Wrestling with God
Tony Dillon Hansen
A sermon based upon Genesis 32: 22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3: 16; and also Luke 18:1-8.
Begin with a prayer from Psalm 19.
There are unique connections to this passage from Genesis since both I was a wrestler in high school and my son, Tyler, continued wrestling into college.
Today, let us to consider what it is like to wrestle with God.
Let us walk through this passage, but first recognize the context of the story. Jacob has not been an overly nice guy. In fact one might say, he is downright manipulative and deceitful, including deceiving to get his brother’s birthright. Frankly, Jacob is not making many friends, and it looks like he decides to run. So there might be plenty of anxiety, frustration, stress and an air of frustration when reaching this moment. I wonder if there is guilt and shame as well.
What is Jacob to do ? Jacob is alone (sort of).
In this moment of so much turmoil that Jacob wrestles with this one who is there. I doubt there were scoreboards, whistles, or even rules, but these two wrestle the whole night. (I get tired after a couple hours of practice.) At one point, this being gets Jacob on the hip, and now, he has a limp. (I have a few of these injuries myself.) Why did God do this? When we are behaving like arrogant kids, sometimes, we need someone to tell us to just stop.
Still, Jacob will not let go unless he gets a blessing. That is pretty demanding. Jacob finds God, wrestles with God, gets hurt, and asks for a blessing. Nevertheless, Jacob persists until God calls him by a new name (Israel – means one who struggles with God) along with a blessing.
There are 3 points to lift here.
1) Jacob is alone in this exchange. This happens in our own lives. When we pray or when we are dealing with a difficult decision, we can even be angry about where are on life’s journey asking the many “whys.” We can ask all sorts of people what to do and how to do it, but ultimately who decides and who does? You! It is up to us in these moments to make the difference, to reach out and to find God because one good thing is that you, like Jacob, are not alone. I submit to you that God is listening.
2) Jacob wrestles with God. What is that like? When things don’t feel like they are ever going your way; we keep pushing that proverbial boulder up the hill like Sisyphus; or when you think you have had just about enough, you have questions and you want answers. Maybe even now, you want to wrestle (or argue) with God and ask “why am I in this situation?”
This is where I turn to kicking pads, bicycling, or even walking with Reno (or I hear that knitting, singing and puzzles) can be quite useful because in those activities, we can be wrestling with God with the revolving what-if scenarios playing. In any of those exercises, we may gain clarity because maybe God is listening.
Perhaps, wrestling with God can have some great outcomes. That leads to the third point.
3) Problems don’t necessarily go away when we practice wrestling with God. Jacob teaches us the most valuable lesson is to talk. We have to be willing to ask in order for prayers to be answered. We may get sore and sure not every blessing is wrapped with bows and fancy paper. Sometimes, we have to work and persist, (wrestle with truths that we don’t like), but we ought to be willing to ask God for help.
This is a turning point, and Jacob teaches us that persistence can go a long way.
I am not sure what blessing Jacob has in mind, but Jacob asks for a blessing from God. What is that blessing? What do you want it to be?
Jacob gets to see God (and live) with new name. Maybe the blessing is a fresh beginning; Maybe forgiveness; or Maybe reassurance that we are not alone.
Perhaps, if we hold onto God, we might get a blessing too. The blessing may not be the present we have wanted, but it might be just what we need.
Perhaps, you have been hurting and sore in your heart, then God has what you need -- if you are willing to ask.
Go ahead wrestle with God. Jacob’s story invites us to not give up in our journeys and prayers. Tell God when you are happy and gracious. Also, tell God when you are upset; that you hurt and that you want love.
Jacob comes out of this wounded and humbled, but Jacob rises changed. He gives the place a name, Pnuel (Hebrew for “face of God”). He survived the night with still many things in front of him, but Jacob is ready for whatever comes at dawn.
This nighttime wrestling practice is a story that reminds us that “practice” is helpful and teaches us about ourselves and our relationships, including with our Creator. “These are the dark nights of our souls” and part of our basic humanity. Whether our struggle is mental, physical or spiritual, dawn is coming.
There’s no assurance that those dark nights go away or even leave us unscathed, but they test us in ways we cannot imagine. Perhaps, we are tested so that we might be able to meet trials ahead of us.
This story reminds us that even those troubling nights can be a birthplace of blessings, if we are willing to persist and willing to ask. Our core struggles as thoughtful Christians can leave marks, but with God’s help, our hearts can be transformed. Lift your eyes to the hills! We can have hope.
We are called to meet the dawn with hope, wonder, prayer, practice, breath and heart because we are not alone. God is with you this time on and forevermore.
Thanks be to God.