Sermon: Jacob’s Name

Text: Genesis 32:22-32

Brothers and sisters, I’m going to begin this morning on an interactive note. I ask all of you: describe God. What is an attribute of our god?

(Answers. Folks said “Awesome” “All-knowing” “Loving” etc.)

OK, show of hands here: was anyone going to say: “Our God mugs people. Our God waits for folks in a deserted place, and when he finds them, he jumps out and starts whaling on them?”


Well, the scripture disagrees with you.

At times, I have referred to myself as a ‘David Lynch Christian.’ David Lynch is a director of movies and television shows who specializes in surreal and disturbing scenes. Scripture abounds in Lynchean scenes, and it is my belief that these most surreal and disturbing scenes are actually some of the most direct testimony we have to the nature of our God.

Our text this morning is among those scenes.

Jacob son of Isaac is going to meet his brother, Esau. Jacob, like most of the characters in Genesis, is a desert barbarian, and as a desert barbarian he is leading his flocks and herds and his household through the wilderness to this meeting, where, Jacob anticipates, he will receive a beating—a beating which, frankly, he richly deserves. Undoubtedly a little stressed out by this, Jacob goes off for some time by himself, to get his head together.

Whereupon God mugs him. God jumps out of nowhere and starts whaling on him.

Panic! Panic and fear and pain and fury! For hours and hours, Jacob grapples with this surprise attack. Jacob is a sinner, but this is not for his sins. There is no justice here. He is under the fists of the world, trying to defend himself, trying to stay alive. And when he drives the assault back, his attacker cheats! When Jacob lets his guard down, thinking he has won, God jumps forward and gets in an extra hit, a very painful wound.

This makes no sense. I’m not going to stand up here this morning and try to tell you it does.

In pain, suffering, yet victorious, Jacob asks his attacker for answers. “Who are you?” he asks. “Why are you doing this? Why is this happening to me? What is going on?” And he receives no reply. God never gives him an answer for his struggle.

What Jacob receives for his struggle is a new name. Throughout salvation history, names are given as marks of honor and transformation. Abraham received a new name, Peter received a new name, Paul received a new name. Jesus, for his victory over sin and death, received the name above all other names. Here Jacob is given a new name: Israel.

This is a momentous thing. In this was fulfilled the promise God made to Abraham, that God would make of his descendants a great nation. Here God gives that nation a name, a name which has resounded down the ages, a name by which we still know Abraham and Jacob and their descendants. Israel. Which means, “He Struggles With God.”

“He Struggles With God.”

A popular phrase among friends of mine is “Fuck Cancer.” This phrase is necessary because pretty much everyone knows someone who has been tortured or killed by that disease. Disease, disaster, oppression, betrayal. The blows of life come out of nowhere, a shock to the system. Under these attacks, we cry out to God. We yell at God. We should. He deserves it. In our worst hours, it feels like God, our Creator, who is love and who loves us, is attacking us. As if God is pouncing on us like a thief in the night. This is an absurd thing. But all too often, it is our lives. It’s like a grim parody of the ‘Footprints’ poem: “Lord, remember when we walked along the beach together, and you mugged me?” We struggle with God.

But know this: Israel means “He struggles with God.” But it also means “God struggles.” Both readings are valid. What does this mean?

Jacob defeats God Almighty, wrestles him to the ground. How can that be? The only way Jacob could defeat God Almighty is with God’s aid. How can mortal man contend with God? Only with God’s help. If God is with us, who can be against us? Not even God.

Again, I’m not going to stand up here and tell you this makes sense. It is surreal. It goes beyond sense. The purpose of the surreal is to point us past that which makes sense, to what is true.

God is not satisfied with this world. The world as we know it, filled with strife and pain, is not the world as He intended it. God is struggling with the world. For this reason he sent his Son to die and rise for us. By that we know that ultimate victory is sure. But it’s not here yet. For now the struggle continues. In each of our lives, this struggle is enacted. We all suffer.

God struggles with us. It was for this that we were created. To struggle and persevere and gain the victory. The fight is painful. Sometimes it’s so hard, we could sweat blood. But through famine and nakedness and sword, through the blows of life, we will be more than conquerors.

God struggles against the evils of this world. Through our hands, he moves to change, to comfort, to stop evil. When we struggle in life, God is struggling through us. God’s strength is our strength, against this world.

We struggle with God, and through us, God struggles. At dawn comes the victory. Amen.

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