Matthew T. Phillips

Wrestling (Genesis 32:22-31)

The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost (A – Pentecost 11)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

22[On] the same night [after he sent a gift ahead for Esau, Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Genesis 32:22-31 NRSV

Famous people in the family

In the fourth grade, the focus of my English class was public speaking. We had to give speeches on various topics until we were good at it, or at least until the thought of talking at the front of the room didn’t cause us to wet our pants or throw up. Both those things happened that year, but not to me, I’m glad to say. One of the assignments was to pick someone in your family and give an informative speech about their life. Although it wasn’t necessary, it was hinted that if there was anyone famous in our families, we should pick them. The goal was as much to get us to learn about our families as it was to produce a speech, and it worked on me: I asked my grandmother if there was anyone famous in our family and found out that my great-great-uncle had been the chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which is not exactly famous in the common sense of the word, but fit the bill for a fourth grade speech. Since then, I’ve been intrigued by the connections between us. A young man named Bill, the judge’s nephew, formed a close friendship with the older man near the end of his life, and years later Bill befriended a much younger cousin—me—in much the same way at the end of his life. And soon after I began to visit Wake Forest and consider going to school there, I found a plaque bearing a quote from my uncle—a wonderful way to feel connected to a new place.

I really don’t know much bad about Uncle Wat, and I know about as much as anybody alive, so it’s possible that there wasn’t much bad about him. Even if there was, you know it wouldn’t be in the front of my thinking about the man, because that’s not the way we think about good people from the past. It works that way in families, and it certainly works that way in the Bible.

Consider Jacob. If ever there were a place that should feel connection to Jacob, it’s here. The words we use to begin every service, “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” are his words, uttered in awe after his dream of the ladder to heaven, and the words we use to close every service, “God be with you till we meet again,” are an echo of his covenant with his father-in-law Laban.

You might think about Jacob as the father of the nation of Israel, a faithful husband to his beloved Rachel, the kindly father who loved his son Joseph just a little too much, and maybe even the great-great-great-and-so-on grandfather of Jesus. Truth is, though, if Jacob were alive today he would fit well into the mafia or perhaps the esteemed profession of used car sales. Jacob was a first-class con-man, and his targets ranged from his father and mother to his brother and father-in-law. When he thought his brother might have been coming to get him, his first reaction was not to stand in front of his wives and children, protecting them, but rather to send them on ahead so maybe Esau would get tired of killing by the time he got to Jacob. Of course, you couldn’t really blame Esau for being mad; Jacob robbed the poor oaf of his birthright in a moment of weakness, and then stole his father’s blessing while the elder brother was out hunting his father’s last meal. On second thought, my apologies to the used-car dealers of the world for comparing them to Jacob.

As bad as Jacob seems, though, you’ve just got to love him. We know him too well not to. I’ve got a neighbor who I detest. He has two really big cars, and he appears to think himself more important than anyone else in our building, because he usually parks them in the middle of two parking places, as if his cars not getting dings is more important than someone else being able to park within a hundred yards of the door. I can’t stand the guy, and it’s because that’s all I know about him. He has kids that seem to really love him, and may be a wonderful husband and father, but I don’t know about that. I just know he parks like a self-centered… donkey. On the other end of the spectrum, I can admire my great uncle the judge, but I can’t love him, because I really don’t know enough about his life either: I know some of his struggles and pain and certainly some of his successes, but there’s no depth to my experience of him. Jacob is different. When you see so many different phases of a person’s life and read of the many sides of his personality, the mistakes, the triumphs, and the blessings and challenges he faced all chip away at you until you have to love the guy. He conned his brother and his father, but it was his mother’s idea both times, born of her jealousy and favoritism. He snuck away from his father-in-law, taking as much as his children and servants could carry, but his father-in-law had tricked Jacob several times—made him look like a boy scout, in fact—and turnabout is fair play. Jacob lived in fear that his brother would seek revenge, and just like you and me, received the blessing of God’s presence despite having done nothing to deserve it and giving God every reason to ignore him.

