Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Genesis 32: 22-33)
Families are complicated.
You don’t need me to tell you this, of course. You already know it. You have your own family – and as much as you may love them, as I love mine, they’re still complicated. You hear stories of other families. You read and see stories of families in the news. Families can be loving or not. Families can be healthy – or full-on dysfunctional. Families can be a source of comfort – or constant stress. Families can be all these things and more, but one thing all families are, any way you cut it, is complicated.
Jacob’s family was complicated. Like, supremely complicated. Although we don’t get a sense of that in our passage today. It’s a fun little story – who else can claim “God-wrestler” on their resume, right? And the new name, Israel, is pretty sweet. But that’s really all there is to it.
That is, until we take a step back and see the bigger picture, the full story of what is happening here. Because that is where we come to understand how complicated Jacob’s family truly is.
We see that Jacob was a twin; his older brother being Esau. We’re told that their struggles began long before birth, the two wrestling inside their mother’s womb. We’re told that when they were born, Jacob came out clinging to Esau’s heel.
We see later a grown Jacob taking advantage of a famished Esau and convincing him to relinquish his birthright for a bowl of food. We’re told about the time Rebekah and Jacob, mother and son, plot together to steal the coveted fatherly blessing, a blessing typically granted to the oldest son; a blessing procured from a father who, nearly blind, had been deceived into thinking he was blessing Esau.
How about that for a complicated family?
We see how Esau raged when he heard of this, and how Jacob and Jacob’s family fled out of fear for what Esau might do, and how for years upon years there was distance between the two brothers, both physical and relational, and how Jacob always lived in fear of what Esau might do to him one day. And then Jacob gets word that Esau is coming to him, coming with four hundred men, in fact. For years Jacob had assumed the worst. And now it seems that the worst is about to come true.
So when we step back and see the bigger picture we see the story of a man who made a habit of conning, cheating, deceiving, and manipulating virtually every member of his family, and then running off when the conflict became too much. All of which brings us to the setup for today’s passage: Jacob is heading home after twenty years away, his past threatening to finally catch up with him. Faced with the prospect of meeting Esau, and with his trickster mind still engaged, Jacob divides his family and servants into two separate camps and sends them across the Jabbok River. He is now alone – and in his solitude he finds himself at a turning point: either face up to what waits for him or do what he has done in the past — turn tail and run. Which will it be?
Spoiler alert: I’m going to tell you the end of the story before we actually get there. I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of reading any book and skip to the last page! Because to be honest, it’s a little anticlimactic. It’s a good ending, though. Esau comes to Jacob and….he gives him a big hug. The two weep openly, and you can sense years and years of tension and conflict melting away. Esau has moved on; he has a family and people of his own now, as does Jacob. There is no need to hold grudges anymore. The two agree to part ways, but under much different circumstances than before.
It’s a good ending for a complicated family, especially this complicated family.
Although we have to wonder: what changed? What was it that led Jacob to break the cycle of turning tail and running, and choosing instead to face the music, even though the music turned out to be much sweeter than he thought it would be? What changed for Jacob?
We find the answer in our passage today. Jacob sets up camp for the night, all alone. Next thing we know, Jacob and God are engaged in a wrestling match. The way scripture reads, it happens suddenly, without warning. And it goes on for quite a while.
Daylight is coming. And this tells us something. In the Bible the time between night and day often signals a transforming event. It’s here when God knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint – ouch! Even so, Jacob keeps on wrestling. Not what God expects. So God asks Jacob to stop wrestling – which is really interesting, if you think about it. Jacob agrees, but on the condition that God blesses him first. And that’s when God gives him his name, Israel, which as we’re told in Hebrew means “the one who strives with God.”
What kind of blessing is this, do you think? I mean, a new name is great and all, but where exactly is the blessing in the wrestling, in the struggle, in the mark left with a hip out of joint that would cause Jacob to limp the rest of his life? Where is there a blessing in all of that?
Noted author and speaker Brene Brown has written extensively about vulnerability and shame; namely, the damage shame can do and the benefits of being vulnerable in human relationships – everything from family dynamics to being an effective leader. Part of the work of minimizing shame and embracing vulnerability involves being real and open in our conversations with one another. She has a term for this: she calls it a rumble.
Granted, it’s a bit of a strange term and we would not be at fault if images of something out of West Side Story came to mind. But this is not a fight. In her own words:
A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, and….to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. When someone says, “Let’s rumble,” it’s a way of saying, “Let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s tough” – in other words, show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, and not our egos.
