WRESTLING WITH GOD—Genesis 32
(Children’s Message: afraid of the dark?)
Are you afraid of the dark—or the darkness? Maybe the darkness is in the hospital, or a war zone, or you found yourself jobless or on the edge of bankruptcy. Maybe the darkness was anguish over children, or marital distress. Maybe it was the pit of depression, the fog of anxiety, or the vise grip of addiction. Your life seemed to be over, or maybe, it was time to begin again. You hoped you could have a new start, but there were clouds of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
This is the day that Jacob has been anticipating for 20 years. He is going back to the Promised Land, the land of Abraham and Isaac, the land where God’s promises will be fulfilled. Yet Jacob is not sure what he will find there. He has no home with his parents. His brother Esau has moved to Edom, which is close enough that Jacob can’t avoid seeing him again. They did not part on good terms, to put it mildly. So Jacob sends messengers to his estranged brother Esau, asking for mercy. Read Genesis 32:3-6.
The messengers return, and it doesn’t look good. Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men! A flood of memories come back to haunt Jacob: schemes, manipulation, deceit—and a death threat! He has burned his bridges, and he imagines the worst. Desperately, he divides his family and servants into two groups, hoping one might survive.
Then he prays. It is a good prayer: humble, honest, depending upon the promise of God. Read Genesis 32:9-12. He comes up with plan. He sends wave after wave of goodwill gifts—goats, camels, cows, and donkeys—to the brother he has wronged. All of that makes sense; it is the kind of thing any resourceful person might do in a crisis like this.
Then Jacob does something unexpected: Read Genesis 32:21-25.
There, in the darkness, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Who was this “man”? a prophet? an angel representing God? God in human form? Whoever it is, Jacob understood that ultimately, he was wrestling with God.
What does Jacob want from God, as they wrestle all night long? He wants to control him, gain power over him, squeeze out of him a guarantee of safety.
Unless you have done something similar, you can’t understand his desperation and desire: “God—you must come through for me—I need to know that you will fix this problem.” That is what Jacob wants from God.
But—What does God want from Jacob? What does he want from us in our times of struggle?
They wrestle all night, and Jacob cannot overpower God (no surprise there!) But—God could not overpower Jacob! How could that be? This is God in human form (or his representative). What is there that God cannot do?
There is only one thing God will not do: overpower the free will of Jacob. God wants Jacob to freely yield to God, who has promised to watch over him. He won’t force Jacob to yield.
Yet God is not passive. He humbles Jacob. He touches his hip, and it is strained and weakened.
God humbles us. It may be a financial setback, a catastrophic illness, or a moral failure. It may emotional distress, or betrayal, or loss of control over our situation. It is not that God causes those things; they happen in our world. Yet in times of weakness and distress, we understand that we cannot overcome God. We cannot control all that happens to us, and we cannot control God.
Jacob is humbled, and still, he does not let go! After a long night of trying to get the upper hand, all he can do is hang on to the reality of God being there.
Sometimes, that’s all we get: God is still there. Is that enough?
Read Genesis 32:26-29.
What has changed? Jacob and his family are still in grave danger from Esau’s 400 men. Jacob has no more weapons, no more gifts, no more cunning plans than he had before. He does not even come away with any new promises from God, for God has already promised him land, descendants, and his presence and care.
But God has given Jacob a new name. Jacob was a “deceiver”: grasping, manipulating, scheming to control people and circumstances. His new name, Israel, celebrates a new beginning: “He struggles with God.” He brings his concerns to God, and he trusts God with his future.
Jacob’s situation has not changed, but Jacob has changed, for God has given him a new name. With his new name, he has a new future. Many years later, when the descendants of Israel had lost their way and lost their nerve, Isaiah the prophet said to them,
This is what the LORD says--he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3)
Later still, the story took an even more amazing twist, as a descendant of Israel wrestled with God in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, finally yielding to his Father:
"Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:42-44)
Finally, in the ultimate relinquishment of control,
Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
Then God, who is forever faithful to his covenant promises, raised Jesus from the dead!
The answer to our struggles is not that we get control of God, but that we yield our lives to God.
As the sun rises on Jacob, he walks with a limp, because of his hip. He calls the place Peniel, humbly saying “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” And he remembers what God has said to him:
Genesis 32:28 "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
He has overcome! The danger has not passed, the struggles are not over, and his future is not under his control. Yet in his wrestling with God, he has become a new man, with new confidence, and assurance of a glorious future with God.
May we also be among those who wrestle with God, and overcome, as we yield to God.