Wrestling a Blessing
“Wrestling a Blessing”
July 23, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
22 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. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans[c] and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I am glad to be back with you this Sunday after traveling this past weekend to Michigan to visit a very good friend and be present at the baptism of her son, my new godson. My friend is married to a man who is originally from Macedonia. And he was telling me about the tradition in his home country that becoming godparents means that you essentially become related from that point forward, that the two families are now intertwined in a divine blessing of connection and nurture of the little one. I love this. I love when the concept of family grows and expands when we acknowledge that it takes a village to nurture one another, not just our biological family. I was grateful to be present with them last weekend and grateful still to return to you all.
So speaking of families, this summer our preaching series is following a family. We’re pulling out the first book of the Bible, dusting it off a bit, and reminding ourselves of how the story of our faith family began. It’s the story of a complicated family that began with Abraham, included the harrowing near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, Isaac and Rachel’s struggle for children and the birth of twins who wrestled in the womb, and Jacob who deceived his family not once, but twice in order to win the birthright. Our story stays with Jacob for a quite a while, following him as he learns lessons about how God is with him, shaping him into the person he will ultimately be: the father of a people, a nation, Israel.
And speaking of families, I have some big shoes to fill myself this week following my mother’s wonderful message last week. She spoke to Jacob’s experience of being in the presence of God after a dream he had while on the run from his brother Esau while sleeping on a rock. We all have times in our life when we can look back and realize God was with us in that moment and season, but understanding it in the moment takes paying attention. I’m glad you welcomed her last week and that she was able to share with you.
And that brings us to today. It might have just been a week between last week’s story and this week’s , but a lot of time has passed in Jacob’s life. I’ll give you the cliff notes version. Still on the run, Jacob continued to live a drama-filled life, finding tension with his new father-in-law, marrying not one wife, but four, and going on to have a total of 13 children by these four different women. Twenty years later, Jacob hears a call from God to return back to his homeland.
But going home is hard. Especially when you’re still estranged from your family. As Jacob’s household began to make their way back home, Jacob learned that Esau, his estranged brother, was coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob was terrified and paranoid. So he sends as much of a gift as he can muster out to his brother… you know, cattle, sheep, goats, servants, the password to his Disney Plus account. Lots of stuff. Jacob was desperate and afraid. And after he sends this his family on ahead and he camps alone by a river. This is the night before he and Esau meet, and I briefly touched on that reunion in my message two weeks ago. It ultimately goes surprisingly well, but at this point, the night before, Jacob doesn’t know that. He’s wrestling with a lot of emotions.
So then what happens is kind of baffling. In the dark of night, Jacob is alone and “wrestles with a man until daybreak.” What man? Where did this come from? If you’re confused, you’re in good company. Jacob himself doesn’t even know who this is. The narrative starts by calling this shadowy unnamed opponent a man, but by the end Jacob comes to believe his opponent possesses divine qualities, perhaps even being God himself.
Even though this passage of scripture is short, it has generated a lot of interest. Here you can see how the mysterious encounter is captured art.
Biblical scholars have long debated “what’s really happening here” in this story. Is Jacob attacked by robbers? Is it perhaps Esau that’s come early to pick a fight? Is Jacob having a panic attack? Another vivid dream? No one knows for sure what’s happening, but actually, at the end of the day, I’m not really sure it matters. What does matter is that Jacob struggled through the dark of the night and at the end of the struggle, when it was clear it was going to be a draw with no clear winner, Jacob feels as if he’s seen the face of God.
It’s challenging to have stories in the Bible that feel mysterious and lacking in details. And yet maybe the mysteriousness becomes part of the power of the story. What if the point of this story is that Jacob’s particular struggle becomes emblematic of every significant struggle we face in dark seasons of our lives. Our struggles with shame and guilt, fear and doubt, abandonment, unforgiveness, addiction, illness, wrestling matches with family, friends, enemies, community, church and doctrine--- all of these struggles are ultimately with and about God on some level. As one of my favorite commentators, Debie Thomas, has written, “It is with God, and in relationship to God, and in God’s all-encompassing presence that we fight the fights that bend, break, and remake us. It is in God’s company that we face down the demons within and around us. It is God alone who brings us to the ragged edges of our own strength so that finally, finally, we’ll surrender, and allow ourselves to be saved. Whether we recognize the stranger as God or not, God is always the one we struggle with. God is always the one who battles with and against us — not for our detriment, but for our transformation.”
