Summary: God desires for us to wrestle with Him in order to shape us into the people He wants us to become
I don’t have some clever fact or story or joke to start this sermon. Nothing can top the text itself:
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Honest, when I began searching for stories for this series on name changes, I wasn’t looking for passages that were some of the most strange – but here it is! Jacob wrestles God, or an angel or some manifestation of God, at least. For years I’d read this passage in wonder, and today…I still do!
Like so many other passages of Scripture this one can be especially challenging because of what’s not there. So, I think the first thing we need to do is be careful not to get hung up in what we don’t know. What can we know and learn from this story?
This story really began with a guy who wrestled even before he was born. It’s not a joke. While Rebekah carried her twins, they
The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?"
When delivery day came, Jacob was still wrestling. Esau was born first. He was all hairy and red, so they named him a name that means that. Follow this kind of logic, and there must have been a lot of kids given names like “sticky,” and “wrinkly” and “screaming meemee,” Now, hanging onto Esau’s heel was his twin brother! So, they gave him the name, “Jacob” = heel grabber. It’s a figurative way of saying, “someone who unseats or deceives – a supplanter.” Sure enough, both figuratively and literally, Jacob lived up to his name. His whole life, he was aimed to get ahead of his older brother, and he did fairly well at it. In a way, he was a good wrestler.
Then comes the bout of the millennium – Jacob vs. God. That’s even better than Rocky 6! The strangest thing is, Jacob did OK! In fact, I want you to see that Jacob walked away a winner that day – not because God lost. God’s goal was to have Jacob wrestle, not to have someone defeated. Why this weird story? Why’d God do this? I think the answer is, Jacob needed to wrestle with God. At the end, God said “you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
So, let’s consider that need – to wrestle with God, and see how it might fit into our own lives.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found empty…it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Jacob needed to deepen his relationship with God. Jacob needed an object lesson that would teach him some things about the way he related to God. And Jacob needed a name change – because this is another one of those places where God changes someone’s name.
There are a lot of people who need to have their Christianity “tried.” For too many it’s in name only, or it’s flabby and shallow, and it needs to be thrown in the ring to see if it can go a few rounds. There are a lot of people who have never really wrestled with God – your faith is still based on what your parents told you and it’s not your own; or you’ve never had to put it into practice on the front lines – you’ve never asked God “God, why did my child die? Why do I have his disease? What do you want me to do with my life?” – you need to wrestle with God…and to win. No, I don’t think you need to get jumped by Hulk Hogan on the way home today. I think that this happened to Jacob as an object lesson for him and for us. So, let’s look at this obviously literal account and try to wrestle from it the way it applies to us this morning.