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Jacob Wrestles With God

Jacob Wrestles with God

 

This story is for all those

who have ever struggled with God,

with faith, with trust, with obedience, with sin.

Is that anybody here?

 

It is for those among us

who fear or conclude

that there is no God after all,

or that the natural is all there is,

and we despair of transcendence.

Are you wrestling with this mystery

how could a human being in the natural world

connect with the divine God and the supernatural?

 

It is for those who are too comfortable

in their preconceived notions about God,

settled into a religious ritual

you’ve got it figured out,

God is for when you need something

but otherwise life is lived your own way

in your own will.

Do you fight this temptation too,

somehow the tending of your soul

gets forgotten in all your busyness,

and your relationship with Jesus

is really down to formalities:

Sunday morning worship when it works for you,

and prayers when you remember to do so?

 

Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious wrestler

shocks our complacency,

breaks the bubble of our isolation from the Lord,

and speaks into our faith struggles.

 

We are no more prepared for the assault on Jacob

than he was.

We are left with questions:

who is the attacker?

why is Jacob attacked?

It seems the one wrestling with Jacob

is more than a human,

so how is it

Jacob can seemingly wrestle him to a draw?

How does having the new name Israel change things?

As day breaks and he limps into tomorrow,

what is that wound telling us?

How do we make sense of this mystery?

The story asks for us in our struggles,

why are there times when faith is so hard,

why life and faith with God is often mystery,

why is it like a wrestling match sometimes?

 

The answer this Bible lesson gives us to apply is:

We are transformed wrestling with God.

We learn to apply 3 assurances:

God comes after us.

Not to beat us but to transform us.

To remake us like Christ in our identity and purpose.

 

I know we refer to this story as

Jacob wrestling with God or the angel of God,

but did it surprise you to actually hear the story?

And then find out Jacob is the one attacked,

not the other way around.

God comes after Jacob.

To reveal to us that it is the Lord

who comes after you.

 

Your first objection may be,

how do you know it’s God?

Your second objection may be,

why would God need to come after me?

 

Genesis 32 simply says:

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.

The text says a man came at Jacob.

This makes sense to us.

Because Jacob has been wrestling with other humans his whole life long.

He swindled his brother Esau

out of the family birthright.

He lied to his father Isaac.

He stole his brother’s blessing.

He battled his father-in-law Laban for a generation.

By now he’s got a lot of enemies.

On this night he has heard his brother Esau is coming to meet him bringing 400 with him.

Jacob fears for his life and his family’s.

It’s no stretch to deduce that Esau is fighting Jacob.

Or that his father-in-law has ambushed him.

 

But I said God has come after him.

Where do we get that?

This mysterious encounter is talked about

by the prophet Hosea.

Hosea 12 –

2 The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah;

    he will punish Jacob according to his ways

    and repay him according to his deeds.

3 In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;

    as a man he struggled with God.

4 He struggled with the angel and overcame him;

    he wept and begged for his favor.

He found him at Bethel

    and talked with him there—

5 the Lord God Almighty,

    the Lord is his name!

6 But you must return to your God;

    maintain love and justice,

    and wait for your God always.

 

The Bible itself explains its meaning to us.

Hosea 12:4 sheds light on the mystery:

4 He struggled with the angel and overcame him;

    he wept and begged for his favor.

 

God’s messenger has attacked Jacob

in the night by the Jabbok River.

The angel serves the will of the Lord.

Jacob may have struggled against other men

his whole life,

but those struggles were also struggles with God.

The Lord has come after him.

 

But that evokes a second objection from us:

why would God need to come after Jacob,

and then if we are God’s people,

why would God have to come after us?

 

Because for all of Jacob’s experiences

of God’s presence and grace

he is still alone.

vs 24 began that way –

24 So Jacob was left alone . . .

It’s a significant phrase.

This is the first time and only time in Genesis

anyone is described as being alone

since the creation account when the Creator says,

It is not good for the man to be alone.

It echoes what is said about Jesus

while he is being crucified for the sin of the world,

Leave him alone . . .

it is a feeling of forsakenness,

it is what Jesus suffered in order to forgive you,

and there too God comes to establish communion and fellowship again with you and me.

 

So receive this gracious mystery:

God is coming after you.

You are not forsaken.

The Lord is not willing to leave you alone,

on your own.

 

This is a shocking reality

that judges the creeping assumption

that life can be lived well and good without God.

That Jesus may be for you but not for me.

