Intersections: Arguing with God – Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

First in a four-part series: Intersections – Where Faith Meets Life
August 6, 2017
(No video is available for this sermon)

This week has been a struggle for me. On Monday, a dear sister in the Lord died after a long battle with cancer. Cancer didn’t win, but Evie will be greatly missed, especially by the congregation of Bethlehem Covenant Church, where Evie worshiped and served in many ways. Then, two days later, an explosion rocked Minnehaha Academy, where both Evie and I had taught. Two more people died. Friday, a childhood friend of mine, who thought she had kicked cancer, learned that the disease has spread into her bones and her liver. She is putting her affairs in order.

While I know that God can use every circumstance for his purpose, even the painful circumstance of grief, I have to wonder what good can come out of the sorrow experienced by so many this week. Uncertainty clouds the future. What has been difficult for me, as I learned of one tragedy after another, is that I’m too far away from any of the people directly affected to do more than pray for them. Whatever comfort I can offer my friends seems thin and meaningless. I feel helpless. My prayers have often turned into arguments with God this week.

I’m not the first to fight with God. Throughout the Bible, we are given plenty of examples of struggling with the Almighty. Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah – they all knew what it meant to push back against the Lord. Abraham convinced God to at least check to see if there might be ten people who were worth saving, before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:32-33). Spoiler alert: there weren’t, but God did give Lot and his family time to escape before destruction hit. Moses even got God to change his mind about destroying the rebellious Israelites (Exodus 34:14).

Jonah argued with God, and look where that got him – a three day time-out in the belly of a fish! After God had used Jonah to get Nineveh to repent, Jonah fussed with God, complaining that he was too merciful, too patient, too kind.

Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, struggled with his Father, asking that the cup be removed, if possible, sweating drops like blood as he prayed. When was the last time your prayer life was so intense, you broke out in a sweat as you prayed?

In today’s passage from Genesis, we hear about Jacob’s struggle with God. Remember that Jacob’s name means “one who grasps the heel” or “one who supplants” and he has had plenty of experience being at odds with his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. He has tricked them both, and fled for his life. He has become wealthy by tricking his father-in-law, Laban, and now that his flocks and herds have grown so large that they threaten the relationship between the two men, Jacob has decided to take his chances returning home. Maybe his brother’s anger will have cooled off after so many years. Maybe there is room for both of them in the land that God promised to Abraham’s descendents.

So Jacob heads back home, but not without some concern. He sends gifts ahead, to let Esau know he is coming in peace. But when his servants return, they tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with a small army. Jacob divides his caravan into two groups, hoping to protect at least half of his property and family, in case of an attack. He and his wives and children settle in for the night, but Jacob can’t sleep. So he gets up in the middle of the night, and takes drastic steps to protect his family and property.

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When 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.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. – Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob’s story teaches us several things. The first might be that wrestling with God is a scriptural reality, and we shouldn’t back away from such an encounter, or condemn others when we see them struggling with God.

But how do you wrestle with God? When is it appropriate? Where should such a wrestling match take place? And what outcome can we hope to achieve from the encounter?

WHERE do you wrestle with God? You wrestle with God …

On a riverbank – both the name Jacob and the name of the river, Jabbok, sound a lot like the Hebrew word for “wrestle.”[1] As Christians, we recognize the symbolism of water. Just a couple of weeks ago, we gathered on a beach to baptize Ellie. Water signifies new birth in Christ Jesus, being raised from death to new life. We are named at baptism, just as Jacob would receive a new name at the end of his wrestling match.

For Jacob, the water of the Jabbok also marked a boundary. It wasn’t difficult to cross this little stream, but once he stepped onto the other bank, he would be in Esau’s territory. This was, in every sense of the term, a watershed moment for Jacob, the point of no return. We may often find ourselves struggling with God at key decision points in our lives. When we engage with God at the edge of our own river, there is no turning back.

You wrestle with God …

Where you are completely alone – Jacob had already said his bedtime prayers. He had settled in for the night with his family. Yet he got up some time in the night, rousted them all from their sleep, and moved them across the stream. It’s not clear if he was trying to protect his family, or himself, but once they were safely across, he came back. He was completely alone. There were no bodyguards to protect him, and no one to comfort him.

When we struggle with God, nothing comes between our Creator and us. We have to stand on our own in God’s presence, just as we will stand alone on Judgment Day to answer for our lives. Wrestling with God has to be one-on-one, hand-to-hand, face-to-face. There is no one to else to blame, nothing else to hide behind. A fight with God requires that we make ourselves completely vulnerable, even as God becomes completely vulnerable to us.

“As Christians, we know something about this sort of God. In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-9, he writes, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be [grasped…something to be] exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a [servant], being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself….’”[2] When we argue with God, God meets us on our own turf, making himself as we are, in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, WHEN do you wrestle with God?

