Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8
Have you ever felt like it was all just too much? That there was just too much too cope with, that you had gotten in too deep, cut it too close, hedged your bets just one too many times and now it was all collapsing around you, all options exhausted, all hope pretty much lost? Well that is where we find Jacob today. If you recall, Jacob’s entire family history had involved a lot of duplicity, hostility and dishonesty. Jacob had cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright. He colluded with his mother in lying to his dying father to gain a blessing from him by taking advantage of the fact that he was blind. As a result Esau had became enraged and threatened to murder Jacob, so Jacob left home and went to live with his uncle in Haran. There he continued his less than scrupulous ways, eventually marrying both of his cousins Rachel and Leah and fathering children by them, as well as by two slaves. He gets into conflict with Rachel and Leah’s father and flees Haran, getting Rachel to steal the some of the household goods in the mix. He is pursued by his father-in-law and finally does make peace with him, still engaging in some slightly dubious behavior, only to lean that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men and, he fears, murder in his heart. As a last desperate attempt, he sends his servants ahead in groups with gifts for Esau, hoping this will placate Esau and save his life. Then he sends all of his wives, children and goods across the river Jabbok for their safety. Left alone, exhausted by all that had taken place in his life, Jacob comes face to face with, and wrestles with an unnamed man. Through the long night this struggle continues, and yet Jacob persists and will not allow himself to be defeated. The stranger strikes a blow and demands that Jacob let him go and what does Jacob do? He says to the man “I will not let you go until you bless me.” There are many interpretations about who the “man” was with whom Jacob wrestled. Some scholars would say it was an angel, some would say it was Jacob wrestling with the shadow side of himself, and many of course say that Jacob was wrestling with God. While we cannot know for sure, what we do know, was that in this encounter, something profound happened for Jacob. He was changed in some way. In Scripture when someone is given a new name, this is a sign that they have taken on a new identity, been converted or transformed. And this happens here, Jacob, which means “deceiver” in Hebrew, becomes “Israel” meaning, “he struggles with God.” Jacob, the greedy, cheating, lying, dishonest person that he was, had the temerity to “see God face to face,” have a deep, painful and wounding encounter and refuse to stop, demand blessing, and live. He lived and the sun rose on him, but he was forever changed, left with a limp, a reminder of the encounter that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Jacob had wrestled long before that night at the Jabbok. He wrestled with his twin brother, with his mother, with his father, with his father-in-law, with his wives. I can’t help wondering how Jacob felt about himself. Did he like the person he was or did he feel shameful and guilty? We don’t know what his self-image was like, how confident he felt about himself. But what we do know is that he had one important characteristic in relationship to the struggle with this stranger. He was persistent. He held to this battle, whatever it entailed all through the night. Through darkness, through the pain of his injury, maybe even through fear and despair, he continued to fight and struggle, and in the end he prevailed and demanded—and received--his blessing. Someone has even suggested that his blessing was his injury, that the limp he carried with him from that day forward kept him from running from himself, which up to this point had been one of his problems. We do know that in addition to having a limp as a remembrance of that long night’s struggle, Jacob also had other legacies. He and Esau were reconciled, and he did become “Israel” though it is interesting that he continues to be called “Jacob,” an indication perhaps that though converted and transformed, he also continued to be very human and fallible, and the rest of his story is far from happily ever after. It is rather a much more human story. Full of darkness and light, happiness and tragedy. And continued relationship with God.
If we were to go back a ways in the story, we would notice something else about Jacob. A bit before the story we read this morning Jacob had begun to pray, asking God for protection and deliverance from Esau’s wrath. He had begun to enter into relationship with the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac in a new way. Perhaps this had something to do with his ability to engage in the struggle later, to persist, to demand a blessing, to be transformed, converted and changed. Prior to his night of struggle, we had not heard much about Jacob being in direct communication with God. After his conversion experience, this changes along with his way of being. God speaks to Jacob and Jacob listens. Jacob lives his life in a different way than before because he is in conscious contact with God. He has become a man of prayer.
In the Gospel of Luke we have another example of someone who persists in prayer. We are told the parable of the widow presents herself over and over before the judge, pleading her case for justice against her opponent. Now widows were among the most powerless of people, dependent on the kindness of just about everyone. And judges were among the most powerful. And we are told that this judge of all of them was particularly unconcerned about the welfare of others. So for this widow, this nobody to persist in the face of not only a lack of encouragement, but likely outright discouragement, she must have had a great deal of inner fortitude and strength of will. Like Jacob, she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She annoys this judge, turning up in his life everywhere until out of utter exasperation, he gives in. The Greek says, “out of the fear that she will blacken my eye” or ruin my reputation. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. Like Jacob, she in essence says to the judge, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” Like Jacob she too has been willing to hold on, to persist through struggle. And like in the Jacob story, here too is transformation. Only in this case it is not the woman who is converted, but the judge! The judge who in the parable may symbolize God, or simply the turning of a heart in response to prayer.
Remember Jesus’ was talking to the disciples about the need to pray always and not lose heart. In this story, the widow persisted in prayer, was able to remain faithful and again, transformation occurred.
Struggling. Persisting. Wrestling. Staying faithful in the face of discouragement. Crying out for justice. Demanding blessing. Powerful images. Images that resonate within us in many ways depending on where we are in our lives, in our own faith walk.
Like Jacob, we too struggle, with others, with ourselves and yes even with God. Sometimes life feels like is just one big wrestling match. We struggle and struggle. It feels as if the night and the battle will never end. Fresh from one battle with another looming just ahead, there in the dark of night, we wonder if there is any hope. It is easy at such times to lose heart. At such times there also exists opportunity. If we enter into that spiritual struggle, sometimes in the struggle we are wounded, and blessed, and sometimes they are one and the same, or it is hard to tell the difference. But we know when we have passed through such an encounter, when we have faced down something, it does change us. We might say what occurred for Jacob was an act of repenting, of stopping and turning around in a different direction. Repentance and conversion too are acts that require that one not lose heart, to pray always, to have faith.
Ultimately both of these scriptures have things to say to us about our relationship with God. The widow story is another of those great Luke stories that says that if you mere mortals can get to this better place, imagine what God does….This story says, if a poor widow with no standing can finally wrestle justice out of an uncaring, unscrupulous judge, how much more will you—the one who is beloved of the God who created you and longs to be in relationship with you—be able to find your justice by faith and persistence in prayer.The Jacob story too bears a message for us. Do not be afraid of the spiritual struggle. Of going into the darkness. Of facing whatever shadows are there to be faced. Of wrestling with God. Of demanding the blessing. But be aware that it may wound you. And it may transform you. And they may be one and the same.