We are down on the ground, shirtless and sweaty. We’ve been at it a while. He hooks his arm around my neck. I twist and evade him but as I do he sweeps my leg and suddenly I’m airborne. I land with a thud. We jostle, and tussle, but somehow I get him pinned. So I wrap my arms under his shoulders and back behind his head in what I think my friend Corey called a full Nelson. I squeeze. He winces. I dare him to tap out. He won’t, so I squeeze even more and just as his eyes begin to bulge we hear “Boys, it’s time to quit wrestling. Dinner’s ready!” We pop up and race each other to the table.
It’s a story about two brothers. This whole saga of Jacob in middle Genesis is nestled inside the story of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who have been wrestling each other since they were in the womb. Today it meets its conclusion.
Jacob, the younger twin who came out of the womb grappling for first place, has never stopped grappling and grasping his whole life long. And it has paid off! By this point in the story by some mix of divine providence and cunning deceit Jacob is a wealthy man. He has wives, children, camels, oxen, flocks, herds, and enough men to amass an army if need be. But what he does not have is security.
The last Jacob had heard from his brother Esau was that Esau had taken an oath to one day kill Jacob. None of his riches can buy him any assurance that his brother’s righteous anger, that Esau’s wrath, had abated. None of the wealth he has accrued in the far off country can save him from the fear of the certain death that awaits him at home.
He tries his best to buy his brother off, sending convoy after convoy of gifts ahead of him, but he gets word that Esau has actually begun to pursue him, and with a 400-man battalion in tow.
The night before Jacob crosses over into the land God promised their father, he has desperately sent all that he has ahead of him, and he’s left by the river Jabbock with nothing. That is when the wrestler appears.
Plenty of ink has been spilt to explain just who this wrestler is but there’s not much consensus because the text is so vague and open-ended if not downright contradictory. It says the wrestler is a man, and that he and Jacob wrestle all night long, but by morning Jacob says that in their struggle he has seen God face to face.
It’s while they’re there, on the ground, shirtless and sweaty that this God-man says “let me go already, it’s almost daybreak,” but Jacob says “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Quickly Jacob gets that blessing and more. He also gets a dislocated hip, or a kick to the groin, depending on your translation. But then he receives a new name, Israel, which either means “struggles with God” or “sees God,” but maybe there’s no difference.
As a new day dawns Jacob emerges limping but blessed. He looks up, and the next face he sees is Esau. Esau had vowed to kill Jacob and would have been within his rights to do so, a full Nelson is the least he’s due, but as they stand face to face after this wrestling match we get the sense that Jacob, now Israel, is no longer afraid.
And then, grace upon grace, instead of revenge, in lieu of wrath, Genesis 33 says that upon seeing his brother Esau runs to meet Jacob and embraces him. He throws his arms around his neck, not to strangle him, but to kiss him. And then, together in each other’s arms, they weep.
Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God? Like you had to rend a blessing out of God’s hands so that you could feel some sense of security or assurance?
As we’ve tracked Jacob’s journey to this point there is nothing that he has received that he hasn’t had to grasp for himself: his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, his wife (at least the wife that he actually wanted), they’ve all come to him because he went out there and got them, grasped them for himself, even if he had to wrestle them out of the hand of God.
But here at the end of the Jacob story, we are struck with this question, was any of that striving ever even necessary?
Jesus tells a story loosely based on this one. It’s a story about a father who had two sons, a story about two brothers. The younger grasps his father’s inheritance before the old man is even dead and goes off to squander it in the far off country. After a while, not unlike Jacob, this younger brother is left with nothing. Insecure, unsure of his future.
But then, on his empty handed journey back home his Father sees him coming and rushes out to meet him. He throws his arms around his neck and kisses him. He puts the family ring on his finger and clothes on his back and welcomes him back to the family table.
In Jesus’ version of the story it’s not this younger son that wrestles with God and man, but the older son who upon returning to see what has transpired stays outside wrestling with what has occurred, and whether or not he wants anything to do with this family and their feast.
It is telling that in Jesus’ version of the story the father then comes out to speak with his eldest, as he does, he has the same disposition toward the older son as he did the younger. As far as the father’s love for his sons, nothing has changed, “Son, you have always been with me, and I with you. All that I have is yours. Dinner is ready. Come to the table.”
In the end the story of Jacob is not actually about Jacob, or Esau, or us, not primarily. Remember, as with all of scripture, this story is primarily about God.
It was back in early January that we heard God foretell the ending of this story that Jacob the younger would be the bearer of the promise. Through thick and thin, deceit and deception, in spite of dysfunction and death threats, here at the end, that promise remains true; but it turns out to come not in a wrestling match, but in a reconciling embrace.
In the end there is nothing that Jacob has done that has altered God’s disposition, God’s promise. He did not steal it, nor earn it, nor wrestle it from God’s hand. God’s hand has remained open toward Jacob the whole time, this promise was always his, but at some level Jacob didn’t believe it, not until finally, he saw the promise, the very face of God, in the face of his brother, the one who could have strangled him, but embraced him instead.
I have a friend who has two children, a daughter and a son. Back in 2016 there was a certain presidential election that you may recall that ended up pitting a lot of us against one another and even divided families, including some of yours. I remember my friend telling me that his son found out they voted for different candidates and his son was so disappointed in his father that he stopped all communication with him and moved to another country.
For months, years, they never spoke.
We were together on a spiritual formation retreat not long after where lay people were invited to preach and he preached on this text, the version Jesus tells that points back to this story in Genesis. You could tell he was grieved by the whole situation, how much he longed for reconciliation. The kind of reconciliation he knew he had with God, he wanted it to be made flesh in his own family.
And so he prayed. Toward the end of our week together there was a service for healing. There were stations around the chapel where we could go to ask for annointing with oil, and prayers for healing. I remember hearing him weep as he made his request. I caught a glimpse of the moment when he was anointed with oil, marked with the sign of the cross.
As we left to go home I asked him how he was feeling. He said the Lord had spoken to him and said “It will all be better in the end. If it’s not better, it’s not the end.”
I’ve prayed for his family ever since. Just a few weeks ago he and I met up for coffee and I asked what news of his son. He smiled. He said, it started with emails and phone calls on my birthday. From there it grew. Eventually he came home, and now we talk about once a week. It’s a miracle.
My friends, my brothers and sisters, family of God, guess what? The promises we dole out here Sunday after Sunday in water, word, bread, and wine, our persistent proclamation of the promise of the forgiveness of sin and the resurrection of the dead, you do not have to steal them, you can’t. You do not have to earn them, you won’t. You do not have to wrestle them from the hand of a tight fisted God. You can try if you want to! With you all night God is willing to stay and wrestle til the break of day, even to the cross he was willing to go if need be, to the cross and beyond it.
But in the end, as dawn breaks, your forgiveness, our reconciliation, these blessings, they are no more available after our wrestling than they were when we were knit together in our mother’s womb. They are a promise from God which in the end nothing, not even family estrangement will be able to resist.
Perhaps in your life or in this season you have been wrestling with God or with someone else, on the ground, shirtless and sweaty in body or in spirit. If so, hear the Good News in the voice of my mother “Kids, it’s time to quit wrestling. Dinner’s ready.” Or perhaps in the words of the Father from Jesus’ version of the story, “My child, I have been with you the whole time and all that I have is yours. Dinner’s ready. It’s time to come to the table.”
This is not my table, this is not Grace UMC’s table. This is God’s table. The table that, even though we may wrestle with it, remains open to one and all by the grace of God revealed in scripture, made flesh in Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for you this day.
Thanks be to God