Sunday’s sermon: Faith Down in the Dirt

jacob wrestling

Text used – Genesis 32:9-13a, 21-30





* Note: I forgot to stop the recording at the end of the sermon, so this week, you get the hymn following the sermon as well!


  • [READ “Wrestling in the Night” from Spill the Beans[1] → p. 33] → Grimy. Sweaty. Gasping. Spent.
    • Certainly words that describe Jacob’s wrestling match in our passage this morning → But in all honesty, Jacob’s wrestling started before God found him on the banks of the Jordan River that night. Long
  • Reminder of Jacob’s back story[2] (brief as we can be because Jacob’s story in terms of Biblical stories, Jacob’s is a long one)
    • Son of Isaac and Rebecca (Abraham’s grandson)
    • Twin: Esau → Esau = born first which gives Esau an incredible leg up in terms of the culture (lion’s share of blessings – spiritual, cultural, and in terms of wealth and property) were given to the first-born (Esau … not Jacob)
      • Sibling rivalry from the start
        • Esau = Isaac’s “favorite” while Jacob = Rebecca’s “favorite”
        • Esau = strong and burly while Jacob = small and slight
        • Esau’s name = “hairy” (descriptive, manageable if not particularly flattering) while Jacob = “usurper” or “cheat” (beyond unflattering to downright insulting)
    • Jacob does a lot in his early life to live up to (or … down to?) his name
      • Basically blackmail’s Esau out of his birthright (inheritance) by refusing to feed him until he sold Jacob his birthright
      • Tricked Isaac (on his deathbed!) into giving him (Jacob) the exclusive, sacrosanct “first born” blessing → the ultimate “bait and switch” where Jacob disguises himself as Esau to steal the blessing for himself
      • Esau is enraged when he discovers this deception → threatens to kill Jacob once their father has died
      • Jacob flees to Haran (present day Turkey) to the house of his uncle Laban
      • Jacob’s travels
        • Falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel → works for Laban for 7 yrs. so he can marry Rachel
        • Wedding day → Laban gets Jacob a little drunk, walks the heavily-veiled bride down the aisle, and marries the happy couple → Jacob wakes up the next morning to find that he’s married Laban’s older daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel
        • Oh, how the tables have turned! → Jacob = enraged at this deceitful bait and switch → complains to Laban and agrees to work another 7 yrs. so he can really marry Rachel this time
    • Jacob’s travails
      • Through some sneaky breeding and trickery, Jacob ends up with the very best of Laban’s flocks → Laban’s sons become angry and threaten Jacob’s life
      • God tells Jacob, “Go back to the land of your ancestors and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”[3] → decides to flee back to his homeland with his entire family (2 wives, handmaids of both wives, and 12 children between them)
      • Reaches the Jordan River (border of his homeland) late in the day → leads everyone else (his family, his servants, his herds and flocks, including a large and generous gift he’s prepared to try to buy his way back into Esau’s good graces) across the Jabbok River (smaller tributary of the Jordan … probably easier to cross than the Jordan itself)
      • Night falls with Jacob alone – wholly alone – still on the far back of the river
  • So this is where we catch up with our Scripture reading for this morning. And in that reading, we hear Jacob struggling … even before God shows up.
    • Text: Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and trustworthy you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’m becoming two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’” Jacob spent the night there.[4] → This part of the text is really, really important, friends, because it shows us that even before God showed up, Jacob was wrestling. He was wrestling with himself. He was wrestling with his past. He was wrestling with his decision to leave in the first place and his decision to return. He was wrestling with his fear. He was wrestling with his faith. You can almost hear the agony and doubt and frustration in his voice, can’t you? “You told me to come back here, God. You told me you’d be with me. But Esau … he’s mad at me. He’s more than mad at me. He hates me! And I’m afraid. I’m afraid he’s going to kill me and my entire family. God, what am I doing here?” Maybe he’s sitting on the banks with his head in his hands. Maybe he’s pacing. Maybe he’s venturing part way out into the river, all psyched up and ready to cross, just to turn back 5 steps in and hang back on the far bank – the safe bank – once again. Maybe he’s ranting. Maybe he’s crying. Maybe he’s pleading. Maybe he’s praying. But he is clearly already wrestling at this point.
      • Important because of how this text is often interpreted/presented → Most of the time, we say God came to Jacob and wrestled with him. (text puts it pretty simply: But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.[5]) This can easily be read with God as the instigator of the wrestling, right? It can easily be read as God confronting Jacob, both physically and spiritually, in this isolated and desolate place. But what if that’s not how this wrestling match started?