That I don’t need the Lord.

If anyone didn’t need God anymore it was Jacob.

Rich in wealth.

Rich in family.

Rich and strong in health.

Rich in freedom.

But Jacob was left alone.

It is not good for a human being to be left alone.

All those material, human treasures and successes

that diminish with time, rust, and decay,

cannot justify or redeem a life.

You are made for life with God.

You cannot have peace,

you cannot have joy,

you cannot rest in love

without a living faith relationship with Jesus.

You may not be able to put words to it,

or fully comprehend it,

or knowingly sense it,

but the Lord pursues you right now.

 

But why is it described this way in this story,

like a struggle, like an attack?

Because of our continual temptation

to have God on our terms,

and to resist trusting God to be God

according to the Lord’s way and will.

 

Because there is so much pressure today

to fashion our lives in a way that puts God

in a comfortable place for us,

we fool ourselves into thinking

we can control the King of kings;

we foolishly think we can set the terms

of our communion with God.

It happens even in worship.

It happens even in Bible study.

And we approach the scriptures as a guidebook,

we listen to a sermon for ways to get God’s blessings,

or to feel good about ourselves,

or happy with the Lord.

Like Jacob we grab hold

and won’t let go until we are blessed.

We seek to master scripture,

instead of letting God’s Word master us.

 

So God comes after us.

Not to defeat us but to transform us.

The angel of God’s presence

wrestles Jacob until daybreak.

All night they go back and forth

neither pinning the other down.

What can that mean that Jacob wrestles with God and prevails?

It’s a picture of effort and struggle,

which is what the spiritual life

and the exercise of faith takes.

Welcome the description of Jacob

wrestling in the dark

and know that it takes effort

to be a healthy spiritual person.

The most neglected aspect of our selves is our soul

and unless and until we give it

the cultivation it requires

it will shrivel and all but disappear

leaving but an ache in our hearts

and a hole in our lives.

 

I don’t mean to suggest

we have to work for our salvation.

Salvation is by the Lord’s grace alone.

We don’t work for it but we do work it out says Paul.

Flannery O’Connor encouraged a young adult:

If you want your faith, you have to work for it.

It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given

without any demand for equal time devoted

to its cultivation.

 

But so often we get lazy

when it comes to the habits of faith.

Too tired for worship today.

Too restless to concentrate on a sermon.

Too anxious to give or give my time.

10 A little sleep, a little slumber,

    a little folding of the hands to rest—

11 and poverty will come on you like a thief

    and scarcity like an armed man . . .

says Proverbs 6,

speaking also of spiritual poverty.

 

And sometimes we get discouraged.

We fall into the trap of thinking

if it takes effort

then maybe it isn’t true.

But all good things take effort.

Yes sometimes we should leave worship full of joy.

And once in a while even sad

lamenting at the extent and cost of our sin,

that Jesus, who loves us and who we love,

bore for us.

But there ought to be times when we leave worship worn out.

When our prayers leave us exhausted.

When our giving stretches us to the point of need.

When our service requires us to suffer.

At these times and in this way life with God

is like a wrestling match.

 

But God isn’t out to beat us.

The Lord will transform us.

“To struggle used to be

to grab with both hands

and shake and twist and turn and push and shove and not give in

But wrest an answer from it all

As Jacob did a blessing.

But there is another way . . .

to trust . . .

Not to be always reaching out

for the old hand-holds.”

Susan Ruach

 

What are my ‘old hand holds’ in life and with God?

The ways I’ve settled into life and faith.

Have you examined your prayer life

in the last few seasons?

Have you talked in your life group

about deepening your fellowship and service?

Have you confessed your sin to the Lord?

Do you see how you have fashioned your faith

so that it fits your life?

 

Most of us most of the time don't need to be told how to live a life of faith following Jesus.

Love God

love neighbor

love church.

Worship, pray, give, serve, do justice, love kindness, repent, say I'm sorry and thank you.

So how come it's so hard?

We're not prepared for the battle faith really is.

That's what is revealed here.

God fights to transform you not defeat you.

The Beloved wants to hold us upside down

and shake all the nonsense out

in order to finally set us upright.

 

God comes after us.

Not to beat us but to transform us.

To remake us like Christ in our identity and purpose.

 

Daylight breaks and they’ve wrestled to a draw.

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

 

When Jacob fords the river

to meet again with his family he is changed.

He has a new name, and a limp.

He is now Israel.

That name survives to this day.

