A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-3
Sunday, October 16, 2016 – Pentecost 22C
When I was a kid I hated the WWF—The Worldwide Wrestling Federation. It wasn't that I had anything against the entertaining world of carefully choreographed wrestling or the witty lines written for the actors to scream into the cameras. No. I wasn't a fan because my big brother was. I wasn't a fan because my big brother and his friends were. And I wasn't a fan because they liked to practice the "sweet moves" they saw on TV on me. The cushions came off the couch to make the mat on the floor and the back of the couch became the top ropes from which they'd lead to do their soaring body slams. Those weren't my favorite childhood memories. J
But this morning we hear of a wrestling match that I think gave the biblical patriarch, Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, happy memories for the rest of his life. You see, he had a thrilling encounter with God—where God himself took on human flesh to wrestle with Jacob. And, incredible as it may sound, Jacob won! He overpowered the omnipotent God! What a remarkable feat! But when Jacob reflected on the event, it wasn't his victory that left him stunned. It was the fact that he saw God face to face, and yet, still lived!
This morning we're reminded that we too have wrestled with God. We've fought against him in our sin, in our pride, in our greed. And it was a foolish fight because there was no way that we could win. But as incredible as it may sound, we have overcome! We win in the struggle through Christ who won the wrestling match with sin, satan, and death for us. And we too have seen the face of God. We have seen his glory masked, not in flesh, but in the Word and in the Supper. Listen now to this thrilling encounter with God, recorded for us in Genesis 32:22-3
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
27 The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.
28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
29 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.
I. We Have Wrestled With God
It had been a long time since he'd seen his brother—twenty years! And they didn't exactly part ways on good terms. Jacob had stolen his brother's inheritance by his deceit and Esau was determined to kill him for it. He would play the part of Cain and he would make his brother play the part of Abel.
Now, twenty years later, Jacob with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and tons of wealth, was about to meet Esau again for the first time since their falling out. And he sent gifts to Esau ahead of him to try to smooth things over and calm his brother's vengeful wrath. And he did it at night, so he could sneak those things ahead without giving his brother warning. That way Esau would be pleasantly surprised by the gifts and perhaps forget about his blood lust. But in spite of his carefully thought out plan, that night sleep eluded Jacob. He was understandably nervous. Would Esau forgive? Or would he cling to his old hatred? Would he meet Jacob with a hug? Or with an army?
So Jacob determined to spend the night alone, no doubt in thought and in prayer. But what was that?! Did he see movement out of the corner of his eye? Then he saw the man rush him and before he could react he was tackled and knocked to the ground! And the wrestling match ensued…
Adrenaline must have flooded his system as Jacob fought like he'd never fought before. And Jacob had the upper hand. The attacker was relentless, but Jacob proved stronger… for a while. But the stranger knew powerful moves. Jacob heard a loud pop then felt the stabbing pain as his hip was dislocated, rendering one of his legs useless. He cried out in pain, but, at the same time, tightened his grip on the mysterious assailant. And his attacker finally cried, "Uncle!"
Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
And in the conversation that ensued, the mystery man revealed who he was…
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Wow! Can you imagine it—wrestling, not just with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson or with Arnold Schwarzenegger, not with an angel from heaven, or even with the devil, but with the most powerful being in the universe—with God himself?!
Of course, God could have won the contest in a fraction of a second if he had really wanted to win. But that wasn't his goal. Like the struggle God gave Abraham when he asked him to kill his own son, or the struggle Jesus gave the Canaanite woman when he called her a dog and said his food—his healing—was for the Jews, so God gave Jacob this struggle to strengthen his faith.
You see, in the midst of the physical struggle was a greater, spiritual, struggle. Jacob was afraid for his life as he was about to meet Esau. And in that fear was a doubt about his relationship with God. Did God still favor him? Would God still bless all people through him? Would God still be with him? Or had God maybe changed his mind? After all, Jacob, had been a deceiver (that's what the name Jacob means, "Heel-grabber," or "Deceitful One."). He had relied on his own plotting and scheming instead of waiting patiently for God to act in his own time and way. He had sinned against God—and often. So now would God reject him and favor Esau instead? Would God allow Esau to kill him and give the promise to his twin instead of to him?
But Jacob, or rather, Israel, struggled with God and overcame. In the middle of that wrestling match he must have thought back to two decades earlier. While running away from his murderous brother, he spent another night outdoors. And with a rock as a pillow he had a dream of an angel-covered staircase. And God himself spoke to Jacob in that dream. He said, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15)
And as he was wondering about Esau's demeanor, as he was wrestling in prayer with God, even as he was being attacked—by God himself!—he clung to the promise given to him twenty years earlier at the place he called Bethel—"The House of God." And by clinging to God's promises, Jacob—now Israel (which means, "Struggles with God," or even, "Conqueror of God") won! He won the struggle with God!
We can't help but see similarities between us and Jacob, can we? We too struggle with God. And often that struggle is a fight that we start, not God. We pick a fight with him every time we choose our ways over his. We challenge him every time we sin. And how stupid it is! You wouldn't pick a fight with a biker gang, would you? You wouldn't insult a group of marines and invite them all to step outside! You wouldn't dare challenge Mike Tyson to a boxing match! But we still choose to scream our defiance into the face of the omnipotent God every time we sin. And you know that that's a fight that we could never win. We deserve to be thrown down—to be body slammed and tossed out of the ring of this life and into an eternity of pain in the emergency room of hell.
