Wrestling with God

Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-30; Mark 14:32-36

Change can be a painful process, particularly in the area of spiritual maturity. I look back thirty years or so, to my high school and college days, and I realize that God was working with some pretty raw material. I think of some of the things I did and said, and just kind of shake my head. Although I had a heart for God, I have memories of some very stupid mistakes.

I made my share of poor choices, and I did some things that were definitely displeasing to the Lord. I could tell you some of the crazy stories about the crazy things I did growing up, and even in my earlier years of college, but the shock might thoroughly blow my clean-cut image. So I’m not going to, except to say that I got away with everything. But not before God.

When I look back on my life, I am thankful for the grace of God. He never gave up on me, even when I failed Him miserably, and I love Him for that. He could see beyond what I was to what I could be. He knew the plans He had for me, and He changed me.

It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight. And the process certainly isn’t complete. But I do agree with the fellow who said, “I’m not what I ought to be, but thank God I’m not what I used to be.”

I also like to tell people that I was converted when I was fifteen, but I wasn’t discipled until I was twenty-seven because I’m a slow learner. But God is committed to bringing about positive changes in our lives, and He has worked with plenty of rough projects over the years.

Jacob is a case in point. I mean, Jacob had some definite character flaws. He was sneaky, deceitful, conniving, crafty, dishonest, and selfish. His name literally means “heel-grabber” and is frequently translated as “Supplanter” or “Deceiver.”

How appropriate. He came out of the womb wanting that which did not belong to him, holding onto his brother Esau’s heel. As he grew up, he was his mother’s favorite, and Esau was his father’s favorite. This Esau had a steady supply of fresh meat and he apparently knew how to cook his game.

One day, Jacob deceived his blind father with his mother’s help. They covered his smooth body with goat skins, so he felt and smelled like his hairy brother. (“Esau,” by the way, means “hairy.”) He stole Esau’s birthright and blessing.

This made Esau so mad that he vowed to kill Jacob as soon as his father died, and Jacob had to run for his life. Although Jacob got the blessing he wanted, deceiving his father cost him dearly. Listen to some of the consequences of his deceit.

He never saw his mother again. His brother, as noted, wanted to kill him. His family became torn by strife, and it has come down generationally even unto today. He became an exile.

As noted by the liturgist, Jacob himself was deceived in that he worked for seven years for an uncle in order to marry the daughter Rachel, then he got fooled by Laban. Because apparently they don’t unveil the bride until the very end, and he unveiled her and found out it was Leah. Then he worked another seven years to get Rachel. Then it was six years after that before he decided he could come home. So he persevered during those twenty years, and succeeded, and became very wealthy.

While Jacob has obvious character flaws, he has strengths as well. Although his methods were not always respectable, his skill, determination, and patience have to be admired. Jacob was a determined man.

You witness some of that determination here in this unusual episode where he literally wrestled all night with God. He has lived his life up to this point doing things his way. His life was all about him. But this night would be different, as Jacob found himself wrestling for change.

It was one of those seminal moments. What we know is that Jacob, at this point, is going to meet his brother again, for the first time in twenty years. Now, I want you to try to imagine what might have been the thoughts running through Jacob’s mind at this moment.

Twenty years ago he ran away because his life was in danger. As he made his way back towards home – because that’s what he was doing, he was going home – he sends messengers to his brother Esau to let him know he is coming.

The messengers come back, saying, “Esau is coming to meet you, and he has 400 men with him.” This does not sound like a promising start. He is going to see him tomorrow. He sends ahead his maids and his servants, and lots of gifts and camels and goats and sheep and all kinds of things to try to soften his brother up.

Finally he even sends his family in front of him, and he is left alone at night. He wonders, what will tomorrow hold? What will happen to me and to my family? He can’t sleep, and he needs direction. So perhaps, like you and me when in a tough spot, he thought, I’d better pray.

I want you to think about that for a moment. How often, when things are going fine for us, it’s OK and we just coast along, we’re smooth and everything is good, God is good. Then when things get tough, that’s when we finally begin to pray. We find out that in those moments of great fear, God is there.

