(watch here: https://youtu.be/A9MPb2bgwGs)
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about a duck who was walking down the sidewalk and stopped at the door of a tavern. The duck asked the bartender, “Do you have any duck food?” The bartender replied, “Nope, there’s no duck food here.” The duck waddled off. He returned the next day and again asked, “Do you have any duck food?” The bartender was losing his patience and replied: “NO DUCK FOOD!” The third day, the duck asked again, “Do you have any duck food today?” The bartender threw down his towel and yelled at the duck, “No! And if you ask me again, I am going to take a hammer and nails and nail your beak shut and hit you on the head!” The duck waddled off….. a little sad and thinking hard. On the 4th day the duck paused at the door. The duck carefully asked, “Do you have any hammer and nails?” The bartender yelled, “NO! I DON’T HAVE A HAMMER AND NAILS!!” The duck exclaimed, “Oh, good … have any duck food?”
There’s something to be said about being persistent. Not that it really paid off in the end for the duck. He still didn’t get any food. But we can’t help but wonder if that bartender was somehow changed by that duck’s persistence. Maybe he ran out that very day on the 4th day and actually bought a hammer and nails to carry through on his threat should the duck come around the next day. Maybe he finally decided to scrounge up some food to give to the duck if he should return. Heck, maybe he closed down the bar the next day so he didn’t have to deal with the duck altogether! Odds are he did one of these three possibilities. At the very least, that duck’s persistence had to have given that bartender a laugh the way it did us.
Not that Jacob’s persistence in wrestling with the man was particularly funny. Perhaps a little baffling. It’s odd that Jacob, on the run from the wrath of his brother, Esau, would have committed an entire evening to wrestling with a strange man. Maybe he thought it would have helped relieve some of his stress and anxiety. Wrestling a stranger and defeating him may have been just the ego boost Jacob needed to continue his fleeing. Of course, theologians and tradition tell us it wasn’t just a man that Jacob was wrestling with but God himself, or at least an agent of God, an angel. Jacob’s name change to “Israel,” or “one who wrestles with God,” suggests it as well. Even then, we can’t help but wonder why Jacob, running for his life from his brother, would stop to have an all-night wrestling match with God. Didn’t he know he was on God’s bad side for having wrongfully stolen Esau’s birthright? Didn’t he know God would likely incur some type of divine justice on him? Did he care? These are all legitimate questions that arise from Jacob’s decision to commit to an all-night bout while on the lam. Baffling to say the least…
But it is a powerful little story that helps define a major patriarch in the biblical narrative. We have Adam and Noah and Abraham who all played bold, fearless roles in defining God’s walk with man throughout history. They all made some pretty daring decisions with their lives and were rewarded for them (maybe not Adam). Along came Jacob who’s most daring feat was stealing the birthright of his brother. And he goes on to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel?! That doesn’t seem right! Even Moses and Joseph after him made far more daring decisions and feats. Alas, the narrative is what it is and God chose, for whatever reason, Jacob to become a major patriarch. God chose to wrestle with him that long night through.
Regardless of how we feel about God choosing Jacob of all people, there are some key aspects of the encounter that are worth lifting up. First and foremost is the persistence and perseverance exhibited by both Jacob and God (for the sake of consistency, we’ll just assume the stranger was, indeed, God). Neither of them was willing to give up. Jacob only gave up because he had to. God used his mighty power to end the fight whether Jacob wanted to or not. Of course, God could have easily destroyed Jacob but He chose to simply maim him and leave him with a reminder of the fight for the rest of his days. You mess with God and He’ll decisively defeat you! But is that all the encounter is telling us? What about the hope that is found in God fighting throughout the night? God wants us to engage him if not wrestle him. God wants our passionate, intense engagement and will stick with us for however long it takes for us to realize his lordship over our lives. And God doesn’t want us to give up either. He wants us to stay in the fight, stay in the struggle, stay in the relationship. God wants us to go the distance with him. He’ll stay in it. He’s committed to us just as He was committed to scheming, dishonest Jacob. If He can love Jacob, He can surely love you and me!! God loves us in spite of our weaknesses. Or maybe because of them…I’ve yet to resolve that one. Life itself can be a struggle but God wants us to focus on engaging him and struggling with him as a way of getting our minds off the struggles of life. Never give up on God…He never gives up on us!
Persistence and perseverance are common themes in Scripture. Recall what Paul wrote to encourage the Galatians, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (6:9) God eventually blessed Jacob, though probably not the way he envisioned it. God humbled the proud Jacob and reminded him that He saw through his dishonest, scheming ways to the leader he was meant to be. God humbles the proud and brings them into right relationship. For many, it takes suffering but God is always right there in the suffering, walking side by side with us. Suffering is a means to an end. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” (12:12) No suffering lasts forever in this world. Hold fast in suffering, God will redeem you. Be patient and endure. As we hear in Luke, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (21:19) Jacob endured through the night and came out of it with more than a blown hip socket–he came out with his soul. He came out as a vessel for God to use.
There is another important aspect of the story besides the importance of persistence and perseverance. God’s “blessing” was more a gift of grace than anything. Jacob may have wanted a reprieve from his brother or God’s help in defeating his brother. He may have even wanted God’s help in further scheming and dishonesty. But God shows Jacob mercy by simply blowing out his hip. And it wasn’t because Jacob deserved it or earned it. God’s grace is a free gift to all, even the scheming, dishonest among us. Recall what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:8-9) God saved Jacob by setting him right, humble relationship, something he so desperately needed.
Let us use Jacob’s witness as an encouragement to persist and persevere. If he can do it…if the duck can do it…then we can too. God doesn’t want us to give up. God wants to bless us and be gracious to us. God wants to share his grace and mercy with us, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but because He is a good and gracious God. And for this we give thanks…thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.