Year A, Pentecost 8
My family gathers at a cabin on a lake in upstate New York in the summer. If you walk into our basement, you will see a rather strange pictorial wall of fame…or really a wall of pain. It’s all pictures of injuries that were acquired while at the camp. I am not sure how this bizarre custom began. I think it had something to do with one of my brothers who seems to always be around when someone is injured. We started documenting all the injuries that happened in his presence. Then it just took on a life of its own. Of course a fascination with injuries is not really surprising when you have a family with three boys. I remember them telling me early in life not to be friends with someone who did not have scars. Apparently, scars were the sign of a life well lived and experienced, even at age 9. It signified a tough individual who knew what it was to experience pain. I guess my brothers did not want their little sister to be friends with anyone who could not hold their own in a street fight.
According to some (who have absolutely no way of proving this), this story from Genesis is one of the most frequently preached stories in all of Genesis. That is just one book of the Bible, so perhaps that is not very impressive to you. But Genesis is full of awesome stories. You have the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and the coat of many colors (they even made that into a musical)… So what is it about this text that attracts so many preachers and commentators? I cannot speak for every preacher in the world, but there is something mysterious and wild in the text. We all love a good mystery and this story has a couple mysterious elements.
The first mystery is who Jacob is wrestling. It’s so mysterious that most of us do not even realize that it is a mystery. Most Bibles provide handy subtitles which make it very clear that this is an angel or God, or both. What we sometimes forget is that subtitles were not in the original text. Some translator just added them so we could find things more easily. The text really just says it is a man. Many infer that it was God or an angel because Jacob commented at the end, “For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” Because of that, it seems like a fairly safe assumption. Why some struggle with the idea of Jacob wrestling God is that it sounds a little ridiculous. Why would God wrestle someone? And if God did, I don’t think the other person would last very long. This is God…all powerful God. What human could possibly contend with that?
That brings us to the next mystery: who won? Some conclude that Jacob won because the mysterious wrestler asked Jacob to let him go and Jacob was in a position to demand a blessing. If this is true, then it would be really hard to believe that the wrestler was God. It’s one thing to think that God might wrestle a human, but to lose to a human…that’s just too much. However, others contend that the stranger won because Jacob walked away with a limp. Also, the wrestler named Jacob, and naming someone often implies having power over that person.
Here’s my theory on both mysteries. Jacob was wrestling God and there was no winner or loser. That was not what this match was about. This match was about a couple of things. We learn something of the character of God. Our God is a God willing to get down in the dirt with us, to struggle with us in very real and concrete ways. God is even willing to let us be a part of that struggle. Sure God could have pinned Jacob in less than a second, but that would not have taught Jacob very much about himself or his relationship with God.
Let’s consider the context for a moment. So far in the story of Jacob, he has been a bit of a twerp. He cheated his brother and lied to his father. Instead of facing either of them, he ran away. When he ran, God provided for him and Jacob agreed to follow the one true God as long as God continued to provide for Jacob. It was a provisional acceptance. Jacob found two wives and did pretty well for himself. He became quite prosperous. He decided it was finally time to return home, but realized that he would encounter his brother, who was out for blood when he last saw him. Right before our story for today, Jacob had sent people ahead of him to try to bribe his brother so that his brother might spare him. It would be a stretch to say that things had been easy for Jacob, but he seemed to consistently come out ahead without ever having to sacrifice much. His relationship with God was one of give and take. God gave and he took.
The wrestling match changed that. God was no longer at a distance. God was there trying to wrestle him to the ground. There was no easy way out. Even so, Jacob remained true to his nature and demanded a blessing. God would not give him the blessing until Jacob provided him with not only his name, but his truth. The name Jacob literally means heel. When he came out of the womb, he was grasping the heel of his brother Esau. When Jacob revealed his name to his opponent, he was telling more than his name, he was telling his past which was rather shameful. God would not allow Jacob to be defined by his past. This match meant that the sins of the past would no longer define Jacob because God would not just provide a blessing, he provided a new identity. The name God gave Jacob was Israel, which means, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” One commentator summarized that as “scrapper with God.” That sounds a lot better than heel!
The last sentence of our reading for today is: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel limping because of his hip.” The limp was a result of God dislocating his hip during the all night wrestling match. It was a small price to pay for a new identity and a more profound understanding of God, but it was a price.
I think it’s easy to forget that being a Christian is not an easy path. It is not the path of least resistance. Life will be full of struggles and some of those struggles will leave scars or maybe a limp. Those scars tell a story of times when we have taken risks, times we have gotten so close to God that we have ended up a little singed by God’s blinding light. Yet it is not only we who bear the scars of life, Jesus did as well. Even after Jesus was resurrected he carried the scars of his crucifixion because they told a truth that could not be denied and should never be hidden. It’s why we have crosses all over our church- not so we can remember triumph, but so we can remember a God who was nailed to a cross just so we would wake up and realize that God will always be down in the grime with us and he’ll stay there until the struggle is over.