Genesis 32:22-31, Lectionary 18 A, August 3, 2014
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
A few years ago, after Christmas break, my seminary classmates and I were sitting around the lunch table sharing stories. We mentioned all of the family members we had seen, the fun presents we had received, and the adventures we had. We were having fun relaxing around our stories.
I mentioned that at a family party on my Dad’s side, one of my cousins was bragging about his son. He played a video of his son at a wrestling match. I said that my seven year old second cousin earned a medal “playing wrestling.”
In response, one of my seminary classmates sat bolt upright. With a serious look on his face, he said, “You don’t ‘play’ wrestling; you wrestle. There is a big difference.” This distinction was clearly important to him. His son also was involved in wrestling. To his family, it was more than just a game. It was a way of life.
For many, wrestling is an important sport. The matches certainly require physical skill and strategic ability. Those who wrestle need to have their minds and bodies working together to succeed. Wrestling may be more than just a game, yet it also is not a life or death situation. Certainly injuries do happen, yet they usually are not severe.
Wrestling in the past
Jacob, from our first lesson, was not competing at a wrestling match. He did not have officials watching over him, ready to stop him if he or his opponent tried an illegal move. No, Jacob was settling down for the night when suddenly he was attacked. Jacob was not wrestling to win a game - he was wrestling to save his life.
Let’s put this in context. Our last lesson left us in Haran. Jacob had married Leah and Rachel. Between Jacob’s two wives and their two maids, he had fathered eleven sons and at least one daughter. After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob was ready to take his family, his servants, and his livestock back to his homeland in Canaan.
Jacob’s father-in-law Laban was not so ready to let his children, grandchildren, and property leave. So, Jacob gathered up all that was his and snuck away in the middle of the night. Laban raced after them and harassed them. Then, after much discussion, Jacob and Laban agreed to never swindle the other again. They would go back to their respective homelands and never look back.
Then, when they were nearing Canaan, Esau went out to meet them. He brought 400 men with him. Seeing Esau far off in the distance, Jacob sent off some of his servants with hundreds of livestock as a peace gift. After his gift was sent but before he personally met up with Esau, our lesson begins.
Worried about what Esau might do, Jacob kept his family and his remaining livestock on the far side of the Jabbok River. He alone stayed on the nearside of the river. Then, after Jacob had settled down for the night, someone started to wrestle with him. He did not know who might be attacking him, yet he thought it might be the Lord. For twenty years earlier when he was running away from Esau, the Lord came to him in a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven.
Until daybreak, Jacob wrestled with this - man, angel, God - person. He did not let up until he was blessed. In the process, God changed his name to Israel, meaning “One who strives with God and humans.” Indeed, throughout his life, Jacob had metaphorically wrestled with God, his brother, his father, his father-in-law, and even his wives.
We wrestle to change our names
Jacob’s original name essentially boils down to “cheat.” For the first forty or so years of his life, “Cheat” was a pretty good name for him. He essentially stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. He not only took one of Laban’s daughters but both of them. He manipulated the sheep and goats on Laban’s land so that he could profit more. Throughout Jacob’s life, he has relied on his quick wit and smooth talking to profit or get him out of tricky situations. And when that wouldn’t work, he ran away.
But now Jacob is changing. Instead of talking his way out of this wrestling match, he fights directly and honestly. Instead of trying to swindle his brother one more time, he sends a peace offering - without strings attached. Jacob is leaving his trickster habits behind him. Now Jacob is an honest man. So, to mark this momentous occasion, God changes his name to Israel.
If Jacob’s original name means “Cheat,” I wonder, what are our nicknames that we leave behind? For many of us, “Cheap” may be a better nickname. For others, “Cruel,” “Ignorant,” “Overbearing,” or “Worthless” may be in order. Whatever your identifying sin is, turn away from it.
We also wrestle with God. We wonder how we can be the best Christians. We wonder how the world can be in such disorder, people killing each other left and right. We wonder if we are doing right by our families, if we are saving enough money, if we are making the right choices. We wonder where God is in our lives, but we must be careful! If we try too hard, God might just dislocate our hips during a wrestling match.
In the end, God has changed our names. God has helped us to leave our sins behind us so that we too might claim the name, “Israel.” For we too strive with God and with humans. Yet we also claim the name “Children of God,” for God baptizes us and marks us with the cross of Christ forever. We are also “Children of Christ,” fed and nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We too are “Children of the Holy Spirit,” sent out into the world so that we might share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Jacob is a special man. He lived at the extremes - from a swindling jerk to a loving father. Our stories may not mirror Jacob directly, yet we do each have a bit of him inside us. We have committed many sins, some of which may have been advantageous at one time. Yet now we have set that aside and changed our ways. Our Lord has washed away our sinful nature, and in doing so we have claimed our place within Israel. We claim the name Israel because we too strive with God and with humans.
No matter what has happened in the past, our God has blessed us. Our God has sent us on our way so that we can renew abandoned relationships, right our wrongs, and restart on a new path. We can only do this because God has made it so. Amen.