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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Wrestling with God (Jacob)

Pentecost 21     Gen. 32:22-31

Wrestling.  I have been thinking about the word, wrestling. When I think about the word, wrestling, I think of growing up as a little boy in Jackson, Minnesota. In Jackson, Minnesota, wrestling happened on Saturday night when all the farmers came to town. This was important because the farmers brought their daughters. I worked all day Saturday at our service station, washing the cars, gassing cars, changing the oil, and after work I got all cleaned up. I took a shower and soaked myself with cologne and I was now ready to meet the farmer’s daughters. I was about 7:00 at night and my buddies and I would begin cruising the main drag of our city, looking for the young ladies. The main drag wasn’t a very long street, maybe six blocks at the most, and so you would cruise it some twenty to thirty times. But now it was 8:00 and it was big time; it was big time, wrestling time and we would go to the local armory for the wrestling matches. The armory was located kitty-corner across the street from our gas station and we would have “Saturday night live” wrestling. We boys lived for those nights. The armory had an upper balcony around the center ring, and we boys would climb up into the balcony with a big bag of spit wads and we would pelt the wrestlers. There was a famous wrestler by the name of Genghis Kahn. He was dressed totally in black: black shoes, black socks, black trunks, and a black head band and we would get him so mad. He would pretend that he was going to get out of the ring and come up and get us boys, and it was so much fun.

Or when I think of wrestling, I think of being in college as a freshman. I didn’t know anything about wrestling but there were always these young men, little runts, who were out for the wrestling team and they knew all the wrestling moves. They would want to wrestle with the big guys and so we would put the mattresses from our beds out on the floor and these little squirrelly guys would get around you and put you down so quickly with their lightning fast wrestling moves. I never could figure out how they did it.

When I think of wrestling, I think of Hulk Hogan and the Tacoma Dome. Have you ever been down to the Tacoma Dome for professional wrestling? That is a party. They go bananas down there. The wrestling match that I remember was a match between Ivan the Russian and GI Joe. You should have seen GI Joe, with his trunks in the colors and stripes of the American flag and so were his long socks. He was patriotic as he ran out into the center ring with an American flag hosted up high, with the Stars Spangled Banner blaring through the loud speakers and the crowd going nuts.

When I think of wrestling, I think of my oldest son Joel when he was in high school and we parents going to all those wrestling matches. I think he was wrestling 156 pounds and we were so nervous when we watched him. When I think of wrestling, I think of the Underwood twins from our church last year, both going to the state championships and how proud they and their parents were of their enormous successes.

When I think of wrestling, I think of all those times that I wrestled with my children when they were children and all the times that I wrestle with my grandchildren now. You did the same thing, where they try to pin you. Your child or grandchild has you on your back and they try to push one arm to the floor and then the other arm to the floor until they finally succeed and press both of your arms to the floor and pin you.

It is with these words that we approach the only wrestling match in the Bible. The word, wrestle, is used only one time in the Bible, and it is the story where Jacob wrestled with God or with a vision of an angel or his conscience or whatever he was wrestling with that night on the edge of the Jabbok river. The word, wrestle, is a very old, old, old Hebrew word, and that word is used only rarely; that is, only once in the whole Bible.  …The other old word that is used in the story for today is Jabbok. Jacob wrestled with an angel at the Jabbok River and the word Jabbok is also an old word. The word, Jabbok, means wrestle. By the Wrestle River. And so we find a story about Jacob wrestling with God on the edge of the Wrestle River. 

These old words give you the feeling of the Arabian nights, the Bedouin tents. You have the feeling for the desert winds and the blowing sands and the donkeys and the old leather tents. The story of Jacob wrestling with God is a story that was told over and over again at the campfires so long ago.

Now, the key to this whole story is the word, Jacob. The word, Jacob, according to many scholars but not all scholars, means cheater, manipulator, little liar, clever kniver,  cunning and slippery. These are people who will cheat you if given half a chance. That is the story of Jacob. Do we have any Jacobs here today? Is there any of you with some Jacob inside of you? Or is it only me?

There are three wonderful stories about Jacob and his cheating and these stories demonstrate how and why Jacob deserved to be named cheater or masterful manipulator.

The first story is about Esau, the older brother, and he had very hairy arms. The younger brother, Jacob, was more fine featured. Esau was more like his father, rougher in complexion; and Jacob was more like his mother, fine features in complexion.  The older brother, Esau, was supposed to get his inheritance. So one night, Jacob perhaps got his older brother soused, got him drunk, got him in a good mood, laughing and joking. Jacob manipulted Esau, his older brother, to give up his whole inheritance, his whole birthright, for a bowl of porridge. For a bowl of oatmeal!!! Can you imagine giving up your whole birthright for a bowl of cereal? You wouldn’t do that in your right mind. So, the younger brother cheated his older brother out of his inheritance.  Why? In his heart of hearts, Jacob was a little liar, a clever kniver, a master manipulator.

