Jacob now realizes who it is he is wrestling. Maybe he knows that in this struggle, he needs, not more success, but a share in the essence, power, and vitality of the God of his ancestors. Jacob needs God. Sometimes, in the struggle with whomever and whatever, we realize we need God.
After wrestling with God, facing God so intimately, and with such a hard struggle, Jacob was not the same. So, God gives Jacob a new name, “Israel,” which variously is believed to be God strives, God struggles, God preserves. Jacob became Israel, inextricably tied to God’s people in the covenant and destiny with God, carrying within him their hopes and aspirations. Wounded and limping but blessed. He was reaffirmed as God’s beloved, more explicit about the purposes and the obligations that come with God’s promises and blessings. Jacob finds out that the gift of God’s blessings is not constituted by the power, success, and happiness we strive to secure but by God’s gift of love, peace, and joy that hold us no matter the dangers that lie ahead and frighten us.
Frederick Buechner describes Jacob’s face-to-face encounter with God as “a magnificent defeat,” something all who want to be faithful will eventually have to experience. Buechner puts it so powerfully, “God is the enemy . . . whom in one way or another we all of us fight—God, the beloved enemy . . . Our enemy because, before giving us everything, [God] demands of us everything; before giving us life, [God] demands our lives—our selves, our wills, our treasures.” Yes, I recall Jesus telling his disciples something about this demand of God, telling them that anyone who wants their life is called to lose it for God’s sake.
Some meetings with destiny begin with a meeting with God. There always appears to be a moment of struggle like this in our individual and communal lives. The journey to honor our call, our purpose, and our destiny often comes with a fight in the middle of the night. And, if not in the middle of the night, it almost certainly comes at an unexpected, inopportune moment. And this is a journey, confrontation, and embodied struggle in which I think we find ourselves at this moment in the life of the church, where our way forward to live into our destiny and purpose will involve some wrestling and struggling . . . With ourselves and each other, but more importantly, with God. On our way to the place, ministry, and beloved community to which we have been called, we may have to deal with some unfinished business with God, with ourselves, and with others.
Perhaps, we are in the season of the life of this community of facing God in all the most uncomfortable ways. . . Facing what we fear, facing what we hate—facing what we love. Facing what reminds us of things we’d rather forget. Facing what challenges us to change. Facing the parts of ourselves we don’t like or are not proud of and would rather keep hidden. Facing the neighbors we know God loves but whom we don’t know, don’t like, and don’t want to know—facing what may force us to be different from what is most comfortable and familiar. Facing the truth we’d rather not care to know. Facing God in all of God’s fullness, complexity, and impassability beyond what creeds, doctrine, and traditions claim about God.
Perhaps, we have to come face-to-face with God to understand just how much we need God before we can live out our purpose. It is true that we may come out of that confrontation with God wounded and limping, unquestionably marked by a wrestling with a God determined to give us a new name. But the good news is that God’s presence, promises, and covenant remain sure. Just like Jacob found out, no amount of cunning, striving, or cleverness can thwart what God envisions for God’s people. And no amount of conflict, failure, or self-involvement can interfere with what God is determined to see done. So, we accept the wisdom that the gift of God’s blessings is not constituted by the power, success, and happiness we strive to secure but by God’s gift of love, peace, and joy that hold us no matter the dangers that lie ahead and frighten us, we hold onto God until God blesses us. We seek that blessing, not for material gain, but a share in the essence, power, and vitality of God who beckons us. And then we will be ready for whatever lies ahead, no matter how difficult, frightening, or uncertain. And so it is.