The opposite of love…

In our scripture, we find Jacob at the climax of his life, and the one place when he serves as a wonderful role-model to us. While Jacob is moving his family, he spends a night alone, and a stranger wrestles with him. It’s a little amazing that there is so little fanfare about this amazing event in the Bible. “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak,” the Bible reports, as if this is a perfectly normal occurrence. And, as is often the problem with Bible passages we hear a lot, the story doesn’t sound very remarkable to us either. But think for a minute. What is there that you care enough about to wrestle until morning? My family jumps to mind quickly, and knowing you all as well as I do, I bet you thought of family pretty fast too. But do you live your life in such a way that it’s obvious? Wrestling somebody all night sounds awfully hard, but so is living in such a way that the people around you never forget how much you love them.

But I’ve digressed. Jacob should serve as a model to us because we don’t wrestle enough. Last weekend, Heather and I traveled with her brother and his girlfriend up to Maryland. On the way, we met a friend of ours outside Washington, and after dinner, he offered to drive us into town, and we walked off our dinner on the mall, beginning at the base of the Washington Monument, walking past the Vietnam Memorial up to the Lincoln Memorial, and then back down the mall past the White House to our car. It feels a little magical to me to walk around all those famous places—to be a hundred yards from people I hear about on the news every day. I was struck that evening by the thought that if we were all lucky enough to visit Washington and walk through those buildings, there would be a lot less negativity about the government. And we all pretty much agreed that we would rather people hate the government than be apathetic about it. There are provisions in the Constitution for handling a government you hate, but there is no way to handle the hopelessness that results when most people just don’t care any more. “The opposite of love is not hate,” my brother-in-law quoted, “but apathy.”

Maybe it’s starting to sound like I’m encouraging you to visit Washington and write letters to our congressman, but this is an illustration, not the goal. I’m not very concerned with you wrestling the government. I’m concerned with you following Jacob’s example and wrestling with God.

“Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”

One of the greatest hymns of the church is all but lost. Isaac Watts, who wrote “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “Joy to the World,” and thirteen other hymns in our hymnal (as well as hundreds that are not printed there) said that Charles Wesley’s hymn “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” “was worth all the verses he himself had written” (John Wesley’s Journal). Wesley’s poetry imagines the words of Jacob as he wrestled with the stranger in the night. Jacob’s energy and stamina are obvious, as are his loneliness:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay
and wrestle till the break of day.

‘Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue
or touch the hollow of my thigh;
though every sinew be unstrung,
out of my arms thou shalt not fly;
wrestling I will not let thee go
till I thy name, thy nature know.

“Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” United Methodist Hymnal, 387.

It’s been a painful couple of weeks for us as a church. There are times when the world around us looks to be absent of God. I don’t mean that it is impossible to see God in tragedy, but the fact that tragedy exists has caused people to wrestle with God for centuries, wondering how it is that a God who is good and powerful can allow evil to persist in the world. There are at least three distinct ways to handle our confusion. We can utter clichés when tragedy occurs: “we shouldn’t be said—he’s in a better place,” and “God needed her more than us.” Most of those clichés are bad theology and insensitive to boot, but they provide some comfort because then we don’t have to wrestle with what has happened. My friend Bill Leonard tells a story about a youth conference he attended in the sixties. The pastor was talking about morality, sex, relationships, and faith—all of the best Sunday school topics. When he asked for questions, my friend reports,

“I bounded to my feet full of unlimited adolescent and evangelical zeal, both of which can kill you. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I find that if we just trust Jesus, and walk with him daily, God will take care of all of these moral issues.’ [The pastor] set his jaw, looked straight into my post-pubescent eyes and responded, ‘young man, everything I have said for the last hour was an attempt to avoid that kind of glib, simplistic Christianity.”

Bill J. Leonard, “Wrestling with strangers
(and anybody else who comes along),”
Wake Forest University Baccalaureate Sermon, 1999.

