When I was a child my Grandfather lived with us for a number of weeks and I really enjoyed spending time with him, having breakfast together where he would eat most of a white loaf of bread covered with what in Yorkshire was called ‘mucky fat’ (I never took to that delicacy!), listening to the stories of his childhood (the more gruesome the better!) and Saturday afternoon meant watching World of Sport especially the wrestling, as he sat on the edge of the sofa sucking furiously on his pipe and stamping is foot at every move. This was the early 1960s, decades before the high-end productions of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Live wrestling was filmed in front of a small audience at some town hall or other.
The wrestlers were more big than physically fit (think Big Daddy) and I’ve come to believe that professional wrestling is choreographed without being completely fake. It’s entertainment and yet it’s also a sport requiring strength, agility, and toughness.
By contrast, on a dark night along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob laid it all on the line. He wrestled with God. And he wrestled with himself. (Genesis 32;22-32)
This was not a fight for biological survival. Jacob was wrestling with life’s fundamental question. What am I really living for? Who or what will be the god of my life?
As a young man Jacob had swindled his older and perhaps dimmer, brother Esau out of his birthright. Twice.
Jacob fled his brother’s murderous rage and was working for his uncle, Laban, in another town. While he was tending Laban’s flocks, he married both the older man’s daughters and managed to swindle his uncle out of a good portion of his wealth.
Once again Jacob had to flee. This time he headed back in the direction of his old home and the brother he had cheated. The Jabbok River marked the beginning of Esau’s territory.
An advance team of Jacob’s hired hands had come back with the news that Esau was on his way to greet his brother. With 400 men in tow, it didn’t look good for Jacob!
In the person of what he assumed would be a vengeful and heavily armed brother, Jacob was coming face-to-face with himself. The mess he had made by being himself was about to serve as a mirror for his spiritual condition.
Jacob always pursued what Jacob wanted by depending upon Jacob’s wits. He was a self-centered, manipulative striver. To get what he desired, he had no qualms about lying and stealing.
Jacob did religious things. He prayed and erected altars and offered sacrifices. But God did not seem to be the god of his life. Jacob was the god of his own life.
And now, in the dark, at water’s edge, it all came crashing down. His way of living had led him to catastrophic disaster.
So Jacob wrestled. All night he grappled with a powerful stranger, refusing to submit to his more powerful opponent. As the hours wore on, he started to think that maybe he was getting the upper hand. The stranger, despite his superior strength, would have to submit to him.
With the sun’s first rays on the horizon, the stranger said, “Let me go.” And Jacob’s heart froze. He heard in those words this truth:
You’ve lived your whole life trying to make everything bend to your will and fulfill your desires. You’ve wanted to make all things and all people submit to you. You see now where this path leads. Catastrophe. Choose another way. A better way. Let go.
In response, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. Jacob became Israel. God became the God of his life.
If you read the rest of Jacob’s story, you’ll see that this transformation was not, in fact, instantaneous. Nor was it finally completed in Jacob’s lifetime. He still manipulated others, and played favourites among his own children.
It seems likely that Jacob wrestled with God, and with himself, repeatedly in the succeeding years. And in that thought I find some comfort.
God knows that I still wrestle with myself from time to time. And God will keep wrestling with me, as long as it takes.
What are you wrestling with at the moment in your life? What is God asking you to ‘let go’? I believe this passage has profound important for the Methodist Church at this moment, it did inspire Charles Wesley to write one of his shorter hymns (only 12 verses), “Come, O thou Traveller unknown,” – Singing the Faith 461. As a church we are the River Jabbok. The Covid-19 crisis has opened up the mistakes of the past and we are challenged into having to let go to cherished but now impractical models of church, but we seemingly can’t. We rush to reopen churches waving our risk assessment documents which tell us how, but not why. Do we need to do some more wrestling with God?
God bless and take care,Alan.