Now, the following is the second story, the story of how the cheater, Jacob,  cheated his elderly father, Isaac. Isaac was an old, old man, groaning with age. He groaned as he said, “I am blind. I can’t see. I can’t hear well. I want to give my last blessing before I die to my oldest son, Esau.” Receiving the last blessing from a dying father was very important. So what did Jacob do? Jacob started kniving together with his mother who was like her son, and he killed an animal. Jacob skinned the animal and took the fur from the animal and covered his smooth hairless arms so that he would appear to be a hairy person like his old brother Esau. The hairy armed Jacob would then go in to see his elderly blind father and pretend that he was Esau. He would look like the hairy older brother. He came to his father and his old Isaac said, “Is that you Esau? I can’t see. I am old and blind.” Jacob said, “Yes, that’s me. I am Esau.” And so the blind father gave the wrong son the blessing. Jacob even cheated on his blind elderly father. When Esau heard about that, he was furious . First, Esau had been cheated out of his birthright when he was drunk one night. And then he was cheated out of his father’s final blessing before death. And what was Esau going to do? He was going to kill his younger brother, Jacob.  We all understand that, the need to get revenge on your brother (or sister) at certain times. Esau was going to kill is brother, and Jacob, being a sly, cunning, manipulative person, what did he do? Run. Jacob ran as fast and as far as he could go, crossing the Jabbok River, the Wrestle River, into the neighboring territory and ran all the way to his uncle’s place, away from the anger and revenge of his older brother.

And thus we meet Uncle Laban, and this is another part of the story of the cheater. So Jacob is in the far country, and we discover that Uncle Laban has two daughters. Rachael. Racy Rachael. And Leah. Lumpy Leah. So there was Racy Rachael and Lumpy Leah. Jacob, being who he was, was more interested in Racy Rachael than Lumpy Leah.  So he asked the question: “What do I need to do to get Racy Rachael to be my wife?” His Uncle Laban answered, “Work for me for seven years.” Jacob worked for seven years in order to get Racy Rachael. It came to his wedding night, and Racy Rachael got all dressed up with all those wonderful veils and flowing garments. All he could see were her eyes, and they went into the wedding tent that night, and there was no candles. There was no light. They went to bed, made love and he woke up the next morning, rolled over and looked at…lumpy Leah. He jumped up, stormed out of the tent, wagged his fist and fingers at Laban shouting, “Uncle Laban. You cheated me. You tricked me. You manipulated me.” And Laban laughed out loud and to himself, saying, “Got you.” The trick came back on Jacob. The cheater always gets cheated. That is an inevitable moral of this story. It backfires for the cheater and someone else cheats him.  Jacob then had to work seven more years in order to marry Rachael.

Twenty one years went by and Jacob has not changed. Fundamentally, he was still a cheater. He decided that it was time to go back and see his older brother. He was scared spitless. He was scared that his older brother was going to kill him. Jacob had really taken advantage of his older brother and he was scared to face him again. So how does this cheater approach his older brother? Carefully and cleverly. First, he sent his animals across the Jabbok River into his brother’s land; then he sent a herd of servants; then he sent lumpy Leah and all the children by her; then he sent Racy Rachael and all the children by her. Meanwhile, he remained on the safe side of the Jabbok River. Very clever. The guy was not dumb. So he stayed on the safe side of the Jabbok River, and now comes the story and the Bible passage for today’s text.

That night, on the safe side of the Jabbok River;  that night on the safe side of the Wrestle River; Jacob camp in his tent by himself that night. He tried to go to sleep. I am not sure what happened that night. He couldn’t sleep.  He was really nervous. He was very afraid about meeting his brother tomorrow. So that night, inside of himself, he started wresting and wrestling and turning and turning and twisting and twisting and he started dreaming. He didn’t know if it was a dream, the dream seemed so real. Was it real? Was it a dream? In the middle of that dream, he was wrestling. He found himself wrestling. Was it with an angel? Was it with a man? Was it with God? Was it his conscience? He was wrestling, and this old angel let Jacob pin down one hand of the old angel and then the other hand of the old angel, the old angel playing games with Jacob in the middle of night and the dream. Finally, Jacob pinned the old angel. When he pinned down the old angel, Jacob said, “I want a blessing from you.” The old angel said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “My name is Jacob.” The old angel said, “I will bless you. From now on, you will be called, Israel, which means, let God rule your life.”

So there becomes this huge symbolic change, from Jacob to Israel.  And then the angel whapped him in the hip and Jacob stumbled out of the tent the next morning with a limp.

