Today’s scripture reading is taken from Genesis chapter 32 verses 22 to 31.
32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
32:25 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.
32:26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
32:27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
32:28 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.”
32:29 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.
32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This is the story of Jacob wrestling with God, or at least an angel of God or an agent of God. I am not going to debate on who Jacob actually wrestled with, but I will refer to this encounter as Jacob wrestling with God for the rest of the sermon. Before we try to extract what lessons we are supposed to learn from this incident, let’s go through a bit of background on Jacob’s life. Jacob and Esau were twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, with Esau the elder, and Jacob born coming out with his hands grasping Esau’s heel. Esau, the hunter was Isaac’s favourite, and Jacob was his mother’s favourite. Jacob was described as a smart, deceitful and manipulative man, he got his own brother to sell him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, and concocted an elaborate plan with his mother to lie to his father Isaac in order to get the blessings due to Esau (as the first born). Because of this cheating, he had to flee his home, as Esau vowed to kill him after Isaac passed over.
So he ran to his uncle Laban, fell in love with his daughter Rachel, was promised Rachel’s hand in marriage for 7 years of labour, got conned into marrying Leah (Rachel’s elder sister) instead, and laboured another 7 years in order to marry the women he loved. He continued working another 6 years before he felt that it was time to return back home as Laban and his family were starting to become unfriendly towards Jacob and his family. Jacob ran away in secret, together with his wives, children and servants, and with all his possessions, which he has accumulated, in significant amounts through the years via some sneaky means.
So imagine the stress Jacob was under, after so many years of struggling and building up his life, and having to relocate because his father in law’s family was against him, and going back to uncertainty to face a brother that he has cheated on that may take his life. But Jacob was still able to keep his head on and plan, he sent a message to Esau, and when he heard Esau said nothing and was coming towards him with 400 people, Jacob could still think and split his possessions into two (in case anything happens he still has something to fall back on), and sending out livestock (out of one half) in batches ahead of him as bribes to Esau. And we finally reach where today’s scripture begins, where after he sent his family across the river, Jacob is finally alone.
I don’t know about you, but I feel tired just reading about Jacob’s life so far. All the planning and scheming just to get more for himself and his family, all the effort he put into out-witting people, perhaps out of greed, selfishness or anxiousness that there will never be enough. We do not know what drives Jacob to do what he did, but it got him to this point, where he is most probably physically exhausted from all the running away, and emotionally and mentally exhausted from having to worry about how to deal with Esau and taking care of his family while his whole world seems to be collapsing around him.
Jacob was finally alone, we do not know the reason why he wanted to be by himself, whether to sleep the night away so that he can wake up with energy to figure a way out of this situation, or perhaps he wanted to pray, or to reflect on his life so far on how it could have brought him to this point? Whatever it was Jacob wanted to do, he was unable to do so as a man came and wrestled with him till daybreak. Jacob had to use all his might, whatever was left in his reserve, and wrestled with the man.
Verse 25: 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.
This is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. When his hip was dislocated, he probably could not wrestle anymore (for wrestling is a very physical sport), and at this moment, he probably began to realise that he was not wrestling with a mortal man, but someone of divine origin. All Jacob could do now, was not to struggle and fight, but just to hang on. He did not give up, but he hung on till he could get a blessing so that he could get out of his seemingly hopeless circumstance.
Verse 27: So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Verse 28 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.”
The last time he was asking for a blessing (Genesis 27), Jacob was masquerading as Esau stealing something that was not meant to be his. This time, he could be himself, and say his own name truthfully. Jacob’s name means the supplanter, to supplant means to take the place of another or to supercede especially by force or treachery. And Jacob certainly lived up to his name, but at the end of the night, he got a new name. Jacob got a new name (Israel), and with this new name, a new identity which he can try to live up to. He also got the blessing that he deserved for he has prevailed against God, and as the sun rose, Jacob was able to limped away, ready to face what was ahead of him.
What do we wrestle with?
