READ – Genesis 32:22-32
Holy Week is here! Our series through Lent will take us all the way to Easter Sunday and a question that Jesus asks His early followers soon after rising from the tomb.
This week we’re listening to God question Jacob in the bizarre account of Jacob wrestling with God by the Jabbok River before his encounter with Esau, his older, twin brother. Jacob is a pivotal character in the Bible. He’s the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, and the father of twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. Genesis 32 is the account of when Jacob is renamed “Israel.” God’s renaming is destiny-shaping not only for Jacob, but for a nation.
1. GOD DOESN'T FIT IN A BOX, IN FACT HE’S A BOXER
Even though this story is strange, you cannot spiritualize it. Some modern readers attempt to read stories like this in the Bible as if it was a projection of some deep psychological or archetypal truth. There might be some value in that. But it’s not what the Scripture intends – this was a real, bodily wrestling match in the dirt and mud of the banks of the Jabbok River in time and space history. We know that because Jacob left permanently disabled as a result of the fight. It’s important that we read this story as literal history because it shows us a reality of what God is like – He’s a wrestler. He doesn’t fit in our box – and that’s a challenge to both progressives and conservatives. God is not merely a God of tolerance and love, but He’s also not a God who rewards the “good” people and the socially put-together. Instead, He’s a God that pummels us. That’s evidence that the Bible is true because nobody would choose to invent a God like this.
Jacob learned several things wrestling with God. First, he learned that wrestling God (and any relationship with God) requires all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In a wrestling match it takes everything you’ve got – there can’t be any compartmentalization. Second, wrestling demands your focused attention. You must read your opponent’s moves, be aware of their stance, and your own body and limitations. Third, wrestling is all about challenge – you must oppose the moves and positions of your opponent.
How do we wrestle God – how do we go toe-to-toe with the Almighty? First, read the Bible. Second, God-centered prayer. Third, church & community. Fourth, the sacraments.
2. YOUR MAIN PROBLEM IS NOT YOUR MAIN PROBLEM
Jacob was wounded in his wrestling match with God. But he was already wounded long before he met God by the Jabbok. In fact, Jacob’s life was full of generational patterns of sin, lies, and relational dysfunction, and it was having historic consequences. Jacob hadn’t dealt with his past – he hadn’t been able to fully admit who he was and how the past still had a grip on his present. His ‘wrestling’ with Esau had marked his whole life. Can you imagine what he must have been thinking and feeling before he met the mysterious wrestler in the night? Jacob was thinking he was about to faceoff with his ultimate opponent, Esau. And it’s precisely in that moment that God tackles him. Jacob needed to see that Esau was not his main problem. Your main problem is not your main problem. Who or what is your ‘Esau’ – the person or situation that’s making you anxious, insecure, or fearful? Do you know that they are not your main problem? Your main problem is you are a sinner who is grappling for independence from your Creator. It’s never ultimately about Esau.
3. THE WAY TO WIN IS TO LOSE
Who wins the fight? The story is ambiguous. In fact, it’s so ambiguous there’s a contradiction in Genesis 32:25. After wrestling all night, God is not prevailing against Jacob. So God – with a mere touch – severely injures Jacob and the fight is essentially over. Who won? Both God and Jacob. Who lost? Both God and Jacob. What is happening? God is showing Jacob that the way to win is to lose; the way up is the way down; the last will be first; the way to victory is through defeat. See if God had come with absolute power, He would’ve won, but lost – He would have lost Jacob by destroying him. But instead God gained a son. Jacob loses in the sense that he is marked and scarred by a permanent weakness to his hip. How is that winning? It was a win for Jacob because even though he was physically made weak, spiritually he was made strong. Think about it. In any fight, you are fighting for independence from your opponent. At first, Jacob must have been fighting to get away from the mysterious man – but once he realizes Who it is, Jacob begins wrestling for dependence. He begins to see that God is the blessing he’s been searching for; God is the strength that he needs. Jacob’s entire life was marked by a search for blessing. And it made sense, he had essentially been living under the negative verdict of his father’s name for him, “Jacob,” which meant “liar, cheat, heel-grabber.” Jacob was the second favorite, the liar, the nobody who wanted to be blessed by a Somebody. He finally realizes that God is the blessing. If he has God, he has everything; if he loses God, it doesn’t matter what he gains, he’ll have nothing.
Why did God touch and wound Jacob’s thigh? The “thigh” actually comes up at several points in the story, but also the “thigh” had a particular significance elsewhere in Genesis (24:2, 9) and Exodus (1:5). The “thigh” was a euphemism for the area of the reproductive organs. In the ancient world, by “swearing on the thigh” you were swearing on your descendants, the offspring of your thigh. What God is saying to Jacob by wounding his thigh is: “You are receiving a touch that will leave you crippled, but one of your descendants will receive a strike that will crush him.” It was prophetic. Jesus was a descendant of Jacob’s thigh who eternally had the blessing and birthright and favor of His Father, and even though He lived a perfectly just and moral life, on the cross He forfeited the birthright, endured the curse, and the Father’s smile became a frown. Jesus did that so that liars and losers could be made winners. Jesus was crushed, but through His death He conquered. He won by losing. He lost so that you could win, was defeated so you could conquer, was made weak so you could be made strong.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
What’s something God has been showing you about Himself or Christianity that surprises, shocks, or provokes you? In what ways do we try to fit God into a box? How can we repent?
Wrestling involves all of you, focused attention, and challenge. How are you doing as a follower of Christ – are you compartmentalizing your faith? not giving God the attention He deserves? not allowing God to oppose and challenge are ways of believing and behaving? What might change look like in these areas for you?
What’s the big problem in your life right now? Who or what is the Esau? How do you think this story in Genesis 32 invites us to look beyond Esau to our central problem in life? How can dealing with our ultimate problem give us courage in the face of lesser problems?
In Christianity, the way to win is to lose, the way up is down, the last will be first. Why is this so challenging for us? What are resources within Christianity to live more fully into the reality that when we are weak then we are strong?
How do you see Jesus in this story?