Genesis 32:22-30 (21st Sunday after Pentecost—Series C)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
October 17, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament lesson, from Genesis 32:
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his 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 has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
Today we have two stories from God’s Word about persistence. In Luke 18, today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. The widow persisted in her quest for justice from the judge who neither feared God nor respected people. This is a story that we can easily understand. We are to be like the widow by being persistent in our prayers, never losing heart that the Lord God will hear and answer. Our second story about persistence is the one found in our Old Testament lesson. This account of Jacob wrestling with God is shrouded in mystery and is not so easily understood.
First, a little background into Jacob’s: At God’s command, Jacob is returning home. He left under threat of death at the hands of his brother, Esau. Even though God allowed Jacob to see the angels who were protecting him at the event we often refer to as “Jacob’s Ladder,” Jacob was still concerned that Esau would kill him, since he is coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men. Jacob prayed to God to deliver him. Not seeing God’s answer, Jacob tried to win Esau’s favor by sending him presents. In case that failed, Jacob divided his family and possessions into two groups so that if Esau attacked one, the other might escape.
As our text opens the scene, we find Jacob alone. Suddenly a mysterious man comes and begins to wrestle with Jacob until daybreak. Maybe Jacob first thought that this man was sent by Esau to kill him. The man was not able to “prevail against Jacob,” so he touched Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint. Jacob’s opponent was more than human! Jacob realized this, and recognized that this was no mere man, but God Himself. This man certainly had the power to throw Jacob to the ground because He is God, but He doesn’t. Though Jacob is injured and hardly able to fight, God allows Jacob to cling persistently to Him. Jacob said that he would not let go unless the man gives Jacob a blessing.
This is certainly all very strange, very unusual, very mysterious. We are tempted to ask, “Why did God decide to wrestle Jacob? Why did Jacob persist in holding on to Him and demand a blessing?” Our text never answers the “whys.” We don’t really get all that much help in Hosea 12:4 either, which tells us that Jacob “wept and sought God’s favor” as he wrestled with Him. In the middle of this physical conflict Jacob was also in spiritual combat—praying, pleading, asking God for blessing. Note that in his persistence, Jacob leaves open to God’s wisdom what the blessing will be. By God’s grace alone, Jacob strove with God and with men, and had prevailed. God blessed Jacob out of His grace. He changed Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means “prince” or “God’s fighter,” one who wrestles with God and wins. God affirmed the promise of the Messiah. Jacob’s sins are forgiven. He no longer fears meeting Esau. Jacob trusted God to be with him face to face as he traveled home, as the name of the place, Peniel, “face of God,” indicates.
From God’s Word we get no answer to our “why” questions about this text. But, we are able to see how you and I are able to persist with God and win His blessing.
In your life, have you ever felt like Jacob? Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God? We have the way we think our lives should go pretty much locked in our heads. This is how it should be, or this is how it could be, or this is what I want it to be—all variations of the same theme. Like Jacob, we wrestle with God in our prayer life. We pray, and pray, and pray for the outcome we have in mind, for the result we are dreaming of, for the way things ought to be. We wrestle with God and His will and good desires for our lives. When things don’t go the way we want to, we give up and let go of God instead of continuing to cling to Him in faith, desiring His blessing.
Many of us are familiar with Ted Turner, the cable television millionaire. Turner, at the American Humanist Association banquet, where he received an award for his work on the environment and world peace, openly criticized fundamental Christianity. He said, “Jesus would be sick at his stomach over the way his ideas have been twisted.” He went on to say, “I’ve been saved seven or eight times. But, I gave up on it, when, despite my prayers, my sister died. The more I strayed from my faith, the better I felt!” Ted Turner is dead wrong, but he is perfectly reflecting the attitude many hold concerning God and the matter of prayer. Many people will pray about something for a while and when the answer doesn’t come when they think it should, or when the answer they think they should get isn’t there, they just throw up their hands in defeat and say, “What’s the use?” We’ve wrestled with God and lost. We feel like going home in defeat.
That not what the widow did in Jesus’ parable about persistence with God in prayer. And that’s not what Jacob did. Jacob reached a point during his time of wrestling when He came to know that it was God with whom he was persisting. In faith, Jacob held on to God and asked for God’s blessing, trusting that God’s blessing would be exactly what Jacob needed. In faith, do we come to the point where we will hold on to God no matter what and simply say, “Bless me,” trusting that His blessing will be what is best, good, and right for us? In our prayers, God wants us to continue to “wrestle” with Him, being persistent with our prayers and with our coming to Him in faith and trust that “Thy will be done.” We do not want to let God go until He blesses us. But we must realize that His blessing may not be the answer that “I” want.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus persisted in prayer to the heavenly Father. In the hours before His betrayal, arrest, beatings, and crucifixion, our Lord truly wrestled with God the Father. “’Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.’ And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Lk. 22:42-44) Three times our Lord Jesus persisted with the Father in prayer that the cup of suffering for sin and the cup of God’s wrath for sin be taken away from Him. But it was not God’s will to bless His Son in that way. Jesus’ suffering and death was necessary in order that God should bless us with His forgiveness and eternal life. So Jesus went to the cross, suffered the wrath of God poured out on Him. Jesus bled and died for the sins of the world. And God the Father then blessed His Son by triumphantly raising Him from the dead and seating Him at the right hand of power and glory at His ascension.
Imagine if Jesus had given up on His mission to seek and to save the lost through His passion and death. Imagine if Jesus had thrown up His hands saying, “What’s the use?” But Christ accomplished His Father’s will and the result is great blessings for you and me! And so we who wrestle with God and God’s will in our prayer life now get to see God “face-to-face” in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, and we have been delivered from sin and death. We see our Lord as He comes to us through His Word and His holy Sacrament. In the Gospel Word, in the bread and wine with the truly present Body and Blood of Jesus, we have the blessings of God—forgiveness, life, and salvation—given to us freely. We have God’s blessing and the assurance that through faith in Christ, God hears our prayers and always answers them in the ways that are best, good, and right for us, according to His good and gracious will.
We wrestle with God and win through faith in Jesus Christ. We wrestle with God and win through faith which holds firmly to God’s Word of forgiveness and life in Christ! We cling to God in faith and pray in Jesus’ name, “Bless me.” We rely on His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ to answer our prayer and give us what will truly be a blessing to us, even if it is not what we think is best, because we know we will be receiving God’s best, which is always better than we can imagine! So in faith, pray and do not lose heart. Persist with God and win, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.