God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Jacob was a fighter, through and through. Even before he was born, he fought with his twin Esau in their mother’s womb. Esau came out first, but Jacob was right behind him, holding on to Esau’s heel, as if he was trying to pass Esau at the finish line.
Being second-born, Jacob fought for every advantage. He fought to get the birthright and the blessing meant for Esau. He was willing to lie to his own blind father, to trick him so Isaac would bless him.
Jacob knew Esau would beat him in a fair fight, so Jacob didn’t fight fair. When he stole the blessing from his brother, he ran away from Esau’s wrath. He went to his uncle Laban, and worked for Laban for twenty years. Jacob cheated Laban, too, to make himself wealthy.
Jacob was a fighter. All his life, he struggled and fought and lied and cheated to get ahead. He was not content to accept his lot in life. He was not willing to give up. He was determined to take what he thought he deserved, regardless of who he had to cheat to get it.
And so it was that Jacob returned home from his uncle Laban to his brother Esau. He had unfinished business with Esau, a score to settle. And Jacob was not going to lose.
Jacob’s messengers reported that Esau was coming out to meet him with a small army, four hundred men. Jacob didn’t have an army. He wasn’t going to win in a fair fight—but when did Jacob ever fight fair?
Jacob had a plan, and a backup plan, and a backup plan to the backup plan. He would divide his family and all his wealth into two parties, so even if Esau destroyed half, Jacob would get away with the other half.
He would send gifts to flatter Esau and appease him. Goats and sheep and camels and cattle and donkeys, sent one after another to buy Esau’s mercy.
And Jacob would pray. He would pray to the God of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. He would pray to the God who had appeared to him in a dream and promised to always be with him. Jacob was calling in that favor.
“That same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven sons, and sent them across the Jabbok, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Alone. His group divided, his gifts sent, his prayers made, Jacob waits alone for the day that will bring him face-to-face with his brother Esau.
Jacob was a fighter. All his life, he fought to get what he felt he deserved. And so it was, on the eve of his reunion with his brother, in that lonely vigil, Jacob was met by a stranger in the dark, and he wrestled. He fought. Never willing to give up, never willing to give in.
They wrestled all night, until the sun was coming up. For hours, Jacob fought, refusing to give up, refusing to let go. “When the stranger saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.” Even with a dislocated hip, Jacob won’t let go. He won’t give up, won’t give in. He keeps fighting.
“I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he says. Jacob demands a blessing. He stole his father’s blessing from Esau. Now he wants another blessing from this stranger. Did he suspect that he was wrestling with no ordinary stranger? Or did he simply want the rewards of victory from his wrestling match?
The stranger blesses Jacob, and changes his name from Jacob to Israel: “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
There is a power in names, especially in the ancient world. When a person’s name is changed, they are given a new identity.
When Jacob was born, he came out of the womb grasping his brother’s heel. In Hebrew, the word for “heel” is akeb, so he is given the name ya-akob. Jacob.
Names are important in Hebrew, and Hebrew loves wordplay. Jacob comes to the stream known as Jabbok—ya-akob comes to the yabok. He wrestles; in Hebrew, the word for “wrestle” is abak. Ya-akob, yabok, abak. The similarity of these words in not accidental. Where Jacob is and what he does are connected to who he is. He wrestles with a stranger at the Jabbok. And there his name is changed. His identity is changed. He becomes Israel.
Israel is linked with the Hebrew word for “striving.” Jacob was the heel-grabber, but now he is Israel, the striver. He strives with God and with humans. His new name, his new identity, will be the identity of a whole nation. The people of Israel are the people who strive, who strive with God and with humans. They are the people who wrestle.
At the end of this long night, Jacob walks away with a new name, a new identity, and a limp. For the rest of his life, he will be reminded of his wrestling match with God. This encounter has changed Jacob through and through.
This story, the story of Jacob wrestling with God, is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. Yes, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, Jacob is not a very admirable person. He’s a liar and a cheat. He’s not a hero we should emulate. But Jacob is so very human, so very real. We all have something of Jacob in us.
We are like Jacob. We hedge our bets, like Jacob did, hoping that we can solve problems and get ahead by our own cleverness. We pray to God as an afterthought, an insurance policy, a back-up plan. Sometimes, we ask God to clean up messes of our own making, just like Jacob, who really had no one to blame for Esau’s anger but himself.
Jacob is the heel-grabber, the wrestler, the striver. He is a liar and a cheat. He is selfish and greedy. In short, Jacob is all of us.
I love Jacob’s story because it is so real. Jacob’s relationship with God looks like my relationship with God, and maybe yours, too. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always admirable. It doesn’t always reflect well on me.
Often, our relationship with God is complicated. Faith is difficult. You know that poem about footprints in the sand? Beautiful image, right? There you are, walking down a beach, and God is walking right by your side the whole way. It’s a beautiful image, but maybe it’s a little too simple. In my experience, faith is less like footprints in the sand, and more like getting down in the dirt and wrestling with God.
And sure, I think we all wish faith could be easier, simpler, more elegant. But there’s something powerful in this image, a lonely human wrestling with God. A whole people—the people of Israel—defined as those who wrestle with God.
Our faith is a lot like Jacob’s faith. Our relationship with God is like Jacob’s relationship with God. It’s not always easy and neat. Often, it’s messy. It’s difficult. But it’s oh-so-real. We get down in the dirt and we wrestle with God, because life is hard and faith is worth the effort.
More than anything, I love the story of Jacob wrestling with God because of what it teaches us about God. The God we find in this story is not a distant, remote God, far away in heaven, far away from the messiness of humanity. No, this is a God who is willing to get dirty. Jacob is the man who wrestled with God. And God—the God we worship—is the God who wrestled with Jacob. This is a God who shows up.
Right in the midst of Jacob’s mess, God shows up. Jacob has an angry uncle he cheated behind him, and an angry bother he cheated ahead of him, he’s trying to buy his way out of his problems, he’s praying to God to cover for him, and God shows up. God shows up, not as a dream or a flash of lightning or a disembodied, heavenly voice. God shows up as a real, concrete, physical being who is willing to get down in the dirt and wrestle with Jacob.
God shows up, right in the midst of the messiest, most difficult parts of our lives. God shows up. God is willing to get dirty. And I don’t think God does this with an impatient sigh, like, “Ugh, this again?” No, I think God loves this. I think God loves wrestling with us. Because God loves us—loves our messiness, loves our stubbornness, loves our imperfections.
God shows up because God loves us. God loved Jacob enough to wrestle with him, loved him enough to bless him, loved him enough to give him a new name and a new identity; a new life.
God loves each and every one of you. Not just the good parts, not just the put-on-your-Sunday-clothes parts, not just the parts you think are maybe good enough for God. God loves all of you, the mess and the dirt and the mistakes, all of it. When we are in the most difficult times and places, God shows up there and wrestles with us, because God loves us. God loves our humanity.
This is who God is: a God who shows up at the most ungodly hours and in the most ungodly places. A God who is willing to go through the hard stuff with us. A God who brings blessing and transformation. A God who gives us the gift of new life. Amen.