For our transformation.
And Jacob needed it. He was carrying a lot of baggage if you know what I mean. The deceit that had defined his existence had left his family broken. He wanted to return home, but the pain he had caused there bore heavy on his sole. Whatever this encounter was in dark hours of the night, it was cathartic. It was like a big old ugly cry when you’ve been keeping it in for so long. It was like the punch you throw into your pillow when you’ve been “holding it together” for too long. It was like a scream into an empty space. His anger and shame and brokenness was suddenly exposed as he fought in the most intimate way with a hidden and unnamed opponent that felt like God himself.
This is Jacob’s particular story, but it represents a struggle that is universal. We’ve all seen days and seasons of our lives that feel like we’re trapped in a cycle of pain. We’ve all spent time alone when it felt like God was shaking the foundations of our existence. We’ve all wrestled, in some way or form, with our own identity.
Genesis may be a book filled with stories from over 3000 years ago, but they speak to us still. Here are some specific take-aways that this narrative about Jacob gives us today.
This story of Jacob wrestling with his God is famous. And yet it’s shocking. It’s the story of one of our ancestral family members of faith having a physical fight with God. This story tells us that the God of our ancestors is not a God that sits on a shelf too fragile to be touched. This is a God that rolls up his sleeves and goes through the muck with us. When we have questions and doubts and push-back. When we have anger and shame and ugly crying, this is a God who meets us where we are. This is a God who knows sometimes we need to be pushed outside of our comfort zone in order to grow and change. Engaging with God can feel like a fight before it feels like a blessing. And that’s okay. Some seasons of our life are just like that.
But, the other take-away is that after our struggles with God, we will never be the same. After a night of wrestling, Jacob is changed. He is physically wounded in the hip after being struck by his opponent. His struggle has left its mark. He will limp for the rest of his life. Struggle does that to us. We carry the scars of our battles with us, physical, emotional, psychological. We are changed by what we go through in life.
But for Jacob, the change wasn’t just his limp. At the end of the night, a conversation happens. Jacob has a hold of God and God asks to be let go. Jacob boldly says, “no, not until I get a blessing.” God asks Jacob to identify himself. The name Jacob, literally means heel grabber, or deceiver. And so after Jacob says his own name, God says Not anymore. Your new name is going to be Israel. This is the first point in the Bible that this word is spoken. Jacob is renamed Israel because, God goes on to say, he has striven with God and with humans[c] and you’ve come through it. Jacob’s very identity had been changed by the struggle. No longer was he defined by his mistakes and his past life, he was marked by God as a survivor of struggle.
In this moment we discover that blessing and bruising are not mutually exclusive in God’s world. Whatever it is we struggle with in the darkness of night will both break us and bring healing. We can’t say, I want to be changed but I don’t want to go through hard things. We can’t say, I want the blessing without the limp. Sometimes the blessing is the limp.
The wounds we carry from the struggles we endure have the potential to give us gifts. Our wound is a window into the wounds of others. Our wounds are a reminders of how we’ve changed over time. And perhaps most of all, our wounds are a connection to the divine, who suffered the ultimate wounding on our behalf. Sometimes the blessing is the limp.
As the daybreaks over the landscape of struggle, Jacob is no longer there, and neither is the opponent. All that is left is Israel, a man who wrestled God. And so Israel, the man transformed by his struggle names the place of his battle Peniel, meaning “face of God.”
Jacob saw the face of God in his struggle and it changed him. Is it possible that we could, too?
a blessing when you realize everyone is struggling
by Kate Bowler
blessed are you who have realized that life is hard. and it’s hard for everyone. your awareness came at a cost. you lost something you can’t get back. you were diagnosed with chronic pain or a degenerative disease. your family fell apart and things have never been the same.
blessed are you who gave up the myth that the good life is one of happiness, success, perfection. the life that looks beautiful on Facebook, but isn’t real. you who realize it is okay to not be okay. To not have a shiny life, because no one does.
blessed are you who see things clearly, where struggle is everyone’s normal. you walk among the fellowship of the afflicted, a club no one wants to join.
and while this life isn’t shiny, it does come with superpowers. superpowers of ever-widening empathy and existential courage that get you back up after another fall
and a deepened awe at the beauty and love that can be found amid life’s rubble. like flowers that grow from the cracks in the sidewalk. these virtues blossom in you. and thank God for you.
blessed are all of us who struggle, for we are in good company, and we’ll never walk alone.
Grace and Peace,