A sermon preached on Genesis 32:22-32, September 15, 2019 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Week twelve of “Genesis: The Big Read,” a continuing sermon series through the book of Genesis, Ordinary Time 2019.
Introduction: A Passage That Makes You Wrestle
Well, today we come to the most epic wrestling match ever recorded, and I have to say that this a passage that makes the reader wrestle! It makes preacher wrestle! What does this passage mean, we might ask? It seems so rich and yet so elusive, at least it was for me. I kept on thinking about what this teaches us about Jacob. Thinking, is this a passage on persevering in prayer, or something like that? What does this teach us about him? That’s not entirely wrong, as we’ll see.
But the light bulb went off for me when I turned and remembered that there are two main characters in this account. The light bulb went off when I remembered God is the hero of Genesis. I want argue today that the place to start in Genesis 32 is not with wrestling with God, so much as the God who condescends to wrestle. In that light, we can then see something about Jacob, and something of ourselves, too.
Before we move forward with that, though, let’s reorient ourselves in the narrative of Genesis. After stealing the birthright and blessing of Esau, Jacob flees (on the advice of his mother) to Laban his uncle in Haran, where he encounters the Lord at “Jacob’s Ladder” on the way there. He then marries Leah and, eventually, Rachel, only to flee Laban and come back to Canaan. But now, Jacob must finally deal with what he imagines to be a very ticked off Esau. As we come to our passage today, we see Jacob trying to 1) minimize his losses by diving his camp and 2) appease his brother through gifts. And as night falls, Jacob is alone. And it’s there that he’s met by the God who comes down to wrestle. He overtakes Jacob the deceiver to make out of him the Israel of the Lord.
I. A God Who Condescends to Wrestle
a. God reveals himself in humility
The God-Man comes to Jacob, the deceiver, and initiates a match. Boy, is that’s not a tip of the hit as to where things are going, I don’t know what it is! No God is like our God, a humble King, with the ability to come and make himself known. He is not a God who stands aloof, completely unknown and unknowable. He is not the god of the agnostics. No, he comes near – here is Christ, Immanuel, pre-figured. On the cross, our Lord would go even further. I never tire of John Stott’s memorable quote:
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet. …That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours….’ ‘The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.” (The Cross of Christ by John Stott, pg. 335-336)
To sum it up, our God has not only created the world, he is willing to enter into it as the world’s redeemer.
b. God’s presence brings conflict
But secondly, God’s presence also brings conflict. God is a God who is willing to wrestle us. To bring us to unrest. To ruin us and yet heal us for his glory. Our Lord himself said, on the hand, that he gives us his peace and, on the other, that he came not to bring peace but a sword. On the one hand, our lives are saturated with God’s peace, and on the other, they may be very much upturned with turmoil because of the faith. I think of Christian author Rosaria Butterfield, who described her conversion to Christianity as a spiritual “train wreck.” It brought deep healing, but also difficulties.
Sometimes it seems to me that if you want a life free of conflict and difficulties, you should run as far away as you can from Jesus – sometimes that’s what a life on the run looks like, actually! Some of you may have read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, where he says, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” A life free from conflict of any kind may not be a sign of God’s presence, but maybe, just maybe, his absence.
c. God reveals himself to give aid
But lastly, God reveals himself to Jacob, not to simply bring him more conflict, but to bring him aid within the conflict. He comes so that Jacob will be utterly dependent on the aid that only God can bring. Thing of how this leads us to Jesus.
“On the mountain in Galilee, Christ promises “I am with your always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He ascends from the vicinity of Bethany with his hands – which had touched lepers and healed the blind, and which are now pierced – reaching out to bless the disciples (Luke 24:50). (Genesis by Bruce Waltke, pg. 449)
Jesus promises his enduring aid, presence, and blessing to those who are his, just as he did Jacob.
II. Creating a People Who Have Wrestled with Him
There is this crucial point in the wrestling match where it looks as if Jacob might actually get the upper hand: “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” (v. 25).
In this, I think that Jacob, who is father of God’s people, is representative of all God’s people. He, like every Christian, must go from wrestling with God to clinging to God and from being strong to being weak.
a. From wrestling to clinging to God
Hugh Palmer says here that up to this point, Jacob’s faith might be described as “God helps those who helps themselves” but here he finds out that “God humbles those who trust themselves” and that “God blesses those who surrender themselves.”
A Christian is, if nothing else, a person who knows their dependency upon God. May each of us grow daily in our dependency upon the Lord Jesus Christ to provide all we need.
b. From being strong to being weak
If you’re a Christian here today, God has touched you and made you feel your brokenness and sinfulness in some way (anyone know what I mean?). I want you to know that 1) he has done that so that you might rely on the power of his strength and that 2) the Christian life deepens as we distrust ourselves more and trust more and more upon Jesus’ strength. As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (Verse 9)
Paul Miller puts this beautifully in his book A Praying Life:
“Less mature Christians have little need to pray. When they look at their hearts (which they rarely do), they seldom see jealousy. They are barely aware of their impatience. Instead, they are frustrated by all the slow people they keep running into. Less mature Christians are quick to give advice. There is no complexity to their worlds because the answers are simple – “just do what I say, and your life will be easier.” I know all this because the “they” I’ve been talking about is actually “me.” That is what I’m naturally like without Jesus. Surprisingly, mature Christians feel less mature on the inside. When they hear Jesus say, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), they nod in agreement.” (A Praying Life by Paul Miller, pgs.57-58)
In his classic book, A Letter from Jesus Christ, John of Landsburg imagines Jesus writing to a Christian. Listen to these words and see if this doesn’t fit Jacob. Moreover, see if it doesn’t fit you.
“I know those moods when you sit there utterly alone, pining, eaten up with unhappiness, in a pure state of grief. You don’t move toward me but desperately imagine that everything you have ever done has been utterly lost and forgotten. This near-despair and self-pity are actually a form of pride. What you think was a state of absolute security from which you’ve fallen was really trusting too much in your own strength and ability. … what really ails you is that things simply haven’t happened as you expected and wanted.
In fact, I don’t want you to rely on your own strength and abilities and plans, but to distrust them and to distrust yourself, and to trust me and no one else and nothing else. As long as you rely entirely on yourself, you are bound to come to grief. You still have a most important lesson to learn: your own strength will not more help you to stand upright than propping yourself on a broken reed. You must not despair of me. You may hope and trust in me absolutely. My mercy is infinite. (pgs. 58-59)
So, Jacob’s journey as the father of Israel reveals the God who wrestles and a people who have wrestled. His journey of going from a self-sufficient trickster to the humble, dependent patriarch of Israel reveals how the Lord works in all his people, to make us strong in God’s strength, not our own.
And so, to God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, be all praise, honor and glory now and forevermore! Amen.