Wrestling with God

September 15, 2002



Wrestling with God (9/15/02)

University Congregational Church

Rev. Gary Cox, Wichita, Kansas

For those who are visiting today, I should explain the video camera. I am currently working on my Doctor of Ministry degree through Chicago Theological Seminary. One of the requirements of that program is for three sermons each year, on specified dates, to be videotaped and sent to Chicago for evaluation. This is the first of those three sermons. The second will be in November and the third in January.

The Title of my project for this year is reflected in today’s sermon title—Wrestling with God. The full title of the project is Wrestling with God: Inviting hearers to wrestle their way from thinking about God to relationship with God. A group of eight people, representative of the congregation as a whole, were chosen to assist with this project, and their first duty was to help me generate ideas for this particular sermon. The fact that, after working with me on this sermon, those same people wanted to set up a vegetable concession in the foyer prior to the service, with ready-to-throw ripe tomatoes, has not bolstered my confidence.

The biblical text I chose as a foundation for this idea of wrestling with God is found in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. Let me set up the story. Jacob and Esau are twin brothers, sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Because Esau had exited the womb first, he is the eldest—the firstborn—and is therefore entitled to be heir to the promise God made to his grandfather, Abraham: A great nation would come from his offspring.

Jacob sort of puts the old double-whammy on Esau. First, Jacob finds him in a weak moment when Esau is terribly hungry, and makes Esau sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew. Next, as their father Isaac lay blind and dying, Jacob pretends to be Esau and tricks his father into giving him—Jacob—his blessing.

You might expect Esau to be a little upset over all this. After all, not only has Jacob stolen all the worldly benefits of being the family’s primary heir, he has also assured that the Hebrew nation will arise through his offspring and not Esau’s. Sure enough, Esau is furious and Jacob flees for his life. Jacob ends up hiding out, working for Laban, his maternal grandfather, and in exchange for 14 years of labor he is allowed to marry two of Laban’s daughters—Leah and Rachel. The two women will eventually bear him twelve children, who will become the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Eleven of those children—all but Joseph—have been born by the time of today’s Bible passage.

Okay, that’s the setup for today’s story. Jacob decides it’s finally time, after the passing of so many years, to go see his estranged brother Esau. He sends some people ahead to let Esau know he’s coming. Jacob receives word that Esau is coming to greet him, and bringing 400 of his buddies along. This is the story of what happens the night before their encounter:
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From the Book of Genesis: The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel (pen-NEEL), saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel (pen-YOO-el), limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. Here ends this reading of scripture. May God grant us wisdom, and courage, for interpretation.

Well, as you might imagine, the people helping me with this project did a fair amount of wrestling with this text. And, abiding by my wishes, they did not consult Bible commentaries. You see, the whole point is to try to figure out how this story relates to you and me, men and women in Wichita, Kansas in the early part of the 21st century. One of the things that modern scholars are reluctantly concluding is that Bible scholarship is not the black and white issue many have portrayed it to be. There has been a tendency throughout history, and especially over the last few centuries, for scholars to explain exactly what a biblical text means. It has been assumed that there is a right interpretation and a variety of wrong interpretations.

Now, as a white male of European descent, I find it somewhat difficult to admit what those scholars have finally figured out. The “right interpretations” have been determined by, you guessed it, white males of European descent. And those old commentaries often have wonderful things to say about the theology behind slaves obeying their masters, and wives submitting to their husbands, and they may talk about how faithful Jephthah was to keep his promise to God and murder his only daughter in return for God’s help in defeating the Ammonites.

And then something strange, and I suppose wonderful, happened. Slaves and wives and daughters started reading those stories and saying, “You know, from where I’m standing that story sounds a little different than it did to the white male of European descent who tells me in this commentary how I should think about the story.”

Enter a philosopher named Paul Ricoeur. Jumping head first into Ricoeur’s philosophy can leave a person with a migraine headache and unsightly bruises from excessive lip-diddling, but here’s the basic overview. Ricoeur says that between the real world and the mind that perceives it there is a gap. He also says that between the mind that perceives the world and the speech a person develops to explain what’s in the mind, there is a gap. And then he says that between the speech that is trying to convey what is in the mind and the written word that is scribbled upon the page, there is another gap.

