Pentecost 22c

Preached: October 28, 2007

The Lord Wrestles with His Children
Genesis 32:22-30

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who pours out his Holy Spirit on us through his Word and Sacraments. The Word of God today comes from Genesis 32.

[Jacob] got up during that night, took his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven children, and crossed over at the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and had them cross over the stream and brought over all that he had. Jacob stayed by himself.

A man wrestled with him until daybreak. The man saw that he could not win, and so he touched and dislocated Jacob's hip as he wrestled with him.

The man said, “Let me go since it's dawn.”

“No, I won't let you go until you bless me.”

“What is your name?” he asked him.

“Jacob”

“Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but instead Israel. For you have striven with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob asked, “Tell me your name, please.”

“Why do you ask about my name?” he said. And there he blessed him.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel. “For I have seen God face to face, and my life has been rescued.”

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints of God:

Some try to sell religion as a guarantee for a happy life right now. Follow the right rules, give the right amount of money, have the right purpose and you will have the best life now. The success of this message seems to prove itself. You want to see their bottom line? Look at their packed churches, growing ministries, and media popularity. Are they right?

But what have you experienced in your life? Once we've walked in the steps of our Savior for a while, we know that life on this earth is no cake walk, no matter how faithful we are. Don't misunderstand me. God does promise to bless his people and he keeps that promise to you every day. But often his blessings come in disguise. Just as this Wednesday the ghouls and goblins on the streets are really sweet neighborhood children, so also God's blessings often knock on our door disguised as crosses, troubles, sadnesses, sacrifices, and hardships. In fact, at times it seems as if God himself were fighting us. And maybe he is! He wrestled with Jacob. But this too is a blessing in disguise.

So regardless of your personal experiences, good or bad, take to heart what God's Word says. Be ready even to wrestle God. For as the kind, loving Father he is, he wrestles with his children. We, as children, may at times misunderstand and think that he is against us. For this wrestling can get down and dirty in our daily lives. But this wrestling is a blessing in disguise, for your Father, the Almighty, is waiting for you to pin him down.

A. At times it's down and dirty

1. What ups and downs did Jacob have in his life?

Consider Jacob's situation. His life had had it's ups and downs. He was born into a good family. His father, Isaac, had inherited everything, including the promise of the Savior, from his father, Abraham. Now even though Jacob was born second after his brother Esau, the Lord had made it clear that the promise and blessing were to go to Jacob. As they grew up together, there were the normal ups and downs of family life and sibling rivalry. Jacob was favored by his mother, Rebekah. Esau was favored by his father, Isaac. No doubt that also led to its share of troubles.

But things came to a head when Isaac, old and blind, decided it was time to pass the family blessing on to his sons. Since he favored Esau, he wanted to give him the greater blessing. He sent him out to shoot game and prepare it for a meal in connection with the blessing.

Meanwhile, Rebekah overheard his plan and wanted to make sure Jacob got the blessing. So she tells Jacob to trick his father into thinking that he's Esau. She prepares two young goats to make them taste like wild game. She has Jacob dress in Esau's clothes so that he smells like the open country. She covers Jacob's hands and neck with the goat's skin so that he feels hairy like his brother Esau. And to sum up, it worked. Isaac blessed Jacob. It worked, until Esau got back.

Now Isaac knew that he could not take the blessing back. Esau lost out. But Esau determined to get revenge. When his father died, he would kill Jacob.

So Jacob left. He left everything. His home, his family, his possessions. His mother sent him to her brother Laban up in Haran, over three hundred miles away, to walk there on foot. So with only a staff in his hand, Jacob set out for a strange land and an unknown people. What a low point!

But as he spent the night at a place later called Bethel, Jacob had dream. A stairway rested on the earth and extended to heaven. Angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord from above promised him this land from which he was leaving. He promised him uncountable descendants. He promised him that through his offspring, namely the Savior, all peoples on earth would be blessed. Strengthened by these promises, Jacob made it through this low point.

When he reached Haran, his Uncle Laban welcomed him. Jacob worked as a shepherd for Laban. He had fallen in love with Laban's daughter Rachel and arranged with Laban to work seven years for the right to marry her. Those seven years went fast. But at the end, instead of giving him Rachel, Laban gave Jacob her older sister Leah as a wife. What a devastating disappointment! Laban said he could also marry Rachel, but would have to work another seven years.

After fourteen years of taking care of Laban's sheep, Jacob finally had an opportunity to earn something for himself. Laban would pay him with a share of the flock. For instance, all the speckled sheep born would belong to Jacob. But Laban tried to make sure that Jacob got the short end of the deal. He changed Jacob's wages ten times over the next six years. The Lord, however, blessed Jacob so that his flocks increased and Laban's decreased, despite all his trickery.

Now Laban's sons became jealous of how well Jacob was succeeding. Laban too changed his attitude toward Jacob. At this time the Lord also told Jacob to go back to his homeland. So he gathered his family and flocks and sneaked away because he was afraid that Laban would do something bad.

Laban pursued Jacob and probably intended to harm him and take back his daughters and grandchildren, but God warned him in a dream not to say anything good or bad to Jacob.

Now as Jacob nears his homeland, past memories of Esau's anger came flooding back. He sent messengers to Esau to seek his favor, and they returned with the news that Esau was coming with four hundred men.

