The fall of 2001 was a very difficult time. As a nation we had just experienced the largest attack on our soil and just blocks away I was trying to come to grips with what had happened and how it had completely altered my world. The dust had quite literally not yet settled and I was suddenly viewing life through a dramatically different lens, struggling constantly against the images and experiences replaying mercilessly through my mind. It was in this fog and numbness that I found myself once again in the great auditorium of Hunter College in the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a Sunday evening. Redeemer Presbyterian Church was weeks into a series called The Gospel According To Jacob when they started reading from the middle of Genesis 32, the passage in which Jacob wrestles with a man in the darkness. As I listened to the sermon unfold before me I was captivated. I had read this passage countless times, but it wasn’t until that evening that this passage became real to me, and through it I came to view my God and my relationship with Him in a profoundly different light.
Genesis 32:22-30 (NIV)
22 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. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 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.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face,and yet my life was spared.”
The gist of the sermon (and forgive me if I do not do it justice, but feel free to check it out at the link above) was that Jacob had spent his life wrestling and deceiving. He had wrestled with his brother for the birthright. He had deceived his father for the blessing. He had wrestled with his uncle for his wife. He spent his life as a conman and a smooth talker. At times he had the upper hand and at times he had been bested. But this particular evening was the eve before he would reunite with his brother- and in his mind, possibly his last night. It was here in the utter darkness he meets God. Not in a gentle, peaceful manner, but rather he is attacked from behind and struggles all night with this unearthly stranger. And at the moment he thinks he can overpower him, the man permanently maims him with the slightest touch. It is then that he realizes that it isn’t a man he has been wrestling at all, but he has been wrestling God. And further more, that it wasn’t Esau and it wasn’t Laban that he had struggled with his entire life, but rather it was God himself. He began to understand that it wasn’t his father’s blessing that could make him whole. And when all common sense would scream at him to let go of the very One that has it within His power to destroy him, he clings even tighter and refuses to let go until the stranger blesses him. And the Stranger does indeed bless him. And yet Jacob spends the rest of his days walking with a limp, his scar bearing witness to his encounter with the Living God.
God sometimes has to wrestle us into a transformed life and it isn’t until we come to the point that we realize that the one we have been wrestling with our entire lives isn’t ourselves, and it isn’t our culture, or our peers, but rather the Living God, that we can suddenly choose to risk it all to hold on to the only One that can ever truly bless us. And that blessing far outweighs the limp or the scars we may carry with us.
That passage and that sermon spoke to me in the darkness that I was experiencing. It cut through the numbness and the apathy that had engulfed me. On my hardest days and my loneliest days, I would remember Jacob and look up to heaven and whisper, “I will not let go until you bless me.”