Jacobs’s life was a struggle from the beginning. And by the beginning I mean actually from conception! When his mother was pregnant with him and his twin brother she received a prophecy that said that two nations were struggling in her womb. It was also said that the elder would serve the younger.
His brother Esau was born first all red and covered in hair. He must have been an ugly baby! Jacob followed quickly behind clutching his heel. He was determined to take his brother’s place and so his name, Jacob, means “he who grabs the heel” or “supplanter.”
The two brothers could not be more at odds. Esau was the rugged outdoorsman type who enjoyed hunting. He had the favor of his father Isaac. Jacob, who preferred to stay at home, had the favor of his mother Rebekah. Esau was the jock but Jacob was the brain.
Jacob would not accept his fate beneath his brother but schemed for the higher place. He was always able to out think and out strategize Esau. One day when his brother returned famished from the fields, Jacob manipulated him into handing over his birthright for a bowl of stew. He even deceived his father into handing over his blessing to him instead of his brother. He had to flee for his life when Esau vowed to kill him.
Jacob even had to struggle to marry the woman he loved, Rachel. He agreed with her father Laban to work seven years for her hand, but in an ironic reversal it was Jacob this time who was deceived into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. He had to work another seven years before he could finally marry Rachel as well.
Today we read about the climax of his life of struggle, the turning point when Jacob became Israel.
Jacob is preparing the meet his brother Esau whom he has not seen since he had to flee for his life to escape him. He has sent his wives, his children, and their entire household away and he is left alone. That evening he wrestled with God, in a quite literal way, until daybreak. When the battle is over he receives his new name.
Israel would not be named for him unless his life in some way represented who they were called to be as a God’s covenant people. So what can this story teach us about what it means to be the people of God? What does this story teach us about our own life of faith?
First, We too like Jacob are engaged in struggle from the moment of our conception. Life is difficult, and for the person of faith it is not easier. We are marked as Christ’s own in baptism, but that is not the finish line. It is the starting line for a race we all must run. We must struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
-We struggle to keep our integrity in a corrupt world that is constantly trying to pull us into its orbit of selfish ambition.
-To live a life of faith is to struggle against anger, lust, and pride and all our wayward passions that lure us away from the love of God.
-We also must contend with the lies of the devil who is constantly seeking to lead us off course and discourage us. We must be on our guard and resist him.
But we also wrestle with God. We strive to know him and to understand his will. Some see faith and doubt as opposites, but behind every person of strong faith there is someone who has wrestled with difficult questions. It is not the case that the believer does not have the doubts and struggles that the unbeliever has. The difference is that the person of faith clings tenaciously to God through those struggles. Those struggles are in fact the caldron of our transformation. The life of faith is a constant struggle, but the one who receives the blessing is the one who perseveres in the struggle and refuses to give up.
The second lesson about faith we learn from Jacob’s story is that we only finally find God when we come to the end of our strength. Jacob’s wrestling match with God is an echo of the wrestling match with his brother in the womb and the struggle that has continued throughout their lives. God wanted to teach him that if he wanted to prevail this time he needed his help. Although they wrestle to daybreak, God puts an end to their battle when he touches Jacob’s hip and sets it out of joint. He forces Jacob to confront his own frailty and brokenness. Until this time Jacob had swaggered through life relying on his own cunning and determination, but now he was humbled. His swagger was changed to a limp.
He was made to confront and confess who he had been. “What is your name?” God asks him. He answers that he is Jacob, the supplanter, the schemer, the deceiver, the one who grabs the heel. God tells him,
"You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."
There alone in the desert, stripped of everything, Jacob comes face to face with who he has been. He faces God and refuses to let him go. He realizes he cannot go on without him, and it is there in his weakness that he is the strongest that he has ever been.
Finally, the story of Jacob teaches us something important about how God has decided to relate to us. The Early Church Fathers saw in the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God a symbol of the incarnation, of God becoming one of us in Christ.
God is far above human beings, yet He wants us to know him and be in relationship with him. No man is a match for him in power, and yet God stoops to our level. He comes to us eye-to-eye, face to face, as fellows and allows us to contend with him. The great creator of the universe condescends to be our sparring partner. He allows the fragile creatures that he has molded out of the dust to stand up and confront him, to resist him, and to disobey him and ultimately even to lay cruel hands on him and crucify him. God could destroy us at any moment yet he has held back his hand. Instead he shows us mercy. We are the ones who have seen God face to face and lived.