A God who wrestles with his saints

Sermon for Pentecost 22(c)

Genesis 32:22-30  +  Luke 18:1-8  +  1 John 5:13-15

One of the great values of Old Testament history is that we learn by example how God deals with his people, his saints.  I’m talking about the real God, now, not the imaginary God that most people have in mind when they say, “Sure I believe in God!”   The real God, the true God is very unlike the God-images most people have in their minds.  People think of God as a great power out there in the universe somewhere, a God who punishes – although they don’t know what, a God who blesses – although they don’t know why or how. You have to know the God of the Bible in order to understand that the true God is a God who wrestles.

Oh, he doesn’t wrestle with those who don’t believe in him and in his Son Jesus Christ.  He threatens them with eternal punishment and calls on them to repent and believe in his Son.  But with those who believe, God most certainly wrestles, as a father wrestles with his children.  And you wouldn’t think a human being would stand a chance in a wrestling match with God, but the fact is, this is a wrestling match God wants his children to win.

We learn about wrestling with God from the one whose name means “he wrestles with God.”  Israel – formerly, Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Jacob’s story is the story of all the saints of God.  Sometimes he acted very nobly, sometimes he acted very selfishly.  Sometimes he acted out of faith in God, sometimes he acted out of unbelief.  Huh!  Sound familiar? The heroes of the Bible are not considered heroes because they were perfect.  They’re considered heroes because they were sinful, just like us, but God showed them mercy for the sake of the coming Christ, just like he shows mercy to us in the Christ who has come, and they believed in God’s promises, even as we are to believe.

Maybe you remember the story of Jacob’s ladder – the dream Jacob had in which God appeared to him at the top of a ladder or a staircase stretching from earth to heaven.  That was while Jacob was running away from his brother Esau after cheating him out of his inheritance.  God promised to be with him and to bless him and to bring him back to his father’s house one day.  Twenty years later, God told him it was time.

Jacob was on his way home after spending 20 years being on the receiving end of deception at uncle Laban’s house.  God had given him a large family and many possessions.  A camp of angels even met him while he was on his way home.  Everything was going well!

Until Jacob found out from a messenger that Esau was coming out to meet him, and he wasn’t alone. He had 400 men with him.  Oh, that wasn’t good.  What was his brother planning?  An attack on him and his family?  Suddenly, it looked like God wasn’t going to keep his promise to be with Jacob.  Suddenly, all of God’s blessings and all of God’s promises faded into the background, and all Jacob could see was danger and reasons to be afraid.

So Jacob prayed.  “Save me, Lord!  I’m afraid of my brother Esau!  And you promised to be with me and to return me safely to my home.”  It’s the perfect prayer, really.  Save me!  I’m afraid!  You promised!

Well, all better now, right? Jacob prayed. He laid his petition before God.  No more fear?  No more danger?  Oh. Wait. Still lots of fear. Still plenty of danger.

Jacob did what he could to prepare for the dreaded reunion with his brother.  He split his possessions up and sent his family away.  And there he was, in the middle of the night, all alone.

But he wasn’t alone for long.  Along came a man in the darkness of night who engaged Jacob in a wrestling match. Great! Another enemy!  Another adversary!  More danger! More fear! Jacob didn’t know who it was at first.  But he struggled.  He fought for his life. He wrestled with the man until daybreak.  And for a man of about 95 years, he was holding his own pretty well.

And then it became apparent that the man he was wrestling with was more than just a man.  He touched Jacob’s hip socket and wrenched his hip.  Even then, Jacob wouldn’t let go, not even when his wrestling partner agreed to call it a draw. By now, Jacob knew that his adversary wasn’t really his adversary. Was he one of those angels Jacob had seen the day before?  Could it be God himself in human form?  “I won’t let you go,” Jacob said, “unless you bless me!”

And there it shows up again, that prayer that he had been praying all day. Save me! I’m afraid! You promised!  You promised to bless me!  Give me your blessing!  I will hold onto you until you do. I will hold you to your promise.  Help me!

Sounds almost like the widow in Jesus’ parable from today’s Gospel, doesn’t it?  She kept coming back to that judge for justice.  And her persistence paid off. 

So did Jacob’s. The wrestling match was over.  “What is your name?” the man asked him.  “Jacob – Deceiver.”  “No,” he told him, “Not any longer. Your name will be Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” “Israel” means, “Wrestles with God.” And now it was all becoming clear.  This man who had been wrestling with Jacob was not a man at all, but God himself.  And if it was God, that means he could have pinned Jacob down at any time.  More than that, he could have crushed Jacob, wiped him out, destroyed him.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he kept wrestling with Jacob, and finally, he let Jacob win.

