Wrestling With God - Genesis 32:22-31 (Wednesday Night Reflection)
I have to confess, I have never been a huge follower of wrestling. I mean, growing up, I knew the names: Rick Flair, Junkyard Dog, Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant, and of course, Hulk Hogan. However, I can’t tell you if one hand would be needed to tell you the number of times I watched them wrestle. I even have a friend from college, a theater major, no less, who went into professional wrestling. His real name is Dan Covell, but his ring name in the Ring of Honor is Christopher Daniels, though he has also gone by Curry Man and Suicide. I’ve never seen him wrestle, though my college roommate, Chris, whom some of y’all have met, has been to some of his matches. In preparing for tonight’s message, I found that he won the world championship last march. I’ve had friends and church youth who have wrestled in high school, but while I have attended football, basketball, baseball games, and even tennis matches, I have never been to a wrestling event. I’m not sure why, but it has just never been something that has drawn my interest.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve done my share of wrestling. The wrestling matches though have just not been in a ring or on a mat. Let’s just say, I understand Jacob…and others like him through Scripture that had their own wrestling matches with God: Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul. We usually only hear of Jacob wrestling with God, and it is the first and only place the Hebrew word, אָבַק (ʾabaq /aw·bak/), is used.
We don’t know whether this scene is something that Jacob was expecting or not. We know that he was halfway expecting to have to wrestle with his estranged brother. They had parted ways under not so favorable circumstances. In fact, with Jacob having stole his twin brother’s birthright and blessing, the last plans that Jacob knew of were Esau plotting to kill him. In fact, a friendly brotherly wrestling match was not what Jacob anticipated, he halfway expected Esau to still be out for blood. In the verses prior to our reading tonight, we encounter Jacob sending his servants with hundreds of livestock as a gift to Esau, seeking to appease any anger that might still be lurking. Then, instead of setting up camp with his wives and children, he sends them on ahead of him as well. Leaving Jacob, now by himself, ready to settle down for the evening. Suddenly he is confronted with a man and the two of them wrestle until daybreak. As they wrestle, Jacob refuses to let go…not realizing who his opponent was until the very end…and finding it to be God.
There are so many things to be gleaned from this story that touch us right here and now.
First, God invites us to wrestle with Him. God, in fact, through the moving of His Holy Spirit, often initiates a wrestling match with those who seek to follow Him. God comes to us and challenges us, often pushing us out of our comfort zone. Maybe it like it was with Jacob, though we are thinking we have encountered a changed man in Jacob, even in this story we find Jacob trying to gain the upper hand…like he did with his father Isaac and his brother Esau and as he did with his Uncle Laban as he gathered for himself much of Laban’s livestock (of course Laban had his own tricks up his sleeve, having gotten fourteen years of free labor out of Jacob and unloaded both of his daughters onto Jacob as wives). Yet even as Jacob finds himself locked in this wrestling match, he asks his opponents name…knowing that in Jacob’s culture to know a person’s name was to claim power and control over that person. God refuses, and in many ways, pushes Jacob to confront himself and realize that not every scheme is going to play out in his favor. Maybe the wrestling match is God’s way of forcing us to examine who we are and find that we are less than who we are called to be.
Maybe it is more like Moses and Jeremiah who wrestled with God as He pushed them to take on tasks that they felt were greater than their skills, talents, and strengths were prepared to handle. Maybe there is an area of ministry that God is setting before one or all of us, that we have failed to take on because we were depending on our own strength and thinking it is beyond us, and now God is trying to push us to realized it is not about depending on ourselves, but on Him.
Maybe our wrestling matches are more like Peter and Paul who were forced to reexamine what they had always believed was true. Paul was forced to see that Christ was the Messiah that the Hebrew people had been waiting for. Peter was forced to see that God, through Christ, had expanded the reach of His people to include more than the Hebrews, but also the Gentiles. Maybe God is challenging our feelings of vengeance with a call for forgiveness; our thoughts of judgment, with calls for encouragement; our feelings of superiority, with reminders of humility.
Another aspect of this wrestling match with God is the fact that God never lets go. As hard as Jacob strove to claim victory and get free of the one holding on to him, he was never able to get release. God is never going to let go of us. He might let us wander away from Him, or even turn our backs and walk away from Him, but He will not let us go, He will not stop pursuing us. Jonah found this to be true. I found it to be true as well. I wrestled with being called in high school, surrendered to it, then I called God to the mat again and we wrestled again before I tried to walk away from going in the ministry. He let me go, but God would not stop pursing me around the ring of life…until I surrendered. I have shared with others who have come to me, feeling that God had placed something before them that they needed to do, but that they were uncomfortable with doing. They would ask me, “do I have to do this.” And I would tell them, “No, you don’t have to do what God asks, God will let you walk away from it. But He won’t leave you alone about it…if it is what He is calling you to do, He will keep pursuing you and forcing you to wrestle with him about it, until you surrender.”
Finally, wrestling with God will leave you forever changed. Jacob found this to be doubly true. First, as they wrestled, before he had ever surrendered to God, his hip was touched and wrenched out of joint. From that point forward, Jacob walked with a limp. He was never the same again. Then, when Jacob had finally surrendered, his name was changed. He was told he would no longer be called Jacob, but would be called Israel…because he has striven with men and with God and won. God may not wrench our hip from its socket, but he may alter our vision. He may touch our eyes so that we can never look at others the same way again, making it so that we see others not by their age, the color of their skin, their clothes, their cars, or their size, but only seeing a beloved child of God. He may touch our mouths, so that lips that previously uttered curses can now only sing praises to His Name. He may touch our feet, causing feet that would normally run and hide to march boldly in His Name to confront evil and injustice. He may touch our hearts, making hearts that are two-sizes too small into hearts as large as His, with love for all we see.
As for our names…He changes each of our names. When we surrender to Him; when we acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord; when we succumb to the waters of our baptism, or remember that we are baptized, God declares that we are no longer to be called Pittard, no longer Davis, no longer Gillikin, no longer Atkinson, no longer Lewis…but we are now to be called Christian…for it is not the blood of our ancestors that matter anymore, but the blood of the Son, the blood shed on the cross, that makes us who we are.
So don’t hesitate to wrestle with God…He initiates it…He invites us to wrestle…but as we do, may we always remember that He wins…and may we look for the ways in which He challenges us and transforms us as we wrestle together.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.