Have you ever felt like you were in a wrestling match with God? Or perhaps an angel? C’mon, admit it! Even your pastor has stepped into the ring a time or two…or three…or four! I think you get the point! Now matter how strong you faith is, no matter how attuned you are to Spirit, no matter how closely you walk with God, wrestling is always a part of the equation.
Some of our wrestling is spiritual in nature. Tragedies cause us to question where God is in the midst of our suffering. Our understanding of God is challenged by other people’s beliefs. There are times when our spiritual wells run dry, and we’re not sure how to fill them again.
Some of our wrestling is emotional in nature. Depression can cloud our outlook on life. Fear or anger can consume us and rob us of experiencing joy. Low self esteem is a demon that whispers in our ear the lie that we are less than God’s beloved.
Some of our wrestling is physical in nature. Chronic illness challenges our bodies and wears down our souls. Fatigue, no matter its source, makes every day tasks seem monumental. Eating disorders overwhelm us and rob us of living life fully.
The truth of living life on planet earth is this: Now matter how strong you faith is, no matter how attuned you are to Spirit, no matter how closely you walk with God, wrestling is always a part of the equation. You see, angels do not only bring us good news of great joy for all the people. Not all angel stories in the Bible are of old age couples who experience miracles and become pregnant like we saw in last week’s readings of Abraham & Sarah, Zechariah & Elizabeth. Sometimes they deliver a message that is hard for us to hear. As God’s emissaries, they can cause us to wrestle with our lives and ponder past decisions we made. They can also point us in a direction that God wants us to go, but we’re not really sure we want to follow. These are the angels stories we will examine today. Perhaps they will help us to understand the value and purpose of wrestling in our lives.
We begin with the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Many people are familiar with this story but don’t know its context. Earlier Jacob had cheated his brother Esau, and fled to his Uncle Laban’s house. He then cheated his Uncle Laban and was on the run a second time. Laban pursued Jacob into the desert and eventually settled his differences with him.
At the beginning of chapter 32, Jacob heads southward and is met by the “angels of God,” whom he sends to convey a message to his brother Esau. These Divine messengers return to Jacob and tell him the not-so good news that his brother is headed his way with 400 men. Jacob’s past has finally caught up with him. He fears the worst and tries to soften the blow by sending sending gifts to his brother. Then he camps for the night and this is where our First Lesson begins.
During the night, God sends the Heavyweight Champion of Heaven his way. Jacob wrestles with this brute on an angel all night long. It doesn’t matter whether we understand this story literally or metaphorically. It doesn’t matter whether it happened in real life or in a dream. The real person Jacob is wrestling with is himself. God gets in the ring with Jacob because Jacob needs to do some serious soul-searching at this point in his life. He needs to repent of his past behavior and make amends with his family. He needs to grow up and mature in his faith and his relationship with God. I believe this is what happens in the story.
As day breaks, which is symbolic of illumination, two things occur: 1. The angel gives Jacob a blessing. His name is changed from Jacob, which means “usurper,” to Israel, which means “one who has struggled with God.” This change of name signifies a change in Jacob’s character, a shift in his personality. 2.) He walks away with a limp which I take to mean that our past mistakes leave their marks on us, even after we overcome them.
After this angelic encounter happens, Jacob meets up with his brother Esau. He becomes the unworthy recipient of grace and forgiveness from his brother. The story ends with Jacob exclaiming to Esau “To see your face is like seeing the face of God since you have received me with such favor.” [Gen 33:10] This experience changes Jacob forever. He becomes the father of nation. But I doubt any of this would have happened, if God had not intervened and sent angels Jacob’s way.
There is so much we can learn from this story but I don’t have the time to talk about it all. Suffice it to say, that our wrestlings with God serve a holy purpose in our lives. Often they are agents for transformation and rebirth. It’s never fun to wrestle with God. It would be nice if our walk with Christ was one long smoothy and easy road to travel. Yet we know from experience that is NOT going to happen! So instead of being afraid of wrestling with God, perhaps we can give into the experience, and let it change us like it changed Jacob. Without death there cannot be resurrection. Without repentance, there cannot be rebirth and new beginnings.
Therefore, friends in Christ, let us not be discouraged when we find ourselves wrestling with the Divine, in whatever form God appears to us. Let’s submit ourselves to the process and trust that God is using this time of wrestling to strengthen our character and deepen our relationship with the Almighty.
The second story of wrestling comes from the gospel of Luke. It takes place in Nazareth which I visited during my trip to Israel. The modern city of Nazareth is a decent sized city. However, the Nazareth that Mary knew was quite small. According to Dr. Monte Luker, who was my guide for the trip, Nazareth was a poor village of only 12 to 15 extended families. They moved there in order to be free from the rule Herod’s son, Archelaus, in Judea.
In this tiny town, there was a young teenage girl named Mary. We don’t know anything about her childhood, but I suspect she lived a simple and quiet life, full of hard work as she helped to support her family. To his humble young woman, who lived in a humble town, the Archangel Gabriel appeared, which is NOT exactly and everyday occurrence! He says to her, “Greeting favored one! The Lord is with you!” I imagine her feeling a mixture of shock and disbelief. Why would an angel appear to her of all people?
Luke tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” I think this is a polite way of saying she was scared out of her mind. She had no idea what was happening to her. This is a perfectly normal reaction when we experience powerful encounters with the Holy in our lives. Thankfully it doesn’t happen every day! But I’m sure many of us have stories of God-encounters that changed us forever and left us pondering their meaning.
As Mary tries to gather her wits, the angel Gabriel attempts to calm her fears, saying those words we often hear angels say in the scriptures: “Do not fear.” I’m not sure if it helped. But angels always give it a shot anyways!
To this scared teenager, Gabriel delivered a word that must have been difficult to hear: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
In response to his bold proclamation, Mary states the obvious, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel says to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Now, I know Luke says that Mary responded piously, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” But I have my doubts about this! She might have been able to say this after the visit of the shepherds, after the gifts of the Magi, after their flight to Egypt and their return to Nazareth. But in the moment these words were spoken to her, I doubt that this was her response. I am sure her mind was flooded with thousands of questions: “Is this even remotely a possibility? And if this is a possibility, what am I going to tell Joseph? What am I going to tell my relatives, for that matter? Who is going to believe a story like this?”
And so Mary wrestled with what Gabriel told her. Was it good news? Was it bad news? What was going to happen to her when people found out about this? As Jesus grew up, I’m sure she endured more than her fair share of whispers and stares. I’m sure rumors and gossip followed her wherever she went. Trust me, Mary was NOT a pious stone like the portrayals of her we see in Renaissance paintings. She was a flesh and flood teenager, wrestling with questions and uncertainties regarding what the future would bring.
This is good news for us because sometimes we wrestle with God’s will for our lives, just like Mary. God gives us a bold vision for our future but we prefer to stay with what’s predictable, even if that predictability is killing us. God tells us to “go” and we put the brakes on, because we’re filled with worry and questions and doubt. No one, including the mother of our Lord, has a faith that’s rock solid 100% of the time. Wrestling is a part of the human condition whether we like it or not.
So, friends in Christ, I hope you will find some encouragement in the stories of Jacob and Mary. They remind us that we’re not alone in our wrestlings with God. If we hang in there long enough, we just might receive a blessing as God leads us to places we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams. Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck