That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants 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 did not prevail against 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 beings human and divine and have prevailed.” 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.
So, I used to wrestle back in high school. Now, for those of you who don’t know, that doesn’t mean the WWE kind of wrestling you frequently see on T.V., with people body slamming each other and hitting each other over the head with chairs and whatnot. No, wrestling is actually a very complicated sport involving many rules, one of which is you are not allowed to hit your opponent over the head with a metal chair. It’s a dance, of sorts, with you and your opponent always trying to get the upper hand. And while the ultimate goal is to “pin” your opponent – force them to the ground on their back for an extended period of time – it is also possible to win by points. Wrestling is a timed sport, with three 2 minute periods, and points are awarded for things like take downs, escapes, reversals, etc. And if nobody is pinned by the end of the 3rd period, the person with the most points wins the match, and they earn points for their team (although not as many as if they had pinned their opponent). That’s right, wrestling is a team sport! The team with the most points at the end of all of the matches in every weight class wins. Needless to say is a grueling sport, one that requires constant quick movement and finesse, and it is not hard to sustain some sort of injury while on the mat.
In other words, it’s an apt metaphor. I’m sure you have heard the word “wrestle” used to describe dealing with a tough situation that is not necessarily physical. Wrestling with addiction, for instance, or with one’s emotions. Wrestling with a decision that has to be made. And when we find ourselves wrestling with these tough situations – especially the really tough ones – we don’t often come out unscathed. Even if we prevail, victory can easily involve some kind of loss. Thus do we find Jacob, the protagonist of our story this morning, after his struggle with the Divine.
We remember Jacob, don’t we? He and his older twin brother, Esau, the sons of Isaac – they don’t exactly get along. And really, it’s not Esau’s fault. Jacob is kind of a jerk. I mean, let’s be honest. He tricks his brother into giving away his birthright, then, with the help of his mother, he takes his father’s blessing – the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. I mean, you really have to feel bad for Esau. Jacob hasn’t treated him so great.
But, being angry, Esau threatens Jacob’s life, so Jacob runs away to Paddan-Aram, where his mother grew up, and starts working for his uncle, Laban. He works there for twenty years, marries his cousins Leah and Rachel, amasses a great amount of wealth in the form of livestock, and one day, at the request of God, finally decides to return to Canaan, to his homeland. And as he gets close to home, he realizes he still has to do something about Esau. So he sends messengers to feel him out, and Esau responds, saying he is coming to meet him. And Jacob freaks out! I mean, he thinks his brother is coming to kill him! So he puts together a whole bunch of his animals – 550 in total, goats, sheep, cows, camels, and donkeys – and sends them to Esau as gifts, to try and butter him up before they meet, and, hopefully, avoid a conflict.
And that’s where our text for this morning picks up. Jacob is on the brink of returning to his homeland – the Jabbok marks the border of Canaan – and he sends all of his family and all that he owns across, leaving him alone to face his brother. And there, the text says, a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
We don’t really know if this man was God. The text is ambiguous – perhaps purposefully so. It could be God; it could be some other divine being. But I like to assume that this is, in fact, God whom Jacob is wrestling. The same God who told Jacob to return – the same God who has pushed these two estranged brothers back into each other’s presence. Because Jacob still clearly does not want to go through with it. Even though he listened to God and decided to return home, he is still wrestling with God’s desire that he face his brother. Jacob spent his whole life in exile, running away from home because of his broken relationship with Esau, and now, on the eve of their meeting for the first time in twenty years, he is afraid. The struggle, as they say, is real. So real, in fact, that Jacob isn’t just arguing with God over whether or not to face his brother – he finds himself actually, physically wrestling with God.
And isn’t this a familiar situation to us? When we find ourselves on the brink of reconciliation, of confrontation, when we are alone, when we are afraid, and we are pushing ourselves (or perhaps we feel God pushing us) into doing something that we know needs to be done but dear God are we scared to do it! It would be so much easier to run away! It would be so much easier to remain in exile, to stay as far away from that wrecked relationship as possible, because we at least then know that we can’t get hurt. (And please hear this caveat: I am not talking about abusive relationships; I am not talking about situations from which God has freed us – God never tells the Israelites to run back to Egypt to try and make things right.) No, I am talking about real relationships that were broken. Things were said. People were hurt. Somebody left. Or somebody is about to leave. The struggle is too real. And so we choose to escape instead.