My friend learned to wrestle because humiliation is a great teacher.

We can also give up. During my first semester of college, I got to know a guy named Alex. He lived one floor below me in the dorm, and we had a small seminar class together. Our professor was really strange, so after class, a small group of us who lived in the same building would walk back, talking about what had happened, and many times getting to talk about other things too. I learned that Alex was Mormon, which didn’t mean a lot to me, except that I admired the faithfulness he showed by planning to take two years off after his second year of college to go on mission. He was one of the few people I met early on whom I immediately felt I could trust. One evening in October, we all got an e-mail from the university saying that he had been admitted to Baptist Hospital with meningitis, and the next night, he was dead. There was a strange silence in our building as people gathered in the lounges just to be together. In my head, I was silently wondering how God could let that happen, and then the silence was harshly broken. A crying girl tore through the lounge saying, “anyone who believes in God is just stupid—it’s all a nasty joke.” It horrified me. But inside, then of all times, I began to be sure that God was present, and that if I ever managed to wrestle long enough, I would understand. But that girl had given up, probably, I think, because nobody had ever told her it was OK to wrestle, and all she heard from Christians around her were clichés.

Those first two options are related, because both of them put us out of the reach of God. If we think we understand God so well that we can explain the great mysteries of life, then how will God ever get through to teach us? And if we’ve given up that God exists to teach at all, then we’ll certainly never hear, for God usually speaks in a still, small voice.

And then, of course, there is Jacob’s option. Anybody care to guess which one I’m in favor of? Our imperfect hero Jacob wrestled all night with the stranger, and just when he thought he was starting to win, a mere flick of the stranger’s wrist threw his hip out of joint. The stranger gave him a new name, which makes sense because Jacob had become a new person. No longer was he Jacob, the one who grips at the heel, trying to pull himself along at someone else’s expense. Now he was Israel, the one who wrestles with God. In Jewish tradition, to name something is to claim control over it and responsibility for it; Jacob may have wrestled with God, but it was all a way for God to show Jacob that he was loved and cared for by God.

And yet Jacob walked away from the experience with a limp. The promise of faith is not the easy life—far from it. Jacob got a blessing with his broken hip, and turns out to be the lucky one. Moses wrestled and died short of the promised land. Jonah wrestled and for his trouble, he got to live in the comfort of a fish’s gut for three days. John wrestled and got beheaded, Jesus wrestled and got a cross. A saint called Paul wrestled and got put in jail; a saint called King wrestled and went in and out of jails, only to be shot while trying to preach about God’s kingdom. Dare we say it? Polly wrestled, lived life the best way she knew, and got cancer.

With that litany of evidence, wrestling doesn’t sound like a very safe activity. But of course, the quality of your life and the strength of your faith is not judged based on how long you live, or even how many of life’s challenges you escape. How much you struggle is a much better yardstick; whether or not you have managed to hold on to God’s grace into the early hours of the morning. It is at our weakest moments when we manage to wrestle from life what we need to know, so that we, like Jacob can proclaim that we have learned God’s name, and God’s nature:

‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me,
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure Universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move—
thy nature, and thy name is Love.

“Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” United Methodist Hymnal, 387

Remember how we decided earlier that we are intimately connected with Jacob? We sing his song, and that’s all well and good. We also grab onto someone else’s heels every now and then, and none of us has gone through life without ever taking advantage of a situation, or taking a blessing while no one’s looking. But like Jacob, we all repent too. We see God’s glory when we least expect it, and we all have the chance to wrestle a blessing from life. In the dark of night, when loneliness chills us and weakness and fear keep us from dreaming, it is then that we must keep struggle with whatever or whoever comes along. And that is when grace will come, provided we hold on long enough.

One thought on “Wrestling (Genesis 32:22-31)

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing this sermon. I am reading Genesis for the first time. You have helped me to understand and to love Jacob; I had thought him to be deceitful and unworthy of blessings. Bless you and your ministry.

    Pam in Alberta, Canada