Scripture Reading: Genesis 32:22-30
The wrestlers in my high school were crazy. If they came to watch our basketball team, you could count on them to lead cheers at some point. You could expect them to do something you’d never expect; such as shout down the opposing team’s cheerleaders if they came into our gym, or try and out do them in a tumbling run down the court.
You’d see them trying to slim down for the weigh-in for an upcoming tournament. They’d all be dressed in layers of clothes, covered in garbage bags just trying to sweat off those precious few pounds. Thankfully that’s not allowed any more.
But they were crazy… but they were also an incredibly close team, as they did all these things together.
Wrestling is an incredibly intimate sport when you think about it. Participants are dressed in not much more than their underwear, and they are grabbing and pushing and pulling against their opponent in very close quarters.
Maybe you need to be a little crazy. You certainly need to be close to your team, that’s for sure.
In today’s scripture reading, we pick up in the story of Jacob, and we see he’s had his own wrestling match. But first we should do a quick reminder of who Jacob is.
Last week we heard of Abraham and Sarah having a son in their very old age. They named their son Isaac. Isaac grew up and went on to have twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first, with Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel as he was born. So they named him Jacob, which translates to “heel.”
As the boys grew, Jacob was jealous of his brother. The older brother, whether it’s by years or by minutes, gets the family inheritance. Jacob worked hard to win his father over, and eventually tricked his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn instead of giving it to Esau. It probably doesn’t makes things better knowing his mother helped him in this scheme.
Esau, who is bigger and stronger than Jacob, was furious. So much so that he was going to kill his brother for what he had done. Jacob was forced to flee and run off into the wilderness in order to save his own life.
Aren’t families the best?
After years of building a new life, Jacob feels it is time to go home and make peace with his brother… so he hopes.
At the start of Genesis 32, Jacob sends waves of presents ahead of him in an attempt to please his brother, you know, so he won’t kill him on sight.
Finally, we pick up this morning with Jacob sending his family ahead of him, leaving him alone for the final night before he makes his own way to see Esau.
Overnight a presence, a man we’re told, wrestled with Jacob all night long. And Jacob would not give up. He would not let the man go.
You see, all Jacob’s life he has done nothing but leave carnage and trouble behind him, and pretty much all of it of his own doing. And on the eve of seeing his brother face-to-face, he is facing the darkness of his past full on. No doubt he is scared of what may happen when he walks into his brother’s presence.
He needs God’s help, and God is challenging him right now.
Jacob has wrestled his entire life, right from the womb he has been a fighter, working to get an advantage, working to get his own way. And on this night, he is fighting with God to get another blessing before facing his fear.
As the sun begins to rise, his opponent asks him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he replies.
You don’t need to be a hardcore fan of professional wrestling to know there is always a bad guy character who is known to cause problems and be the one who is always the thorn in the side for the good guy, the hero. They call this guy the “heel”. It’s his job to cause problems.
Just like it seemed Jacob, from the very beginning of his life, was destined to be the heel. The one everyone hated because he cheats and lies and steals the prizes from the good guys.
In his final wrestling match, Jacob’s life changes. He identifies himself for who he really is. He is Jacob, the “heel.”
And God tells him, “No, not any more. From now on you will be known as Israel…” Israel means “he who prevails with God.”
Jacob has not just a new name, but he has a new purpose in life. He is now blessed by God to continue in the life which is before him. No longer does he need to rely on stealing and lies, he now knows God is with him, no matter what.
With this new found purpose in life, he crosses the border and heads to see his brother.
Esau, when he sees his brother, runs to him and embraces him before Jacob, now Israel, has a chance to even say a word. The two brothers reunited in a beautiful moment when all the history between them is forgotten in the joy of their reunion.
Think about your name for a moment. Do you know what your name means? Do you know the story about why you were given the name you have? Maybe you have a story about the names you gave your children. Is there a meaning behind them? Does the name you have, or the name you gave your children have a special meaning to you? Were you, or they, named after someone special in your family?
Names in the Bible are important, especially in the Old Testament. The names of people and places all indicate something about the person or the place. Notice Jacob named the place where he wrestled with God Peniel, which means “face of God”, because Jacob had been wrestling with him.
Remember the sport of wrestling is probably the most intimate sport there is because you cannot get any closer to your opponent than lying on the ground and grappling with him or her.
Jacob had indeed been incredibly close to God.
In what probably felt like the darkest, loneliest night in his life, Jacob was closer to God than anyone else in the history of the world. And his life changed because of it.
What about your life?
Have you struggled with times in your life where you just felt like things were piling up against you?
I think of the stories I hear through Community Cares where there are people in this town who have been treated poorly because of their name, and who they are related to.
A name is a powerful thing.
A few weeks ago we looked at Adam and how he named the animals, and eventually named “woman” because she was taken from his flesh.
We also looked at Abraham and Sarah and how they named their son Isaac, which means “laughter” because Sarah laughed when she heard she would have a child in her old age.
Today we see how Jacob’s name reflected his troubled history, but now he has been given a new name in Israel, as one who “prevails with God.”
God is in the business of changing lives and challenging the way we think.
Jacob fled from home because his brother was in a murderous rage for what he had done. Esau had every right to remain hateful towards his brother.
Yet it seems God was right there in their reunion. God helped their reconciliation by blessing Jacob and giving him a new perspective on life. No longer did Jacob feel like the unloved son who left nothing but debris and trouble behind him. God gave him a new purpose and he went to his brother.
As Jacob approached his brother, he would stop, drop to his knees and bow. He approached Esau humbly, given him signs of respect and repentance for what he had done.
It takes a strong person to do this.
God changed him. God made him a new man and gave him a new name.
Jacob the “heel” is gone. Now he is Israel, one who “prevails with God.”
It’s quite a good story isn’t it?
What is your story?
What is our story?
What lies in our past? Are there things there which we have been trying to hide from? Are there things we are running from?
What if we brought these things before God and asked Him to make us new?
He will do it.
God will take those burdens from us and make us new people with a new purpose.
Will we still struggle at times? You betcha!
But God will remain with us.
Jacob sought God’s blessing because he wanted a new future. He needed to be able to let go of the past and move into a new future, but he also knew he could never do it alone. He knew no one could help him but God.
So he begged God to bless him. As they wrestled in the night, Jacob would not let go until he knew he had God’s blessing. He knew his life depended on it.
We might not be in as much trouble as Jacob. At least I hope you aren’t. But even if you are, you can turn to God for help.
If God can take a liar and a thief and restore his life, then God can work in us too.
When Jesus walked the earth, he took men and women and made them new. He healed them. He talked to them. He taught them. He did miracles no one else could ever perform. Jesus is God, and as a man he showed God’s love to this world. Even the worst sinners were welcomed by him.
Jacob’s story is our story.
In Jesus Christ we can be changed from a sinful, angry, hurtful person into one who is loved by God and one who can show that love.
Let us experience that love in our lives.
Let us open our hearts to the life changing love of our Father in heaven, who longs for us to be His children, so he can release His love on us.
Let us be like Jacob, willing to enter into an intimate embrace as we struggle with our lives, and let God bring us through it.
He will do that for us. He will wrestle us if he has to in order to release us from our darkness and sin. And he will face our trials with us as we go forward in our life.
He showed us this in Jesus, when he died on the cross for our sin.
This is the love of our God.
This is the One who brings life from death.
This is our hope and our redemption.