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Wrestling with God / Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 32:22-31

24And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

How many of you are into the sport of wrestling? I guess I should clarify which kind of wrestling I’m talking about, because there are a surprising number of competitions with the word “wrestling” in them that aren’t exactly sports.

I’m sure all of us have tried arm wrestling or thumb wrestling at one time or another. But have you tried toe wrestling? Two barefoot opponents lock their big toes together and try to pin each other’s foot down. Ouch. In 1976, some enterprising people in Pontypool, Wales, created the World Toe Wrestling Championships.  Apparently, they were trying to create a competition “where Wales could reign supreme” and this is the best one they could think of.

Also in Cardiff, Wales there is the World Gravy Wrestling Championship, which happens every year in August. Which coincidently is this month. There are separate competitions for men and women. Wrestlers earn points for “fancy dress, entertainment value and wrestling ability.” The man and woman wrestlers with the most points at the end are declared the winners. The World Gravy Wrestling Championship is a charity event that raises funds for the local Hospice.

In case you’re envious of the Welsh for getting all the good wrestling competitions, Barnesville, Minnesota, is home to a mashed potato wrestling competition every year during its Potato Days Festival. The competition takes place in the parking lot of the Catholic Church. A pool is set up and filled with potato flakes and water. Competitors get two three-minute rounds in the pool. The competitor with the most 3-second pins per round moves on to the next round. At the end of the day, local cattle are brought in to eat up all the leftover mashed potatoes in the pool.

Wrestling, no matter whether it’s with arms or thumbs or toes, in gravy or in mashed potatoes, is not for the faint of heart. For many competitors, the secret to success is in holding on until your opponent simply wears out. Of course, that strategy won’t work if you’re wrestling an angel of God. So, what did Jacob hope to get from his wrestling match in Genesis 32?

Jacob was a wrestler from birth. He was the twin brother of Esau. Esau was born first, earning his place as the son who would receive his family’s birthright and his father’s blessing. But Jacob was holding on to his brother’s heel at birth, which earned Jacob his name, which means “supplanter.” The kind of guy who cuts in line. The kind of guy who is always looking for an advantage over other people. We could describe him as the kind of guy who follows you into a revolving door and comes out ahead of you.

That sounds like Jacob. He was determined to be in control of his fate, even if it meant robbing his brother of his future. Jacob’s greatest desire was to claim the honors of the firstborn son. So, he bribed Esau to get his birthright, then tricked their father Isaac into also giving him Esau’s blessing as well. He wrestled his brother’s birthright and his blessing right out of Isaac’s hands. And Esau was pretty mad. The two brothers lived apart for a few years, until that day Jacob the wrestler decided it was time to become Jacob the reconciler. He sent word to his brother Esau that he wanted to meet with him. And then a messenger brought back word that Esau, accompanied by 400 men, was coming to meet him.

So, we read in Genesis 32:7 that Jacob is in “great fear and distress.” He is wrestling with the sins of his past and his fear of the future. Jacob is wrestling with himself. So, he humbles himself and prays to God. He sends his family and servants and livestock ahead of him to meet Esau. And Jacob, all alone, engages in a wrestling match with an angel of God.

It is in our wrestling that we confront what it means to trust God with our life. Jacob’s ambition and self-centered desires were rooted in fear and a need to control his own future. That was the motivation for stealing his brother’s blessings. Until his humble prayer at a place named Peniel, Jacob had never trusted God to guide him or provide for him. What would change in his wrestling match with God?

A man was preparing to attend a worship service with his wife, who, three days earlier had been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. They were visiting their home church in Ohio for the congregation to pray over her and for the pastor to anoint her.

The man struggled with fear and anger as he got ready for church that morning. And his hip was hurting from sleeping on an unfamiliar bed the night before. He said he didn’t want to go to church. he was angry. And his hip hurt. As they walked out, she looked at me and whispered, God is good.  God is God.  And God is good at being God. Do you believe that? God is good. It is in our wrestling that we confront what it means to trust God with our life.

