Steve Lindsley
(Genesis 32: 22-31)

I’m a self-confessed sports fan, and I live in a family of sports fans.  Moving to Charlotte over three and a half years ago was a dream come true for many reasons, not the least of which were the ways it enabled my family and I to engage our fandom.  Panthers and Hornets games for sure, a Knights ball game mixed in there.  We even attended our first hockey game this past spring.  And while you rarely will see me watching golf on television, I thoroughly enjoy walking the course at Quail Hollow during the Wells Fargo Championship.  Those guys are incredible.

One sport, though, that none of us have ever gotten into is wrestling.  And I’ll be honest – I don’t see it ever happening.  I really don’t.  These huge men in lycra, stringy mullets with crazy costumes and even crazier names.  What’s with the names, anyway?  Who really wants to be known as “Outlaw Rob Bass” or “Bam Bam Bigelow” or “British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith?”

Because the internet has everything, it should come as no surprise that there’s a website out there that can automatically generate your wrestling name from your actual name.[1]  So of course I tried it out.  Want to know what mine is?  It’s “Fusion Skyflyer.”  I’m not crazy about it; sounds a little too polished for a wrestler name.  I do admit to being a bit envious, though, of the name my friend Jerry Chapman got – Jerry led music with me at the Montreat Youth Conference the past two weeks.  His wrestler’s name?  “Jesus Fury.”

We may not expect to find a wrestler name in our passage today, but that is one of many surprising things we in fact find here.  The story begins with a young boy whose future looks to be anything but extraordinary.  That’s because he was the younger brother – and in the ancient world that meant that, in pretty much everything in life, you were going to get the short end of the stick.  It was his older brother who was slated to get the formal blessing and inheritance from his father, because that’s what older brothers always got.

That’s what would’ve happened in this story if things played out as expected.  But that doesn’t happen here.  The boys’ mother intervenes and urges her younger son to deceive his near-blind father into blessing him instead.  Which he does.  And so upset does big brother get that younger is forced to flee town and fend for himself.  It truly is a mixed blessing, right?  He has the official family blessing, but he’s a fugitive.

The saga continues.  Years pass, and our wrestler-to-be is now a young man.  Amidst his wanderings, he assimilates into a clan of people in the wilderness and immediately takes notice of a certain young woman – a woman who just happens to be the youngest daughter of the tribe’s leader.  They say true love is blind, and apparently it’s just that for our guy, because he doesn’t think twice about working the required seven years in order to take the daughter’s hand in marriage.  Problem is, on his wedding night, our hero discovers much to his chagrin that he has been tricked and married the older daughter Leah instead.  He doesn’t take too kindly to this, but his love for Rachel is as strong as ever; so he works another seven years in order to take the hand of the woman there can be no doubt he loves. 

And then we come to that glorious moment; the very first time that our wrestler steps into the ring.  It happens quite unexpectedly.  More years have passed and his family and people are flourishing.  The shenanigans with his father’s blessing are a distant memory; he is even poised to make amends with his estranged brother.  All seems well – until one night, when our man is standing alone by the river Jabbok, his family resting peacefully on the other side.

And suddenly, out of the blue, the spotlights come on and Round One begins!  A stranger appears out of nowhere and starts wrestling Jacob.  This goes on and on and on; and neither wants to give up the fight, even though dawn is approaching.  And as the sun peeks out over the horizon, the stranger gives Jacob a hard shot to the hip and knocks it out of joint.  The pain is unbearable, but Jacob isn’t about to let up.  He holds on to his attacker and demands from him a blessing – not normal wrestling etiquette, but hey, this was some 3000 years ago.  Jacob asks for a blessing, and the blessing he gets from the stranger is his new name: Israel

No doubt you’ve heard that name many, many times; and there’s good reason for that.  It is, of course, the name of a current nation on the other side of the world, as well as a nation back in Jesus’ day.  But before it was a nation, it was the name of a people; a people who made their way from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.  And before that, it was the name given to Jacob, who wrestled with God.  In fact, that’s exactly what the word itself means: Israel” literally means “Scrapper-With-God.”  Because, as the angel tells him, “you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

Scrapper-With-God.  It is Jacob’s new wrestling name. 

And yet, it still begs the question: how exactly is this a blessing?  What is “blessed” about scrapping with God?

I mean, can we be honest?  Just the idea of “scrapping with God,” of contending with God seems at best foolhardy, and at worst an abomination.  There just seems to be something wrong with the whole idea.  God is not meant to be scrapped with, wrestled with, contended with.  No, God is to be obeyed.  Served.  Humbled before.  One does not fight God. 

