22nd Week after Pentecost
The story of the wrestling match on the banks of the Jabbok is not an easy one and it may raise more questions than answers. But looking at what has happened so far in Jacob’s life may help us understand what this story might mean.
Jacob was the second born of twins. He came into this world with his hand grasping his brother's heel, almost it seemed, trying to pull Esau back so that he could get out ahead. His parents named him Jacob, which means "grabber". This was a foretaste of what kind of person Jacob would turn out to be. By hook or by crook Jacob wanted desperately to always be the winner by trickery, scheming and grabbing what he could get.
He spent his life getting out of one tight spot and quickly ending up in another. He had become his mother’s favorite, swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright, and tricked his dying father into giving him, not Esau, the family inheritance. He becomes a fugitive when he escapes his brother’s wrath.
Then after 20 years Jacob wants to go back home. Back to the brother who had threatened to kill him. Back to the family he had cheated and lied to. Tomorrow he will stand face-to-face with the brother whom he has so grievously wronged. Will Esau forgive him or kill him? Jacob is worried. He’s worried because his brother has come with a force of 400 men.
In order to soothe the anger of his brother, Jacob prepares presents from his livestock to go ahead. Then he wakes up the whole camp and sends his wives and children across the river. If Esau had any thoughts of attacking as they crossed the river then Jacob would be one step ahead. Once again the schemer plans to outsmart his brother.
Jacob is the only one left behind. It’s night. And Jacob is assaulted by a stranger. Who is this stranger who jumps Jacob in the night? The story only says "a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak". It's dark. Jacob may have thought the attacker was a robber or even his brother who had sworn to kill him. However, by morning, Jacob will say that he has fought with God.
This must have been quite some wrestling match. Blow for blow. Head-lock for head-lock. Then the man touches Jacob’s hip and dislocates it. Jacob realizes that this man is not a robber; he is looking at the face of God. Near dawn, gasping for breath, exhausted, they speak.
"Let me go, day is breaking," says the man.
"Bless me first," says Jacob.
"Well, what's your name?" asks the stranger.
"You are no longer called Jacob. You are Israel. You have struggled with God and people and have prevailed."
Jacob got a new name, a new identity through the surprise of God. We have known this rascal Jacob by the names "Trickster," "Grabber," and worst of all "Heel". Now he is called "Israel" which means "God preserves" or "God protects". With the new name, there comes a new person, a new man, a new people has been formed. Jacob, now known as Israel is the one who has faced God, struggled with God, been gripped by God, given a blessing, and renamed. Jacob is forever changed into Israel.
When daylight comes, God is gone. So is Jacob. Now, only Israel remains, walking with a permanent limp. That night, Jacob the man who was always so sure of himself, ready to cheat his own brother and father, the schemer, the liar, the deceiver became a changed man and his new name "Israel" is proof.
With great relief and gratitude Jacob acknowledges that he had been spared through God's gracious goodness, when all he deserved was to have been crushed thoroughly and completely. He had always thought of himself as a self-made man, a person who was in control of his life, but now he realizes that in God’s eyes he wasn’t some great hero of earth-shaking significance after all. Rather, he was an arrogant sinner.
And yet, wonder of wonders, God came down in human form, came down to Jacob’s level and engaged in this wrestling contest. He did this because he loved that pesky, buzzing, wiggling little arrogant person.
He loved him! He blessed him! No one gets to see the face of God, least of all a man like Jacob. It’s no wonder he says in amazement, "I saw God face to face, and I am still alive." Jacob is weakened by his encounter with God's power. But strangely, he is also now much stronger - stronger because he leans on God's power.
God has come down for us as well. This time in Jesus, God the Son. He became human. He declares that we are his children, that God loves us, forgives us and will always walk with us.
The amazing thing that Jacob's story illustrates is that, whatever our past, whatever our previous priorities, God never gives up on us. It is his strength that comes to us and makes us strong for the struggles we will face in this life.
Like Jacob, we are assured that:
• God’s forgiveness is greater than our greatest sin, • his renewal is greater than our deepest failing, • the life he gives is more secure than death, • and that he will be there when we have to wrestle with life’s disappointments, doubts, and confusion.
We wrestle looking for answers, for help, for strength and in his grace God allows us to wrestle with him as we try to come to terms with what has happened or is happening in our lives.
And as we wrestle with God, like Jacob, we may come away from it with some lasting injury,
• but like Jacob, in our wrestling we will encounter God’s power and learn to lean on him and again experience his grace and mercy, • and like Jacob, we are made new with trust in God, and refreshed in our relationship with God, assured that God is with us.