Genesis 32, Psalm 32, Acts 8
Ok. I got a little long today. Sorry about that. I love this story. This is the opening chapter of that next book I have threatened to write.
When I was a freshman in high school I wrestled in the 98 pound weight class. You had to weigh between 93 and 98 pounds to stay in that class and before several meets I had to eat a Big Mac and drink a gallon of water to get up to the 93 pound minimum. (That is no longer a problem.) I’ll never forget one meet when I was wrestling a guy who was a senior and must have been held back a few times. He looked to be 23 or so and I was 14. You start a match from a standing position. The ref blew the whistle. We grabbed each other and his chin hit my chest. He had stubble! A two day beard that felt like a wire brush. Immediately this thought popped into my head, “I am a 14 year old kid and I am wrestling a grown man.” That was it. The match was over. He pinned me in about 15 seconds. He had a beard.
You get to know a person when you wrestle them. You are really up close and personal…no pretense….no false identity. You touch their skin and smell their sweat. And within a few seconds you know how your strength and your skill compares to theirs. Wrestling may be one of the most perfect forms of true identification and relationship.
Maybe that’s part of why I have always been so fascinated with this story in Genesis 32. Jacob is at the Jabbok River on the border of Canaan. He is getting ready to return to his homeland for the first time in 20 years. When he left, he snuck out under the cover of darkness, fleeing for his life and now 20 years later he is coming home. He is a wealthy man now with 2 wives, 11 sons, a ton of servants and herds and herds of cattle, sheep and donkeys. But he is still the frightened 14 year old kid looking to face the bearded older man, his brother Esau. Although Esau is actually his twin and just a few moments older than Jacob, I imagine in Jacob’s mind Esau is this larger than life monster that is set on destroying him.
Have you ever faced that kind of situation where you pictured something in your head that became overwhelming? That got far bigger and far worse than it probably really was? You had to tell your parents you wrecked the car or your boss that you missed the deadline or your spouse that you bounced a bunch of checks? The more your played the scenario out in your thinking the worse it got until finally it was an end of the world catastrophe. Or maybe it really was. Maybe it was a decision or a choice or a battle that was so massive that you knew in your heart this was going to be a life defining moment for you. Will I follow the call of God in my life? Will I stay true to the wedding vows I made? Will I make the move or accept the task that it seems God has laid before me?
Jacob is at that place. He has thought this through. He has devised his very best plan. He is using deception and manipulation and bribery, things he is very good at, to try to insure the very best possible outcome for him. He sends four flocks of animals ahead, one after the other trying to buy Esau off with sheep and cows and goats and camels. Next he divides his caravan into two groups. He sends one wife and half the group in one direction and one wife and half the group in another direction. His thinking is if Esau goes after one group to kill them I’ll slip in with the other group and escape. What a guy!
When all of that is in motion, he is left alone at Jabbok and he beds down for the night. The story takes a turn, Jacob finds himself wrestling with God, and the lesson becomes clear. This thing in my life, this event, or temptation, or battle, this thing that seems like a struggle for survival is not that that at all. This is a wrestling match between me and God to see whether or not I will finally give my life to Him, trust Him with the outcome and not my own devices. I discover I have been wrestling with God.
Here are some lessons from Genesis 32 for us as we face some familiar battles, or maybe encounter new ones that take us by surprise.
First, Jacob is alone. Wrestling with God is a lonely business. Jacob has sent the flocks and the family and his fortune and his future across the Jabbok River. He stands on the bank while the sun is going down and watches the last cloud of dust disappear behind the foothills of Canaan. He feels alone. Almost every significant wrestling match we have with God takes us to the place where we are alone. In the 12 Steps we call it hitting the bottom. In life we call it getting to the end of our rope. Sometimes all alone can come in the middle of a crowd of people. But it is place where everything else is stripped away and you recognize it is just you and God.
It is Moses at the burning bush. It is Job with his kids and his stuff stripped away. It is David in the caves of Adullam or Elijah in the cave at Horeb. It is Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane saying, “Couldn’t you stay awake with me for an hour?” I am all alone. This year, when the circumstances are overwhelming and you feel like you are the only one in the world that is going through this kind of thing; look closely. Listen carefully. You might discover that God is rolling up His sleeves and saying, “Okay. Let’s get it on. There is something that you need to learn tonight.”
