August 20, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
I have a confession to make. For a few years when I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of professional wrestling. I mean I really got into it! For my friends and I, Monday nights and Thursday nights revolved around watching Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rick Flair, the Ultimate Warrior, and so many others duke it out on TV. I had posters in my room, even bumper stickers on my pickup truck. We practiced their moves on each other. Only once did my little brother have to go to the hospital. One night we drove to Mobile to see these guys in person at the Civic Center. Of course, the drama was all scripted, the fights weren’t in the slightest bit realistic. And the truth is, we all knew it wasn’t real. We all knew it was fake, just entertainment. But we watched it anyway. Looking back, I’m not sure why we watched it. Maybe we watched for escape from the real-life struggles of adolescence. Maybe we watched to laugh a little at the ridiculousness of the world around us. Maybe we watched it to laugh at ourselves. Maybe it was a little bit of all those factors. All of us…well almost all of us, grew out of this phase, but I back then, we needed a little fake wrestling in our lives.
Jacob, the main character in our story today, has his own high-intensity wrestling match but his is anything but fake. In fact, this is the most real moment in all of Jacob’s life. This struggle, this conflict, this nighttime encounter is the defining moment of his journey of faith and salvation, and he walks away from it forever changed—transformed.
Up until this moment, Jacob’s identity had been formed by his strong desire to play by his own rules, to stack the deck in his favor, to privilege his own needs above others, to get whatever he could for himself by whatever means he could. In fact his very name carried the meaning of trickster or swindler. He and his brother Esau were twins, and they were fighting each other even in the womb. As he grew up, Jacob’s trickery tore apart the family as he betrayed his father, conspired with his mother, and made an enemy of his brother when he cheated him out of his inheritance. Esau was so angry he wanted to kill him, so Jacob skipped town and was living as a fugitive on the run for years and years. He travelled to a foreign land married his two wives and continued his conniving and trickery.
Finally after twenty one years of life on the run, Jacob decides its time to come home. In twenty one years a lot can happen. Maybe, he hoped, time would heal all wounds. But as he gets closer and closer, he hears rumors that his brother Esau is still angry and wants him dead. Jacob sends a huge flock of sheep to his brother as a gift, a peace offering, hoping to win some favor or at least buy some time. Then as he approaches a river that is a boundary marker he makes a decision. He sends his two wives and his many children and servants all across the river to continue their journey, but he stays behind. He does this for their safety. Esau doesn’t have anything agaist them. They are innocent. And so they are safer without him for now.
As the darkness of night fell upon him, Jacob laid down and tried to sleep, but he couldn’t. Here he was alone, all alone. No family. No friends. No protection. No hope. He knew that in the morning it would be his turn to cross the river, his time to face his past and atone for his wrongs. In the light of day he would have to finally meet his brother face to face, and there was a strong chance he wouldn’t be able to weasel his way out of this conflict.
That night while he lay awake in the dark, suddenly the figure of a man appear by his camp. Without any words of warning, the man approached and grabbed Jacob. This guy was strong. Was it Esau, sneaking over the river to kill him in his sleep…no, that wasn’t Esau’s style. Who was this stranger in the night? Whoever he was, he had Jacob in a pretty intense headlock. But Jacob was scrappy and was able to slip out of the man’s grasp long enough to launch his own counter attack. The two men locked arms and brawled for hours and hours throughout the night. They wrestle there in the dark, with no one seeming to be able to gain the upper hand. Finally, the stranger took a page out of Jacob’s own play book, with all his might he punched Jacob in the hip, so hard that it knocked the hip out of socket. But even with this dirty move, even with the sharp pain from the blow, Jacob would not let go of his hold.
The first hints of the morning light were beginning to shine and the stranger broke his silence as he yelled, “Let me go!” But Jacob said, “No, I will not let you go until you bless me.” Make me a promise first, give me a blessing and then I’ll release my hold. The stranger does bless him and give him a new name. He says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God.” What? What did you say? After all these hours of wrestling, now at the end of the battle the stranger reveals his true identity. This was no ordinary man, but the very presence of God whom Jacob was wrestling with all along. And he will forever be changed by this encounter.