Don’t lose any sleep over this, but here’s the crux of Ricoeur’s argument. If you’re sitting in Wichita in the 21st century, reading the translation of a translation of a translation of a story that was first put in print 2500 years ago, having at that point already existed in verbal form for centuries, and having been passed from generation to generation orally, and you claim to have absolute knowledge of the exact original idea the author was attempting to convey…well, you’re fooling yourself. In that situation, there can never be one and only one “correct” way to interpret the story. Not every interpretation is necessarily right; but there is always more than one valid interpretation.

That being the case, I’m not about to tell you how to interpret the story of Jacob wrestling with God. But I hope you’ll wrestle with the text, and I hope you’ll wrestle with the idea of wrestling with God. Great stories, it seems to me, always generate more questions than answers. And that’s a good thing. Remember the story of the Rabbi who was asked why it was Rabbis always taught with questions. The Rabbi’s reply, of course, was, “So what’s wrong with questions?” With that in mind, let’s examine some of the questions this story generated within the minds of the group whose assignment it was to study this text.

First, is it necessary to wrestle with God? My original contention was that the only way to enter into a relationship with God is to wrestle with God. By wrestling with God I mean thinking about our relationship with God, struggling with it in both prayer and study, and trusting that our faith will grow in the process. But is that true? Am I guilty of the old “white male of European descent” habit of assuming everybody’s relationship with God must evolve in the same manner as mine? Aren’t some people just naturally in a relationship with God? Can’t most of us call to mind some person, perhaps a grandmother or aunt, for whom embracing a real sincere faith was as natural as breathing?

And what about weak people? I mean, we can say a lot of things about Jacob, but he was not weak. And he had the intestinal fortitude to actually wrestle with God. And when he realized it was God he was wrestling with, and God told him to let go—the fights over—Jacob said no! He refused to let go of God, and demanded God’s blessing. What about the people who have fallen to their knees, helpless and hopeless, and surrendered themselves to God? Haven’t there been countless millions of people over the centuries who entered into relationship with God not through struggle, but through unconditional surrender?

As for the passage itself, is it historical or mythical? And if it is historical, is the incident portrayed actually a dream? After all, it is night, Jacob is by himself, and God appears in the form of a man. Does it make the story any less significant if it is just a dream? Does it make the story any less significant if it is just that—a story—as opposed to an historical account?

Was it was essential for Jacob to be alone? He sent away his family with all of his possessions. It was just Jacob and God. Must one get away from his or her everyday routine to directly experience God in the way Jacob did?

Is this a struggle that takes place within Jacob? Is he wrestling with is his conscience? Is it a battle between faith and doubt? Is it a metaphor for the purging of his sin? Remember, he’s been a pretty bad boy with regard to the brother he will confront the next morning.

Or can it be viewed as a metaphor for a midlife crisis. Jacob removes himself from his family and his possessions. He looks life straight in the eye, doesn’t care for what he sees, and realizes he has to make some changes for his life to be what it should be.

Or how about this: considering his birthright and blessing were originally stolen, is Jacob’s encounter with God a validation of his ultimate right to them? Is his wrestling with God his coming to the realization that he is actually worthy of what he has taken?

Jacob had been blessed in the past, but isn’t he questioning whether God will continue to bless him? Because he assumes he will die the next day, isn’t it only after wrestling with God that Jacob reaches the point where his life, and his future decisions, will be based on his relationship with God?

And consider all the ways this story is a microcosm of life itself. Don’t we have challenges to face, decisions to make, every day, and aren’t these decisions best made in the presence of God alone? In the end, we find our way out, and receive God’s blessing.

Can’t Jacob’s sending everybody and everything off be compared to each of us getting ready for bed? We find ourselves ultimately alone with ourselves, and logic and faith start wrestling within us. The question is, will we wrestle our way through to a state where we are blessed through our faith? It isn’t necessarily easy. Had Jacob not held on, he would not have been blessed.