Second thing. When you’re wrestling with God It’s hard to know who’s on top. Look at the story. In the middle of the night when Jacob is all alone a man assails him. For hours Jacob is fighting for his life. Then when the man says, “Okay, I’m done,” Jacob refuses to let Him go. Who’s winning this battle anyway?
I remember another wrestling match from high school. At one point in the match this kid had picked me up and was holding me over his head. He kind of turned around and showed me off to the crowd. Now everybody there thought that guy was winning but I knew different. I knew that if he ever put me down I was going to get a folding chair and whack him over the head with it.
Listen, God can win at any time. He doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need my puny little plans or my feeble attempts. And in fact, in those moments when I am getting my way and God is letting me think I’m in charge, I am usually losing the battle. I have a little cabin in the woods in Dickson County, on a little one lane road. There’s an old white farm house just before you enter the woods to my cabin. A German Shepherd dog lives there and when I come around the curve he always comes flying through the bushes to chase my car. Sometimes when he is really running right on my bumper I’ll stop. I open the door and say “Okay you caught me. What are you going to do with me?” Almost every time I’ve got my own way while wrestling with God it has not been a pretty sight. If you think you are winning when you’re wrestling with God, you’re probably not. Which leads me to the third thing.
The only way to win is to surrender. Trust me. This will be the most magnificent defeat you have ever known. In the story, God finally says, “Enough.” In a moment of power that He has not shown all night, he touches Jacob’s hip and it comes out of the socket. Jacob says, “Just bless me however you want to. I’m done.” Do you not think that God could have won this battle at any time? Do you think Jacob really had God on the ropes all night long? God is waiting patiently, fighting with one hand behind His back for Jacob to finally surrender. I don’t know what you are facing. I have no idea what your battle has been or will be. But it is my imagination that the only way for you to win this thing is to say, “God, I give up. You handle this however you see fit.” You surrender and then you win.
There is one last interesting conversation. God asks Jacob, “What is your name?” What’s that about? Do you think God didn’t know who He was wrestling all night? God wasn’t looking for information. He was looking for a confession. When the brothers were born, Esau came out of the womb first but Jacob had ahold of his foot like he was saying, “Let me out first, I want to be the head of this family. I want the big bucks.” All his life Jacob has been doing whatever he had to do to get ahead and look out for number 1. He cons Esau out of the birthright. He deceives Isaac to get the blessing. He tricks Laban to get the best of the flock. Even in this story he has concocted a plan to save his own skin. Jacob is always about Jacob and God says, “Say it. Admit it. Confess the way you really are.”
God says, “Give up. Say uncle. Tell me your name.” Jacob surrenders and groans, “Jacob. My name is Jacob.” God touches Jacob’s hip and knocks it out of place and for the rest of his life I imagine Jacob walks with a limp to help him remember this moment, the night he finally surrendered everything to God. Psalm 32 says, “I confessed to you and you forgave my sin.” God says, “You have surrendered, I’m going to change your name. From now on your name will be Israel.” When Jacob confesses his name he is saying, “I have always done it my way. This is the way I operate. But no more. From now on I will do it Your way.” And God is saying, “I’m changing your character. I am going to bless you as you follow me.”
Pretty neat huh? But that’s not the cool part. Here’s the cool part. Look at Exodus 3. It is 500 years later and the children of Israel are in captivity again. This time in Egypt. God calls a guy named Moses to go get them out and Moses says, “What’s your name? Who should I tell them is sending me?” God answers, “I Am. That’s my name. I Am. I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” And for the rest of scripture God identifies Himself as the God, not of Israel, but of Jacob.
It seems to me God is saying, “Look, I’m the God of those that have failed, fallen and really fouled up. I am the God of the mistakes and the messes. I am the God of do overs and drop outs. Those that have divorced, gone bankrupt, sent their kids to jail, even those that are battling cancer, and depression and alcoholism. I am the God of those people that have wrestled with Me. I have touched their skin and smelled their sweat. I know them and I love them. See all those perfect people over there? The ones that have it all together? I’m glad for them. But you see that crowd that has struggled? The less than perfect ones? All those people that are limping around? They’re my favorites. If you want to know the truth, I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t walk with a limp.”