When I was in high school, my coworkers gave me the nickname Hoops McGraw or just Hoops for short. Hoops because I was a basketball player, McGraw because I liked country music. I actually kind of enjoyed that nickname. Other times we’re given nicknames we’d rather avoid.
One of the things about nicknames — and even names — are that we rarely choose them for ourselves. They not only identify us but they can even come to define us.
Jacob was Abraham’s grandson who carried the same promise that God would bless him to bless the world. Yet it was his name that followed like a tall shadow him wherever he went. Jacob was a twin, and when we was born he was grabbing his brother’s heel. So he was given the name Jacob — literally “heel-grabber.” This name proved to be a foreshadowing of his life of grasping after things. Though his brother was the first-born, he made his brother Esau give him his birthright. When their father Isaac was old and blind, Jacob went to great lengths to convince him that he was Esau and stole his father’s blessing — that blessing from God given to Abraham. In fact, when Esau finds out what Jacob did, he cries out “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?!” And he swears that he will kill Jacob.
Jacob catches wind of Esau’s anger and flees to a foreign land to go into hiding. He settles down, marries two wives — yes wives, plural — and starts his own family. It seemed that all was well. But Jacob’s past — his name — continued to haunt him. Finally the day came for Jacob to return to Esau. As he sets out and prepares to meet with his brother, the anxiety level skyrockets. What if he’s still mad? What if he doesn’t accept me? Or worse, what if all I am is nothing more than a heel-grabber?
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
So the estranged Jacob is on his way to meet with his brother. Some of the details we find: it is at night, he is alone, and then he starts wrestling with some guy. What’s more, we come to find out this man is God … because that’s a normal thing that you do.
In actuality, the story of a human wrestling with God is quite prevalent in other Ancient Near Eastern stories. Genesis after all is an ancient text using ancient conventions and parallels. The Odyssey includes a story of a wrestling match between a king and a sea god. Another story from the region is The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a man named Gilgamesh. On a journey of his own, Gilgamesh is met in the middle of the night by a stranger looking for a fight. Only after the wrestling match is it revealed that his adversary is someone sent by the gods.
So in the middle of the night, all alone, Jacob wrestles with a stranger. This seems important. What follows, however, is much more important. Jacob doesn’t lose, but he certainly is not victorious and does not leave unchanged by the encounter. The man touches Jacob’s hip and dislocates it. Still the fight continues — at Jacob’s will. He wants the man’s blessing. But watch what happens. The man doesn’t respond with a statement of blessing. In fact he does something much more powerful. He asks him a question: “What is your name?”
That question — “What is your name?” — is the heart of the passage. A man appears to him in the middle of the night and asks him, “What is your name?” Bam. Then comes the response. “Jacob.” You can almost see his head hanging low as he gives his answer. For years upon years, Jacob has been running from who he is, hiding who he is. Now as he prepares to meet his brother — the brother from whom he earned that name and stole so much — he’s worried about Esau’s reaction to who he is. Jacob was “heel-grabber.” He was a thief, a con artist — born a thief, lived a thief. And now he is asked to face it.
Jacob’s head hanging low, I imagine the man reaching out, lifting up his chin, and looking him directly in the eyes. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” And in that moment Jacob becomes Israel, from “heel-grabber” to “one who struggles with God.” Sure his past is still there. Israel is certainly no saint. And yet his past doesn’t lay hold of him any longer. God has helped him gain a newer, deeper, clearer understanding of who he is in relation to God. This, in fact, becomes a theme for an entire nation. That family that God had promised to bless in order to bless the world would struggle with God. He would push them, they would push him away, he would deal them a blow, but all of it was so they would see themselves defined by what God had named them. And it’s all because Jacob agreed to wrestle with God.
When I think about this story, I still can’t get beyond the nonchalant way the narrator mentions the altercation. “And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” What an absurd thing to do. Unfortunately I think we often have the same reaction when we think about wrestling with God. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, of questioning or challenging God. Though for different reasons, it seems absurd. God is all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing — how dare we wrestle with him!