You wrestle with God …

When you’re facing the unknown, and you’re afraid – Like Jacob on the riverbank, unsure of what would happen the next morning when he would come face to face with his brother Esau, we can find ourselves wrestling with God as we are preparing to head into uncharted territory. It might be making a decision about moving to a new place, or starting a new career. It might be recognizing a call that God has placed on our lives that we aren’t sure we want to accept, like Jonah.

Whenever you find yourself on the brink of something, especially when it is something that you can’t control, when the possible outcome is uncertain and you might be afraid, that’s a good time to get toe-to-toe with God. It’s times like these when we realize just how dependent we are on God’s grace and goodness.

You wrestle with God …

When you’re seeking reconciliation with someone you’ve hurt in the past – Esau had every reason to want to hurt Jacob, and Jacob knew it. After all, Jacob had cheated Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Coming home to Esau required great humility on Jacob’s part. If we read a bit further into the story, we learn that Jacob bows to Esau seven times as he approaches his brother (Gen 33:3). Wrestling with God prepares us for that kind of humility, when we want to restore a relationship that has been broken.

You wrestle with God …

When you’re about to become someone new – Jacob didn’t know that he was getting a new name out of the deal, but that name, and the new identity that went with it, would not have been possible without a good fight. Jacob’s new name “Israel” is usually translated as “one who strives with God.” But it also means “God strives.”

This two-way definition reflects the new relationship that God was establishing with Jacob. When we claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we are given a new name: Redeemed. It not only reflects our new standing as a beloved child of God, it also tells the world who has redeemed us.

You wrestle with God …

When it is dark – St. John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite monk. He wrote of his own struggle, which he called the “dark night of the soul.” Others have described it as a period of intense suffering, when all hope seems to be lost. No one who experiences a dark night of the soul comes out of it unchanged. It is a “painful and profound reality that shatters illusions.”[3] This is where deep questions get asked, where spiritual struggle is real, and where growth toward mature faith can begin.

But there’s another aspect of the dark that is important to Jacob’s story. Remember that the ‘man’ wrestling with Jacob is concerned about ending their struggle before daybreak. “Terence Fretheim points out that the danger is not that God would be harmed by the daylight, but that Jacob would; ‘If Jacob holds on until daybreak, he is a dead man!’[4]

No one can see the face of God and live. So far, Jacob has been protected in his fight with God by the very darkness that makes his struggle so difficult. When we grapple with God, it has to happen in the darkness of our souls, not only because that is where we need the most work, but because that is the only place God can meet us without overwhelming us.

You wrestle with God …

When God shows up to confront you – Jacob wasn’t expecting anyone, except maybe his brother in an ambush, to come to him there beside the Jabbok river. Yet as soon as all the conditions were right, God showed up as a wrestler, ready to engage Jacob in a sweaty, no-holds-barred battle.

When God shows up in your life, confronting you with your past, preparing you for your future, there is no other option for your present than to grab hold of God and wrestle.

And HOW do you wrestle with God?

You wrestle with God …

face to face – this is up close and personal engagement. You can’t wrestle with God from a safe distance. There is no safe distance.

You wrestle with God …

holding on for dear life – once you’ve grabbed onto God, you can’t let go, or you are doomed. Wrestling is a full-body contact event. Jacob prevailed because he simply wouldn’t let go. Hold on for dear life.

You wrestle with God …

holding out for a blessing – Jacob wouldn’t release his opponent until he had received a blessing. The very fact that he asked for one tells us he knew who he was asking. But before he was given that blessing, something else happened. Jacob became Israel. The “El” in Israel is the short form of God’s name. By accepting his new name, Jacob claimed a new identity, and that name, that identity, was defined by God’s name and identity. Jacob’s blessing depended on accepting the fact that he now belonged to God, and God had included him in God’s own name.

You can’t struggle with God and come out of it unchanged. Whether you change God’s mind like Abraham and Moses did, or limp away from the encounter like Jacob did, any time you come face to face and toe to toe with the living God, you will be changed. The question isn’t really, “How do I wrestle with God?” after all. The question becomes, “Are you ready to engage?”

As we approach this Table, Christ invites us to do just that. This is a holy moment of decision for each of us. We stand on the riverbank, in the dark, holding on with all that we are to the God who loves us enough to wrestle with us until we claim our new identity as children of God. Then, and only then, will we receive the blessing that God is eager to give us.

[1] Sara Koenig, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=710; also Feasting on the Word supplemental essay by _______

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/07/a-god-who-will-wrestle-with-you-until-daybreak-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-genesis-32-for-sunday-july-27/

[3] Chuck DeGroat, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2015/february-online-only/3-truths-of-dark-night-of-soul.html

[4] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis.” New Interpreters Bible Volume I. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 566, quoted by Sara Koenig, workingpreacher.com

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