That’s what we tend to think.  And yet, there is Jacob, and the stranger says it as plain as day.  He has wrestled with humans – his father, his mother, his brother, his father-in-law.  But he has wrestled with God, and he has prevailed.  Meaning not, I think, that he “won.”  I don’t think this is anything about winning.  I think the real focus, the real point of all of this, is that Jacob stayed the course even when it would’ve been easier for him to have thrown in the towel.  He didn’t quit.  In the heat of his struggle, with his body literally giving out on him, he asked for a blessing.

How many of us – when we have scrapped with God, when we have come to God with questions spoken or unspoken, when we have wondered with all our might, Why, God, Why?? – how many of us have thought to ask God for a blessing?  It’s probably not the first thing on our mind, is it?  When we’re wrestling with God over an unexpected death, or the fact that life isn’t fair, or that we feel so alone in this big world, or that there are too many things on our plate, or that there’s not enough on our plate; when the round is almost up and our opponent has us pinned to the floor and the ref is counting 6, 7, 8, 9……asking for a blessing in that moment is the last thing on our mind. 

No, we want answers.  We want resolution.  We want problems solved; we want wrongs to be made right, and we certainly don’t want our hip knocked out of joint.  And yet there it is, for all to see: Jacob, now Israel; Scrapper-With-God – asks for and receives a blessing.  Why?

Many of you know that I’ve spent the past two weeks at Montreat leading music for two week-long youth conferences.  It was an amazing experience, as it always is.  I always come away from these things feeling more inspired and spirit-filled than when I got there.  And one of the things I found particularly inspiring were the words of our preacher, Aisha Brooks-Lytle.  Aisha is a Presbyterian pastor outside Philadelphia, and as the week progressed Aisha revealed, in her nightly sermons, bits and pieces of her own story, part of which involved her husband who is suffering from a neurological disorder that has rendered a once larger-than-life man incapacitated and unable to communicate.  He is currently in the care of assisted living and is not expected to make it through the end of this year.  When he dies, he will leave behind his wife and an 11-year old son.

What amazed me as Aisha shared her story was the honesty and authenticity with which she shared it, the owning of her struggles even as she wrestled with God through it all.  In her own way Aisha asked for a blessing, captured in this wonderful mantra she began each sermon with: 

When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together
When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together

It’s catchy!  She got us to join in with her, and trust me, there’s nothing like hearing 1200 voices doing that.  It was this mantra, she said, that kept her going through the struggles, through the scrapping, through those times in her life when life would not seem to cut her any slack.

Do you know people like Aisha?  Do you know people whose very lives are a blessing, because they have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed?  Have you ever shared with them how much of a blessing they are to you?  Have you ever thanked them for the grace with which they live their lives, in spite of the hardships that come their way? 

Sometimes, it is worth it to go through the hard stuff to get to what comes after it.  It had been that way for Jacob, all his life.  When Jacob swiped Esau’s blessing from him and tricked his father Isaac, he accepted his banishment and stuck with it until it eventually led to their reconciliation.  When Laban stuck Jacob with the equivalent of fourteen years of hard labor to earn the right to marry the lovely Rachel, Jacob saw it through its completion and didn’t think twice about it.  And when a stranger, or an angel, or God’s very self jumped into the ring with Jacob, he continued to engage God until he got the blessing he longed for, even though it left him more than a little sore.  Because:

When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together
When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together

And again, it wasn’t about winning.  It was about getting real with God.  And the beauty of our faith, I think, is that when we scrap with God, we are not just wrestling with a God we believe in.  We’re wrestling with a God who believes in us!  We’re wrestling with a God who calls us beloved and claims us as God’s own.  We’re wrestling with a God who gives us a new name – a wrestler’s name, even – one that not only describes our relationship with God and our way of living out our faith, but a name that defines us and who we are, at our very core.       

And you know where we find that blessing we so desperately seek?  We find it in the fact that when we wrestle with God, when we love God with everything that’s in us and when we cry at God, yell at God, even scream at God; when we stay with the struggle, God never lets us go. 

Don’t you think it’s interesting in the story, not only that Jacob never let go of God, but God never let go of Jacob?  I mean, they kept hanging on to each other.  Isn’t that something?  Different from two modern-day wrestlers in the ring, holding on to each other because they’re exhausted and don’t want to give the other an upper hand.  No, here it’s different.  Holding on to each other and staying with the struggle because they know they’ll be all the better on the other end of it.

God does not turn away from us; God does not disown us or toss us aside.  God knows we need the struggle, we need the wrestling, the engagement.  And then, when all said and done, when our cries have been heard, God is still there, holding us; holding us closer than ever before, not at all willing to let us go.

And that, my friends, is the real blessing of it all.  Our new name, etched on our hearts and our very lives.  Not a wrestling name.  A better one  It is the only name that really matters. It is the name: Child of God. 

Because we know:

When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together
When it all falls apart, Lord, keep me together

In the name of God 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.

[1]  Give it a shot.