Wrestling with God

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Reflections

How should we relate to God? Should we treat him with respect, and reverence? Should we prepare ourselves first? Should we stand far off, with our head bowed?

This story suggests that there is room for another way of being with God, which is not so polite…

That same night Jacob got up, took his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven children, and crossed the Jabbok River. After he had sent them across, he also sent across all that he owned, but he stayed behind, alone.

Then a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak. When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he hit Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint. The man said, “Let me go; daylight is coming.”

“I won’t, unless you bless me,” Jacob answered.

“What is your name?” the man asked.

“Jacob,” he answered.

The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel.”

Jacob said, “Now tell me your name.”

But he answered, “Why do you want to know my name?” Then he blessed Jacob.

Jacob said, “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive”; so he named the place Peniel. The sun rose as Jacob was leaving Peniel, limping because of his hip.

If you look at the whole story of Jacob then you see that he can be a bit of a tricky individual – capable both of scheming against his brother, and of working with devotion to win the hand of the woman he loves.

Now he’s on his way home from self imposed exile, preparing to face the music for his previous behaviour. He hasn’t lost his worldly guile – next we’ll see him send his brother huge gifts of livestock to ease the meeting. But it seems that he also recognises the need for another sort of preparation for his homecoming – one he must undertake by himself.

So he sends everyone else across the river and stays behind. We don’t know what he expects to happen – probably not that a mysterious man will appear and Jacob will spend all night wresting with him. It’s a real struggle – Jacob has the upper hand, but the man then dislocates his hip.

And here the story takes a different turn. Jacob refuses to let the man go until he has blessed him. It seems that Jacob knows that this man has come from God. The man then gives Jacob a new name – Israel – one who has wrestled, or struggled, or fought with God. And then he blesses him.

This becomes the name for all Jacob’s descendants – the people of Israel – and now the name of the country too. And it’s a very appropriate name – all through the Old Testament we see the people of Israel wrestling and struggling with God. Abraham haggles with God over the city of Sodom. Moses frequently argues with God – even at the burning bush. Jeremiah complains to God about the way he is treated. The book of Job is full of accusations of God.

And the thing I notice is that this disrespectful and pretty rough way of engaging with God is not condemned. In each of the stories God engages with the person complaining or arguing. Sometimes – as in the book of Job – there is a clear message that God is more pleased with this honesty than with the characters who spout religious platitudes. And in our story, it feels like this new name, Israel, is a badge of honour, not a condemnation.

I think this says something about how God wants us to engage with him. He wants us to be absolutely honest and real – even if that means shouting and swearing and arguing and telling him about the things we cannot accept.

This is much more a sign of real love and trust than putting on a respectful face when that isn’t how we feel. It reminds me of the sort of love that you sometimes see between parents and children or between siblings or friends – not necessarily a comfortable love, certainly not polite – but very real.

It’s OK for us to hang on to God and to refuse to let him off the hook – and to demand that he blesses us. God delights in that sort of passionate engagement. And in turn he refuses to let go of us – sometimes perhaps holding us gently but untiringly like a parent with a toddler having a tantrum – allowing our rage or anguish to subside until he can bring us close in to him again.

I sometimes give a holding cross to someone who is at the end of their tether. There’s a prayer that goes with it – hold on to God, and know that he is holding onto you…

When we have messed up our lives – or part of them. When we feel at odds with ourselves, and with the world, and with you…

Hold onto us, Lord and help us to hold onto you

When life has messed us up – or someone we love. When we can find no answers or explanations, and we just need to bring you our anger and our hurt…

Hold onto us, Lord and help us to hold onto you

When we feel exhausted and out of resources. When we know that we cannot do this by ourselves….

Hold onto us, Lord and help us to hold onto you

When we are feeling our way forward – exploring new directions – taking tentative steps of trust with you…

Hold onto us, Lord and help us to hold onto you

Hold onto us Lord, hold us close to you, give us your blessing – and help us to relax into your love which will never let us go. Amen.

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