Have there ever been instances in your life, where you are wrestling with God over something? For a lot of us here, it could be over our sexuality, where we struggle to know whether God accepts us as who we are, and whether we could even be gay and Christian? We probably have not placed ourselves in such dire situations as Jacob to be scared for our lives (at least I hope not). But that doesn’t mean that we live a smooth sailing life. Some of us could be struggling with our jobs (dealing with human politics), some of us could be struggling financially (to put three meals on the table), some of us struggling in our relationships (whether be it with friends, loved ones or family), some of us may be struggling with our health (physical, mental or emotional). All these could be mini wrestles, or huge WWF wrestling matches. The question is when we wrestle, do we depend on our own strength, intellect and logic to get us out from the ditches, or do we look to God? Or do we act like Jacob, only when things appear to be hopeless, when nothing else can be done, then we humble ourselves, surrender and depend on God.
Some of these elements of struggles are personal: fear of loneliness, afraid to be vulnerable for fear of rejection, exhaustion over the same issue happening over and over again, and pain from our sufferings. Some of these struggles are outside of ourselves: feelings of powerlessness over what is happening around the world; the war in Gaza, the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane, the plane crash in Penghu Taiwan, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, the gas explosion in Taiwan Kao Shiung and of a factory in Kunshan, in the JiangSu province of China. Over the loss of innocent lives and broken families happening for no reason. Closer to home, the NLB saga, the backlash against LGBTQ community, the ever rising living cost that adds pressure for the low income families.
Can we as Christians choose to ignore all these struggles, and let life just moved on as it is? After all, life is not so bad for us here in Singapore, or least for us here in this congregation. Can we choose to let go, instead of fighting and hanging on to what we profess to believe in? I think we can, we always have the choice. We can still lead a pretty good life like Jacob did before he wrestled with god, God did bless Jacob, God did bail him out, and Jacob did have some faith in God when he needed something from God.
However, if we choose to live like Jacob did, we are choosing to not let God be the owner of our lives, we are choosing not to submit to God, and we are choosing not to have a relationship with God that God desires. And how do we know that God actually desires to have a relationship with us? We know because it is often god that initiates the relationship, in sending down his son Jesus Christ. In this passage, it was God (in human form) that initiated the fight with Jacob, Jacob just wanted to rest. We know God often sticks herself/himself into our lives, and God’s presence is all around us. The question is always whether we choose to be sensitive to the issue that god wants us to pay attention to, or we choose to ignore. And like the man in the passage, god would stay if we could persevere and hang on, then we may live through the darkness of the night and see the sunlight breaking through at the end.
And a lot of times, we realise that it is when we are tired, when we are spent, when we know that there’s no more that we can do, nothing more that we can give, it is often at this point, when we no longer have the energy to put up the fight, our defenses are down, that we let god in, for our walls have crumbled. It is then; that god could have our heart, not in any disguise or in any armour, but our heart in its most primitive and natural form, our heart that is all we can give, because it is all we have left. And that is all god asks from us, to give of our hearts.
Maybe for some of us, we do not see the need to struggle, for we are all quite decent people. We do not lie or cheat (or maybe just a little over the time on our car park coupons), we give our share (in time, effort or money) to the needy (though of course we make sure that we have enough first, never giving until it hurts), we worship god through Sunday services, songs, prayers and bible studies (but we cut ourselves some slack when it comes to loving god by obeying and loving the others as ourselves). We do not see ourselves as that bad, but do we realise that if we don’t think that we are that bad, then we can only move the other end of the scale to be only that good. Often it is those that have seen the evil that they are capable of, then they will know the capacity for good that they are able to choose to be.
So whether we are in a struggle now, or we are in a stage of life where everything is going on smoothly, we can make the choice to continue to rely on ourselves or we can choose to depend on god. And maybe as we make our choices, we may also be given new names, and have our identities changed from “sinner” to “saved”, from “rebels” to “friends”, and from “the other” to “the beloved child of god”.