(Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 17 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:13-21)
“Getting Down and Dirty with God!”
You know how, at the start of many TV shows, they will begin by saying something like, “Previously on Survivor” or “Previously on NCIS,” and then go on to give snippets of previous shows. Today, I will begin the same way, as I share some snippets of the story of Jacob from previous weeks.
Previously in the Jacob story: “…we have been given pretty good insight into the person and family of Jacob. Most of it is entirely dysfunctional. His parents, Isaac and Rebekkah, play the favorite child game, so Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau grow us pretty much hating each other. Jacob swindles Esau out of his family birthright, giving him a double share of the family inheritance. Later, he and his mother lie and connive to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father. When Esau threatens to murder him, Jacob flees to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place from which his grandfather Abraham had departed. Jacob marries his cousins Leah and Rachel (note, both cousins!), and eventually fathers 13 children with them and their two slaves, Zilbah and Bildah.
Sick of his uncle’s (now also his father-in-law) manipulations, Jacob takes off once again, only to encounter his embittered and angry brother, Esau. The consummate deal-maker, he brings lots of things with which to bribe his brother.
But with his brother ahead of him and his father-in-law behind him, he is too tired to struggle. So now the real wrestling match begins!” This is where we pick up the story today!
Over the years, I have heard many very creative pastors explain what could possibly be meant by a story in which a human being fights with and prevails against God.
A few weeks ago I came across a story that brought tears to my eyes, meaning to this text, and so I will share it with you.
This story is about a high school wrestling match between one school named Ogden and the other named Humboldt. Humboldt had a senior on their team with Down syndrome. This boy was not capable of wrestling at a competitive level and posed no challenge at all to any wrestler. But the coaches of the Humboldt team asked if anyone on the Ogden team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat.
An Ogden wrestler offered to take him on. If you know high school wrestling at all, I’m sure you can put yourself in that gym. The Ogden boy not only wrestled the Down syndrome boy the entire six minutes, but allowed him to win on points. He gave the Humboldt kid the thrill of not only competing, but of raising his arms in victory. At the end, both wrestlers got a standing ovation.
Here’s my point: that boy with Down syndrome experienced something that day—you can call it affirmation, self-confidence, love, acceptance, but whatever you call it, I will bet money that that boy’s life was never the same again!
As I heard that story, maybe for the first time I began to see a different insight into this Jacob story of a man wrestling with God and prevailing against God.
What I see in this Genesis text today is Jacob crying out to know his name, crying out to know who he is, crying out to know what God wants from him, but getting no immediate answer….. Jacob crippled, defeated, but clinging on like a drowning man and choking out the words, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Jacob emerges from that night with a new name, wounded and with a blessing, his life transformed forever.
If this became a pivotal text for the Israelite people, it was because it was yet one more text that began to help them understand who they were to become as God’s people.
The Apostle Paul expresses a similar theme when he writes about baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
This Romans text points us to our mission, to who we are and to whom we are called to be as God’s people. And we will be wounded and transformed and blessed! Baptism is our statement of mission to a new way of living!
I really think that for many of us life can be a wrestling match with God, but the struggle is only as important as how we come out of it, how it affects us, how it transforms us to look at life in a different way—how God’s love for us is our vision to reach out in love to others.
God sent Jesus into the world to love us, surely; but also to wrestle with us, to get down and dirty with us, and as a result, Jesus got pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to realize the love that flows from God.
Maybe this story of Jacob wrestling reminds us of what life with God often looks like when we move beyond the promises of the prosperity Gospel and beyond cliché religion, when we move beyond a God who lives on “Easy Street.” God promises a wrestling match and when we stay in the match, a blessing.
May we hear today the Good News that even at such times in our lives when we feel as if we are wrestling with God, God is always willing to give us the power, the energy, the grace, the vitality of soul—words spoken in deep love within the human heart. This is the God ready to get down and dirty with us, a God who transforms us with the responsibility to go forward with a blessing, making us confident to take part in God’s struggle to save the life of God’s world. And in the end, we will never be the same, and gratefully, neither will the world. Amen.