Genesis 32:22-31, from The Message
I realize most of you have heard this story before—the short and somewhat mysterious tale of bad-boy-turned-success-story Jacob, now trying to go home and now needing to make amends to the twin brother he swindled out of everything, and now alone in the wilderness at nighttime and worried that his brother might try to kill him.
You may even remember that I’ve preached on this story before—more than once, actually.
So I want to be clear about why I’m preaching on it yet again and why I will always preach on this story when it shows up in the lectionary.
Because someone is always struggling. Someone is always wrestling with one thing or another. Maybe the last time I preached about Jacob wrestling with the man-angel—God you were not struggling, but now you are. Maybe the last time I talked about the importance of finding blessing in our struggles and pain you were struggling, and now you’re not. And yet it’s always worth remembering the trials we’ve come through. And because if you’re the rare person whose life has been relatively struggle-free up until now, you may want to file this away for that inevitable day when struggle will come and you will need to know how to wrestle.
And because, as the saying (and its many variants) go: Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind. Everyone is struggling with something. To which we might add: Be compassionate. Almost everyone is grieving something.
And even if we don’t know someone who’s grieving right now (but we do); even if we don’t know anyone who’s struggling right now (but we do); some day we will. And they will need our compassion. They will need our support. They will need us to be as loving as Jesus who, heartbroken over the killing of John the Baptist, looked out through his tears and had compassion for the crowd of people who had followed him across the sea. His broken-open heart had so much compassion for them that he immediately began healing the sick and then, a little while later, provided lunch for more than 5,000 people.
And so we look again to the story of Jacob: to find encouragement in our own struggles, to be inspired to wrestle and not let go until we get our blessing, and to grow in compassion for ourselves and for others. Perhaps it will also remind us to be curious about someone’s limp, awkwardness, or odd behavior, and maybe even begin to understand that their quirkiness comes from a place of pain or struggle, and that it merits our respect.
Maybe we will also come to see the flip side of the “everyone is fighting a hard battle” perspective, which is this: So many people we know and see have or are in the process of overcoming something we know nothing about. They are stronger than we know and perhaps even more resilient than they know. And they have much to teach us.
So before we get to the particulars of Jacob’s story, before we are tempted to think it is only a story, I want to invite us all to think about some of our own struggles—past, present, and the situations we fear might come to us in the future.
Maybe we haven’t wrestled with God, exactly, but chances are that we have, each of us in our own ways, wrestled with life itself—with adversity or fear, with a devastating diagnosis or an immeasurable loss, with our sexuality or some other question of identity, with indecision or disappointment, anxiety or depression, poverty or injustice, grief or guilt, regret or the consequences of our own actions.
Maybe the struggle that comes to mind for you is something that happened long ago: a particular loss or setback, a time of serious illness or deep despair, a period of waiting and not knowing what would happen or how things would turn out. Or it may be that you are wrestling right now, that every day is a struggle to get out of bed, or that the circumstances you face are overwhelming and unfair and, understandably, you are tempted to just give up.
Say what you will about Jacob (he was not a particularly nice guy), but give him this: Because God had been faithful to him in the past, because he realized his success had more to do with God’s grace than his merit, he believed he could wring a blessing out of the worst situation.
But let’s be clear: This is not to say that “everything happens for a reason” or that there’s a silver lining behind every cloud. God doesn’t send pain, suffering, or hard times into our lives, but God does promise to be with us through them, to give us grace and strength, to surround us with love, and if we are willing, to bless us with healing (which is not at all the same as a cure or complete recovery) and transformation.
Sometimes there is simply no getting around the fact that life hurts, but we can choose to hang on to the hope that Love will carry us through. Like Jacob, we can choose to hang in and hang on and not let God go until we get a blessing, until the great storm subsides, until we have let ourselves be changed by the struggle.
This is not to say that staying in the struggle is easy. And I want to be very clear here: This is not at all to say that God will love you any less if you are unable to stay in the struggle—whether that struggle is mental, emotional, physical, political, or all of the above.
Because God’s transforming love is not dependent on us. Our scriptures are filled with the redemption stories of people who threw in the towel, ran in the opposite direction, or never truly repented of their wrongdoing. There are countless stories of people behaving badly and God blessing them anyway.
Think of Sarah laughing in God’s face. Think of Moses tending sheep and never wanting to see Pharaoh again. Think of Jonah in the belly of the whale. Think of Elijah hiding under a bush and begging to die. Think of the prodigal son eating with pigs, Peter swearing that he didn’t know Jesus, and Saul persecuting the people who did.
God blessed them anyway—with more life, purpose, newness, forgiveness, strength, belonging, and transformation than they could have ever imagined. Sometimes God gave them new names. And always God gave them new life.
And here’s the other thing: Unlike Jacob, you need not wrestle alone. There is a beloved community of dear ones here who will wrestle with you and for you. If you don’t have the strength to hang on, we will hang on for you. If you can’t manage to trust that there is some goodness for you in a horrible situation, we will trust for you. We will hold you close, we will cry with you and struggle with you, we will pray for you and hope for you.
God wants blessing and wholeness, freedom and peace, joy and love for each and every one of us. So let us hold on to the God who loves us too much to let us—or this world—stay the way we are. And let us hold tight to one another until we receive the blessing that has been promised.