Give Up Your Struggle--Not Your Hold
by Sue Corley
So Jacob’s gifts passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants and eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. There fore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
The story of Jacob wrestling the angel of God is a well known story. But that doesn’t make it easy to understand. It is one of the most extensively interpreted texts—and yet we are no closer to a clear meaning than when it was first written thousands of years ago. Who is it that Jacob wrestles? Is it a man? Is it an angel? Is it God Almighty, the God of Abraham and Isaac? The Scripture gives us no hard and fast opinion either way, and so we are forced to make our own assumptions. We must do some wrestling of our own with the text. We must grab a hold of what we can, and piece together what we know about Jacob to this point. Here’s what we know about Jacob: Jacob was born trying to steal his brother Esau’s place. Esau came out of the womb with Jacob holding on to his heel, as if to hold him back and take his place as firstborn. Jacob’s name meant “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats.” Later, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s sensual nature and tricked him out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. And then Jacob tricked his blind and dying father into giving him the firstborn’s blessing on Isaac’s deathbed. Not exactly an upstanding guy. In fact, you probably wouldn’t buy a used camel from a guy like Jacob! As this story unfolds, we have just read that Jacob is about to confront his brother Esau for the first time since Esau had threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. Jacob is in great fear as he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob is seeking reconciliation but he knows that things could get ugly. He sends some guilt-gifts on ahead with his servants and his family in order to appease Esau before they actually meet. And so we find Jacob alone beside the Jabbok river when night falls. Left all alone in the dark to wrestle with—who? With what? The Scripture says, “And a man wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day.” I don’t know if you have seen many wrestling matches—I mean the real ones—not WWF or WWE (not to say that ISN”T REAL!). My youngest son, Trevor was on the wrestling team in high school, so I saw quite a few matches. Here’s what I learned about wrestling. Wrestling is an up-close-and-personal competitive sport. It is not like tennis—where the only physical contact you have with your opponent is shaking hands over the net at the end of the game. In wrestling you become intimately acquainted with your opponent—sometimes more than you would like. It’s kind of gross—but it gets hard to tell your opponent’s sweat from your sweat at some point. As you struggle to grasp and to hold on to your opponent, you’re in there close enough to learn who showers before a match and who doesn’t, and who ate onions at lunch. If you were blindfolded, you could actually know your opponent by their scent. And sometimes, when you are running low on strength and you see that you aren’t going to be able to get the point—you have to give up the struggle a bit to regain strength, but you keep your hold on your opponent. You have to give up your struggle—but not your hold. Jacob’s intimate struggle is really against two adversaries. Before he faced his brother Esau again, Jacob first had to struggle with his God. And secondly he had to struggle with himself. He has already prayed to God, “…Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me” And yet Jacob, that rascal, boldly reminds God, “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good”…(Gen 32:10-11). He’s holding God accountable. That’s our Jacob! There is a strange similarity in the descriptions of Jacob seeing Esau’s face and seeing God’s face. Later, in verse 33:10 when they meet, Jacob says to Esau, “For I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God.” Jacob is relieved in both cases that he has come out alive—because to see God’s face meant to surely die. There is an interesting confusion between the brother and the God. In the Holy God there is something of the estranged brother and in the forgiving brother there is something of the Blessing God. Jacob’s anxiety about reconciling with his brother is warranted. He knows that he does not deserve grace from Esau and he knows that he does not deserve grace from his God. But in both cases, it is grace that he receives. However, it is not cheap grace. There must be some struggle and Jacob will not walk away unscathed. Perhaps Jacob’s biggest struggle is with “who he is.” The wrestling that takes place is a dramatization of the consequence that comes to every soul that has tried too long to evade the truth about itself. Jacob had been guilty of deceit and trickery against his brother. For a long time, he had been living among Laban and his clan—people who did not know him for the liar and coward that he had been. Now he must face his past and face Esau and accept whatever consequences may be awaiting him. In order for Jacob to ask forgiveness from his brother, he must be made humble. Sometimes the barrier to forgiveness is not in the unwillingness of the wronged person to give, but in the inability of the one who has done the wrong to receive. Jacob would have to admit that this is something that he cannot work out on his own. All his crafty, wily ways are not going to save him now. The Jacob who had always come out on top was going to have to find humility in walking away limping and lame. Through the laming of his hip, Jacob is brought to a new humility and an awareness of the lameness in his soul. He becomes a better man once he sets aside his pride. We can see the same happen in the New Testament stories of Peter and Saul of Tarsus. Both men were chastened to become more faithful. It often takes hurt to make a person better and to do away with one’s sense of self-sufficiency. I once read about the way that shepherds of old sometimes dealt with wayward sheep that just wouldn’t be content to stay within the safety of the flock. At times the shepherd had no choice but to allow a wayward sheep to wander into a dangerous situation and lame themselves. At that point the shepherd would bind up and oil the wounds and would carry the lamb around his shoulders until it was able to walk again. The sheep learns the feel, the sound and even the smell of the shepherd more intimately in that time of being held—when it is completely dependent on the shepherd. And when it is finally let down and able to walk on its own, that sheep is not likely to wander far from the shepherd again. And so it was with Jacob. Jacob learns to give up himself and to depend on God’s blessing to secure his future. He had to give up his struggle—but not his hold. In his struggling, Jacob receives a new identity. No longer just the trickster and the cheater, he receives the name “Israel,” which means “he strives with God.” Jacob asks, “Please tell me your name.” There was a need to know who and what he was up against. In refusing to give his name, his opponent retains some sense of power. If the opponent was truly God, then Jacob’s request to know his name was indeed a bold request and it is understandable why he was refused the privilege of knowing God’s name. The name of God has significance, but names in Jacob’s day also carried more significance than today. A name contained the essence of a person. Their history. Their future. The encounter with God changes his very identity. He is told, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” There are several definitions for the word “prevail, ” and only one of them means to be a ‘victor.’ Mostly it is defined ‘to be able,” or “to have strength.” “To endure.” Jacob endured. Jacob struggled all night until he was lame, but when the antagonist tried to separate himself at dawn, Jacob refused to let go. When a person is forced to wrestle with moral reality and its consequences, they may try to get rid of them as quickly as they can. But Jacob’s main desire was not for escape, but to hold on until something decisive happened. Jacob would “wring” a blessing out of this adversity just as he had in prosperity. When the antagonist demanded release, Jacob held on even tighter and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob gave up his struggle—but not his hold. In that darkness right before the dawn, when things may seem their worse, Jacob may have felt he was at the end of his rope and had nothing to lose. And he received his blessing. As the sun rose, Jacob walked away crippled yet consecrated. There is a story about struggle by the late Henri Nouwen: Once upon a time there was a little river that said, “I can become a big river.” It worked hard to get big, but in the process, encountered a huge rock. “I won’t let this rock stop me,” the river said. And the little river pushed and pushed until it finally made its way around the rock. Next the river encountered a mountain. “I won’t let this mountain stop me,” the river said. And the little river pushed and pushed until it finally carved a canyon through the mountain. Soon the river came to an enormous forest. “I won’t let all these trees stop me,” the river said. And the river pushed and pushed until it finally made its way through the forest. The river, now large and powerful, finally arrived at the edge of a vast desert. “I won’t let this desert stop me,” the river said. But as the river pushed and pushed its way across the desert, the hot sand began soaking up its water until only a few puddles remained. The river was quiet. Then the river heard a voice from above. “My child, stop pushing. It’s time to surrender. Let me lift you up. Let me take over.” The river said, “Here I am.” The sun then lifted the river up and turned it into a huge cloud. And the wind carried the river across the desert and let it rain down on the hills and valleys of the faraway fields, making them fruitful and rich. Like the Little River, Jacob had perseverance and determination, and they are wonderful attributes. But apart from God, they won’t get you very far. Sometimes even in our struggles, we try to do it all. We think we can accomplish almost anything on our own. Who needs God? But what will you do when you get to the desert? There’s one up ahead, you know. There will come a time when the heat will be intense, and you won’t know what to do. You won’t have the strength or the resources to make it through. Your desert may contain failure, illness, rejection, disappointment, or loss. Maybe you’re in it right now. What will you do? We all have to face a time of wrestling with God. And when we are in those moments of struggle—in the dark, in the fear—sometimes all we can do is hold on. Sometimes holding on is prevailing. We have to give up our struggle—but not our hold. And we are never the same when we walk away. Sometimes when we are in the midst of our wrestling with God, we might not even realize that the “hold” God has on us, is in fact, God “holding us.” I remember reading a story in an e-mail some time ago. You may have seen it. It was about a couple whose little girl was born dangerously prematurely. The doctors held no hope for the child and told the parents that, if she survived at all, she would have catastrophic disabilities. To add insult to injury, the baby’s nerve endings were so underdeveloped, that she couldn’t even be touched. The slightest touch caused her terrible pain. The parents weren’t allowed to hold or touch her at all. They could only sit beside the incubator and pray that God would stay close to their little baby. As sometimes happens, the doctors were proved blessedly wrong and the little girl not only survived, but grew to be a beautiful, chatty little girl with no physical or mental disabilities whatsoever. One day when she was five years old, the family was at the local little league park, watching her older brother’s game. Clouds began to roll in and the air grew still and ripe with an approaching rain. The little girl tugged at her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, do you smell that?” "Yes, it smells like rain," her mother answered. The little girl closed her eyes and asked again, "Do you smell that?" Once more, her mother replied, "Yes, I think we're about to get wet. It smells like rain."
The little girl shook her head, hugged her arms across her chest and loudly announced, "No, it smells like Him. It smells like God when you lay your head on His chest."
And suddenly the parents knew for sure what they had prayed for so much. In those long months when they couldn’t hold their baby, God had cradled her on His chest and it was His scent that she remembered. Jacob has given us a lesson here today. Determining whether God is some indifferent force that moves on its blind and cruel way or whether He is a Father on whom we can call to receive compassion, is not something that is accomplished by simple words or theological phrases. To know and feel the truth of God comes from the contact made in the dark night of struggle. Brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever you are wrestling with in your dark night right now, or in the days to come—I pray that you will remember to give up your struggle—but not your hold. Keep holding on, and when you grow weary, allow your head to rest a moment on God’s chest. Breathe in the scent of a loving and compassionate God as you are held. God won’t let go—don’t you let go either. Thanks be to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.