When I think of wrestling, I think back to my 9th grade, high school gym class – the year that wrestling was part of the phys ed. curriculum. I had never wrestled before in my life – and when I first walking into that wrestling room with padded floor I was more than a little intimidated. But with a bit of an introduction – with a bit of instruction on some basic wrestling moves– it was actually a lot of fun in the end. I was never going to join the wrestling team, but it was fun to learn. One of the nice things about amateur wrestling is that you always wrestle against someone is of a similar weight to you. The thought of wrestling someone twice your size would be intimidating (especially for the scrawny little guy I was), but right from the start in amateur wrestling you are close to being on an equal footing – at least in terms of size. For that I was grateful.
I can’t tell you much about wrestling techniques or wrestling moves – but I can tell you that keeping your body low to the ground as possible matters a great deal. The higher your body is from the mat, the higher your centre of gravity, the more likely that your competitor will be able to get under you and lift you from the legs, or roll you across the mat. For someone of my height, already in grade nine, keeping my body low mattered a lot. The higher your centre of gravity, the more likely your competitor will be able to use his weight and strength to turn you onto your back and perhaps even pin you.
I can also tell you that a common factor in all amateur wrestling matches is fatigue. A tremendous amount of energy is expended as the wrestlers try to control or throw or lift their opponent. Often in fact, toward the end of the match the wrestlers have very little energy left to attempt a takedown of their opponent. Very often, toward the end of the match, the wrestlers have expended so much energy that all they can do is cling to each other, waiting for the clock to run out. Especially for the wrestler who is ahead on points in the match, it makes sense toward the end just to just cling to the other, to protect the lead.
For Jacob, exhaustion has set in. He has wrestled all night long. He doesn’t know who exactly it is he has been wrestling, but all night long he has been keeping his centre of gravity low – all night long he has pushed away the grasping hands of this combatant – all night long he has been tried to pin or defeat the one who wrestles with him. For Jacob it has been a long and hard night of darkness and wrestling. His wrestling has been physical and emotional and spiritual all at the same time. And after a night of wrestling, as the first light of morning appears on the eastern horizon, all Jacob can do is cling to the other combatant – all he can do is hang on to the other out of sheer exhaustion.
Jacob had been on his way back to his home country. He had been traveling for many days in a large caravan with the family and wealth he had accumulated in the east, in Paddan-aram. So many years ago he had fled his home country. So many years ago he fled in haste from his brother Esau, whom he had cheated of a birthright. In that homeland he left behind for so many years, Jacob is known as a deceiver, a liar, a cheat.
But now after a long hiatus Jacob is on his way back to his home country. He returns to his homeland with a large family – with wives Rachel and Leah, along with all their children. On his way back he returns with goats and donkeys and camels and cows and bulls and colts. In a sense, we might say, Jacob returns home in triumph – a successful man by almost any definition. God has called him home – God has promised to bless him – and Jacob responds to the hopeful call of God. He goes home.
And yet on this journey back to his homeland, Jacob is a man carrying a significant weight on his shoulders. The weight he carries is the weight of fear. As Jacob reaches the river that marks the frontier to his home country, his heart rises into his throat. How will the cheater, liar, and deceiver be received in his home country? How will his brother Esau receive him?
Jacob sends messengers ahead of the caravan to let Esaue know that he is coming – and those messengers return with the report that Esau has come out to meet Esau with 400 men. So worried is Jacob that Esau will simply kill him on sight, that he sends two lots of gifts on ahead for his brother – he sends gifts of camels and donkeys and bulls and goats to his brother– hoping to assuage Esau’s anger.
As he awaits the encounter with Jacob – as he tries to decide whether he can trust God’s promise to bless him, Jacob decides he needs to be alone. And so he sends everyone on ahead. He needs to be alone with his hope, with his anxiety, with his confusion, with his fear. And so he spends that night alone on the riverbank. As he settles down for the night, the text tells us very simply: “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
Who was Jacob wrestling with? Who was this mysterious figure appearing suddenly on the scene? What does this figure represent? Certainly by the end of the wrestling match, Jacob himself is convinced it was none other than God. He declares: “I have seen God face to face but have been preserved.” Through the night, Jacob wrestles with his fear
he wrestles with the question of his past
he wrestles with the question of his own identity
But all of his wrestling is also a wrestling with God. It is a spiritual wrestling – a wrestling defined by the presence of God – a wrestling that finds God as the decisive person in his life – a wrestling to understand who he is, to understand who God is, and to understand the life to which God has called him.
One of the tragedies of our culture – one of the tragedies of Christianity in our day – it seems to me – is that we have forgotten what it means to wrestle with God. Or to put it just a little differently, we wrestle with many hard questions in our lives, but we forget the presence of God in our wrestling.