But God engages in the struggle with us. He wrestles with us. He allows—even causes—problems and pain to enter our lives to humble us and draw us closer to him. He may not pop your hip out of socket. Or he may. He may let constant physical pain enter your life to lead you to repent of your sin or just to focus on the pain-free eternity that awaits you. He may let the consequences of your selfish actions devastate your life to lead you to quit doing things your own way.
But when we see the folly of our way and feel the guilt of our sin, God doesn't want us to quit the struggle. He wants us to cling to him by faith in his promises. He wants us to hold him to the promises he's made to us and never let go!
You see, just as the wrestling match wasn't the real struggle for Jacob, but the spiritual wrestling he did with God, so too, the financial problems, the broken relationship, the pending layoffs, the doctor's diagnosis… none of those are the real struggle. The real struggle is wrestling with God as we hold him to his promises. He allows those other, physical struggles to come into our lives in order to strengthen our faith by them.
He wants us to say to him, "God, you have promised that, 'Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to [you].' (1 Peter 3:18) Therefore, I know that Jesus has paid for my sin. God, you have promised that, 'If we confess our sins, [you are] faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1:9)
Therefore, you must forgive me. For you cannot go back on your promises! God, you promised that you will work all things—even this trial, this struggle, this pain I'm now facing—for my eternal good. (cf. Romans 8:28) So you must do it—even if I can't see how. And you promised that 'neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the [your love] that is [ours through] Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Romans 8:38-39) So, you have to be with me through this struggle and you have to help me."
And when we cling to God's promises, refusing to let go until he blesses us, we will win in the end. Then we can be Israels—those who struggle with God and overcome! And, of course, this victory is not won by our own strength in any way, but by God's grace alone. And he lets us wrestle with him and hold him to his promises because he knows that by that struggle our faith will become stronger.
So do as the widow in our Gospel lesson did and keep coming to God with your plea, holding him to his promises. Cry out to him night and day. Wrestle with him in prayer. And know that as you hold God to what he's promises, you too will overcome.
II. We Have Seen God's Face
Now, notice that while Jacob won a wrestling match with the almighty, all-powerful, omnipotent God who created the universe and has the power to create or end life with a single word, what left Jacob in awe was not his victory in that contest, but that he actually stood in the presence of God and still lived: Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
You see, a few generations later, God told Jacob's ancestor, Moses, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." (Exodus 33:20) For God is a holy and righteous God. And sinful mankind ought to be consumed by the power of his glory. We ought to melt in the presence of God like wax in a furnace. We ought to be annihilated like a piece of paper in a fire.
Yet, Jacob, sinner that he was, saw God face to face, and yet lived. Of course, God had to actually hide himself behind a mask of flesh for that happen. He had to appear to Jacob as a man and not in his full glory for Jacob to survive the encounter. But God appeared to him and intervened in his life to reassure him of his love, of his care, and that he had not and would not renege on his promises to Jacob.
And again, we can't help but see the similarities between Jacob and us. We too have seen God and stood in his presence. Oh, he may not have appeared to you or me in human form and interacted with us in that way. But, then again, who knows? Maybe he has and we just thought he was another sinner just like us. Maybe he has appeared to us in flesh. After all he says in Hebrews 13(:2), "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." And if we have encountered angels without knowing it, thinking they were people, what's to say we haven't encountered God in human form as well? I don't know.
But what I do know is that we most definitely have encountered God. And in a sense, we too have seen him face to face. Of course, God hides behinds masks for us today too so that we aren't consumed by his glory. But behind the mask of the Word, we see God more clearly than Jacob ever did. We see the glory of his plan of salvation through Jesus—a sight Jacob longed for, but only saw from a remote distance. Masked in bread and in wine, we not only see Jesus, but hold him in our hands and in our mouths as he comes to each of us individually to assure us that we are forgiven and so, even thought we have sinned, with our sin removed, we too can see God face to face and yet have our lives spared.
In fact, it is because we have seen God face to face—that we have seen him in his Word and held him in our hands and in our mouths—that we are spared. By his grace in coming to us in Word and Sacrament we will live! What a thrilling encounter we have with God all the time!
So don't make this thrilling encounter an occasional marvel. Make it a regular occurrence as you meet God in the Sacrament as often as you can. Make it a weekly occurrence as you meet God in worship. Make it a daily occurrence as you meet God—face to face!—in his Word!
As Jacob left that thrilling encounter with God, he left with a reminder of that event. "The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip." Now I don't know if his hip healed shortly after that event, but I like to think that that limp remained with Jacob for the rest of his life as a daily reminder of this thrilling encounter with God, as a daily reminder that he could always trust God's promises to be true, as a daily reminder that, "[God was] with [him] and [would] watch over [him] wherever [he went]…" that God would "not leave [him] until [he had] done what [he had] promised [to Jacob].." (Genesis 28:15) And Jacob lived to be 147 years old! (cf. Genesis 47:28) I like to think that he limped all the way to Egypt!