Jacob is alone in the dark with his thoughts and fears. But not for long. A man came and wrestled with him. But more than a man. It was what theologians call a theophany, a visible manifestation of God. Jacob himself would later say, in verse 30, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I want to note, in terms of the wrestling with God, this is a passage that a lot of people have difficulty with trying to figure out. Your Bible translated it really nicely – they let you know who is who. But in the Hebrew, after that statement, “a man came and wrestled with him,” there’s nothing but pronouns, “he” and “him,” until it gets to the point where Jacob is asking for a blessing.

So you get that sense, if you’ve ever been a wrestler or you’ve ever seen a wrestling match, they’re twisting and turning and moving in and out, and going after one another, grappling and holding, and you don’t know who’s currently being referred to sometimes. This is not WWF, with all kinds of slams and throws and yelling. No, it’s the real thing. (No offense to fans of WWF.)

In spite of Jacob’s many failures, God was there for him in his time of great fear. However, God didn’t show up just to comfort him. God had come to confront him, to make him face the truth, to force him to wrestle with the issues that had brought him to this place.

Let me bring it to you. What are you afraid of? Sometimes the only way to get rid of our fears is to finally face up to the weaknesses within us. And these answers to prayer don’t come easy. Many times there is a struggle involved.

I mentioned that the Hebrew used pronouns to give you a sense of that wrestling. Anybody who has wrestled for real knows you have three short periods. And it’s a good thing that they’re short, and it’s a good thing that there are only three. Because at the end of those three, most of the time we’re exhausted, if you go out for the entire match.

And yet, Jacob was wrestling all night. He was struggling his best. He had to have been exhausted by the morning and the daybreak. Tell me, have you ever prayed with a fervency that made you mentally and physically tired?

In our Gospel passage today, we see Jesus doing exactly that. It’s the night before his crucifixion. He has had the Last Supper. And he is afraid. He felt everything that we do, was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin.

He is terrified. He knows what’s coming. And he asks God, “Father, if it’s possible, take this cup away from me.” He was struggling so hard he sweat drops of blood. And yet he said in the end, “Nevertheless, thy will be done.” It was hard.

For us today sometimes, I think it sounds too much like work. We want answers, quick and easy. We don’t like the idea of a struggle or a hunt. We want to Google it and – bam! – have it there. You see, our trouble is that we’re used to wrestling in a lighter weight-class.

We can pin down most of the lightweight stuff pretty easily. We spend a little time in prayer, here and there, and put a headlock on the small problems. But sooner or later, something big will face us, and we find that we’re out of our league.

Wrestling with all the light stuff didn’t get us prepared. When we face the heavyweight problem, we can’t expect the quick, easy victories that we had before. You see, when the need is great, you need a heavyweight faith.

Jacob was in trouble. He was desperate. He was wrestling with lifelong problems and patterns. He needed answers. And in a most unusual fashion, God came down in physical form to test his endurance and determination.

This lifelong problem and pattern was the deceitfulness. That’s what he was struggling with. We’ll get to that as we understand the renaming process. They wrestled together all night long. And it’s a reminder to us that answers to prayer don’t always come easily.

Is your need great? Are you facing something difficult? Are you tired of being the way you are? Are you sick of the hold sin has had on you? You may have to fight for the victory. You need to ask yourself, how badly do you want it? At least we have the assurance of knowing that through God, and with God, victory is ours.

The third thing I want to mention is the fact that Jacob came to that realization that he needed God and depended on God. After wrestling all night with God, when daybreak came and the stranger said, “Let me go,” and Jacob said “No,” it says that he touched him on the thigh, and his hip got dislocated.

Now, God could have done that any time during the night. And all Jacob could do then was cling to God. No more wrestling. Just holding on for dear life. He did so, and the man said, “Let me go,” and Jacob said, “No, not until you bless me.”

Well, he was asking the man to bless him, which means he recognized that the man was far greater that he was. The greater blesses the lesser, not the other way around. So God does a thing that seems strange, perhaps, to us. He asks Jacob what is his name.

