Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“In The Ring”
Rev. Art Ritter
August 2, 2020
Genesis 32: 22-31
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.
I am not much of a wrestling fan. I have never been able to understand the attraction of so-called professional wrestling. I have never attended “Wrestlemania” or watched “Monday Night Raw” on television. I could identify some wrestlers of a few years ago: Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, and Nature Boy Ric Flair- but I wasn’t a fan of any of them. And I couldn’t name a single popular wrestler today. I once attended a wrestling show at a local high school. It was designed as a fundraiser so at least I felt good giving some of my money to charity. The problem was that I kept waiting to be hit on the head with a folding chair the whole evening. I guess the bottom line is that I have no interest in watching people with artificially created big muscles throw each other around and out of the ring and then perform synchronized and well-rehearsed tumbling maneuvers. I do not live vicariously through the entertainment driven good vs. evil rivalries that seem to be the foundation for every match and wrestler.
I don’t know much about amateur wrestling or what I would call “real” wrestling either. I know that we’ve had a few good high school wrestlers right here at Meadowbrook Congregational Church. The Gross and Sparling boys participated on their high school team and did quite well. My mother’s uncle was a medal winner wrestler in the Allied games that immediately followed World War I. I have all the respect in the world for these guys. When I was in high school many years ago, the wrestling coach approached me about trying out for the team. Back then I weighed about 125 pounds and he was looking for lightweight wrestlers with long legs. I was flattered. I went to a couple of practices to check things out and I just about died. My lungs burned and my heart wanted to leap out of my chest. I did not enjoy the sweaty physical contact of a one-on-one chess match. I made the wise decision to not try out for the team.
This morning’s Scripture lesson is a description of a wrestling match. Jacob and apparently God are in the ring or on the mat together. I have always though this to be an interesting description of a dialogue with the divine. Wrestling. Wrestling with God. Jacob isn’t quietly listening. Jacob isn’t talking to God in a manner of faithful following. Jacob isn’t praying and waiting for God to give him an answer. He is wrestling- grappling and struggling with God from sundown to sunrise.
Jacob’s wrestling match occurs at an important point in his life. Previously he had lived the life of a scoundrel- taking advantage of other people and situations that might make him more important. And he is now on a journey; from the land of Laban his father-in-law, from whom he has gained two wives and a certain amount of prosperity in sheep and goats and cattle. And he is heading home, to the place of his birth, where he must encounter his brother Esau, the brother from whom he wrestled away a birthright and his father’s blessing. Jacob is fearful that Esau might extract revenge when they meet again.
Against this scene, Jacob settles down beside the road for a good night’s sleep. During the night a stranger comes into the camp and engages Jacob in an all night wrestling match. Is it God? Is it an angel of God? Is it another person? Is Jacob simply wrestling with himself? All of these are real possibilities given the situation. But what is clear is that Jacob sees this wrestling match as a struggle with God. He says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob believes that he is in the ring with God!
In his wrestling match, Jacob learns that God was always with him in the past struggles. He was in the habit of trying to deal with things himself, to be self-sufficient, to control and manipulate everyone and everything around him. At this point in his life, Jacob was avoiding conflict, running away from his problems. Like us, perhaps he was hoping that they would just go away. Like us, maybe he was thinking he didn’t want to take the energy and hard work it requires to deal with our situation honestly. He was willing to run and hide from reality.
But Jacob learned that God wanted him in the ring. When God picks a fight with us, God want us to wrestle with circumstances honestly and thoughtfully. God wants us to deal with our created intention and truth about ourselves. God wants us to understand that part of the human experience is wrestling with those things we don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t control. And God wants us to know that God is there with us, whenever we enter that ring in faith. Regardless of the point of our struggle, we are called by God and God is with us.
Secondly, the story of Jacob’s struggle teaches us that our wrestling with God can be painful. Perhaps we tend to equate pain with failure but pain simply can be a humble reminder that some things in life cannot be controlled. There are bruises as well as blessings.
Amy Laura Hall compares our desire for an orderly, stress free life to a Martha Stewart magazine. “When we consider the seamless beauty…the well-coifed guests, well-behaved children, the clean white tablecloths and clean people- it is easy to become bewildered by our comparatively soiled lives. Her prescription is clear. Find the right votive candle set, omelet recipe, shawl pattern, simple yet elegant hairdo- and life will become better. Trained to want a life that is well-ordered and efficient, a portrait worthy of a cover, we despair over the fragile, flawed, drooling, limping, but blessed lives that are our own.” But it is in the failure and the weakness, and in the participation of the struggle, in the honest acknowledgement of pain that we encounter God face to face. Pain becomes the prelude to possibilities.
I had to learn this lesson myself recently. Perhaps you have too. Within the midst of pandemic it easy to want to deal with things later, when there is a vaccine, when things are normal. I tell myself that I will engage more in the complications of life when things are a little more under my control. But it doesn’t happen that way. There are issues with which to wrestle even while socially distanced. There are blessings to discover even in the midst of pandemic. There is a divine presence to encounter even when and perhaps especially when we are fragile and vulnerable and fearful.
Finally, Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine illustrates that our struggles with God have the power to transform us. Jacob limped away a changed man. He suddenly had new wisdom and courage and confidence to deal with uncertain situations ahead. He could now meet his brother face to face. He no longer assumed hostility that required a response of evil. He could see grace and was willing to respond with grace. He was open to confess his sins and receive forgiveness. He as now to be called Israel, the one who strives with God. Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
In her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister writes that this particular passage reflects a spiritually of struggle. She says, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act. God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness. Yet it is always a struggle. How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them that we would possibly have been without them? To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” Perhaps therein lies some hope for our lives in these difficult hours. In this struggle, in this uncertainty, we will become more whole. We will see God more clearly in wrestling with God than we ever would have making living life with no speedbumps.
Our Scripture lesson today doesn’t complete the story. There is an epilogue. In the morning, a limping Jacob, went out to meet his brother. He didn’t know what he would encounter. He organized things carefully, putting his maids and their children in front of the procession, then his wife he found less valuable and her children, and then his beloved wife Rachel with his favorite son Joseph. At least he was courageous enough to place himself ahead of them all! When he saw his brother, Esau ran to Jacob, embracing him and weeping. When Jacob offered half of all that he owned, Esau was puzzled. Jacob replied, “I do this for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” You see, Jacob understood that whatever blessing he received or whatever new understanding he gained in his struggle with God, it didn’t mean anything unless he lived it out in his midst of his life. In the end, Jacob learned that he could not earn God’s favor or control God’s grace, he could only struggle with both in the midst of life’s issues. And in the struggle he would find the faith to trust in God’s presence no matter what would come his way.