Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30
9 And Jacob said, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,' 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12 Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.'" 13 So he spent that night there.
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. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. 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." 27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 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." 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."
The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories. It is a single narrative in which every story and every character points beyond itself to one who is greater. That’s why we engage the old old old story. Because there is a true and better Abraham and Sarah who and who wandered into wilderness, who turns weeping into laughter and creates a family that outnumbers the stars and even our imaginations. They had a son named Issac and then Issac and Rebekah have twins, Essau and Jacob that point beyond themselves to a true and better promise that pervades our darkest hours.
Before they were even born, Rebekah could feel her sons wrestling, struggling, divided against one another in her womb. From the moment they were born, Jacob came out grabbing on to his older brother’s heel. His name Jacob actually means “he takes by the heel” reflecting both determination and perhaps even underhandedness, one who takes advantage of the vulnerability of another. And he lives into this name throughout his life. Once, when Esau came in from the field and was famished, he asked Jacob for something to eat. Jacob says, “give me your birthright first.” To which Essau replies, “are you kidding me right now? I’m starving. Who cares about birthrights?” And Jacob is like “swear it.” So Essau’s like “sure sure, whatever. Literally, where is the food?” Jacob gets the food but the damage is done and the resentment between the brothers beings to grow. Then! THEN! As old Issac lays on his deathbed and can’t really see anymore, he asks Esau to go out and hunt him up a hearty last supper. While Esau is out, Rebekah and Jacob get Jacob all dressed up in animal skins so that he smells and feels like his hairy older brother So he goes into his father’s room, and tricks him into giving Esau’s rightful blessing to Jacob. Essau comes in the room immediately after Jacob has left, he and his dad figure out what’s happened...and Esau is livid. Because now Jacob has the birthright (which means all the inheritance of land and herds and servants, etc.) and NOW he also has the blessing (which means the title of Lord and the position of power over the family). So Esau doesn’t just resent his brother anymore, he promises to destroy him. So if you didn’t already know the Bible is a soap opera, now you know.
After a significant time of separation, God is calling Jacob “back to his home country and his kindred.” This idea of kin-ship understands families as an expansive network. They are more than our particular households, more than a blood relation we can trace. They are our larger people, the communities in which we are deeply known, for better or worse. Even in the Bible, families can be hard, relationships harmful and broken. Fear and distance can take the place where we once had trust, connection and even affection.
While Jacob prepares to re-engage the part of his family he knows is a broken mess (that...last he heard...had vowed to kill him)...while he struggles with HOW to prepare for such a reunion...he finds himself alone in the wilderness at night. A stranger appears and begins to physically wrestle with him in the darkness. Identities remain unclear. The language of the text reflects the confusion, making it difficult to decipher who is who in the scuffle. For a time they are essentially a cloud of dust and swirling humanity. The whole thing is more than a little mysterious.
And sometimes...it be like that. Life with God certainly is not free of struggle. Sometimes we create it for ourselves, sometimes it is thrust upon us. But it doesn’t go away just because God has promised us blessing. And neither does life with God mean rolling over or becoming a shell of who God has created us to be. Like Jacob, I think we can often find ourselves in the midst of struggle and wrestling and not immediately recognize that while we are wrestling with relationships, with life challenges and changes, ...we may also be wrestling with God at the same time. Where is God? why would God allow this? Is God really gonna bless this punk because of his persistent aggression? Who tricks his way to blessing? What does God want out of this? Out of me? These questions still come up for me every time there’s a transition in my life, but also when there’s a tragedy like the flooding this past week, or the fire at a friend’s church this past Friday. And it makes me remember all the times I’ve asked these questions and wrestled with them in the past. And they’re not bad questions to ask at all.
But here’s the thing about wrestling...even as it is a struggle, it’s not like boxing where you strike and retreat. In the act of wrestling, bodies are almost constantly intertwined, arms and legs are wrapped around each other. Even when there is a struggle, your bodies are connected and held together. I wonder if we have forgotten how to wrestle? Not just fight. To hold on to one another even as we struggle against one another.
I find it curious that Jacob already has the birthright, already has his Father’s ultimate blessing. He is already blessed. And yet, here with this mysterious stranger he demands blessing again. What’s this about?. Does he not believe the first blessing is enough? That it Is true? That it doesn’t count in some way because of his flaws? That would be some relatable stuff. I think we all struggle to believe we are already sufficiently blessed. But indeed we are, each one of us, no matter what. We are each known, named and claimed by God as blessed, as beloved.
There is tremendous power in this naming of it, in saying it out loud, even if our heart isn’t quite sure. There is resurrection power in naming our struggle, our identity, and belovedness - in refusing to keep it silent or hidden. There is resurrection power in being known, being seen in our wholeness - with our fears and our wounds and our hopes and our strength. Perhaps this is why we see so much emphasis on names and their changing in the Bible. Abram and Sarai have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah...when God establishes a covenant and a promise with them, not just years later when that promise blesses them with a child. Our own name as a church has changed from Grace to KINDRED.
It reflects much more than a change in spelling or branding, and it doesn’t really change WHO we are, but a shift in HOW we are who we are. It doesn’t make the present more valuable than the past, but acts as a signpost - marking where we have been and where we are going. Here, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel . Jacob’s body is marked as he will forever walk with a limp after the hip wound of this struggle. His soul is marked as he is given a new name...Israel. And while Jacob means “he takes,” this new name Israel means “he strives.” It doesn’t seem much different. It seems as though it’s not actually much of a change, but an affirmation of the heart of who he is and who he has always truly been. But perhaps this identity and this nature takes on a new outlook as it defines not just his personal being but that of a nation, of a people, of God’s people, of the relationship that is promised.
Perhaps the giving of this name reflects the nature of the relationship of the people of God, who are called Israel, as being partners in the wrestling. Perhaps this points toward a God that does not define Godself by domination and subjugation, but by gracious generosity. Our God is the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob, of the one who laughs and the pain in the heel. Perhaps these people and these promises point us to a greater truth and promise of who God is and what kinds of people God can use and who God blesses and who God chooses to be in everlasting relationship with - the perfectly imperfect….you...them, the ones who you think couldn’t possibly be redeemed...us. Thanks be to God. Amen.