Israel’s self-understanding is one of being in a locked battle with God. In their very name, the Israelites make very plain and public that they see themselves as a people that struggle with God. — Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People
Come, O thou Traveller 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. — Charles Wesley, ‘Wrestling Jacob’
Today, we heard about a wrestling match between Jacob and—who was it? A man? An angel? God himself? Or could we even read it as a parable of Jacob’s inner struggle with himself?
This is a text to struggle with.
Jacob was born struggling. He was the second of twins, the first being Esau. When Esau was born, then Jacob
came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.
The name Jacob literally means heel-catcher, but apparently it also suggests supplanter, defrauder, trickster, cheat.
Jacob was the kind of bloke who’d stop at nothing to get what he wanted. And he wanted plenty.
As the second son, Jacob was less important in every way. Esau got everything.
But the trickster Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright and also fooled his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightly belonged to Esau.
People like Jacob are always struggling to be in first place; but people like Jacob often have their comeuppance.
We meet him today about to face Esau, who has promised to kill him. Remember the dream Jacob had of a ladder reaching all the way up to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it?
In that dream, God commands Jacob to go to Canaan, to take up the promise of a land to Abraham. And God promises Jacob that he will be safe.
Can Jacob trust God in this? His problem is that getting to Canaan means going through Edom. And that is where Esau lives. Jacob is seriously worried that Esau will send fighting men to kill him and his rather large family.
Protocol required Jacob to make a gift to the chieftain of the land that he wanted to pass through. That chieftain was Esau. Jacob gave Esau a serious gift:
two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.
You know, I’m thinking of a gift to bring back to my wife when I go home to Brisbane. I wonder if she’d like a present like that?
I doubt it.
On the eve of his meeting with Esau, Jacob has a very strange encounter. A wrestling match. Another struggle.
Who was he struggling with?
The story is really mysterious about that. It starts off telling us that Jacob wrestled with ‘a man’. (v.24) This unnamed man and Jacob wrestled until dawn was breaking; the man was as much of a trickster as Jacob, because when he saw he couldn’t win he put Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Jacob limped for life after that.
Jacob begins by wrestling this mysterious man, and ends up saying
I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.
What a mysterious story! Is it portraying Jacob wrestling with a man or with God? The answer to that question is an enigma.
Let’s try to unlock some of the mystery of this story in another way: remember, Jacob begins by wrestling against an unnamed man, but he ends up wrestling with a whole new sense of respect for him.
Why the change?
It’s all about the blessing. The blessing that Jacob asks for, but cannot control.
The man that Jacob will not let go of blesses him by giving him a new name: no longer is he Jacob, but Israel. No longer is he a trickster and cheat, but one who struggles with God.
That’s what ‘Israel’ means.
Oh, there’s another way of understanding the name Israel: It could be ‘God struggles’—with his people.
And Israel and God have struggled with each other ever since.
Israel has struggled with God. Think of the Psalms. Look at Psalm 13.1–2:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
Or Psalm 79.5:
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
That question, ‘How long?’, occurs seventeen times in the Book of Psalms.
And what about the prophet Habakkuk? This is how Habakkuk starts:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
And what about Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
And let’s not forget there’s a whole Book of Lamentations.
Much of the Old Testament is a record of Israel’s struggle with God.
But it is also about God’s struggle with Israel. Listen to Zephaniah, Habakkuk’s neighbour in the Bible:
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
When Israel breaks the covenant, the ‘wrath of God’ is aroused—in other words, God struggles with an unfaithful covenant partner.
‘At the right time’, the Bible tells us, Jesus came. He too struggled with Israel:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23.27–29)
This comes at the end of Matthew 23, in which Jesus cries ‘Woe!’ to the scribes and pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
But notice this: Jesus struggles with religious leaders who make it hard for others. He doesn’t struggle with the ordinary sinner. Is it that way here in Devonport? Do we struggle with people Jesus had no problem with? I hope not.
In the Gospel reading for today, we heard the reason that Jesus made sure the multitude were fed: ‘He had compassion for them’.
Jesus healed and fed and taught and saved because he had compassion. And if Jesus has compassion, we know that God is a God of compassion who calls us to be people of compassion. In Charles Wesley’s words in his hymn Wrestling Jacob, we realise that ‘Thy nature and thy name is Love’.
Jesus struggled with those who were unfaithful to the covenant; they showed their unfaithfulness by their lack of compassion.
Jesus also struggled with God. He almost wrestled with God, just as Jacob had done. He cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane,
My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.…My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.
And of course, on the cross,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It’s that old question once more: ‘How long, O Lord?’
Sometimes we struggle with God. We struggle over illness, death, unemployment, the state of the world. ‘Why?’, we ask.
We don’t have to know the answer to that question to know that the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ is the God of compassion for all who are in need.
Sometimes, people feel bad for struggling with God. We need to remind ourselves that struggling is part of a faithful life.
And of course, God still struggles with us. Not when we don’t succeed, but when we fail to put our faith in the Lord who loved us and gave himself for us. God struggles with us, yet God will never let us go. Jesus has struggled for us, and won us to be his people.
As you struggle for the future of the work of God in Devonport and in the north-west coast of Tasmania, remember this always:
Jesus struggled. Jesus struggled for us in the Garden and on Calvary. And never forget: Jesus struggles with us today and every day. Yet this struggle is a gift of grace: his nature and his name is Love.