22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
A man was walking down a dark alley on the wrong side of town one night when he was jumped by a thief. The thief attempted to wrestle the man to the ground but soon found out that the man was his equal in strength, weight, and athleticism. So this wrestling match went on for several minutes until finally the thief was able to pin the man to the ground and search his pockets.
To the thief’s surprise, the man only had $.25 on him; just a quarter. So the thief asked him, “If you knew you only had a quarter on you, why did you put up such a fight?”
The man responded, “I wasn’t worried about the quarter. I was afraid you might find the $500 in my left shoe.”
I was a normal boy growing up; it wasn’t until my adult years that I became a bit strange. But as a normal boy, I did what most normal boys did: I wrestled. I wrestled with my brothers; I wrestled with my friends; I wrestled with the neighbors. Sometimes I would win, sometimes I would lose.
Perhaps my greatest achievement growing up is when my brothers and I worked together to pin my father to the ground and tickle what we found out to be his highly-sensitive feet. We also found out that dad had another level of strength that we were not aware of that he was only able to tap into when he was being tickled. I think it is probably like the moms that throw cars off their children when they are in danger, or something along those lines.
Today we are looking at wrestling and dancing, two things good Mennonites don’t do J. Of course, these are metaphors. We wrestle with God, we wrestle with people. But what I hope to see today is that perhaps God is calling us, inviting us not to be wrestlers, but partners in this great dance that we call the kingdom of God.
Our text for this morning is a strange, yet familiar one. We begin with Jacob. Jacob is the younger twin brother born to Isaac and Rebekah. The Bible tells us that when Rebekah was giving birth to the twins, the first one came out all covered in red hair, so they called him Esau. The second child came right after him, holding the red, hairy heel of the first. So they called him Jacob, which could mean “he takes by the heel,” or it may be a reference to the birth order. If anyone tells you they know for sure, feel free to tell them that they do not.
Esau, as the oldest son, stands to inherit a larger portion of his parents’ estate. But Jacob is a bit of a trickster. When the boys are grown, Jacob is able to trick his hungry brother into selling his birthright to the younger brother for some bread and stew. Seems like a high price to pay, but Esau figures that if he dies from hunger, his inheritance isn’t going to be much good to him anyway.
If it wasn’t enough to receive Esau’s portion of the inheritance, Jacob also wanted to receive Esau’s ceremonial blessing as their father was about to pass away. Isaac was blind from old age so he could not differentiate between his sons by sight. Instead he used his sense of smell and touch. So to fool his dying father into giving him Esau’s blessing, Jacob covered the back of his hands and neck with goat skins so they felt hairy and wore Esau’s clothes that smelled like the outdoors. (One has to assume that Esau was a very attractive man.)
It worked. Isaac blessed Jacob, saying, “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.”
You can safely assume that Esau wasn’t too happy when he received the news that Jacob had deceived his father. Esau had not only lost his inheritance to Jacob, but also his blessing. So Jacob flees and goes to live with a relative, Laban, to work on his farm and learn a few hard lessons along the way as well.
Jacob is gone for 20 years (31:38). In that time both he and Esau have been married, started families, and witnessed their wealth grow. But Jacob still fears for his life. He knows that he has done his brother wrong and I am confident that we would all agree that tricking your blind, dying father into naming you as your brother’s master is kind of a jerk move. So Jacob doesn’t rush back home. He takes his time, sends some servants and some presents ahead of him to appease his angry brother. Jacob knows that he should go and make things right with his brother, but he also knows that it isn’t going to be easy and may even end in his own demise.
Now this is where the story gets weird and since the story is familiar to us, we may easily miss the strangeness of it. As Jacob is nearing his brother’s land, he sends his family, servants, and possessions across the river and he is left alone on the side opposite of his brother. And the text just tells us, as if it were as natural as could be, “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
Because when you find a stranger alongside a river, what else would you do? One soon begins to wonder if Jacob might lack some social skills.
There are a number of things that trouble me about this passage and the wrestling match between two, grown men that had never before met is right up there. There is no reason to think that Jacob prompted the man or vice versa. There is no taunting; no “yo mama” jokes. And how in the world did they wrestle all night long, right up until daybreak? Even professional wrestlers only wrestle for about 10-15 minutes before they are exhausted.
But the ultimate question that needs to be asked is a question that cannot be answered: was Jacob wrestling with a man, a heavenly being like an angel, or did he wrestle with God himself?
The text clearly describes the other wrestler as “a man.” However, that man clearly had super-natural power because, though he was not able to overcome Jacob physically, he could simply touch Jacob’s hip and cause him to limp for the rest of his life. Furthermore, though the other wrestler never self-identifies as God, it is clear in verse 30 that Jacob believed he had just seen God: “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’”
Though the text does not specifically state it, I believe that Jacob had a vision. In this vision he wrestled a stranger, and it was only revealed to him after the struggle was over and it was clear that nobody was going to win, that the stranger was God. I believe that this vision was to be a metaphor for the way that Jacob had struggled with God and with other human beings his entire life. It was only in admitting that this struggle, this wrestling match, would never result in a victory for either entity that there could be a possibility for reconciliation.
It was only after a truce had been called that the unknown wrestler gave Jacob a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (vs. 28).
