Wrestling with Jesus

Wresting Jesus (Steve Hollaway)

Wrestling with Jesus Genesis 32:22-31 First & Franklin Presbyterian Church Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau. He hadn’t seen him in 20 years, and the truth was that Jacob had robbed Esau of what he deserved as older brother. Jacob didn’t know if his brother would kill him. He’d heard Esau was coming with 400 men. Jacob sent gifts ahead, then his family and all his possessions, to prepare the way. But Jacob was scared. And in the midst of this dysfunctional family situation, something happened.

Jacob is trying to sleep, there on the ground beside a stream. In the dark, someone jumps him. With all his strength, Jacob struggles against the stranger. He doesn’t know who it is. Is it a demon from the river? Is it his brother Esau settling scores one-on-one? We the readers don’t know who it is at this point, either. They wrestle in mortal combat all night long. It seems that the match is about even until the stranger reaches down to where the thigh joins the hip and dislocates that joint.

Jacob, wounded, still holds on. “I won’t let you go,” he says, unless — what? Unless you say “uncle”? No: “unless you bless me”! Do you say this to your enemy? To the one who attacks you in the night? But this is what Jacob had wanted, needed all his life: to be blessed. It was what his father denied him. And maybe Jacob intuits something about the stranger and has begun to understand that the one who finally has the power to bless is not his father or his brother but God.

The stranger replies with a question: “What is your name?” “Jacob”—which means grabber, supplanter. “No, from now on your name is Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” Jacob demands: “Tell me your name.” Who are you, really? But the stranger will not give his name. God’s name is holy and beyond Jacob’s understanding. But he does bless Jacob before he leaves. Then Jacob says: “I’ll call this place Peniel,” which means the face of God, “because I saw God face to face.” Oh, it was God! It was God who wrestled this rascal there and gave him a new name.

God appears in the midst of a sibling rivalry story. Esau and Jacob were fraternal twins, born minutes apart. Little red Esau musts have come out breech, because Jacob the runt was grabbing his foot, trying to hold him back. “Don’t leave me, bro!” Jacob was given the name Grabber, and it turned out to fit him just fine. Twins could hardly have been more different than these two. The differences were along the lines of what we think of as gender stereotypes, or testosterone levels. Esau was hairy, macho, the hunter-gatherer, the physical one; Jacob was smooth, a Mama’s boy, a cook, the intellectual. It’s probably not going too far to say that Jacob was the brighter one, but he used it to trick his father and his brother. He had reason to worry that Esau might want revenge.

A psychoanalyst hearing Jacob tell the story of his nighttime encounter would have said, “Of course that attacker represents your brother. It’s the one you’ve wrestled with all your life for your father’s blessing.” But the text of Genesis says no such thing. It may well be that Jacob had no idea who he was wrestling in the dark. We forget how dark the night could be out in the desert back then. It was only after the attacker had injured him and subdued him that Jacob received the blessing of a new name—Yisrael, “struggles-with-God.” Only at the end of the story does it dawn on Jacob that the thing he was wrestling with was God. At first the narrator says that “a man” wrestled with Jacob, but it turns out to be God-in-human-form, sometimes called the, Angel of the Lord. You see a lot of pictures of Jacob wrestling an angel, but Genesis never mentions an angel. Jacob’s own comment after the struggle was “I have seen God face to face.” The prophet Hosea (12:3) says flatly that Jacob struggled with God, or wrestled with God, or fought God.

Exactly what was happening on a physical level to Jacob is not important to me. What I want to grab hold of as tightly as Esau’s little foot is the truth that our interaction with God is like a wrestling match—intimate, stressful, emotionally violent, and ultimately hopeless. When we think of our spiritual life, do we think of struggle?

Most of us come to church looking for peace and quiet. I admit that there are some who go to church to “rock out” and be entertained, but Presbyterians are mostly looking to calm their anxious hearts. The word “spiritual” is almost a synonym for “relaxed.” Spirituality is frequently identified with meditation and mindfulness—centering yourself, paying attention to your breath, calming your monkey mind so you can be present now. But what if the paradigm in Genesis is right—that the spiritual life is a struggle, that it’s a wrestling match with God.

As a Christian, I was raised to submit to God, not to fight with God. You could say the same thing about Muslims, because the word Islam means submission. If I’d been raised Jewish, this story might not strike me as so strange. This is a defining moment for the Jewish people. They are the nation of Israel—the people who wrestle with God. Not, I think, the people who once wrestled with God long ago, but people who are continually arguing with God, grabbing hold of him in awkward ways, trying to twist God’s arm, and even in times of exile and genocide begging for a blessing.