        • God surely could see that Jacob was already mentally grappling with himself and his faith → What if this wrestling match in our text today is actually God joining Jacob in his wrestling so that he wouldn’t have to wrestle and struggle and battle his demons (inner or otherwise) alone? What if this wrestling is actually God getting down in the dirt, in the mud, in the impenetrable dark of night in the desert, in the frustration and the fear that Jacob is experiencing and saying, “I can see that you’re struggling. I can see that you’re hurting. And I’m here with you. Let it all out. I’m big enough – more than big enough. I can take it.”
  • Grimy. Sweaty. Gasping. Spent. à not words that we generally use to describe our faith… But why not? Where did we pick up the idea that our faith always has to look effortless, squeaky-clean, and all “sunshine and rainbows” and “glass half full” and “everything’s fine … yes, it’s fine … all the time” from the outside? When did the wrestling, the struggling, the questioning, the straining, the pushing back against God become taboo … become forbidden … become something seen as a weakness instead of part of the inevitable and inescapable life cycle of faith?
    • The greatest parts of faith = “mountaintop experiences,” right? Those are the high and beautiful, celebratory, soul-enlightening, revitalizing moments. Those are the moments that leave us buzzing with Spirit and holiness and renewal and sacred ecstasy. It’s easy for us to see God in those moments high above it all – above the grit and grime and craziness and struggle of the world below. But anyone who knows anything about geography and geology – even the tiniest little bit about them – will tell you that mountaintops themselves cannot exist without valleys in between: low spaces, dark places, steep and dangerous places, rugged places, uncertain places that shift and change in startling and unanticipated ways.
      • Cannot live on the mountaintop → beautiful places to visit for a moment, but inhospitable nature of the summits of some of the world’s most difficult and prestigious mountains
        • Everest (China-Nepal border)
        • K2 (Pakistan-China border)
        • Matterhorn (Switzerland)
        • Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
        • Denali (Alaska)
        • Summits are:
          • Small
          • Cold/snow-covered
          • Air is thin
          • Nothing grows
        • It’s not on one of those mountaintops that Jacob encounters God. It’s in the midst of a dark and dangerous valley. It’s down, down, down in the depths.
    • Brings us to another crucial point in this story: blessing doesn’t come in the midst of the wrestling but afterward → God doesn’t try to convince Jacob to find blessing in the midst of his suffering. God doesn’t try to find a silver lining. God doesn’t tell Jacob to “buck up and look on the bright side.” God doesn’t try to paint lipstick on that pig that is Jacob’s inner turmoil or make Jacob feel like he should be somehow grateful for the agony and grief and distress that he is feeling. God isn’t filling Jacob’s ears with useless platitudes like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” God simply gets down in the dirt and the sweat and the trial with Jacob, matching him move for move and gasping breath for gasping breath, and when Jacob asks about blessing when it’s all over, God says, “Yes. You have struggled mightily. You have fought your way through the darkest night. And you are still standing.” And God blesses Jacob with a new name to reflect this struggle: Israel, which means “to contend with God.”
      • Contend with God as in fight against God? OR Contend with God as in fight side by side with God?
      • Text: Then [God] said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” → Heb. “won” = interesting, shifting word
        • Basic meaning: “to be able to”
        • Others:
          • To hold on/endure
          • To dare
          • To be victorious/win
          • To grasp/understand
          • “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with man and You struggled with God and with man and dared. You struggled with God and with man and understood.” And that, friends, is the true blessing. God knows when we are struggling. God knows when we are battling – battling forces outside ourselves and forces within ourselves. And God comes right beside us in those struggles, right down in the dirt and desperation of our hearts and souls, and God says, “I’m here. I’m with you. I’m not going anywhere. So toe to toe, pain for pain, groan for groan, let’s do this. Together.” Amen.

Charge: “Blessings the Questions” by Jan Richardson (from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, © 2016, Wanton Gospeller Press)

Let them come:
the questions
that storm through
the crack in the world.

Let them come:
the questions
that crawl through
the hole in your heart.

Let them come:
the questions
in anguish,
the questions
in tears.

Let them come:
the questions
in rage,
the questions
in fear.

Let them come:
the questions
that whisper themselves
so slow,

the questions
that arrive with
breathtaking speed,

the questions
that never entirely leave,
the questions
that bring
more questions still.

Let them come:
the questions
that haunt you
in shadowy hours,

the questions
that visit
the deepest night,

the questions
that draw you
into rest,
into dream,

the questions
that stir
the wakening

[1] “Wrestling in the Night” from Spill the Beans, issue 16. (Los Angeles, CA: Sleepless Night Productions, 2015), 33.

[2] Gen 25-31.

[3] Gen 31:3.

[4] Gen 32:9-13a.

[5] Gen 32:24.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Faith Down in the Dirt

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Big Love | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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