In the late 1600s, a Christian practice was popularized in Europe called Quietism. Through total passivity of the will and complete submission to the sovereignty of God, the mind would withdrawn from all worldly things, the soul would be put to rest and the body would go limp with lack of resistance. The believer would finally become quiet.
So why then, if there is a precedent for acquiescing to life on the mat, is today’s text, the noisy all night contest between Jacob and God, a favorite scripture for so many?
Genesis 32:24-31 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
We all struggle with something, an all night brawl.
It is in our woundedness that we come closest to God.
Because Jacob demands blessing in his life.
National Public Radio aired the story of a father who noticed his son’s changing lifestyle: new friends, new behaviors, a child become unrecognizable. Concerned, he started recording his son’s phone calls After work, he would come home and listen to hours of tape: the next party to get high at; the next drug resupply; the next chance to get in trouble. After a while, the son found out about the eavesdropping and confronted his dad, ready for the next intervention. This time, will it be taking the car keys away, being grounded for a decade, military school? But dad said there would be no punishment. Instead, he handed his son forty tapes, each ninety minutes long, and asked only that he listen. Listen to the addicted adolescent, listen to the loss of empathy, listen to the manipulative use of everyone else for his next hit.
Jacob- alone with the tapes playing in his head, with the anxiety of cheating brother Esau, the nightmares of lying to uncle Laban, the flashbacks from twenty years of being an angles man- finally got thrown into the ring. Where he got a pile driver to his past, a clothesline to his lack of conscience, an elbow off the top rope to his ego. “In the night,” says Walter Brueggemann, “the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle.”
This a favorite scripture because we all, like Jacob, fight fiercely with those we love most deeply; because we can only come to grips with a God who first grapples with us; because faith is rarely about getting quiet and more about toe-to-toe grudge matches.
The word wrestle in Hebrew means “to embrace,” to be arms and legs tangled up in a lover’s quarrel with God and all that isn’t God. To lace up our boots and pull down our masks and tag into the holy cage match to wrestle with what needs to be pinned down in our psyche, what disrupts our sleep, what wakes us up in sweaty panic until they all submit.
35 million people watch wrestling every week, sideline spectators who want to wear the heavy weight championship belt without ripping their tights, want to follow Jesus without carrying the cross, want the blessing without the wound. And yet, Genesis says each of us have one choice: either walk tall alone in the wilderness or limp with the Lord into the Promised Land.
It is no coincidence that we are the ancestors of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Forefathers who went three rounds plus overtime, who show us how to strive with God.