I love this idea of rumbling, even though it terrifies me at the same time. So much of our conversations and interactions stay at the surface. We dance around the real issue at hand, oftentimes defaulting to the southern gentilities many of us were reared in. We don’t want to offend. We often avoid getting to the heart of the matter, because that would mean not only leaning into our own vulnerability but counting on the other person to do the same.
Hard conversations are hard because that is what they are. Family matters. Churches trying to figure out what comes next. Religion, politics. What would it mean, people of God, if, in our hard conversations, we made a conscious effort to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous with each other? How differently might those conversations go if we committed – and I especially love this part – if we committed to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard? What might it look like if we chose to rumble with each other every now and then?
Because I’ll tell you what I think changed the course of things for Jacob; what led him to face what was coming instead of turning tail and running like he always had. I think I have an idea of why he got the blessing he did and a limp to show for it: because he chose to rumble with God. It was not what he was looking for. It was certainly not what he was expecting. But it was very much what he needed; and in the end it made all the difference.
Rumbling with God.
I want to take a moment to lean into my own vulnerability and share a personal story with you, a rumbling-with-God story. Some of you have heard me share this story before.
When I was in seminary studying and preparing to be your pastor, I was making good grades and checking all the boxes. I was well on my way in the course of things. But inside, I was a wreck. I hid it well – I put on a facade that communicated an entirely different message than what was actually going on: I’m fine – even though I wasn’t. I got it together – even though I didn’t. I’ve got it all figured out – even though I didn’t have a clue.
Later, a wonderful counselor would help me begin to work through some of the things that were causing all of this. But at the time, in the middle of my first year, I was not okay. In a rare instance of vulnerability I confided in a fellow classmate; I opened up to them because I knew they’d hear me out. I was hoping she might offer some insight on what I needed to work on; maybe suggest a good person that I could speak with.
Instead she looked me straight in the eyes and – I’ll never forget this – she said, Steve, I think you’re angry at God, and I think you need to have it out with his.
I literally gasped out loud when she suggested this. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Angry at God?? What in the world would I have to be angry at God about? I have a great life, I have good friends and family, I like seminary, I’m excited about whatever God’s calling me to next. Even more puzzling was the notion of “having it out with God.” What would that even look like? Even if I was angry at God, I could never imagine doing something like that. Wasn’t that a sin or something? Yelling at God? I couldn’t imagine.
My good friend persisted, though. And in a rare display of wisdom at the time, I listened. So a few nights later, well after midnight, after the campus had long gone to sleep, I let myself into the seminary chapel and stepped to the front stairs. And I let God have it. I filled the silence of that place with my screams, my cries, all directed at God. I didn’t come with words prepared, but in that moment they came. In truth, they had been there all along. My friend was right – I hadn’t realized how angry at God I really was.
My rumble with God that night was more Jacob than Brene Brown; it left a mark but a good mark. And most importantly, when the rumble was over I listened in the silence, and the blessing I found there was an awareness of God’s presence that I did not expect. The presence of a God who had always been there but now seemed a little closer, a little more real, because I was letting God be closer and more real. It was the first step in a longer journey toward healing and wholeness, a journey that continues to this day. And it all came out of that rumble.
You may recall, as I do, Melanie Hood telling a similar story in her sermon with Rebecca last Advent – of screaming at God in light of her cancer battle and fully expecting lighting to strike; instead finding calm, peace. She, too, had rumbled with God and found a blessing on the other side of it.
Here’s the truth of it, my friends: families are complicated because life is complicated. And life is hard. It’s hard. You don’t need me to tell you this. You already know it. And what has always been the case, but what we rarely choose to see, is that God is right in the complicated and hard with us, even though we do not always acknowledge God there. Even though we choose to put God outside the complicated and hard, outside the struggles and pain, because we think that’s where God prefers to be, when really it’s where we prefer to be. But God wants to be wherever we are, even if that’s in the struggle with us, even if that means a rumble.
So if you find yourself being angry for no reason at all, the angst bubbling just under the surface; if you find yourself laboring to cover it up with pleasantries and busywork, if things in your life are a bit frayed and all of it is so complicated, let me invite you to follow Jacob’s lead. Rumble with someone you need to have an honest conversation with. Lean into vulnerability, be curious, listen with the same passion with which you want to be heard.
And don’t be afraid to rumble with God, either. Sometimes that is exactly what we need, a little wrestling match with our Creator. Letting God have it – have all our hurt, all of our pain, all of our brokenness – let God have it. Because what we find when we do that, every single time, is that our God is big enough for the rumble. God’s love can take every bit of it. It’ll leave a little mark on us. But there’s a blessing there – a blessing we take on the journey, a blessing that is never ever letting us go.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.