What fear struck Jacob! He divided his family and flocks into two groups. If Esau attacked one group, maybe the other could escape. He sent three waves of gifts on ahead to try to appease Esau. He had his family cross over the Jabbok stream. Then on this night of distress and terror, a man jumps him and wrestles him until daybreak.

What doubts Jacob must have wrestled with! Should he have returned? Were his past sins now catching up to him? Had he ruined of his life? Was there any hope? Would things ever get better? Had God turned against him? Had God changed his mind about his promises?

2. What do you struggle with that makes some days so down and dirty that God himself seems to be wrestling you?

Don't you and I have some of the same struggles Jacob did? Our lives have their ups and downs. Sometimes things go well. Jacob's work was a success. His family grew. We have good times as well. Sometimes things take a sudden turn. Those who used to be close to us turn against us. We face troubles that we thought we had left behind. Past sins resurface to haunt us all the more. Life becomes down and dirty. We question where God is and why he doesn't make things better.

3. Why does the Lord wrestle us?

And sometimes when things are darkest and we think they can't get any worse, God himself wrestles us. He wrestled Jacob. This was no refereed match on mats in a high school gym. This was down and dirty in the dust. Clutching, grabbing, grappling, fighting for his life. And then this stranger cripples Jacob. He touches his hip dislocating it. All Jacob can do now is hold on to this stranger. No fancy footwork. No twisting and turning. All Jacob can do is hold on.

And that's why the Lord wrestles us, to cripple us so that we hold on to nothing but him. When he wrestles us, he is not against us, but he is for you. He is using the darkest moments, the down and dirtiest days to teach us that only he can save. Our own skills and strengths and fancy footwork all fail in the end, no matter how clever you are. Only the Lord saves. Hold on to him. Refuse to let go. Refuse to let go until he blesses you.

B. Pin the Almighty with his promises

1. What promises from the Lord could Jacob hold on to?

And that is how we pin the Almighty, so to speak. As the Lord wrestles you, he wants you to hold on to him and pin him with his promises.

The Lord had promised Jacob the land. As he wrestled that night, he need not doubt whether he should have returned or not. The Lord had promised to bring him back and give him the land. As he wrestled, he need not doubt whether his family would survive, for the Lord had promised him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. As he wrestled, he need not doubt whether his past sins were forgiven. For the Lord had promised to send the Savior to bring blessings to all peoples, including Jacob and you and me. Crippled and unable to rely on himself, Jacob held on to the Lord. He pinned him with his promises.

Reaffirming his promises -- that's the greatest blessing the Lord can give, isn't it? Reaffirming his promises, the Lord blesses Jacob. What a blessing for Jacob after wrestling all night to hear the Lord say, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28 NIV). Israel means, “He struggles with God.”

Earlier that night Jacob had struggled with God in prayer. In that prayer he held the Lord to his promises. He had prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted” (Genesis 32:9-12 NIV).

He had struggled with God and overcome, because the Lord is faithful to his promises. In effect the Lord's changing of his name and blessings him says to Jacob: “Yes, I am with you, just as I promised. Yes, I will keep you safe and give you and your descendants this land. Yes, your descendants will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and from you will come that one great Offspring who will bring my blessing, my forgiveness, my life to all peoples, just as I promised.” What blessing, what strength, what hope are in the Lord's promises!

2. How does the Lord bring you to trust his promises for you more and more?

You have an entire book filled with his promises. Know those promises well. How can we wrestle if we do not know his promises? Or even worse, how hard we will fall if we are holding on to what we imagine he has promised rather than what he actually has promised. Know his promises.

And trust them. And this is where we often struggle the most. We know his promises, but they seem so weak and distant. We tend to trust in so many other things. We question whether his promises are really for us. That's why it's his fatherly love and kindness that lead the Lord to wrestle us. He needs to show us how weak all those other things we trust really are. Sometimes we learn those things only when life is down and dirty, only when we think the Lord himself is against us.

But hold on to his promises. Pin him with his promises. That is what he wants. That is his great fatherly joy: when you, his child of faith, pin him with his promises, so that he can call you Israel -- he who struggles with God and overcomes. For his promises truly are for you.

Whose head had watered poured on it when you were baptized? Yours of course, because it was to you that the Lord made his promise that you were reborn as his dear child. You have his fatherly care and protection no matter how down and dirty the day may seem. Your sins are washed away. And whose mouth eats and drinks the bread and wine and the body and blood in the Lord's Supper? Yours of course. His promises are for you. Christ's sacrifice on the cross paid for your sins. You are forgiven. Trust his promises.

Trust his promises, no matter what comes or what disguises God might wear. Trust his promises. Now that does not mean that your life will never be down and dirty again. Jacob's life continued to have it's ups and downs. He would soon lose his beloved Rachel to death. And later when he thought his favorite son Joseph was killed by wild beasts, he figured he would go to the grave in grief. Even the man who wrestled with God and overcame still had down and dirty days. And so will you and I on this side of heaven.

But even on the darkest day, even when God disguises himself as our enemy to wrestle against us, even on those days, especially on those days, trust that he is your loving Father. Trust that his love gave you his Son, Jesus Christ, your Savior. Trust that his promises never fail, the promises he has made to you in Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

So on those down and dirty days when God himself seems to be fighting against you, take heart. He is simply a loving father wrestling with his dear child, waiting for you to pin him with his promises. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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