God did bless Jacob and kept him safe from Esau and kept his promise to get Jacob safely home, to prosper him, to give him many descendants, including the greatest descendant of all – Jesus Christ, in whom all the families of the earth have been blessed.

The struggles weren’t over for Jacob.  His wife Rachel would die in the near future.  His children would commit terrible acts of adultery and murder.  His son Joseph would be sold into slavery by his brothers.  But Jacob – Israel – learned that in spite of the struggles, in spite of the appearance that God had abandoned him, God was nearer than ever in the midst of those struggles, and when faith is weakest, then is faith strongest.  Jacob learned that you don’t give up when God wrestles with you.  You keep holding on.  You keep praying.  The fact that God is wrestling with you means that God doesn’t want to destroy you.

We saw this same thing with Abraham.  We’ll see it again with Moses, with the people of Israel. With David. With Mary and Joseph. With Jesus himself.  With all the prophets and apostles and the martyr throng.  Over and over and over.  God wrestles with his saints in this continuous cycle of consolation followed by tribulation followed by consolation. This is how God deals with us.  This is the theology of the cross.  God hides behind an unfriendly face.  He appears as the enemy who is angry, who is fighting against you.  There is fear and danger and struggles all around.  But behind it all is a gracious God who wants to be found behind the cross.

Maybe you think it’s not fair, it’s not right.  Let me tell you, if God dealt with you in fairness and justice, you wouldn’t just struggle here on earth for awhile. You’d be condemned eternally.  God would not wrestle kindly with you and let you win.  God would come at you with the full force of his fury and you would learn to know what it is to fall into the hands of the living God.  Because you and I – we are sinners.

But in the cross of Christ God reveals himself, not as the angry adversary, but as a loving Father who wants to be gracious to us and has been gracious to us by laying his anger on his Son, and by laying the righteousness of his Son on us who believe in his name.  The gospel reveals a God whose justice has been satisfied in the sacrifice of his Son, and who now holds out forgiveness as a perpetual gift that makes you a saint in his eyes, through faith in Christ Jesus.

Why does God force his saints to wrestle with him?  Why doesn’t he just remove the struggles and give you what you ask for in prayer immediately? There is only one answer to that question: He does it for your good. God wants to appear sometimes as an enemy, so that you may learn to walk by faith and not by sight, so that you may learn to wrestle with him, to keep praying and not give up, to keep trusting in his promises. So it has been with all the saints.  So it will be for you, too.  Consolation, tribulation, consolation, tribulation, until the final consolation, the end of the struggle – eternal life with God in heaven.

Now he is a hidden God.  Now he hides behind a wrestling match.  His promise strengthens you for the struggle. His grace won’t allow the struggle to become more than you can bear.

Keep praying and don’t give up, even when it seems like God isn’t listening!  That’s the lesson Jesus taught his disciples in the Gospel. For what shall we pray without giving up? For those things that God has promised.

What has God promised? Not all the things you would like to have in your life.  Not health or wealth or comfort.  What has God promised?  Well, let’s see.  Mercy. Grace and favor and forgiveness.  His presence every moment of every day.  The seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.  Deliverance from evil. (What form that deliverance takes – that we must leave up to God.)  A way out so that you can bear up under temptation.  He’s promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, with all the gifts he brings – spiritual enlightenment, wisdom, faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. A blessed end.

But what if God withdraws the experience of his grace from you?  What if the devil whispers in your ear, “A good God wouldn’t put you through this”? What if subtle trials threaten to eat away at your faith?  What if despair comes knocking at your door?

Keep wrestling!  You’re in danger, but you have been given a promise.  Lift up your eyes to the hills – your help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. The one who strengthened Jacob strengthens you and me, too, through his Means of Grace – the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

You are included in the true Israel – Jesus himself – who wrestled with God constantly, whose sweat was like drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled with God in prayer, asking for divine rescue, and even more, for the divine will to be done, who wrestled with God even on the cross, praying for his executioners, praying for mankind.  He is the true Israel who wrestles with God and wins every blessing for mankind, and you are in him.

What is your confidence as you wrestle with God in prayer? “I am baptized into Christ!  I have been fed and nourished with the body and blood of the Son of God!  I have been absolved!  God must be merciful – because of Christ!  He promised!  And his promise cannot fail.”

Keep praying!  Keep wrestling!  Don’t give up!  The Lord has not abandoned you.  The Lord is not fighting against you.  This is our God, the true God – a God who wrestles with his saints. He wrestles with you and does not destroy you. This is a wrestling match that God wants to lose so that you can win every possible blessing. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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