Does the man in the story represent all the people in our lives with whom we have struggled? They’ve damaged us in some ways, but we ultimately grew as a result of those struggles. Those people with whom we struggled were actually gifts, because we were changed for the better through our relationship with them.

And isn’t it symbolic of life itself that Jacob fights God to a draw? The story, like life itself, is ambiguous, and the wrestling match between faith and doubt is never fully resolved.

And finally, the dislocated hip. Everybody seemed to agree that this was an important part of the story. Here are a few of their observations regarding the fact that Jacob limped away from his encounter with God:

Wasn’t life harder for Jacob after the blessing?

Is a sacrifice necessary to be in relationship with God?

Must you give up a part of yourself to be in relationship with God?

Is there a visible sign if a person is truly in relationship with God?

It seems like such a simple little story, but those are just some of the questions generated by the reading of this passage. And there isn’t a right or wrong answer to any of them. Each of us must wrestle with this text on our own, and as long as we do so with intellectual honesty and moral integrity, the way any one of us interprets this story is a valid as the way anybody else interprets the story.

After we wrestled with this story over a period of several weeks, the group finally decided to write our own story. And since our old friend Paul Ricoeur would tell us that there is a gap between the reality we hoped to express and the way we envisioned that reality in our minds; and another gap between what we envisioned in our minds and how we conveyed our thoughts in speech; and another really huge gap between what we said in the group and how the story actually ended up on paper; feel free to interpret the story any way you’d like. All we can say for sure is that this sermon will end the same way it began—with a story about a guy named Jacob.

Jacob was a successful businessman, working in the aircraft industry in Wichita, Kansas. He was a family man who attended church every Sunday, and although he was quite busy, he managed to spend a little time volunteering for worthwhile projects in the community. You could say that Jacob had it all: family, friends, nice house, new car, and the respect of the people of Wichita.

But Jacob had a secret. He liked to gamble. He spent quite a bit of time at the dog track, but even his wife considered this a harmless diversion, just like the monthly poker games he attended with his old high school buddies. But then he found himself having to explain to his wife why they wouldn’t be taking their usual summer vacation this year. Along with his trips to the dog track and his poker games, he had started doing a little on-line gambling, betting on various sporting events over the internet. It was his initial success that had allowed them to purchase the new bedroom set several months back, and it was the turning of his luck that had cancelled this summer’s vacation.

He didn’t know how she would react, but she was rightfully furious, especially when he confessed that he had secretly taken a second mortgage on their house to pay off his gambling debt—or at least, to pay off part of it.

But it was even worse than all that. It was probably only a matter of time until his employer discovered that over the past three months he had embezzled some funds. He knew it was wrong when he did it, but he was out of control. At the time he was thinking only of himself. And now the walls were closing in.

A few weeks after telling his wife about his problem, Jacob started becoming distant. His guilt and his shame led him to push his family and friends to the margins of his life, and he found himself more and more isolated from all that he had once loved. Slowly, he lost the respect of his wife and children

Finally, he sat one evening at the dog track bar, watching his third straight losing bet. A man he had never seen before watched him once again approach the betting window. The man grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out of line, and sternly said, “No more betting.”

Jacob pulled his arm away and told the man to mind his own business. But as the man looked deeply into his eyes, Jacob’s world came crashing down. In those eyes he saw everything he could have been and wasn’t. He saw every penny he had thrown away gambling, and all the good that money could have done for his family and his community. And then the man turned to walk away.

This time Jacob grabbed his arm, and said, “What’s your name.” There was no reply, just the same look he had seen moments before, and a voice that came from nowhere in particular that said, “You know who I am.”

Jacob went home that night a different man. Life was never the same. He joined gamblers anonymous, and confessed his embezzlement to his boss. He even had to spend a short time in prison. From that time forward he would always be known as a felon. But he could live with that scar, because for the rest of his life he had three relationships that served as his foundation, relationships he knew he could trust without condition: one with himself; one with his family; and one with God.