Wrestling with God

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the past month we have been looking at God’s rescue plan for both humanity and God’s good but fallen creation. We have seen that God’s eternal plan included calling his people Israel to bring God’s healing love and justice to all peoples but that Israel became part of the problem because they were every bit as flawed as the rest of humanity. In today’s OT lesson, we see a very early story from God’s rescue plan in which God continues to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness to his people Israel by wrestling with Jacob, and this notion of wrestling with God is what I want to look at briefly this morning.

If you know anything at all about Jacob, today’s story should not particularly surprise you. Jacob’s name means “he deceives” and a quick survey of the events of Jacob’s life indicate that his name was well deserved. All through his life, Jacob had attempted to take matters into his own hands, relying on his cleverness and deceit to gain what he wanted. He had deceived his own father, Isaac, at the end of his father’s life to gain Isaac’s blessing that should have rightfully gone to his older brother, Esau. This, predictably, resulted in Esau’s vow to kill Jacob to gain revenge. And so Jacob fled to his mother’s relatives, where he ended up working for one of those relatives, Laban. Jacob did so to win Laban’s daughter, Rachel, whom Jacob loved dearly. But Laban deceived Jacob in the process only to have Jacob return the favor as Jacob sought to take his family and return to his home. Jacob is forced to flee his father-in-law, who pursues him because of this deceit and intends to do him harm. As he is headed home, Jacob learns that his brother Esau is coming out to meet him from the opposite direction (presumably to kill him as Jacob reasonably believes). Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard spot! This is the larger context for today’s story. You can’t make this stuff up and the intrigue of soap operas pales in comparison to this real life drama that Jacob has largely created for himself.

No wonder Jacob spends the night wrestling with God. After all, why would someone like Jacob have any real use for God in the first place, despite Jacob’s previous profession of faith and despite the fact that God had promised to bless Jacob early on in his life? He had used his own gifts and skills to get what he wanted and had generally been wildly successful—until now. In wrestling with God, Jacob had to decide for himself who was going to be in control of his life. Was Jacob going to allow God to be in charge of his life and thus enjoy the blessings and benefits of that, or was Jacob determined to be the master of his own soul and destiny? One thing is for certain. God was not going to give Jacob the blessing he wanted until Jacob consented to let God be God.

And we can relate to Jacob, can’t we? After all, we are very much like him in many ways. We may not be the kind of egregious deceiver that Jacob was, at least early in his career (even though we often deceive ourselves into thinking we actually are in control of things in our lives). But like Jacob, many of us surely want to be in charge rather than to defer to God’s leadership, especially when we are not quite sure if God has our best interests at heart or knows as well as we do about what we need or want.

So, for example, we scurry about and put all our efforts into building a nest egg to ensure our financial future. We pride ourselves in being self-made individuals and make big plans for ourselves and others. We seek to acquire power in our relationships so that we can better influence, pressure, or cajole others into seeing things our way, and we don’t much care if they benefit in the process. And then as with Jacob, the bottom drops out. Death or disease strike or our plans collapse due to our own shortsightedness or by things that are simply out of our control. Suddenly we realize that we are not as clever or as good as we thought and our money proves to be of little value to us. It is precisely in these desperate moments that we also, like Jacob, typically begin to wrestle with God over who really is in charge of our lives.

I am not suggesting that we should not plan for our future or work hard in the present to pursue our personal and professional goals. Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager suggests that we would be foolish not to do these things (cf. Luke 16.1-14). But it seems inherent in our fallen human nature that we would much prefer to be the master of our destiny rather than allow God to be, and that really is utterly foolish and self-deceiving.