Christians share that tradition, even if we are sometimes oblivious to it. We follow a Jewish Messiah and those of us who are Gentiles have been grafted onto the tree of Israel. Our Lord Jesus put himself in our place as one who had to struggle with God, agonizing, sweating drops of blood as he asked his Father to change the plan—and yet in the end he submitted. Jesus wrestled with God in the garden before he went to the cross for us.

We, too, wrestle with God, and wrestle with Jesus. Charles Wesley, the greatest hymn writer in history, gave an allegorical reading to Genesis. He saw that struggle as emblematic of the human struggle with the divine, of the sinner’s encounter with the God-man. In Jacob’s wrestling, Wesley sees his own conversion story. We encounter Jesus in our own lives as a traveler unknown, a mysterious force we wrestle with in the dark. Wesley imagines himself as another Jacob, wrestling Jesus without knowing who he is, demanding that he tell him his name. What the poem suggests is that we have to wrestle with Jesus before we can really know him. We are wrestling with an unknown God in the night, and it is only after struggle that God reveals his new name. The name “Jesus” is not revealed until the 12th stanza of the poem, but we learn before that that God’s name is Love. “The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure Universal Love thou art: to me, to all, thy mercies move—thy nature, and thy name is Love.”

There’s something in that which absolutely gets to me. Coming to know Jesus is so much more than “accepting” him or opening a door for him to come in. It’s a struggle. We don’t know at first if he’s God or not—or a demon, or a projection of a brother or father, or some dark force of our own psyche. We don’t know at first that he is love. We have to wrestle with him in the dark before we come to know that. And the intimacy we experience with Jesus is not the intimacy of a gentle massage or a snuggling child. We get to know him in a struggle against him. Jesus—God himself—wants us to struggle, to grow up by fighting him, as we define ourselves against God’s strength. There is an intimacy in two men grappling with each other on a mat until they are exhausted, and that is the kind of intimacy we can have with Jesus.

Life is full of struggles, and while we might not describe them all as struggles with God, it seems to me that we do experience God as we struggle. We wrestle with questions about who we are, right and wrong, gender and orientation, authority and autonomy, self-respect and selfloathing. If you think of Erikson’s stages of development through life, it’s all struggle. It’s never simple growth from stage 1 to stage 2 like wheat growing in a field. There’s always choice and conflict involved.

Would I have experienced God’s reality in my life without struggles? I don’t think so. People who avoid wrestling with hard questions and hard times are not likely to meet God in the night. I have been thinking back through some of the struggles that come to mind, times when I wrestled with meaning and faith. Some of the earliest trauma had to do with facing my mother’s mental illness and suicide attempts. I just this week finished putting together a little chapbook of poems about my mother for a class at UB, and I realize that even as I’ve turned 68 that wrestling with questions of who she was and why she hurt still defines me to a surprising degree. And my whole experience of who Jesus is remains tied to feeling that Jesus shares my pain and selfblame and abandonment. Would I really know Jesus if I hadn’t been through those struggles? I doubt it.

I’m thinking today of the massive struggles we are facing as a nation this year. 2020 is by anyone’s measure a crisis year. The big one is wrestling with this coronavirus and realizing how helpless we are. There is no cure and no vaccine, but even those things we know to do we are not able to do. We can’t even grasp the number of people who have died, which may reach 180,000 by the end of this month. I don’t believe that God sent this plague upon us as judgment, but I do believe that God is with us in this struggle. If there is a judgment, it is simply the natural consequences of our fixation on our own freedom over the common good, the belief that political ideology is ultimate truth, and our arrogance that refuses to believe that there are people who know better than we do. But like all the other struggles I have faced in my life, I think that when this one is over, I will say like Jacob, “I have seen God face to face.” Jesus was there in the midst of the danger and saw me through.

We struggle as a nation for racial justice and equity. We struggle because God has opened white eyes to our complicity in injustice and opened our eyes to our responsibility to change things. Scales have fallen from our eyes and like Paul, we can’t understand why we persecuted Jesus by persecuting our brothers and sisters. Lord knows this is a God-induced crisis. There would be no wrestling with conscience and history if God had not heard his people crying and called his people to march in the streets. God wants to finish the liberating work he began in Egypt. The events of the past week have reminded us of the role that followers of Jesus and the power of his Spirit played in the struggle for justice and equality. Jon Meacham argues in his biography of John Lewis coming out this month that what drove Lewis in his work for justice was his desire to obey Jesus of Nazareth. It was the kingdom of God and the Sermon on the Mount that fueled the movement. We struggle, but let us be reminded that we do not wrestle in vain. Someday we will look back on 2020 the way we now look back on Selma and the March on Washington and say that Jesus was struggling with us, and we saw God face-to-face.