By the river Jabbok

Gen. 32:22–31

College Lutheran Church, Salem VA, October 20th 2013


I will preach about the Old Testament text we heard earlier, from Genesis chapter 32.

Before that passage the Bible tells us how Jacob and his big family secretly fled from the house of his father in law, Laban. It was dangerous, but Jakob dared to do it and head back to his home country. He had the courage, because Lord, the God of his father Isak, had promised to bless him.

But ahead of Jacob there was an even more frightening situation, meeting his big brother, Esau. 20 years earlier Jacob had betrayed him and was therefore forced to flee to another country. Now he was returning. But he had heard that Esau was waiting for his group with 400 armed men. It seemed that a blod bath was inevitable.

In the evening Jacob escorted his family across a river called Jabbok. Then he returned back to the other side, he alone.

Why? I believe that Jacob wanted to pray in solitude. He wanted to prepare himself for the most difficult ordeal of his life. His behaviour reminds me of our Lord Jesus in Gethsemane, when he retreated from his desciples, saying: “’Sit here while I go over there and pray.’” (Matt. 26:36)

Jakob’s nightly struggle became physical: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Gen 32: 24).

At first Jacob didn’t notice anything extraordinary in this man. It just happened that in the darkness a stranger attacked him and tried to thrust him to the ground. But the reader of the text knows that this mysterious attacker was no ordinary man. He was an angel of God, or actually God himself. This is revealed by Jakob’s words in the end of the story: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared!”

According to Luther the attacker was God’s Son, who had taken a human form. This foreshadowed that once he would really become a human being in Jesus of Natzareth. God had acted like this even before, with Abraham. When Abraham sat one afternoon by his tent near the great trees of Mamre, three men came to him. They were angels. But on the other hand, the Bible says that one of those men was the Lord God himself. The Christian Church has interpreted such Old Testament passages as allusions to the incarnation of Christ.

Why did the Son of God attac Jacob? The story doesn’t tell. And that is wise. Human life, also a life of a person who lives with God, is often a struggle, where she has to fight against God and doesn’t understand why. God doesn’t give even a glimpse of his mercy that would enlighten the mind. Everything is what Luther and the Germans call Angst: agony, despair, meaninglesness.

A loss of health, loved ones, job or marriage or meaning. As you certainly have heard or experienced yourself, such things come in a row. Just when you have barely survived from the earlier, another cause of Angst comes. God is like a stranger attacking from the darkness.

Jakob wrestled physically: with his body, with his arms and fists and knees and head. It was a cruel free style wrestling in the darknes. 

How do we wrestle with the Son of God?

Luther gives as an example the Cananite woman who came to ask Jesus to heal her little daughter. She had heard rumors that this rabbi Jesus was a kind man who helps and who has the power to help. But when she came to Jesus, she met an extremely rude man. First Jesus did not answer a word to her. Then he said:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Here God’s Son metaphorically attacs the poor woman with the fiercests possible wrestling move. I would have been broken down and thrown all hope away. But the Cananite woman didn’t. She said: “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

That was a wrestling throw that beat the Son of God. He said: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”

According to Luther, God’s Word wants to urge us with stories like these:  even when the hardships of life can be so hard that God seems to be your enemy, you are urged by God himself to fight back.

How do you do it? Many Finns think you do it by “sisu”. “Sisu” is a Finnish word. According to the dictionary it means “determination regardless of cost”. It refers to will-power that trusts the mental and physical strenght of a “real man” or a “real woman”. Such “sisu” goes “even through gray stone”, it is said in Finland.

But God is stronger than grey stone. Finnish “sisu” is not enough when you wrestle with God.  Therefore Christian determination regardless of cost must be put in the promises of God. Not in the mental and physical strenght of a “real man” or a “real woman”.

Threfore we should learn God’s promises from his Word. They can be simple, like the one that God has attached to the 1st commandment: “I am Lord, your God.” When God looks like a stranger attacking from the night, you should humbly say, still with determination: “Lord, you have promised to be my God. I have been baptised to be your child. I have received your Son’s flesh and blood in the sacrament. I hang on to this promise and mercy of yours, even when I feel that you are against me.”

When we wrestle patiently with God, using God’s promises against God, we will in the end see beoynd the darkness. We will see God’s face.

The man from the darkness did not win Jacob. He resorted to a trick: he hit the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched. Still Jacob did not give up. The man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Maybe he had anticipated whom he was wrestling with.

Then Lord God asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

Here Jacob had to answer with his name that means “he betrays”. Jacob had lived up to this name. He had betrayed his brother Esaus twice. He had betrayed also his father Isak and had use the Lord’s name in vane doing this (Gen 27:20).

In uttering his name Jakob had to say to the Son of God, face to face: “I am Jacob, the betrayer.”

This confession was followed by a sovereign, creating word of the divine wrestler: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” It means: You are no longer a betrayer, I have taken away your former guilt and  stance as a deceiver. You are Israel.

The name Israel resembles Hebrew words jisra (“he fought”) and el (“God”). Former betrayer had become a man who had fought against men and God, and had won. Men he had won by overcoming the injustice Laban, his father in law, had done to him. God he had won by trusting God’s promises despite the hardshisps God had given him.

May God grant us his mercy that we are like Jacob when we stand alone on the shore of the river Jabbok.