This, of course, is one of the reasons why we find this story of Jacob wrestling with God in Scripture. God could not use his people Israel to be agents of his healing redemption if they would not cooperate and allow him to be their God. Consequently, this was a critical point in the narrative of God’s rescue plan. Would Jacob allow God to be God and submit to God’s rule in his life so that God could use Jacob and his descendants to be a blessing for others or would Jacob insist on doing things his way, and thus be no different from those whom Jacob and Israel were supposed to help God redeem? Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who generally trusted God and allowed God to demonstrate his trustworthiness regarding his promises to Abraham, Jacob had largely taken matters into his own hands and the chickens were about to come home to roost. Jacob had to learn to trust God and so he had to wrestle with God to learn that God was big enough to handle all the problems of life and all of Jacob’s wants and needs.

Likewise with us. We invariably seek other gods to follow—money, power, prestige, sex, status, ourselves and our self-help, to name just a few. The list is virtually endless. But as Jacob discovered when the bottom was about to fall out for him, these false gods cannot deliver in the clutch and we too must spend time wrestling with God to learn for ourselves whether he is a God big enough to handle our problems and needs.

The good news, of course, is that when we do wrestle with God in this way we will find him to be entirely adequate. We see this illustrated powerfully in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus fed the 5,000. Just as God fed his desperate and fearful people in the wilderness with manna, and just as he feeds us today in the sacrament of Holy Communion, God is big enough to handle our needs and gracious enough to meet us where we are to use what we offer him.

We see this latter point also illustrated in the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus took the meager resources of his disciples, blessed and broke those resources, and then told his disciples to distribute the food to the masses. The result was that there were basketfuls of food left over and everyone had their needs satisfied, even the disciples who likely wondered how there could be enough to feed everyone, let alone themselves, after they gave up all their food to Jesus!

And, of course, this is just one of many examples that Scripture provides us. We read of many instances where Jesus healed those who by faith had decided to follow him because he had what they desperately wanted or needed. But the most powerful example of God’s ability to provide for our deepest needs is Jesus’ death and resurrection in which God condemned sin in the flesh, bore our rightful punishment himself so that our alienation and exile from him could be ended forever, and then gave us a glimpse of his promised New Creation, which is the eternal inheritance and destiny for those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t our inheritance because we are such good and swell people. We are not. It is ours because of who God is and because of his love and faithfulness. He wants all of us to live and we do that by putting our whole hope and trust in God and ordering our lives accordingly.

But being the broken people we are, this is not easy for us to accept or do. We still want to deceive ourselves and think we really have it together or are in control of things. But Jesus tells us that if we are to follow him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross each day. In other words, Jesus insists that we let God be God by imitating him instead of trying to take his place and making up our own self-serving rules as we do.

Interestingly, even when we do decide that Jesus is worth following, our wrestling with him will continue. But it will be a different kind of wrestling. We will be wrestling to kill all that is within us that remains hostile to Jesus’ rule. We will also be wrestling with what it means and looks like to live a faithful life so that we bring Jesus honor and glory and become truly human in the process. But this kind of wrestling is worth our time and effort because it will eventually help us to grow up to be mature Christians, fully formed in the image of Christ—all with the Spirit’s help, of course.

Since it seems inevitable that we will be wrestling with God in one form or another, what can we do to help get us in shape? First and most importantly, we must get to know God and learn how he interacts with his people to transform us. This means we need to learn the narrative of God’s rescue plan intimately. We do that via regular Bible study and prayer. Once we have learned that God is big enough for us and start wrestling to live faithful lives, we must consider what it means to follow Jesus. This will inevitably lead us into a life of service to others so that Jesus can use us to bring his love to bear on those around us who desperately need it. We don’t do this on our own. We do this with fellow believers and powered by the Spirit’s help. I am not talking about saving the world. I am talking about using your gifts in ways that help Jesus bring about his Kingdom on earth as in heaven and our marching orders will be constantly changing in that regard. So too must we. This is hard work but if you are looking for meaning and purpose in your life and if you want to practice what it is going to be like living in the New Creation, this life of self-giving love and service is the only ticket. And as we reflect on all this, we come to realize that despite how hard it is to wrestle with God, it is worth it because we end up cooperating with the Creator of this vast universe and his project to redeem us and his world. This, of course, means that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.