The Blessed Struggle with Faith

Pastor Joe Skogmo

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN

Pentecost 19 | 10.20.2019 | Genesis 32:22-31

Today I am going to preach on the story from Genesis which involves a wrestling match and Old Testament figure, Jacob. I absolutely love this story.

Some of you don’t know who Jacob is, and that’s okay. Meanwhile, most of us at least need a refresher on who he is and his context. So, let’s do a little review. We’re going to learn (or re-learn) the first half of Genesis in about 90 seconds. Ready?

At the beginning of Genesis is the creation of the universe. Then, Adam, Eve, the Garden, Cain and Abel, etc. Then we get a breakdown about their descendants. We arrive at Noah. There’s a huge flood because people are so wretchedly violent to one another. Only those on the ark survive the flood, this includes Noah and his family. Then more descendants…so-and-so begat so-and-so resulting in more so-and-sos. Finally, we get to Abraham and Sarah – the ones in whom God starts his promise to bless all families on earth (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham and Sarah have Isaac. Isaac marries Rebekah. They have twins: Esau, and the star of your story today: Jacob. Long story short, Esau and Jacob don’t get along. Jacob schemes his way into getting the golden child blessing to continue the particularly blessed family line. With different women, Jacob eventually fathers 13 children (12 sons and a daughter, Dinah).

Jacob’s 12 sons are famously named: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan[1]…! Then also Joseph, and Benjamin. There. Half of Genesis in 90 seconds.

Now, to today’s wild story: here in the 32nd chapter of Genesis Jacob wrestled God. In so doing, Jacob demanded to know God’s name. In many examples throughout Scripture, naming something was a move of power. For instance, as a power move, Jesus often demanded the names of demons when he was performing an exorcism (Mark 5:9). In a like manner, while wrestling with God, Jacob demanded God’s name. God didn’t give it; rather, God ended up giving Jacob a new name! After the bizarre encounter concludes, Jacob ended up blessed by God with the sun shining on him.

Again, kind of a crazy story, and I love it. Jacob is one of my favorite characters in the Bible. He’s stubborn, maybe a little bit arrogant, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, his name was changed also to Israel – a great name – and he’s just an overall patron saint of mine. He’s a unique biblical example of what a faithful person can look like.

On that note, let me grossly over-generalize, I think one could argue that there are really two styles of faithful people. There are the Abrahams and there are the Jacobs. To be sure, we are all a little of both, maybe it’s a spectrum, there’s probably a third category, or more, but WHATEVER! Bear with me: among the faithful, this is a spectrum of Abrahams and Jacobs.

Anytime God says “Go, do, jump,” the Abrahams all say “Go? Okay, where? Do? Okay, done. Jump? Okay. How high?” Or in the Hebrew, God says, “Abraham,” and all of you Abrahams say his famous response: “Hineni!” which means, “Here I am!” The Abrahams are just so ready to jump into this faith with little hesitancy or skepticism. There are other biblical figures that represent this style, too, of course, like Mother Mary.

Then there are the Jacobs. My kind of people. Our relationship with God resembles more of a wrestling match than it does Abraham’s “Hineni!” We grapple, we make stubborn demands, we “will not let…go!” and let God (32:26b), as some of you Abrahams so faithfully concede.

God comes in or calls us and we do not say, “Hineni! Here I am!” We, like Jacob, say “Tell me your name!” (32:29), “Who are you? What’s this all about?” In a defiance and hesitancy we Jacobs want to know more. We want to power move God. We have questions and we want answers. There are other biblical figures that represent this style, too, of course, like Sarah (Jacob’s grandmother), or Job or Thomas.

The Abrahams are dutiful and ready. That’s their gift. The Jacobs…they wrestle with doubt, mystery, and demand answers “to the break of day” (v.26), even if that means coming away limping like Jacob did here in Genesis. That’s their gift.

So, there are the Abrahams and there are the Jacobs. And here’s the beautiful thing: God blesses both. God values both. God works through both. They’re completely different!—but God has the same commitment to each.

You Jacobs out there, I am one of you. A word of wisdom: rely on the Abrahams, like Jacob himself did. Their faith will nourish yours…but keep on wrestling. Don’t be ashamed of that style of faith. A wrestling faith, God says, is a “prevailing” faith (v. 28).

Question. Demand. Doubt. You might come away limping as you struggle to know more about or question the Divine, but according to Jacob’s example, the process can be a blessing.

You Abrahams out there, know that the Jacobs rely upon your faith. My mom is an Abraham. I don’t believe in God if it isn’t for my mom. Abrahams, your diligent faith is your gift. Not everyone has it as strong as you all do. Encourage the Jacobs. Listen to the Jacobs. Keep up the great work.

Now forget the Abraham/Jacob distinction for a moment, because really, at least at some point in all of our lives, we’re Jacobs. And, beautifully, this story reminds us that struggling and wrestling with God is normal – not only normal, but biblical.

Faith can be a struggle. It can be challenging to believe or even figure out what we believe. Whether it is just our own intellectual questions, questions from others, or it is being struck by times of death and tragedy, this story reminds us that the life of faith in the God of Israel can be a wrestling match.

And this story reminds us that such a struggle…is sacred. To openly wrestle is a faith that God blesses. After their night-long scrap, God looked at Jacob and said, “…you will no longer be called Jacob…you shall be called Israel,” (v.28)—which in Hebrew means ‘one who wrestles with God,’ and the story ends with the sun shining on Jacob who, although limping away, carries on in the covenantal relationship (vv. 28-29). In other words, God acknowledge Jacob’s challenge and wrestling faith, and did not ridicule it, silence it, or even fix it. Rather, after ‘slugging it out’,[2] God looked at Jacob, gave him a nickname, and recognized the new depth of their relationship.

Faith struggle is not always fun, but it is not meaningless. It was out of struggle that Jacob becomes a different person. It was out of struggle that he eventually carried on and founded the tribes of Israel. It was out of struggle that he carried on in the divine/human relationship, and did God’s work.

This is why I love this story. Jacob is representative of all of us, a profound symbol of a sincere life of faith: wrestling, changing, limping, uncertainty, maturing, blessing, and always accompanied by a God who is faithful.

The people of Israel would go on throughout the rest of the Old Testament wrestling with God, and God would ultimately respond to them with Jesus, with grace, with blessing. So, “In a most cryptic and imperfectly understood manner,” says one scholar, “is the reality that, even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace.”[3] Jesus being the ultimate proof of how God responds to a struggling people.

So as you may struggle in faith constantly or occasionally, know that God has no struggle in loving you. God has no struggle in being faithful to you. Faith may wane and wax, but God’s faithfulness is eternal and unchanging. Trust that promise…even when you have to wrestle to understand it. Amen.

     [1] Poor Dan (or lucky?) – he gets the boring name.

     [2] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 427.

     [3] Ibid., 425.

2 Comments

  1. Karen kaehler on November 10, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Joe from somewhere in Texas, I am definitely a Jacob struggling with the “whys” of faith. Thanks for reaffirming that by even questioning faith I know I have it. Ann is doing ok, trying her best to be helpful to Mom. But I know sobriety is tenuous at best. Regards to Margaret. Karen Kaehler

    • Joe Skogmo on November 11, 2019 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Karen! Indeed it can be a struggle, and indeed it can also be a sacred struggle! Safe travels and enjoy Texas!

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