A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 17, 2012
A certain church that had experienced decline decided to take extreme measures to boost Sunday evening attendance. So they contracted with two well-known wrestlers in the area and had a Sunday evening wrestling match on the church grounds in order to draw a crowd to their services. Seriously. Over the years, I have heard of churches doing all kinds of things–many questionable in nature–to get their numbers up. But how often do we hear about a church staging a wrestling match?
But then I got to thinking about the connection between God and wrestling. At first, one would think that there is no connection at all; that is, until you read the 32nd chapter of Genesis. For in this chapter we read an account of Jacob wrestling with God. Or, at least he felt he had wrestled with God or a representative of God. Here is what happened. Jacob and his twin brother Esau had always had a strained relationship. As youngsters, Jacob looked for every opportunity to take advantage of his brother. Jacob swindled his brother out of his birthright, that is, the rights of the eldest son, which included leadership in the family and a double share of the inheritance. Then Jacob deceived their father and stole Esau’s blessing. Because of Jacob’s trickery and deceit, Esau came to hate his brother and plotted to kill him. So Jacob had to flee for his life to another country.
In the land of Haran, Jacob took wives and began to work for his father-in-law. For years Jacob lived in Haran in exile, away from his brother Esau. But he grew quite rich in the process. Finally one day, after twenty long years, Jacob yearned to go back home to his family in the land of Canaan. But as he approached his homeland, Jacob became afraid of his brother Esau, fearing that he might still be intent on killing him. He decided to send gifts on ahead to Esau in hopes of healing the rift between them and gaining Esau’s favor. But he also prayed to God that he might be delivered from the wrath of his brother.
The night before Jacob was to meet Esau again for the first time in twenty years, he was left alone. He was vulnerable. When Jacob lay down to sleep, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24). They wrestled all night long. Before daybreak the man who wrestled with him said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (32:26). Before leaving, the man said to Jacob, “you have struggled with God . . . and you have won” (32:28). And then the man blessed him and left. Jacob then named that place Peniel (which means “the face of God”), and he said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30). Now, we have to admit that this is one of the most mysterious and curious stories in the Bible. Jacob was convinced that he had wrestled with God in human form, at least as this biblical writer tells it. Now, most of may not believe that Jacob actually wrestled with God. But Jacob believed his experience to have been a supernatural encounter.
Have you ever wrestled with God–spiritually speaking? There have been many saints who have wrestled with God through the centuries. Abraham wrestled with God in prayer when he sought to find ten righteous people in the town of Sodom prior to its destruction. Again and again Abraham went back to God pleading his case and trying to spare his kinfolk who lived there.
Moses wrestled with God when being called to go down to the land of Egypt and deliver his people from bondage and slavery. Moses tried every way to get out of going; he made all kinds of excuses. And then later Moses again wrestled with God, pleading for the people’s forgiveness, after the people had committed what he felt to be a great sin by worshipping the golden calf.
Suffering Job wrestled with God as he sought an answer as to why all the afflictions had come upon him.
Saul, who was to later become the Apostle Paul, wrestled with the Lord when he was struck down by the blinding light on the road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he heard the Lord say to him (Acts 9:4). Why are you wrestling with me, striving with me? the Lord demanded.
And I believe even Jesus wrestled with God in prayer there in the Garden of Gethsemane when facing his impending death. “My Father,” Jesus prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). As Matthew tells the story, Jesus wrestled in prayer, trying to reconcile what he perceived to be God’s will and his own human fear and dread of what lay before him.
Again I ask, have you ever wrestled with God? I guess you could say that I have wrestled with God at times, seeking an answer, an unmistakable sign, a clear-cut direction for my life. I wrestled for months before making a decision to pursue the ministry; not because I was running, but because I wanted God to give me a clear sign that this was really what I needed to do. I suppose I have wrestled with God in prayer for loved ones who were ill or in trouble.
A third time I ask, have you ever wrestled with God? Perhaps you, too, were seeking an answer, an unmistakable sign, a clear-cut direction for your life. Or maybe you, like Job, were praying for healing for yourself or a loved one. Perhaps you were afraid of what the future might hold for you. Maybe you were wrestling over an important decision about the direction of your life. Wrestling with God can take many forms.
Now obviously, wrestling with God is a metaphor. Even those who may not believe in a personal God can still wrestle with the Universe or Life over the “Whys” of human existence. Why do good people suffer? Why do some people have more than their fair share of troubles?
There are some things that we can say about wrestling with God:
1) True wrestling only comes when we are willing to be vulnerable and to let go of our human pride and accept that perhaps we are not perfect and don’t have all the answers to all of life’s problems. We have to be to the point that we are willing to let go of ideas, perceptions, and beliefs that we have always taken for granted and believed to be true.
2) Wrestling with God can leave us a changed person. Jacob was not the same person after his night of struggle. He walked away from his wrestling match permanently marked, a changed man. And so did Saul. We may be changed as well through our spiritual struggles. How can we struggle or wrestle and not be changed in some way?
3) God can enter into the very depths of our human struggles. We may feel that the Sacred or Divine may often encounter us during times of conflict, at times when we most need the Divine presence.
4) Wrestling can make us stronger. Jacob gained strength to face his brother Esau. Indeed, as one commentator observed, Jacob could face any foe, knowing that God the wrestler would be at his side (New Interpreter’s Bible). Likewise, we may gain strength to face our Esau’s of life as well.
5) Wrestling with God has the potential of leading to some kind of blessing.
6) Wrestling with God does not have to be seen as a bad thing. Just because one wrestles with God, or argues with God, or even gets angry with God doesn’t mean he or she has lost faith, or has fallen from God’s favor.
7) Finally, on this Father’s Day, I might add that there is a lot of soul searching and wrestling that goes along with parenting.
Over the years, I have known people who have wrestled over faith issues and who, in the process, “lost the faith they had,” so to speak, only to regain a much more mature and deeper faith. Working through deep questions of life such as why do bad things happen in life can enable one to come to a place of much greater peace, understanding, and acceptance of life and the way things are.
In conclusion, if you have ever wrestled with God, count it a joy. For when we think of folks like Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Job, the Apostle Paul, and especially Jesus, we must admit that we are in good company; for God has wrestled with the best of them. Amen.