Jacob has wrestled with God and humans and overcome? Did Jacob overcome God? Did Jacob overcome other humans? No, I think that Jacob had overcome his own need to wrestle with God and humans and was now willing to submit and work with God.
Jacob had lived a life of lies and deceit. Again, how much worse can it get than tricking your dying, blind father into giving you a blessing intended for your brother? Perhaps we could blame his behavior on Jacob’s birth order. He was the second child born in a society where the first born was exalted. Esau would always be number one and Jacob would be second in line. It is likely that Jacob’s name even reflects his position in his family and in society. So he wrestled. He wrestled with family members to receive more than he was entitled to. He wrestled with God to receive blessings that he did not deserve. In today’s text it is clear that at times Jacob didn’t even know who he was wrestling with. But he wrestled; that cannot be denied.
Now this very God was saying to Jacob, You will no longer be known for being second in line or for grabbing your brother’s heel and attempting to take his place in this world. You will now be known as the person who wrestled with God and humanity out of your sense of insecurity and insufficiency and was able to grow through that experience because you have overcome.
From that time on, Jacob learned to align his will with God’s, to be justified with God and humanity. Rather than wrestling, Jacob learns to move with God and humanity.
When I was in college I needed a “fine arts” class to graduate. What makes one art fine and another less than fine is indeed a mystery to me. Many students took classes that interested them like theater or history of art. Some took classes where they could use their hands and create art, like pottery class or introduction to water colors. There were courses in music and abstract art. There was the ever-popular underwater basket weaving course, which was popular among the football players for some reason. I, however, took a course that I had absolutely no interest or experience in whatsoever. I took it because it had the best schedule, meeting just twice a week. I took Introduction to Modern and Ballroom Dance. And this was before Dancing with the Stars made dancing cool.
On the first day the teacher asked us to write down our “dance experience,” essentially asking what our level of expertise is. Some had taken ballet for years; others were experienced in hip-hop and brake dancing. I wrote down that I had been to the prom and sometimes at a wedding I was known to do a mean chicken dance.
Thankfully, my grade did not depend on my ability to dance but my recollection of the history of dance. But there was no doubt that I was a fish out of water, which is, interestingly enough, the phrase that some have used to describe my attempts to dance. But there was one day where this country boy clearly couldn’t keep it together any longer. The teacher often brought in grad students that specialized in a particular style of dance to demonstrate for us. It was fun to watch the cloggers and the tap dancers. It was exciting to watch the ballroom and baroque dancers. And it was lovely to watch the ballet dancers tippy-toe across the stage. But there were some modern dancers, and I really wish that I could recall the name of the style of dance, that came in, dressed all in black with the exception of their white shoes and gloves and performed a spontaneous dance for us.
It was jerky, with quick movements and hands thrusting this way and that. What one dancer did, the other mirrored. There was action and reaction.
I think that God would prefer that we chose to learn to dance with him and others rather than wrestle with one another. God wants us to be in sync with him, to respond to God’s movement in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in the broader world around us.
There is a challenge involved here. Though I don’t know much about dancing, I do know that one does not just show up at a social gathering and perform a perfect waltz with a partner whom they have never before met. I have to laugh when there are dance scenes in a movie and everyone seems to know exactly what to do. Watch Westside Story sometime. It is amazing that the Sharks and the Jets just seem to naturally know what to do. Even when these two opposing gangs happen to find themselves together in a gymnasium they already know what moves to make and when to make them.
Of course we know that these dance scenes are highly choreographed. Hours were spent planning every move and practicing over and over until everything was just right. It is very clear that this was not the first time that these actors had come together. To dance well requires practice.
Let’s come back to the story of Jacob and the stranger that he met while alone on the other side of the river. Jacob and the stranger, who happened to be God, did not know one another. To dance would take some time. It would take time to get to know one another. It would take time to learn each other’s moves. But to wrestle, well, two can wrestle quite easily with no knowledge of one another whatsoever.
As we seek to be in sync with God and humanity, we must take time to get to know God and humanity. God is most clearly revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself says that if you have seen him you have seen the Father. So if you want to learn to be in sync with God, learn to be in sync with Jesus.
And here is the tricky part: you can’t be in sync with Jesus if you aren’t in sync with other human beings. When we seek to be in sync with humanity, loving our neighbor and our enemy, we must take time to get to know one another.
If we return one more time to the story of Jacob and Esau we find that in the next chapter Jacob does choose to be in sync with God and humanity and tries to be reconciled to his brother. He sends gifts of flocks and herds. Then Jacob approaches Esau, bows to the ground, and we find Esau’s response in verses 4-5: “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. ‘Who are these with you?’ he asked.
“Jacob answered, ‘They are the children God has graciously given your servant.’”
If they are going to be in sync, if they are going to be reconciled to one another, they need to learn to know one another and they start by meeting one another’s family.
Wrestling seems to be the default thing to do when we don’t know someone else. Perhaps we do it out of fear, perhaps out of a primal desire to live. In simple Darwinian terminology, wrestling determines the fittest, the one who will survive. So we wrestle with others and we wrestle with God.
But God has called us to participate in this great dance we call the kingdom of God. And if we want to be in sync with God and humanity, we can’t expect to come to the dance as strangers. We must learn to dance together.