Wrestling with God


Wrestling with God

Published: 9th August, 2023

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
6th August 2023

Genesis 32.22-31
Psalm 17.1-7
Matthew 14.13-21

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

Today’s Old Testament reading is embedded within the larger story of Jacob.  He has just successfully and peacefully concluded his disputes with his uncle and father-in-law Laban, and is in the process of making arrangements to meet with his estranged brother Esau.  At this stage he does not now how this meeting will go, and he is taking a variety of precautions against a possible attack by Esau and his men.  It is in the middle of this narrative that we find the extraordinary episode of Jacob’s wrestling with God.

In the context of Jacob’s story, we can relate this story to that of Jacob’s Ladder.  It is another very direct encounter with God.  In the Ladder dream, Jacob received a promise; when he wrestles at Peniel, he receives a blessing.  Both stories also take place within a journey.  But in other ways the two stories are really quite different.  Jacob’s Ladder after all is a dream; but what we heard today is something very different, a very physical encounter at an identifiable time and place.  In some respects perhaps it has more in common with Abraham’s encounter with the three men at the Oaks of Mamre: in both cases a very physical interaction is revealed as a vision of God.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God goes against the theological grain in many ways.  We might perhaps be a little embarrassed at what we might consider a primitive conception of God – this is not the transcendent God of the mystics, not the unmoved mover of the philosophers, but something more like the Greek gods, and some scholars have argued that this story is a relic of a much older folk tradition that has somewhere along the line been incorporated into the Genesis narrative.

We don’t believe that God is an old man up in the sky, and so it is difficult to believe in the God who we worship coming down to have a scrap with a random traveller.  And the idea that God could actually lose a fight with a human being is preposterous – and yet this is what the story says: the stranger actually has to ask Jacob to let him go.

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

These days we don’t talk very much about “the church militant”, but it is or at least ought to be an important category for thinking about Christian vocation.  It doesn’t mean that we all have to go about armed to the teeth or anything like that, whatever some of our brothers and sisters across the pond might think: the concept of the church militant is rather an acknowledgement that the Christian vocation is very much one of struggle.  We too are the Israel of God, as St Paul writes, and we too are called to struggle with God and with people.  The idea is captured in some of the old hymns: “Onward Christian soldiers” and so forth.  And it is rooted in holy scripture, especially in the writings of St Paul.

And so the Christian life is a life of struggle.  We struggle perhaps to a large extent with ourselves, with the many and various temptations that arise from within our hearts and minds.  We struggle to accept ourselves, to come to terms with ourselves, we struggle to be the person that God has called us to be rather than the person our pride tells us we ought to be.  We struggle with selfishness and double-mindedness, wanting to convince ourselves that we are following Jesus whilst living largely self-centred lives.

We struggle with other people.  Christian morality on the face of it is really very simple, and yet how difficult it can be to put into practice in real situations.  It would be so easy to love the least of our brothers and sisters if they could just learn not to be so annoying, so feckless, so helpless.  And then on those rare occasions when we do actually manage to be genuinely loving and kind we find that others take advantage of us.  And so often too we find that other people have a terrible habit of seeing through our PR, and noticing and sometimes even pointing out all those sides of our character we would rather pretend were not there.  Yes, other people can be a great source of struggle in Christian life and in fact in any kind of life at all.

And we struggle with God.  A lot of the time we want to sign God up to our projects, to get God on our side, to secure God’s backing for something that we want to achieve.  A lot of our prayer can be like that.  And there isn’t anything actually wrong with that – this struggle can be a part of the process of coming to accept God’s will in our lives, as long as we remember to say with Jesus “thy will be done”.  And we struggle with God because things happen that we cannot understand.  Hard things, tragic things, whether in our personal or family lives, or in the wider world.  And again, we struggle with God in prayer, we wrestle with God over the problems facing our nation or the world, we wrestle with God over the diagnosis received by a loved one, we wrestle with God in prayer over the problems that afflict the Church.

We are not alone in wrestling.

Jesus too in His earthly life did a lot of struggling.  He wrestled with temptations just as we do.  He struggled to accept the life and the death that God had called Him to.  He very clearly struggled with other people, whether it be the dullness of His disciples or the opposition of the religious leadership.

And He struggled with God: most of all in the agony in the garden, but perhaps too in the tears He shed for Jerusalem, and in those long vigils of prayer in the mountains mentioned repeatedly in the gospels.

The story of Jacob’s wrestling points us to Jesus in several ways, not least in the idea of God physically coming among us.  But there is also a sort of divine vulnerability in this story that points us to Jesus: the stranger who wrestles with Jacob does not prevail over him, despite wounding his thigh.  And so too in Jesus we find a divine vulnerability, as He consents to be constrained and even to be killed by mortals.

And perhaps most of all, this is a story both of wounding and of blessing.  Jacob receives a blow to his thigh that puts it out of joint and leaves him limping.  And yet he obtains a blessing from his mysterious opponent.  And so too Jesus is both wounded and blessed – His body broken for us on the Cross, and yet exalted to the right hand of the Father, His blessedness and His exaltation extended also to us.  In this the promise to Abraham is fulfilled: in him, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

So I invite you to reflect on the ways in which you have wrestled and struggled with God and with people.  Perhaps like Jacob you bear the wounds of that, perhaps you feel that like Jacob you are limping from conflict to conflict.  But I invite you too to remember that in this you walk in the way of Christ, who was Himself wounded for our sake.  And so perhaps we will receive the grace to see that it is through our wrestling and struggling with God and with people, and even through the wounds and scars we bear, that blessings are given and received.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.