There is no sport, and there are few activities, more intimate than wrestling. Two opponents clutch and grab each other, skin on skin, absorbing each other’s sweat and heat. Hands grab for whatever body part is available. The wrestlers take turns lying on top of each other, pressing down with the weight of their entire body, wrapping arms and legs around the other, clutching and grunting as breathing becomes laboured. When you feel the strength of your adversary, you respect it. When you smell the fear of your opponent, you exploit it. Exhausted bodies become slippery with sweat and saliva. Separation, when it happens, is momentary, then bodies engage once more, and tumble to the ground together. The match ends with the victor lying on top, hanging on with all the strength that can be mustered, refusing to let go.
This is the founding story of a nation, the people of Israel, of whom we are spiritual descendants. We are the people who wrestle with God.
It is a story that takes place in the dark of night. Jacob is on his way back to the land of his birth, the land he had fled because he had cheated his brother Esau, and Esau had vowed to make Jacob pay with his life. But twenty years have passed and now God has told Jacob to go back to the land of his father and relatives, and God has promised that he will be with Jacob, just as he had promised to be with Jacob when Jacob fled his home those twenty years ago. So Jacob assembles his family and his servants and all his possessions and he begins the long journey back home. But he’s nervous. He’s still worried about Esau. He sends messengers ahead to find Esau and to advise him that Jacob is returning, to sound him out. When the messengers get back to Jacob, the news is bad: Esau is coming to meet Jacob and he’s bringing an army of four hundred men with him. Jacob is distressed, and terrified.
He prepares for the encounter with Esau as best he can. He divides his flocks and herds into two companies, thinking that if Esau destroys one, perhaps the other will be preserved. He prepares an extravagant gift of livestock for Esau, to be sent ahead and delivered as series of presents. He calls out to God, and prays for deliverance from the hands of his brother Esau. Finally, as our text begins today, Jacob even sends his wives and children ahead of him, thinking perhaps that if Esau sees them first, he will soften, and have mercy on Jacob.
And so Jacob is left alone, in the dark of night, with nothing, fearing for his life.
A man comes and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. It is a mysterious encounter. Is it a dream? Is it a vision? Is it really happening? Who is the man? When it’s dark, it is hard to know what’s going on. But sometimes, God does God’s best work in the dark. By the time the sun rises, Jacob knows that he has seen God face to face. It is the Hebrew bible’s expression for the most intimate, the closest encounter possible with God. But it is a risky encounter, an encounter that is fraught with danger. The ancient Hebrews thought that if you were to see God face to face, you would die. Jacob does not die; his life is preserved. But he is no longer Jacob, and as he walks away from his wrestling match with God, he does so with a limp - and with God’s blessing.
There is danger in wrestling with God, and perhaps that’s why many of us only do it as a last resort, in the middle of the night, when it is dark and we are feeling powerless and afraid and alone and we have no other options. The danger is that by wrestling with God, by entering into such a raw and honest and intimate encounter, we risk learning something of the truth about ourselves, and we risk being transformed.
Jacob wrestles with God, and will not let go. Even when he feels pain, even when his hip is dislocated, Jacob clings to God. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Remember that God has already promised to bless Jacob several times. But Jacob needs that blessing now. His life is at risk, he is afraid and alone. He is holding God to God’s promise, and he needs that promise now.
And so the man says to Jacob, “What is your name?” It’s a loaded question. Jacob responds, “I am Jacob.” The name literally means, “the one who supplants”. The one who takes what is not his. The cheater, the liar, the swindler, the thief. Yes, this is who I am. The face to face encounter with God is a moment of brutal honesty, of being painfully called to account.
And yet it is also a moment of mercy and grace. The man responds, “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
Jacob becomes Israel, the father of a nation. He is a new man, with a new name and a new identity. The name Israel literally means the one who wrestles with God. He is blessed and his life has been preserved, no, more than preserved, it has been transformed, and he leaves his encounter with God with a visible reminder of that transformation. He walks with a limp.
And as the sun rises upon him, the first thing he does is to undo his cowardly act of sending his family on ahead. He passes his family, and goes on ahead himself to meet Esau. When Esau arrives, Israel bows to the ground seven times, and the two brothers are reconciled to each other. It is one of the very few times in the Bible that two sworn enemies are reconciled.
Israel is not just the name given to Jacob. It is the name given to the descendants of Jacob, to the people to whom God first said “I will be your God and you will be my people”. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel, we too have been called to be the people of God. And so we too have been given the name of Israel, the one who wrestles with God.
What does it mean that we are called to be people who wrestle with God?
It means that when it is dark, when we are afraid, when we feel powerless, when we are alone, we can wrestle. When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, when your marriage is falling apart, when your child refuses to talk to you, when you lose your job, you can wrestle with God. Call God out, tell him it’s unfair, plead for mercy, hold God to his promises, tell him you want them now. Fight God for all your worth, grab for any part you can, hold on and refuse to let go. God wants us to engage in that sort of raw, honest, and intimate relationship. Don’t hold back. Go in and try to pin God to the mat. I won’t promise that you’re going to win the wrestling match. But you will wrestle, and God will wrestle with you, and you will no longer be alone, and if you refuse to let go, you will prevail and you will be blessed.
You may be changed as a result. You may have a moment of brutal honesty and insight about yourself that is painful. You may have to change. You may be changed. You may even walk away with a limp. But you will have seen God face to face, and your life will be preserved. You will be transformed and you will know God’s grace.
We are called to be people who wrestle with God.
Homily: Yr A P18, Aug 6 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 32.22-31; Ps 17.1-7,16; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.13-21
Image by Cormac70, Creative Commons