Our Name That Turns Struggles into Transformation

by Rev. Doug Gray

The last few weeks we have been spending time in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, with some of the greatest Bible stories of all time. Sometimes we have been amazed at their faith—as we watch Abraham and Sarah get up and go where God wants or wait for the baby that doesn’t come until he’s 100 and she’s 90, or Isaac and Rebekah dealing with childlessness. Sometimes we shake our heads, because they play favorites with their kids and manipulate their way through the family. We would surely call them a dysfunctional family. And still God loves them! And still God’s keeps the promise that God will be with them, that God will give them a land and descendants, and will bless the world through them. The most manipulative part of the story so far is when Jacob and Rebekah conspire to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the great blessing that should be Esau’s inheritance. It works, but Esau is just waiting for their dad to die before he tries to kill Jacob. So Jacob gets out of town, meets God in a dream one night, and arrives in Northern Syria to stay with his mom’s brother. Twenty years later—and some dysfunctional relationships later—Jacob has four wives (I did say dysfunctional!), twelve children, and tremendous wealth in livestock and servants. God says it’s time to go home. As they get within a few days journey, Jacob sends a messenger to test the waters with his brother, Esau. The messenger returns saying, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Jacob starts to take steps to make sure that his family survives if Esau’s troops attack. That’s where we come to the story:

When I was kid, my dad used take my brother and me into the living room. We would clear all the breakable things away, and then we would have what my dad called, “a tussle.” We would jump on Dad and he would roar and sometimes he would fall over, and then other times he would pick us up and throw us across the room onto the couch. We would laugh and grab his ankle and his arm and try to pin him down, and he would pretend that we were making it hard for him, but he was so strong and so big, my brother and I knew he could take us anytime he wanted. As I watch Jacob and God wrestling in our story today, I wonder if it’s a little like my dad wrestling with my brother and me. I mean, it’s not as if Jacob really has any chance of beating God, right? Can’t you hear the answer? “In this corner, weighing in at infinite power and endurance, the immovable rock who meets the irresistible force, the Lord of Hosts and King of Kings, God Almighty! And in this corner, weighing in at 180 pounds of middle-aged flab, the trickster himself, Jacob!” Who do you think is going to win? And still God wrestles with Jacob! Why?

First, God wants us to know God intimately. Who’s the hardest person to beat in basketball? The person we practice with all the time! We know how they think, and we know that little fake they do with their head before they go the other way. The more we play and work together, the more we know each other. That’s why we often do team-building exercises at work, why we do things together as a church family—so we will know and appreciate and care for each other. That God can end this match at any time says that God wanted Jacob to know and understand him better. When we face times of trouble, wrestling with God and ourselves, it really helps to remember that God wants us to know Him.

Second, stubbornness has its perks. Anyone out there stubborn? How about competitive? What happens when you are stubborn and competitive? I was poking around on Reddit, an online community, and I ran across this post, “My girlfriend and I often laugh about how competitive we are. But I laugh more.” So that’s kind of funny, but then I read the comments:

     •    Haha that’s funny, but I doubt you laughed as hard as I did at this joke.
     •    The real competition is always in the comments.
     •    Found your girlfriend. Stole your girlfriend.
     •    This is a good joke. It was better when I told it, but you did just fine. [1]

You’ve known people like that, right? They just won’t let it go. Is it just stubbornness or competitiveness that keeps Jacob wrestling with God? Maybe that’s all it is, but if Jacob gives up, there’s no blessing. If Jacob gives up, there’s no growth, no change, no hope. When we face stormy times, wrestling with God and ourselves, getting stubborn puts us right where God wants us!

Where God wants us is in relationship with Him, wrestling with God about the things that really matter in our lives. Perhaps Jacob is wrestling with his fears about meeting his brother in the morning, or his worries about his family’s safety. What things are you wrestling with right now? When we face stormy or difficult times, it can be really tempting to just hide until it all goes away, or to give up because it’s just too hard. Wrestling and striving, trying and tussling—Jacob hangs on for the blessing, and is transformed. The name change is just a sign that something has really changed for him—and he will never be the same. Like Jacob, we don’t always recognize that it’s God we are wrestling with while we are facing our challenges, heart-aches and frustrations. We might think it’s just a problem to solve, or a relationship to work on, or sadness to endure, but maybe it’s really God. Maybe it’s God who wants to wrestle with us like a dad with his kids—to be known by us, to bring out our stubbornness, to help us find that new name that God gives to those who are transformed.