You see, he’s bringing Jacob to a confrontation with those things in his life that, up to this point, had defined his life, at least as Jacob. God says, “I’m going to rename you. I’m going to give you a new name, and I’m going to bless you. I’m going to call you Israel, because you are he who has wrestled with God and with man and has overcome.”

It kind of reminds me of when my boys were growing up. I used to wrestle with them – I wouldn’t anymore. But there was one thing which they actually seemed to enjoy. We’d wrestle for a while, then pretty much I’d get tired of it, and I’d put them in the “daddy-lock.” I just kind of wrapped myself around them in a particular way, with legs and arms, and then they’d just kind of squirm, and they couldn’t get out until I let them go.

Sometimes we need to get to that point with God. We struggle with Him, and He puts us in His “daddy-lock.” Then we just need to give it over to Him. But if we’ve fought the fight, we’ve given all we have, then God will respond with change.

When you become determined to change in regards to your own sinfulness, and you lay yourself on God, and rest upon His strength and ask for His strength, and cling to God and the truth He has for us, then you too can gain something new and be blessed.

What will it take to get you to deal with your problems? Will you ever wrestle with the things that have hindered you? Will you lock in with God until the answer comes? Learn a lesson from Jacob.

If you’re determined to dig in with God, He can change your attitude, your heart, your thoughts, your habits, and your spirit. He can, the Scripture says, cause old things to pass away, and you can become a new and different person. He can give you new life.

Now, this is not always easy. It’s not intended to be. Jacob walked away with a limp, a reminder of the many crippling decisions he had made when he insisted on doing things his way. There are always consequences that chase us, from our sins.

But he also walked away with the blessing of God and a new name. Jacob the Heel-grabber, the ambitious deceiver, now became Israel. And Jacob’s character changed along with his name.

God wants to change you. He doesn’t wish for you all the pain that comes from choosing your own way. He wants to bless you. You don’t have to fight for it, just obey – which can be a fight in and of itself. He wants to change your name by writing His name upon your heart.

You know, we’re going to celebrate that a little bit today, with the baptism, as we look at God placing a mark on a child of God and him being welcomed into the family, and we pray for him and the family, that they will raise him up and nurture him in the ways of God, that God’s name will be written upon his heart.

Jacob walked away from that place with a most unusual story. He had finally realized his dependence on the God who had continued to bless him. Are you depending on God?

You know, I always wanted to serve God. I thought about going into the ministry even as a senior in high school, and decided that wasn’t practical, that I could just be active in church, raise a family on what I made in science, and keep my music as a hobby.

But like Jacob, that made me kind of half in and half out. I was basically a good guy but I never fully made up my mind. And the world is full of Christians who want enough of God to make it to heaven but don’t want so much of God that they have to change.

But that’s what we’re called to do. I’m not into a lot of guesswork. I’ve told people that I won’t try to figure out, like so many people, when Christ is coming again. I don’t want to live hoping that Jesus comes back on one of my good days.

So I’m ready to meet Him now. I decided if I was going to be a Christian and a disciple, it was time to wrestle with some of the things that were hindering me. I didn’t want to put my Christianity off and on like a switch, and I didn’t want to live one way in church and another during the week. I wanted to be consistent and authentic.

So I began to wrestle with some of the things in my life that were in the way. I began, one by one, to turn them over to God. And I’m still working on it. There are things that I keep taking back. That’s part of our great race, that Paul talks about.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus.” That’s the ultimate advice for all of us, whether you’re a runner or a wrestler.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. Throw off that which keeps you from Him. Get it off your back and out of your life. Take on these challenges now, so that it doesn’t hurt you later. Stand up and fight. Either wrestle for change, or you live with the pain of your failures.

I can say, from my own experience, it’s wiser to pin your problems down right now. Pin those weaknesses with the power of the cross and with the Holy Spirit within you, and don’t wait until the hurt gets serious. Get that victory today. And know that that victory is assured, because we have the promise of God. And He will never fail us.

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

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