But it is about more than a country and people

in the Middle East.

It is the name of God’s people.

Christians are called the ‘new Israel,’

in the New Testament.

This is now who we are:

our name, and our limp.

Jacob is now Israel.

The Lord has made him different,

which is another word for holy.

He’s not better;

he’s chosen to be different, to live differently.

That’s his identity,

and because you are Israel in Christ,

that is your holy identity also.

To be different.

not to think yourself better than anyone else,

but to think and believe and live differently:

different identity,

different purposes,

different actions.

 

The limp is a daily reminder

that Israel is limited naturally.

His name is a daily reminder

that there are no limits to grace.

Yes, we are limited naturally.

Our fulfillment is not total in this life.

Our natural desires must be transformed

into holy desires because

you and I are mortal.

The flesh is weak.

Even our reasoning is limited.

 

But we live by grace alone.

Jacob gets that.

After wrestling all night

just at the moment he thought he might win,

the angel merely touches Jacob’s thigh

and cripples him.

Jacob knows the angel could have destroyed him.

But the Lord chose not to.

The Lord made him new.

 

Israel.

But the name is a little ambiguous.

‘God struggles’ or ‘God strives’

is a literal interpretation,

that the Lord strives for creation

in order to redeem.

The context helps us read it

as one who wrestles with God.

Sometimes as a foe,

but more often as a friend,

striving with God.

So older definitions accent that sense

 as one who witnesses

for the striving presence of God with us,

like a prince joining the battle for his king.

 

So how is this the blessing Jacob held on for?

The name assures Jacob lives

in covenant relationship with God.

Not just Jacob, but his family, God’s people.

The Lord will struggle and strive for and with Jacob.

In Jacob’s struggles he must not lose sight

of the real battle for his soul and God’s kingdom.

And as he strives to live out

the promises of God and the Lord’s presence

he extends the gracious rule of God to family,

friends, strangers, community, and even enemies.

 

But how can he do this limited as he is?

How can we?

We said his limp

is an enduring picture of unfulfilled desires.

The Lord is redirecting Jacob’s desires.

 

His limp is a visible witness

that his desires will not be fulfilled in this life

and not by his strength, but by God’s grace.

 

Jacob hangs on for a blessing

and will not let the angel go.

What more could he want?

He has been so blessed.

That's what this attack is all about.

Do you understand or sense that the Holy Spirit

pulls us away from the desire

that this world is all that we want?

The limp reminds us that’s not what we want;

we are hamstrung, like Paul who confessed,

the good that I want to do I don’t do,

and the evil I don’t want to do I find myself doing.

So Jacob, Israel, new Israel, you, me:

desire grace above all.

 

Struggling in each other’s clutches,

Jacob is asked, what is your name?

The last time he was asked his name he lied.

Jacob lied to his father.

He lied because his mother told him to.

He lied because at that moment

who was he really?

But this time he told the truth,

I am Jacob.

I am a cheater, a swindler, a deceiver;

I am alone and afraid.

He said his name like a confession,

like, I’m Jake, an alcoholic,

Hi Jake.

I’m Jacob, a sinner,

and God says now you are Israel.

All that you’ve ever wanted is a desire for my love.

He is graced.

 

Wanting is everything in the spiritual life.

God asks, what do you want?

What do you want from me,

you who are sinners,

you who don’t know who you are right now

and how you got here,

you who have arrived

but are left asking, is this all there is?

 

The Lord says,

you can’t hang on to me,

I will hold on to you.

You can’t control me

or pick and choose my graciousness:

all things come to you through my fatherly hands,

not by chance, but through my hands.

Your limp is a reminder of desires

yet to be fulfilled in Christ.

This longing as Hebrews 11 puts it –

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth . . . they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

 

Our faith and hope shape our desires.

We are not to let it happen the other way around.

So each day God both reminds us of our limitations

and of our high calling:

it is a continual experience of finding and releasing,

of being emptied in order to be filled,

to enjoy the Lord and God’s presence

but refusing the faithless way

of trying to possess or control or manipulate God.

 

The resurrected Jesus says the same

to Mary Magdalene.

John 20 –

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me . . .

You can’t use me for your own ends.

Trust me to be your hearts’ desire after all.

For I pursue you to the death,

and into a new life not of your own making.

 

The grace of Christ’s resurrection transforms you.

What more could you want?

So we confess our limits,

know our mortality,

cling to grace,

and so strive with God.

 

 

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