It might be helpful to think about this in terms of the big picture this morning. It might be helpful to think about our forgetfulness of God in terms of the atheism has gained prominence in recent decades. The simple truth is that we live in a world in which the reality or possibility of God is very much called into question. We live in a world in which the possibility of a first century Jewish man being crucified and raised to life is simply not taken seriously. Whether it is the militant atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, or whether it is the more subtle, almost unconscious atheism of much of the rest of the culture – the simple truth is that the reality and existence of God is questioned in our culture.
And the difficulty for us, of course, is that these doubts are not only out there. These questions about the existence of God are not only out there. These doubts and questions also touch our lives – they shape our thinking – they have an influence on how we approach life. And one of the legacies of modern culture is this: that whenever we have doubts about God, whenever we wonder about the existence of God – whenever we wonder about the resurrection life that is ours in Christ – we are left with the feeling that we have put ourselves outside of the realm of faith. In our cultural context, doubts about God – doubts about our faith – are not seen as something to be wrestled with within the life of faith. Rather, in our culture, having doubts about God is something that immediately put you outside the realm of faith. And once you are outside of the realm of faith, the only way back in to faith is by an objective, rational consideration of the evidence for God. You hold the possibility of God at a distance and try to judge whether you should step back into the realm of faith.
This legacy of modern culture is so problematic, because it denies the long tradition of Christian spirituality and theology in which doubts do not put you outside the context of faith – but can be wrestled with within the context of faith. As many of you will know, the Presbyterian Church in Canada has a confessional document entitled Living Faith. And one of the remarkable things about this statement of Christian faith is its inclusion of a section on doubt. Let me read a good part of that section:
We are not always certain that God is with us.
At times God calls us
to live in the world
without experiencing the divine presence,
often discerning God’s nearness
only as we look back.
At other times God seems absent
in order that our faith may be tested.
Through such struggle we mature in faith.
God may also chasten and strengthen us
through the hard circumstances of life.
Questioning may be a sign of growth.
It may also be disobedience:
we must be honest with ourselves.
Since we are to love God with our minds,
as well as our hearts,
the working through of doubt
is part of our growth in faith.
The church includes many who struggle with doubt.
Jesus accepted the man who prayed:
“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
To have doubts is not to set oneself outside of the realm of faith. To have doubts does not require us to step out into some other realm where we must hold the possibility of God at a distance – rationally considering the evidence for God. Rather, to have doubts about God is an invitation to wrestle with God. To have doubts or questions about Jesus is an invitation to wrestle with the risen Jesus himself.
In the tradition of Jacob. In the tradition of the man who cried out to Jesus: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”. In the best traditions of Christian spirituality and theology, doubt is wrestled with on the terrain of faith. To wrestle with doubt is to wrestle with God – sometimes to the point of exhaustion – sometimes to the point where all we can do is hang on for dear life as the sun begins to rise in the east – to cling to God and to demand an answer to our questions. Who are you, God? Where are you, God? Who am I, God? What does this all mean for my identity as your child? What does all of this mean for my life in company with Jesus?
In so many areas of our lives, not only on the fundamental question of faith and doubt – but in so many areas of our lives our culture is convinced that the answer to our longings and the solutions to our problems are found only when we step out of the realm of faith. Our culture cannot comprehend that the life of prayer and worship – the life of intimacy with God – is a decisive for daily life. And the convictions of our culture shape our convictions.
We can think back to the specific reality that Jacob faces – the reality of fear. Certainly there were other things going on in his heart and mind that night on the riverbank. But the reality of fear loomed large. Fear at the reality of his brother’s potential anger and hostility.
What does our culture do in the face of fear:
In the face of fear, our culture encourages us to invest in a home security system.
In the face of fear, our culture encourages us to take out an insurance policy.
In the face of fear our culture encourages us to pursue cognitive behavioural therapy.
In the face of fear, our culture encourages us to hold strangers at a distance.
Now the truth is that each of these responses to fear might have some place in a faithful life. Yet what is excluded from our culture’s response to the reality of fear – is any possibility of encounter with God. Excluded from our culture’s response to the reality of fear is any possibility that we might wrestle with God.
The narrative of Jacob reminds us that even if we avail ourselves of some of the answers to fear offered in our culture – we cannot neglect to wrestle with God in our fear. The fears that keep us awake at night say something about who we are. The fears that keep us awake at night say something about our relationship to God. The fears that keep us up at night often say something about how we view life in the world that God has embraced in Christ.
In the midst of his exhausted encounter with the angel of God, Jacob is given a new name. The angel says to Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” The name Israel has different possible meanings – but one of those meanings is given here – one who wrestles or strives with God.
The simple invitation to us this morning is that we, in our day to day lives, become worthy of the name Israel – that we become those who wrestle with God. That in our fears, in our joys, in our challenges, in our doubts, in our decision-making – in all of life, we become those who, rather than holding God at a distance, wrestle with God. Those who live in such intimacy with God that the question of God’s being, the question of God’s love, and the question of God’s call in Christ, become decisive for us in all our moments. May we be those who wrestle with God.