But, as we see in Jacob’s story, that is not God’s desire for our relationships. Not with others. Not with ourselves. Not with God. God wants us to come home. God wants us to be reconciled to one another. And reconciliation is not easy. At times it is a real struggle. But in order to return home, we must be prepared to endure the wrestling match. That’s what Jacob does. “You have striven with beings divine and human and have endured” – that’s another translation for the word “prevailed” here. “You have striven… and have endured,” the divine being tells him. It’s not necessarily that Jacob physically beat God, but he did win his wrestling match. He is prepared to face his brother in the morning.
I want to be very clear. This sermon is not about telling people who are struggling in their marriage to “just stick it out”. It’s not about forcing people together who don’t want to be together. And it is absolutely not about trying to fix an abusive relationship. This is about reconciliation, and God’s will for our relationships. After all, life is all about relationships; they are so important, in fact, that God decided to actually come to Earth and become a human being so that God could have a better relationship with us. They are so important that God’s very being actually exists in relationship, as the Trinity. And when we have broken relationships, relationships that we know could be fixed – especially those relationships that were broken because of our mistake or just for really ridiculous reasons – God’s desire is that we confront that broken relationship and do the hard work to fix it. True, we may get hurt in the process – old wounds we had buried deep will likely resurface; Jacob walks away with a limp – but just like using a needle to extract a splinter, sometimes a little pain is necessary to promote true healing.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had relationships go wrong because of something I’ve said. I’ve had friends decide they were never going to talk to me again. And vice versa. It would have been easy to just let these people be and never talk to them again – we aren’t living anywhere close to each other. But God doesn’t ask us to do the easy thing.
Maybe you don’t have anybody specific in mind. Maybe you feel you are reconciled with God, with yourself, and with all those with whom you are in relationship. That’s awesome, and I don’t say that sarcastically. But even if we are truly reconciled with everyone we know on an individual scale, there is always the need to move toward reconciliation on the national – and eventually, the global – scale.
I know I’m young. I haven’t been around for very long. But as long as I’ve been around, I’ve never seen this country so divided, so polarized. It’s been like this before, I’m sure; maybe I’m just more aware now than I was as a kid. But in any case, it’s at the point where people don’t even listen to each other, where we denigrate each other and call each other names without a shred of respect. This is true on both sides. We automatically judge someone, and their level of intelligence, based on their political persuasions. Folks, this country is in need of reconciliation, of healing broken relationships, especially during this election cycle. And I believe today’s lesson applies just as easily to this situation. If we continue to practice escapism – that is, continue to surround ourselves with folks who believe the same things as us and think the same things as us; if we continue to laugh off any counterpoint or alternative opinion instead of taking the time to wrestle with each other, we will stay broken.
And bear in mind that reconciliation is not easy. It is not a simple “live and let live”, “let’s all be nice to each other in spite of our disagreements” kind of deal. As my friend and colleague Andrew Gardner put it in a recent op-ed, “Reconciliation is certainly something that should be a much sought after goal in the wake of this election, but we cannot prioritize reconciliation without first committing to the difficult work of addressing the flaws that have been unearthed in this election cycle. The issues of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, Islamophobia and a slew of other problems are not issues on which we can agree to disagree. These are issues that must be addressed in our society as well as our churches. They cannot be neglected for the convenience of a cheap reconciliation.” And I would add to that list the issues of liberal elitism and the destruction of rural economies, and ask us to recognize that there are a lot of legitimate grievances on both sides. Perhaps this is the first step toward true reconciliation – recognizing that we all have our faults; we are not the good guys and “they” are not the bad guys. We all just grew up in different contexts, under different circumstances. And once we recognize this, the next step is to confront each other and work out our issues. As Rev. Shaner talked about last week, we are called to have those difficult and yet deeply meaningful conversations. We are called to enter into the struggle, no matter how real it gets. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But one thing’s for sure: we will never experience healing in this country if we don’t talk to each other. We will never experience healing if we aren’t prepared to truly listen. As offensive, and stubborn, and ignorant as you might think someone is, they cannot be laughed off. We cannot just run away from them. Because then we won’t have a home to come back to.
Jacob limps across the Jabbok into Canaan. Home. After twenty long years. And his brother comes running to meet him. It says, “he embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” And Jacob says to his brother, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” The God who wrestles with us. The God who calls us into the struggle. The God who makes us whole and brings us home. Amen.