TEXT: Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 16:13-20

The story of Jacob's wrestling match is a very odd one and a number of people have taken a crack at interpreting it. We just sang Charles Wesley's interpretation of the incident, and if you want his fuller interpretation you can look on page 387 of the hymnal where all fourteen verses are printed instead of just the four that we sang. All the things we would really like to know about this story are not told to, who really is this guy who wrestles with Jacob? Some claim it is God. Others say an angel while still others say it is a man. Some say it is a dream or that it is a symbolic projection of the difficult meeting with his brother that Jacob is to face the following day, and then there are those who point to an ancient myth about great men wrestling with a river deity.
There are about as many answers to that question as there are people to read it. But in the end, all we know is what the story itself tells us. That itself is instructive, I think. Remember that the Bible is not written as a history book. The purpose of Scripture is not to tell us exactly how things happened and to answer all of our questions about an event. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal the nature of God to us, and the stories in it are designed with that end. We might like to know many other things about what happened that night by the Jabbok river. But we can be sure, I think, that the truth that this story reveals can be gleaned with only the details we have.

The mysterious stranger will not give his name, but he does tell Jacob that Jacob has wrestled with God. The critical result of that wrestling match is two-fold. Jacob is given a new name and he leaves with a limp. Those are the details the story feels are important, so we should look there for the message.

At this point we need a brief history of God's people so far. Back in chapter 12, God starts looking for someone faithful that God can make the father of a nation.. God finds Abraham, and Abraham is willing. Abraham, however, is married to a woman who cannot bear children and can't imagine how he is going to be the father of a great nation, when he can't even manage one child. He tries to fix that by sleeping with his wife's maid, which was an accepted practice in that time, and the maid does have a son. That son's name is Ishmael, and Islam traces its roots to this son. But God wanted to give Abraham a nation by Sarah, and God did grant Sarah a child when she was over 90 years old. His name is Isaac, and that's who we saw Abraham with last week.

Thanks to the ram in the bushes, Isaac grows up and has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is technically the oldest, having been born first. But his twin brother came out holding Esau's heel, which is why he was named "Jacob," which means "heel-grabber." Isaac's inheritance should have gone to Esau as the oldest, but Jacob is a cunning young man, who is interested in grabbing more than heels, and Jacob manages to trick his brother out of both his inheritance and his father's blessing. When Esau realizes what his brother has done, he vows to kill him, and Jacob runs for his life to some relatives to the far north. There he takes two wives and manages to get tricked himself by his uncle Laban, who is looking for cheap labor. Finally Jacob has had enough, pulls some tricks of his own, and decides to head back home.

His brother Esau hears that Jacob is headed back and decides to go to meet him...with 400 armed men. That is where we are at the time of this wrestling match. Esau and his army are on the other side of the river. Jacob has tried one last plan not to get slaughtered by his brother. The reason he is alone that night is because he sent everybody else ahead of him.. He sent them in groups, spaced several miles apart, each group bearing lots of gifts. Jacob has had 11 children by then, and they are all out there in front, hoping to earn the favor and soften the heart of Esau before he gets to Jacob. Jacob has done all he can possibly do to avert disaster. He is alone with his thoughts. And then God shows up, to wrestle with him.

Jacob is not the character you want to be your kids' role model. He is deceitful and greedy and cowardly. But he is still the one God chose to carry the line of Abraham. Jacob is a scoundrel, and God knows it well. But that is who God has chosen, so it is up to God to make something of him.

That, I think, is what the wrestling match is about. Before Jacob crosses the river and goes home, he has got to be changed, and God steps in. It is a fascinating picture of God. We see here in the very first book of the Bible that God is willing to show up in the flesh to do what needs to be done. If you're paying attention in the Old Testament, Jesus should not come as any surprise. God comes in the flesh...a tangible body that can be wrestled with. And God engages Jacob...Jacob has to work for the change that is coming, and God is right there in it with him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is in who wins the wrestling match. The man says that Jacob has wrestled with God and won, but Jacob says "I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved." Jacob knows that God let him win and could have done much worse than put his hip out of joint if God had wanted. God is not interested in giving Jacob a humiliating defeat. God gives him enough to make him humble. God gives him a limp that will be a reminder for the rest of his days. But God grants Jacob a victory and with a new name, calls Jacob to a new life. Jacob is no longer "Heel-grabber" but Israel...God rules.