Now, what is the meaning of that story? Well, many people say that the meaning of that story (that was told over and over again in the Bedouin tents near the Wrestle River with the blowing winds and shifting sands;) the meaning of that story was to explain how the Jabbok River got its name. One night, Jacob, had a wrestling match with God or an angel of God or his conscience on the edge of the Jabbok River and that is how the river got it’s name. Wrestle River. … Or, other people said that the purpose of that story is to explain how old Jacob got a limp and how old, great, great, great grandpa Jacob had a hitch to his walk. Why? One night, old man Jacob wrestled with an angel of God and the angel slapped him on the hip. … Or, some people say this story attempts to explain how the great altar got built at Peniel. Why was there such a large altar at ancient Peniel? Jacob built an altar that night to commemorate his wrestling match near the Jabbok River. … Or, the real meaning of the story is this: in that tent on that night, Jacob had a wrestling match with God, with an angel, with his conscience. Jacob had always been cheating people his whole life. He had cheated his brother out of the inheritance, cheated his brother from his father’s dying blessing, cheated his blind father; he tried to cheat his Uncle Laban.  His whole life he had been cheating, cheating, cheating. His whole life he had been manipulating people. His whole life he had been clever and cunning and that night, that night, in that wrestling match with God, God touched him. God touched him in such a way that he was changed. And God gave him a new name Israel, which means, let God rule. Any time in the Bible, when you get a new name, it is a sign of a dramatic and enormous change within that person. In the New Testament, Simon Peter was called a new name. Jesus said, ‘You are Cephas but I will call you Peter and you will be the rock for that is the meaning of your name.” Any time you get a new name in the Bible, that symbolizes an enormous change of inner character. And so Jacob underwent this enormous change from being Jacob to being Israel, from being a cheater and manipulator and cunning and clever to being a person who finally let God rule in his life.

That is what the New Testament, Jesus and the Kingdom of God is all about. The kingdom is God is any place and any heart in which God rules.

Now, what does all this stuff have to do with you and me so many years later? Of this I am sure, we all wrestle with God at night, trying to go to sleep, rolling this way and then that way, rolling this way and rolling that way, and we can’t get to sleep. It feels like the Arabian nights but here it is, two or three thousand years later. And we are still wrestling after all these centuries and millenniums. . And what are we wrestling with? Is it our conscience? Is it our thoughts? Is it an angel? What is it that we are wrestling with in the middle of the night? But we wrestle. We all wrestle. And as we wrestle in the middle of the night and sometimes it goes on for a night or for a week or for a month or for a year, and slowly we go through that process of wrestling with God.

And God could have if he wanted to, with all his power, he could pin us down so very quickly. God could pin us within the blink of an eye, slam us to the floor and stomp on us. If God wanted to, God could pin us down and make us believe and obey. But that isn’t the way God wrestles. God wrestles in such a way that we slowly surrender our lives to him. We put our hands in his hands, and God begins to lead us on a path of righteousness, of right relationships. That is the way that God wrestles with us. God does not bash our hands down with his mighty power and pin us. Rather, God allows us to put our hands in his and we begin a walk together. That is the way God wrestles with us.

We all go through that fundamental transition in life. The issue is this; whether or not I will continue to be a self centered , cheating, cunning, manipulative person or whether I will finally let God rule. Who will rule in my life? Jacob or God? The power of manipulation and deceit or the power of God? Who will rule within me? That is the basic wrestling match of life.

Now, there are other things that we wrestle with in our lives. We spend a lot of time on the banks of the Jabbok River. We wrestle about things we are doing wrong. If we are a kid and we are doing drugs, we are wrestling with that. Or we may be involved with an affair with somebody and we know that it is not right. Or we wrestle with our inner fantasies whatever they may be. Or we wrestle with whether to get a divorce, whether to get married. Whether to have a child or get an abortion. Whether to move into a retirement home or remain in our house. We wrestle with illness and death, whether or not this chemotherapy is going to work or the possibility of radiation. We wrestle with whether or not we will be alive tomorrow or not and how we plan our future estate and future economic years. And still others of us wrestle about our children, and ask the question at night, “Why aren’t are children turning out like we had planned and prayed for?” We wrestle about our marriages and ask how come we aren’t loving our partner the way we should. We all wrestle with a lot of things in life. There is no doubt that we wrestle a lot. There is not doubt that all of us spend a lot of time on the banks of the Jabbok River. But underneath all of these wrestling matches that are part of our lives, beneath them all is this: Who is going to win? Who is going to rule your life? Yourself? God? Who rules in your life? Is your name Jacob? Or is your name, Israel? Amen.

CHILDREN’S SERMON: The children come up and the pastor asks the children if they know what wrestling is? The children will give different answers. The pastor asks if any children know what arm wrestling is? Answers. The pastor asks if any children want to arm wrestle with him/her? The pastor arm wrestles with children, letting them win, perhaps winning a match to demonstrate power. The pastor then tells the children that God could use his power and win the watch. But this isn’t the way God wrestles. God does not slam us to the ground and use his power to force us to obey. God wrestles like this: The pastor asks a child to place his hand in the pastor and the two of them begin to walk down the aisle. God holds our hand and guides us. God does not overpower us with force. Amen.

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