Jacob has a new name, Israel-which means Wrestles with God. Struggles with God. He has a new name, and a blessing. All his life he had striven for power and privilege and control. But this night he had grappled with God and lived to tell the tale. Everything else is now changed, his life has taken on a whole new perspective beyond his ability to control. The world around him and other people in his life are no longer means to his own ends, no longer objects to be manipulated to be tricked and swindled. His brother is no longer someone to fear, for if you can endure a wrestling match with the Almighty, what do you have to be a afraid of in the morning?
And so, as a changed man, a blessed man, a man with a new name, Jacob…I mean Israel goes out to meet his brother, face to face. He goes full of humility, ready to beg forgiveness for his past wrongs, and when he and Esau see each other, they embrace. Body to body, not as a wrestling match, but as a brotherly hug. They weep and reunite. Esau looks through his tears and sees Jacob’s many children, Esau’s own niece and nephews whom he has never met and he says, “introduce me to your family, to our family.”
This story of Jacob’s conflict with his brother and wrestling match with God is in many ways a telling of our own story. Like Jacob, we live in a world that we try to control. We live in a culture that is seeks to privilege some above others. In our world of greed we are taught in to get whatever we can for ourselves no matter the toll it may take on our brothers and sisters, our world, or generations yet to come. We swindle our way through life, treating people as means to an end. But sometimes we encounter situations that we cannot control. We wrestle with powers and principalities that we cannot name in the darkness, but we wrestle nonetheless. We dare not let go, even if we don’t know who or why we are fighting.
We wrestle as individuals with our own pains, our own wounds, our own hard and difficult pasts. Maybe it a broken home or hurt from a long time ago. Maybe it’s a dead-end job or feelings of inadequacy. Maybe it’s years of being put down, abused, told we don’t belong. Maybe it’s grief from saying goodbye to a loved one far too soon. Maybe it’s depression, or addiction, or fear, or anxiety. Whatever it is, each and every one of us has those nameless forces that we wrestle with in the darkness of life.
And we also wrestle as a community. We wrestle as a nation with stories and narratives that are in conflict, we wrestle with histories and hopes that carry strong and divisive meanings within our national family. We wrestle still with the past sins of slavery and the evils of racism that have been a part of our national for far too long. We may have thought that wrestling match was over. Surely these forces were defeated in the 1860’s through the bloodshed of the Civil War. Surely they were defeated in the 1940’s when American soldiers, white and black fought side by side to oppose the evils of Nazi fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust. Surely they were defeated in the 1950’s when “separate but equal” was ruled to be unjust and unequal in our schools. Surely they were defeated in the 1960’s when the Civil Rights movement ensured all people regardless of the color of their skill the right to vote and equal protection under the constitution. Surely, in each of these struggles we thought we had prevailed. We thought we had won the fight against these forces of evil. Only to have ourselves punched in the hip yet again in recent days and in throughout the last decade as the evil of racism rears it ugly sinful head yet again.
As individuals, as a community, as a country, as a human race we continue to wrestle in the dark with struggles that we cannot fully name. Our world is wounded and knocked out of socket. But the truth we find in Jacob’s story is that blessing comes through this struggle. Blessing! Life changing, name changing, world changing transformation occurs only when we refuse to let go, when we refuse to tap out, when we refuse to give in to fear and hate, when were refuse to abandon the scuffle that God has put before us in our lifetime.
At the end of the story, Jacob walks away from the wrestling match as a changed man. He walks away with a blessing, he walks away with a new name. He walks away to meet his brother and finally begs forgiveness for his past sins. But the truth is, he walks away with a limp. An injury that he will carry for the rest of his life. A scar that reminds him of the power of that struggle. As individuals and as a nation, we will not walk away from our struggles unscathed. We will be bear the scars of our years of wrestling with the truth. We may stumble away form these struggles with tears in our eyes and pain we can never eras, but in the end that is ok. Because the point of the struggle was never to keep things as they are. The point of the wrestling match was always to grapple with God’s transforming presence in our lives and in our world. And if that limp was a reminder of how far Jacob had come from his old days and his old ways, then he would be forever grateful for the reminder.
So friends, if it seems hard or confusing or difficult, if continuing the struggle feels painful, don’t let go. Don’t let go before the blessing that is to come for those who endure.
To the God of Jacob, the wrestling transforming God of Jacob, be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.