We might even see consequences for taking up a wrestling match with God. What if he becomes mad? What will other people think? What if it challenges me to think, believe, or live differently? What if I lose my faith? What if I find out it’s all a lie? Or perhaps our wrestling with God has to do with something we’d rather not think about any more. Something we’ve done. Something that’s been done to us. Something that we’d rather ignore than come face-to-face with.
These are no small things, ones that can almost leave us crippled. Perhaps it’d be better to stay as we are than to engage in something that could be painful. But going back to the story, notice who seems to initiate the wrestling match. It wasn’t Jacob; he was just out for a walk. It was God. The all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing God decides to pick a fight with down and out Jacob. Now why on earth would he do that? Well, one answer could be that God is vengeful, that he just wanted to kick a man when he’s down.
Or, perhaps, wrestling with God is precisely what Jacob needed. Perhaps — when he felt the most scared and insecure — the wrestling is what helped him better understand both God and himself.
Yes, wrestling with God can be scary. Asking hard questions about God, ourselves, and the world can challenge us to our very core. We might even be tempted to back away, settling either for easy answers or complete denial. But I don’t think either is a real solution. Our resolution comes through the wrestling.
After my freshman year of college at a public university in Wisconsin, I transferred to Bethel University to pursue a degree in Youth Ministry and Biblical and Theological Studies. In many ways, I felt like my faith was settled and I was really there simply to fine-tune what I already knew. And then I actually started studying Bible and theology. And I quickly started looking for answers to questions about God and the Bible I didn’t even know existed a year before. At the same time, I began examining my life up to that point and found a number of things that I didn’t like.
Within this searching and wrestling, there were several points at which I actually had to step back and consider whether I could ask these questions, whether I could believe these things, whether I could be real about my brokenness and insecurities and still be a follower of Jesus. I wasn’t so sure. So now I was faced with a choice: cover it all up and go back to the place that was safe, or face up to the challenge and wrestle. I did the latter, and in many ways am still doing the latter.
Yes, my safe little God who couldn’t be touched — one of certainty and rules that I could put in my pocket — was gone. But what I found was better, bigger, and more beautiful than I could have imagined. What I found was a God who looks like Jesus, one who loves me for who I am and wants to come face to face with me.
You see, I’m convinced that wrestling with God is not only possible but it is a gift. On the one hand, wrestling allows us to come to a better understanding of who God is. For one reason or another, we are no longer satisfied with what our parents, our teachers, our friends, even our pastors told us about God. Like Jacob we want to see him face to face.
At the same time, however, wrestling isn’t just about discovering who God is. In fact, God doesn’t reveal his name until hundreds of years later when he meets Moses. Wrestling isn’t about winning either. To those observing, Jacob seems to be worse off than when he started.
No, wrestling with God is about discovering who we are. Despite his name and all that he had done, God looks Jacob in the face and says, “Your name and your past no longer define you. I do. You are special. You are loved. And you have an important job to do.”
As we start Community Church, we are obviously hoping to continually come to a deeper understanding of who God is. But that cannot be a ends in and of itself. That can be done from a distance without getting dirty, without asking questions, without wrestling.
Instead, week in and week out, we want to embrace the challenge, facing the struggle in order to come to a better understanding of who we are in light of the God we encounter. We want to affirm that our past does not define us. We want to know that we are all special and we are all loved. And we want to be empowered by the realization that we have an important job to do here in Richfield.
As followers of Jesus joining together to be the local church, we are called to be Jesus’ witnesses. That means that we are called to be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, announcing with our words and our works that — despite the visible limp — Jesus is not done with us or with this world.
So may we accept God’s challenge to wrestle. He can handle it, after all. May we be bothered by God — not annoyed but driven to reconsider our picture of God, ourselves, and the world. And may we together be changed by the God we encounter, living as those who have seen God face to face. Even if we walk with a limp.