Message for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (10/16/2022)
Did you know that renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was an undefeated wrestler in high school, and went on to wrestle at Harvard as an undergrad? That’s more than just a biographical tidbit, too. It turns out that wrestling serves as an enduring metaphor for Tyson’s approach to his life’s work. In a 2014 interview, he said, “Anyone who has wrestled knows that it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Anyone who says something else is the hardest thing has never wrestled. That’s what I have found. …You don’t wrestle because it’s easy, you wrestle because it’s hard. I don’t do astrophysics because it’s easy, I do it because it’s hard. And I juxtapose the two in my mind, body, and soul all the time.”
You don’t wrestle because it’s easy; you wrestle because it’s hard.
I think Jacob would agree. He knows firsthand the toll that wrestling takes on account of his famous nighttime scuffle on the banks of the Jabbok River in our first reading from Genesis today. It’s one of the great stories of Israel’s ancient past. Jacob, the grandson of Sarah and Abraham, and the son of Rebekah and Isaac, is a grappler from the very start. He struggles with his brother Esau even in the womb, and at birth he still clings to Esau’s heel. Later, he manipulates his brother into trading his birthright for a meal, and tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for the older son. Inevitably, Jacob’s scrapping sours his relationship with his brother such that he’s forced to flee his home.
Settling near his uncle Laban far to the north, Jacob makes a life for himself in his uncle’s service. However, struggle is never far from him, as trickery carries on back and forth between Jacob and his kinsmen. Laban dupes Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, when Jacob had intended to marry the younger, Rachel. In time, he marries them both, and together with their maids, they bear twelve sons who become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. For his part, Jacob contrives to expand his own wealth by separating the strongest animals from Laban’s flocks and herds for his own use.
Eventually, at God’s prompting, and perhaps under pressure from Laban’s reproving sons, Jacob turns his face again toward home, even at the risk of being confronted by his brother Esau. On the way, he sends word via messengers who return to inform him that Esau is coming out to meet him with four hundred men. Facing the fact that his past has finally caught up with him, Jacob sends his family and his possessions across the Jabbok River and steels himself to meet his fate. But that night, an unexpected event changes the course of his life:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, 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 place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This episode is shrouded in mystery. Who is the nameless adversary who assails Jacob under the cover of night? The Prophet Hosea calls him “God” or an “angel,” although Genesis only calls him a “man.” Jacob himself makes spiritual sense of the encounter only in retrospect, saying “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” In the end, Jacob’s new name reflects his long history of struggle, both internal and external, both spiritual and interpersonal: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,” his opponent tells him, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The sun rises on a new chapter in Jacob’s life, a chapter that will see him not only reconcile with his brother Esau, but eventually step into his role as a chief ancestor of God’s beloved people, Israel’s own namesake. Jacob/Israel is wounded, and blessed; on account of his wrestling, his life is changed for good.
You don’t wrestle because it’s easy; you wrestle because it’s hard.
I’m not sure it much matters whom Jacob meets that fateful night on the banks of the Jabbok. Could it be a manifestation of God’s own self? Could it be an angel, a messenger of God? Could it be Esau, who has arrived to confront him more quickly than Jacob expected? Could it be that Jacob wrestles with his own shadow side, his own troubled spirit, as in a dream? The answer to all these questions is yes, Jacob’s opponent could be any or all of these. Of course, our internal and interpersonal conflicts involve God, too, since God takes an interest in the condition of both our hearts and our relationships. To struggle with your sibling, for instance, or to struggle with your past, is also to struggle with the One in whom you live and move and have your being.
In any case, Jacob’s famous wrestling match epitomizes not only his own conflicted life, but ours, too. Certainly, one gift of this story is the permission to engage in struggle in the first place. For whatever reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that we need to walk on eggshells around God and around each other; we’ve decided that it’s best to be agreeable, even timid, despite our lingering apprehensions and questions. After all, we know what might happen if we speak up; we know the risk of showing our true colors, of acknowledging the whole truth of our lives. Like Jacob, we might meet with tension and conflict; like Jacob, we might get hurt.
And, like Jacob, we might get a blessing. Despite our reluctance to enter into struggle – with God, with others, or within ourselves – struggle holds the possibility of transformation. “We grow just a little,” writes one interpreter, “in our relationships both with God and with those around us every time we confront those unresolved issues that we would rather ignore.” So, let me encourage you to wrestle, friends, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. The blessing might be some kind of longed-for resolution, as in the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. The blessing might be the discovery of your strength and resilience, regardless of your success or failure. The blessing might be the freedom to finally let go of whatever it is that you’ve been gripping so tightly. But, no matter the outcome of your struggle, the promise is that God will show up to engage you intently and truthfully, and ultimately for your sake, until the sun of grace rises on you yet again.
 See Frederick C. Holmgren, “Holding Your Own Against God!” Interpretation Vol. 44, No. 1 (January 1990), 9.
 Acts 17:28.
 Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: ‘A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,’” Review and Expositor, Vol. 111, No. 1 (2014), 76.
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