Rasslin’ With God

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost 
August 6, 2023

Scripture reading:  Genesis 32:22-31

Many summers ago, I taught a very odd Sunday school class.  It covered the weird, the gross, the unique, the unusual stories from the Bible.  It resembles a holy version of “Ripley’s Believe or Not” in many cases.  It was a great topic to explore with some good folks from our church, and I truly enjoyed teaching the various lessons.

In my opinion, today’s Scripture reading from Genesis DEFINITELY could have been included in those Sunday school lessons! 

In any case, even the introduction of the story is weird, odd, a little goofy, and unusual.  Any decent writer would strongly object at how awkwardly the story begins. 

In the passage we read today, we have Jacob on the bank of the Jabbok River, which is a tributary of the Jordan River.  He sent his family across the river, and he remained alone on the opposite bank.  Thus, we get the following sentence:

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

Now you have to admit that is not the smoothest way to introduce this story!  I always think that perhaps something was missing from the original version.  I also wondered what the experts had to say about it.  I remember asking my Old Testament about this particular story; I figured that Dr. Dearman, who had taught Old Testament and Hebrew for 25 years, would have some insight that would help us better understand this odd story.  I will never forget his answer: “I don’t have a clue; if any of you figure it out, let me know.  This story has bothered me for years.”

So, perhaps we should be careful in being too confident in our own understanding of this story.

But…if the experts are also divided on its interpretation, what do we have to lose in our attempts to make sense of it?

Here is what I found about Jacob in the Book of Genesis:

Jacob had spent his entire life outsmarting, outmaneuvering, and eventually prevailing in just about everything he did.  When his father-in-law, Laban, wanted to divide up the flocks of sheep, Jacob came up with a sneaky way to make sure he ended up with more livestock.  When his slightly older brother, Esau, was famished and wanted some of the delicious, savory meal that Jacob had prepared, Jacob would not give Esau any of it until Esau gave away his birthright, or his right to be the most important son.  When Isaac wanted to give a special blessing to Esau, Jacob disguised himself to resemble Esau, and Isaac – who had failing eyesight in his old age – gave that special, one-of-a-kind blessing to Jacob by mistake.

In short, Jacob was a dirty rat who had tricked his way into getting exactly what he wanted for his entire life.

But now two life-changing events occurred at almost the same time:

First, Jacob knew he had to face his bigger, stronger, angry brother, Esau, when the sun came up – the brother Jacob had run from and hidden from for a very long time. 

And second, before facing his brother, Jacob wrestled this mysterious stranger.

The obvious question is this: Exactly who was this mysterious stranger?  Was it an angel?  Was it God himself?  My favorite theory I read was that it was a demon!  But honestly…we just don’t know…and it probably doesn’t matter at all.

Because here is what else I found: Jacob’s rasslin’ match with the mysterious stranger could have been a “time of reckoning” for Jacob.

Think about it: Jacob had let a rotten life, full of deceit and trickery.  He had always won, had always gotten his way, had always had everything turn out in his favor.  He was the unbeaten, undefeated Biblical champ!  But now he was alone in the dark in a strange place… dreading the morning and that uncomfortable meeting with Esau…who was coming to this meeting backed up by 400 men… recalling all the old memories in which he had treated Esau and everyone else badly…and realizing – perhaps for the very first time –

Just how rotten he had been.

Nice timing, Jacob!

But look at the rest of the story!  The reckoning that was coming with Esau was preceded by a reckoning that Jacob had with God.  Jacob struggled all night with this mysterious stranger, and for the first time in his life – Jacob couldn’t win!  He tried his best…he tried everything he could think of…he used all his might, but he finally met someone he could not defeat.  It was almost as if Jacob was rasslin’ God himself, and God was not going to be defeated.  In fact, look at what happened to the “master of dirty tricks” at the end of the rasslin’ match: the mysterious stranger touched Jacob’s hip, causing it to go out of the socket.  Jacob was forced to quit and give up at that point – he had been outfoxed and out maneuvered by his mysterious opponent – and he had been beaten for the first time. 

Jacob could never walk so arrogantly and so proudly again.

Again…nice timing, Jacob!

But again…look at the rest of the story!

Did Jacob give up?  No, he didn’t.  In his struggle with the mysterious stranger – or with God – or with himself, Jacob simply would not quit.  He was supposed to be a righteous man of God, raised by one of the original patriarchs of the Bible – Isaac.  During his life, he was given every opportunity to become that righteous man, but instead he chose to be sneaky, deceptive, and deceitful.  Now he had faced his own time of reckoning, “his dark night of the human soul” as the poet calls it.  He had come out of that night no longer the same Jacob that he had always been.  The mysterious stranger even gave him a brand, new name; from that day forward, Jacob became Israel, a name which means “the one who strives with God.” 

Israel was the man who looked upon the rising sun with new purpose.

If you keep reading, his reunion with his estranged brother, Esau, was one of joy.  Israel – formerly Jacob – actually prevailed because he became a better person, the person he had always been called to be. 

A shallower version of Jacob would have tried to ignore his past sins. 

A cowardly version of Jacob might have tried to evade the consequences of his actions. 

A sneakier version of Jacob would have tried again to outthink his brother, Esau.  But there was great potential in that new Jacob.  He humbled himself before God; he fought through the dark night of the human soul without giving up; he was determined to keep up the fight – even if he could not win.

The obvious lesson is there for all of us, of course.

Who among us has not faced up to our true selves in times of crisis?  Who among us has not questioned honestly what we have done, how we have acted, how we have treated others, and – the most difficult, painful question of all – what kind of persons we truly are?

It is a terrible time, a painful time, a time of reckoning. 

But remember the rest of the story!  Jacob became a completely new person, Israel.  He and Esau reunited in love and forgiveness – and joy! 

Each of us can also become a new person.  We have the grace of God the Father, the salvation of Jesus Christ, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  We can also become new people, or at least better versions of ourselves, when the sun comes up on a new day.

We can struggle and we can win.  But only if we become the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.

And only if we realize that rasslin’ with God is a losing proposition!  Amen!