To say that Jacob won is not necessarily to say that God lost. In God's kingdom there are no losers. God came to wrestle, I think, because Jacob needed to know that the God he served was a match for him. God was not going to be a pushover like his brother Esau and Jacob would not be able to run from God like he had run from his Uncle Laban. Jacob won the wrestling match in the way that someone would win the summit of a mountain. The mountain has not lost, but by your struggle, you have gained. In that way, Jacob wins from God a new name to bring him honor and a limp to keep him humble. Soon Jacob will have another son and those twelve sons of Jacob will go on to become the 12 tribes of Israel. Heel-grabber has birthed a nation, and those sons will bring him both great joy and great sorrow...victory and a limp.

A similar thing happens to Peter in the New Testament. Peter is not a scoundrel like Jacob, but he does get a new name that does not yet fit. When Peter recognizes Jesus for who he really is, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means "rock." Well in the weeks that follow, Peter is anything but a rock. He is a coward that denies even knowing Jesus when the going gets rough. When Jesus is in his greatest need, one of his nearest and dearest says...within earshot of Jesus...that he doesn't know the man, and as Jesus dies on the Cross, the "rock" is nowhere to be found. Why would Jesus call Simon a rock? Why would God make Heel-grabber the father of a nation?

The name for this is "grace." God gives us a gift when we don't deserve it, and that gift calls us through struggle to a new and better life. Once again, we have some ties to baptism, since that is why a new name was usually given at a child's baptism...often the name of a great saint or hero of the faith. The "Christian name" given at baptism was the name to live into...the name you had not earned, but that was given to you anyway to inspire you to live a holy life. The water used at baptism symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death. Our new name, our new life comes through struggle and death to the old ways...we come away limping, soggy, but whole, a new creation in Christ.

Even though now we are not generally given a new legal name at baptism, we still are given a name we don't deserve at that time. We are called "Christian"...given the name of Christ. Part of the reason we baptize infants is that we want to be very sure to make the point that this name is nothing we have earned. It is God's gift to us and God's hope for us, as it was for both Jacob and Peter. Once it has been given, then it is up to us whether we will claim that name for ourselves or discard the gift as too much of a burden.

A number of years back I and saw an interview on TV with the queen of a small African tribe who was touring the US. In her travels she visited an inner city school in New York City. She came into a classroom and saw a young boy seated in the corner facing the wall. She asked the teacher about him. "Oh, that's Thomas," said the teacher. He's been trouble here since day one. He never does what he should; he's mean and just a no good kid. He spends most of his time in the corner for misbehaving."

The queen thought about this for awhile. Then she took out a rolled up parchment and went over to see Thomas. She sat down and talked with him and told him about her tribe. She told about the things that were important in her tribe...honor, and telling the truth, and looking out for one another. Then she took the parchment and handed it to Thomas. "You are a very special young man," she said. "This parchment makes you an honorary prince in our tribe. You would be welcome with us any time you came to visit our country, and as a prince, we trust you to be a representative of our tribe here in the United States."

That day marked the end of Thomas's trouble in school. He claimed the name and began to live up to what it meant. The witness of Scripture is that God is like that African queen. While we are still sitting in the corner, she comes to us with the unbelievable news that we are royalty. It doesn't matter what names the rest of the world has called us, in this new realm we have both honor and a calling. Jacob's calling was to be the father of the 12 tribes, which now...4000 years later, still bear his new name...Israel. Peter, a simple fisherman with a tendency to leap before he looked, was to be the founder of the church. They weren't the most likely people to get the job, but God gave them those names anyway. And so it is with us.

When I was 14 years old, God called me "minister." By the time I was ready to go to seminary at age 33, life had taken some pretty sour turns and there were those who told me that I should forget ministry, because my life had not been clean enough. But God did not revoke the name that was given to me in grace, and I claimed it, undeserving as I am. I have wrestled, and I go through life with the limp of my past and the blessing of a new name.

God offers the same to each of you. There is a calling and a new name waiting for you. Maybe, like me, it is a calling to ordained ministry. Don't fuss that you don't deserve it. There's not a minister or priest standing in any pulpit that does. We all struggle and we all limp in our way. But we all are given the grace of God to get us through. Maybe your calling is to some other form of ministry...maybe in the church, maybe in the community, maybe in a certain profession.

Or maybe you simply need to truly claim the name given at your baptism....the name of Christian...the name of Christ. Perhaps, like Jacob, you have run off far from home...trying to escape a past that wasn't pretty. Perhaps you are considering going back home, but you know that across the river back home is your enemy...waiting with 400 armed men. It will be a struggle to go back home, and you may come back into your own lands with a limp. But if you are willing to openly wrestle with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...if you are willing to stare God in the face and realize who it is that is among will come back home with a new name and God will say of you, "She has wrestled with God...he has wrestled with God....and won."


(c) 2002, Anne Robertson

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