Text: Genesis 32:22-32
One of my favorite childhood memories is going to visit Uncle Grover and Aunt Vessie. Now Uncle Grover and Aunt Vessie were not my uncle and aunt. They were not even one of my parents’ uncle or aunt. They were, though, relatives on my father’s side of the family. Aunt Vessie and Uncle Grover had several children, one of whom was Lillian. At some point along the way, either Lillian and her husband Howard and one of their children, Francis, moved in with Aunt Vessie and Uncle Grove or it may have been the other way around—I’m not sure of the details. However, I do have very clear memories of every room in the big old yellow farmhouse they all lived in. Uncle Grover and Aunt Vessie occupied three rooms in the house that could be closed off by a single door in the front room. The first room had in it an old woodstove, two chairs—one for Uncle Grover and one for Aunt Vessie—an old feather bed, a dresser, and a black and white TV. In the middle room was another feather bed and a dresser. And the back room was their kitchen that had a small table where they ate all their meals.
Uncle Grover played the harmonic and thus was popular with all the kids. Aunt Vessie had a curious spirit and was not one for strict discipline so she, too, was popular with the children. Many Sunday evenings, after church, my family would go to that big old yellow farmhouse where we would eat breakfast for dinner and the adults would play card games. After dinner the children would gravitate to Aunt Vessie and Uncle Grover’s section of the house. It was there on Sunday evenings, after dinner, that Uncle Grover would turn on that old black and white TV to watch world-wide wrestling. I can still hear Uncle Grover shouting at the wrestlers on TV as we children re-enacted each wrestling move on that big old feather bed. And I can still hear Aunt Vessie saying to us, “Be careful children or you’re gonna fall off and break your leg and then we’ll all be in trouble.”
That memory washed over me as I read again the story of Jacob wrestling with God. It’s not stepping too far out of the box to liken Jacob to those Sunday-night wrestling characters on the worldwide wrestling channel. A schemer and deceiver, he had swindled his brother for his birthright and then cheated him of his blessing. Fleeing his home, fearful of his brother’s grief and anger, for the next fifteen years or so he went head-to-head with his equally devious uncle, Laban; squabbling and double-dealing over everything from wives to livestock. Having worn out his welcome in his uncle’s foreign land, he is once again on the run, this time bringing with him his family, servants, and all the wealth he can carry. As we pick up on the story with our reading today, Jacob has come out of hiding and has sent messengers to his brother, Esau. When Jacob heard the report that Esau was coming to meet him along with 400 men, Jacob was afraid and distressed, and rightly so. Out of his fear, he begins talking to God, confessing his unworthiness of God’s faithfulness to him. And yet, fearful of his brother’s anger, he asks God to deliver and protect him from Esau. He has no shame.
After his pleas to God, Jacob and his family set up camp for the night. That brings us to the beginning of our scripture. We read that Jacob goes to bed, but sometime during that same night, he gets up and takes his family and crosses the ford of the Jabbok. As the story continues, Jacob then decides to send his family with everything he owns across the river. His family gone, the next thing we read is: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” What follows next could have come straight out of world-wide wrestling: Jacob wrestles with an unknown entity (imagine a masked wrestler jumping Jacob from the ropes); Jacob wins over God (can you hear the announcer’s frenzy?); and Jacob walks away injured but victorious (the screen fades as the battered wrestler limps off camera carrying the coveted championship belt).
There are so many angles and lessons in this story. First, there is Jacob—the unrelenting scoundrel who finally receives a blessing from God and becomes not only respectable, but the leader of a nation. Lesson: God chooses flawed individuals to do the work of God. Second, there is the question of humans wrestling or struggling with God and God losing. Lesson: God is a God who takes human form—a God who is humble enough to have self-limited power in order to meet humans on a level playing field. Third, there is our human longing for blessing and being named by God. Lesson: God has already blessed us. Our life’s work is to claim God’s blessing.
Of all the insights this story has to offer, the struggling with God and the God within us may be the part of the story we recognize the most. Who among us has not struggled or wrestled with God? We suffer a loss and we struggle to know God’s presence and we wrestle with “Why me?” We see suffering and injustice in the world and we struggle with the question, “Where is God?” The wrestling comes full force when we face those dark nights of the soul and cry out to God in despair, wondering if God is listening or even if there is a God. Like Jacob we struggle with who we are and who we are not—wrestling God for a blessing that we hope will redeem us and make us “good enough.”
Like Jacob, our internal struggles are real: guilt, shame, addictions, the pain of abuse, not feeling loved, not feeling good enough, wanting more, wanting less, accepting our limits, recognizing our strength, finding our passion, following our passion, wanting a relationship, living in relationship, parenting, setting boundaries, keeping boundaries. They are all real struggles. And like Jacob, our struggles with God are real—we struggle to feel and know God’s presence, to trust God’s promises, to believe God loves us just as we are, and to feel God’s blessing upon us.
The struggle is never easy. To say our name out loud to God and tell the truth about who we are can be frightening. It is not easy to face our fears and disappointments; our resentments and misdeeds; our failures and unfulfilled longings. But that is exactly what Jacob did on the riverbank of the Jabbok. Alone, all night long, he faced his fears and wrestled with the dark side of his own soul refusing to give up on feeling God’s blessing. His night was not easy. God’s presence didn’t comfort him or coddle him or give him a pass and tell him everything was going to be okay. No, God wrestled with Jacob and out of the darkness of the night, Jacob limped into daylight. Richard Rohr writes, “Wrestling with God, with life, and with ourselves is necessary. The blessing usually comes in a wounding of some sort and for most of us it is an entire life of limping along to finally see the true and real blessing in our life.”
Is it wrong to want the blessing without the wounding? I don’t think so. And yet, it has been my experience that it is out of the woundedness that I have been able to see and accept God’s blessing. Jacob leaves the fords of Jabbok wounded and prepares to face his brother Esau. In the words of the theologian Henri Nouwen, “the hope is that Jacob, having wrestled with God, leaves Jabbok as a ‘wounded healer’ not as a wounded wounder.” I take this to mean that as long as this deep wound was inside of Jacob, and unnamed, he lived into it—he played it out on those around him as a wounded wounder. But having faced himself and claimed his mark, Jacob walks away identified by, but liberated from, his wound—he becomes a wounded healer. Wounded healers. People who walk with a limp. Our world needs more of such people.
Carlyle Marney, one of the greatest liberal Baptist preachers of the 20th century, was known for his keen insight into scripture and the human soul. There is story told about a class that Marney was teaching one semester at Southeastern Seminary that involves this story of Jacob wrestling with God. As the story goes, a student was sharing with the class all the struggles he had faced throughout his life. The longer the student talked the more depressing his story became, for indeed he had faced many horrible life challenges. By the time he had concluded his story, most of the people in the class were feeling emotionally exhausted. Out of the silence, Marney looked at the young man and said, “There is but one question: Can you bless it?” Can you bless the struggle? Can you bless the woundedness? Can you see that the limp you walk with is a part of the blessing?
I don’t know about you, but I have spent much of my life trying to hide and disguise my limp. I wonder if we have all internalized Aunt Vessie’s message—be careful, children, or you will get hurt—and taken our cues from a culture that discourages us from showing vulnerability or difference. But in actuality, walking with a limp shows that we have lived authentically, that we have struggled with God and with our selves. Our limp is our reminder that with no need of promise to do better or be better, we are seen by God, known by God, and blessed by God.