And the story of Jacob teaches us there are blessings we can only gain through our times of wrestling with God. That’s not a lesson anyone can teach us. It’s not a lesson anyone wants to learn. We must go through the wrestling experience ourselves. Only then can we learn that God is with us. God doesn’t leave us alone in our fear and distress. We confront our own weakness and the unconquerable strength of God. And we discover that God may have a plan for our lives that far exceeds our own goals and desires.

As they wrestled, the angel wounds Jacob’s thigh, yet Jacob refuses to let go. He demands a blessing from the angel. The angel replies, your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.

Jacob’s wrestling match forces him to confront his spiritual ‘Achilles’ heel’—his attempt to replace God Himself through sneakiness to control his fate. To truly encounter God, Jacob must accept his own mortality and rely on grace. He must receive the blessing as blessing: a gift from God. Thus, at the heart of Jacob’s wrestling is an encounter with God as Savior. That’s not a lesson anyone can teach us. It’s not a lesson anyone wants to learn. We only have to look at the cross of Jesus Christ to know it’s absolutely true.

Let’s go back to our story of man and his wife, who was wrestling with her recent cancer diagnosis. He writes, we were called down to be anointed, and I walked down to the altar like a prize fighter approaching the ring. Maybe now I would get my answer; if not, I would at least get my showdown. I knelt. And I broke. The sadness, anger, and disappointment that flowed out eventually turned to questioning, and then begging. If we were having a fight, I was losing. It was at that moment I got a deep sense that God was communicating to me, perhaps an echo of what my wife had said: I am good. I am God. I am good at being God. And I don’t sleep.

The only way we can ever comprehend God’s awesome goodness and power, God’s abundant grace and strength, is when God is all we have left. When everything else we rely on, put our confidence in, everything else that was under control is suddenly ripped from our hands, when God is all, we have left, that’s when we discover that God is more than enough to sustain us.

And finally, it’s when we meet God in our weakness and God succeeds, that we gain God’s strength. That’s when God uses us and works through us to accomplish God’s will.  Once Jacob became weak in the flesh, he became strong in the spirit. It was through this wounding that he became Israel.

When he became weak in the flesh, he became strong in the spirit. When we stop wrestling with God and confront our own weakness, that’s when God works through us with God’s strength and power to accomplish God’s will.

Even though Jacob technically “lost” the divine wrestling match, he gained a new relationship with God and God’s blessing on his life. In Genesis 35, God reinforces his new identity as Israel and tells him, I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you. Israel and all his descendants became a people who lived by the vision and promises of God.

And that brings us back to our guy and his wrestling match with God. He says that after the prayer and anointing time, he limped back to his pew. He was still hesitant to trust the voice of God that had spoken to him at the altar. But then the pastor ended the message with a reading from Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

And suddenly his world shifted. He heard the words. I am God. I am good at being God. I do not sleep, and I’ve always been right here. It wasn’t in the silence that he was finding (God), but in the fighting, in the pain. If God is in the redeeming business, if God is trying to use all things to redeem, it makes sense that he would use even our pain and anger to draw us in.

After the service, as he walked up the stairs into his parents’ house, his hip gave out on the second step, and he limped. This time, however, he didn’t respond in anger. he responded in thankfulness. It was a reminder that although he remained silent, God had not. Although he hadn’t felt him, God was there. The distance he sensed wasn’t on his part, and it took a wrestling match for him to draw close; that may have been the only thing that would.

It didn’t matter how long he’d have this limp and pain. For now, it’s a reminder, a holy pain that testifies that sometimes God lets us limp, and that in the wrestling, we’re not alone.

I don’t know if you are experiencing a time when you’re wrestling with God. Maybe you’re wrestling with giving up control of some part of your life. Maybe you’re wrestling with the question of God’s goodness, God’s love for you, God’s plans for your life. I hope that you’ll hang on. I hope that you’ll keep your eyes and ears open for God’s presence, for God’s blessing in the struggle. And I hope you trust that when you meet God in your weakness, God will provide more than enough strength to sustain you. And that you’ll discover in your wrestling, you’re not alone.