Wrestling God and Prevailing
Reminiscere Sunday (Lent 2)| Genesis 32:22-32 (Matthew 15:21-28)| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church
The story of Jacob wrestling God and the Canaanite woman pleading with Jesus are parallel stories. They seem disturbing to us, because it’s hard to understand why God can be so mean! Yet, if you are a Christian, you are likely familiar with this side of God. God wrestles with His children. To the untrained eye, it seems cruel. But it is absolutely necessary. And if you are to get through this life with your faith intact, you need to learn how to wrestle with God!
You know the story of Jacob, how he cheated his older brother Esau out of his blessing, and how Esau vowed to kill him, so Jacob had to flee to his uncle Laban’s house. And God richly blessed Jacob. Jacob married Laban’s two daughters and God granted him (at this point) eleven sons by them. He gave Jacob flocks and herds and servants. Jacob left with nothing and he was returning a rich man! Even more, God sent angels to greet Jacob on his journey, reminding Jacob of the promise God gave to him at Bethel, when he promised to make his offspring like the dust of the earth and to grant them the land of Canaan as a possession, and to bless all families of the earth through his offspring, and how God said, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” (Genesis 28:15) Indeed, Jacob had good reason to be confident in the Lord!
Yet, as quickly as dark clouds can block out a bright sunny day, so Jacob’s situation seemed to change. Messengers returned to Jacob and told him that his brother Esau was coming with four hundred men. Jacob was certain that Esau intended to kill him, his wives and his children, and plunder all his possessions. So, Jacob divided his family and possessions, in hopes that if one camp were attacked, the other would survive, and he sent convoys of livestock ahead of him as gifts to Esau in an attempt to appease his wrath. And Jacob bowed down to pray to God, appealing to His mercy and promise.
Yet, God answered Jacob’s prayer by appearing to him as a man and wrestling him throughout the night. It seems that God is being cruel to Jacob. Yet, remarkably, Jacob continues to wrestle. It’s a match that can’t be won! How can a man defeat God in a wrestling match! Yet, Jacob holds on, even more, he appears to be winning! So, God knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint! Yet, Jacob continues to hold on. So, God tells Jacob to let go. Jacob is certain that this man is sent by God, so he says, “I will not let go until you bless me.” So, God blesses him. He changes his name from Jacob to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed.”
There has been much arguing over the meaning of the name of Israel over the millennia. In the name Israel, you can find the Hebrew words for to see and God, so some say it means seeing God. However, you can also find the word for contend or persevere, so Israel might mean God will contend. Either way, it is clear that Jacob did see God face to face, and he did contend with him, and he did prevail. Although weeping tarried through the night, joy met him in the morning (Psalm 30:5). God blessed Jacob.
Moreover, when Esau met Jacob, he embraced him and kissed him. He had forgotten his anger and forgiven Jacob, a reminder to us that we should not fear to talk to those we are at odds with, but seek to be reconciled.
Yet, how did Jacob win against God? He clung to God’s word and promise. God promised Jacob that He would give him and his descendants the land, that He would make his descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth, that He would bless all families of the earth through his offspring, and that He would not leave him until He had accomplished what He had promised him. This is what Jacob reminded God in his prayer that night. And this is the reason he held on and strove through the sweat and the dust and the blood, even through dislocated limb.
So, Jacob teaches us how to pray, persevere, and wrestle with God by clinging to God’s Word and not letting go. Next, the Canaanite woman does the same thing. She cries to Jesus for help, because her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon. Yet, Jesus ignores her, because she is a Canaanite woman. She is not a descendant of Israel. Jesus has only come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Furthermore, he calls her a dog, saying it would not be right to take the children’s bread, that is the blessings of the Israelites, and give it to the dogs, that is, this Canaanite woman.
But there the faithful lady finds her Word and she clings to it for dear life, just as Jacob held fast to God. She exclaims, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And with these words, she proves herself to be a true daughter of Israel. For Israel was given that name, because of his faith. By faith he strove with God and won, clinging to His promise. And so, this woman is given a seat at the table of Israel. She is a true daughter through faith.
She could have been offended at the words Jesus spoke to her. When Jesus implied that she was a dog, she could have said, “Okay, fine, I’ll find another savior.” But rather, she humbled herself and clung to Jesus’ Word. And she found her salvation in Him. “You call me a dog? Then I’m a dog. Yet, even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And so, it is with us. We confess at church that we are poor miserable sinners, who deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We do this, because holy Scripture clearly teaches that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Hearing this, we could get offended and say, “If that’s the way it is, I’ll find another god to worship who will be more polite to me.” But rather, we confess our sins and acknowledge that God is right. We are poor miserable sinners. But we have a word from Scripture. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners! (1 Timothy 1:15) So, we gladly confess that we are sinners, so that we may receive salvation as a gift.
And this is how you go through the trials in your life, when you don’t know what tomorrow brings, when you are anxious about the needs of your body or your family, when your conscience is stricken, when it seems that God is absent or when it seems that God is pressing you hard so that you cannot breathe, you have a word from God.
Are you anxious about food, clothing, health, or other things of the body? Jesus says, “Do not be anxious, your heavenly Father knows that you need these things.” (Matthew 6:32) God promises to care for you. “Ask, and it will be given to you,” he says. (Matthew 7:7)
Are you afraid of your sins? Of death? Of hell? Christ Jesus has granted you many words to comfort you. He has given you Baptism, to which he gives the promise of the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. He promises you that when His minister declares that your sins are forgiven, it is as valid and certain even in heaven as if He spoke the words Himself. (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23) Christ has given you His body and blood with a pledge of forgiveness and Communion with Him to all who believe. When you are going through hell here on earth, Christ gives you words of promise to cling to, so that you can get out of hell.
Jacob’s hip was put out of joint when he wrestled with God, foreshadowing that his offspring Jesus Christ would have all his limbs pulled out of joint on the cross (Psalm 22:14), so that all families of the earth may be blessed through Him. And it is in Jesus that we see the most important wrestling match with God. Jesus is Himself true God, the only begotten Son of the Father from eternity. Yet, He became a man. And in human flesh, He wrestled with God. In the garden, as His soul was in anguish to the point of death and great drops of blood dropped from His pours like sweat, He prayed to His heavenly Father that this cup of woe and judgment be taken away from Him. Yet, He prayed not His will, but His Father’s will be done. Jesus wrestled with His Father. And although He did exactly what His Father directed Him to do, He did not lose His wrestling match. He won, because He clung to His Father’s will and promise, and so the Father raised Him from the dead. By winning His wrestling match, Jesus won for us eternal life by paying for our sins on the cross.
So, in Jesus’ wrestling match, we learn also to pray, “Thy will be done.” We don’t know exactly what God has planned for us in this life. But we do know that He willed for His Son to suffer and die for us, so that we could inherit eternal life as a gift. If God so loved us to offer His Son for our salvation, how much more will He graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) How much more should we believe that all things will work out together for good for those of us who love God and trust in His plan. (Romans 8:28)
We are not abused children when we trust in our Savior in this way. Rather, we are well trained and well reared children. Our natural sinful inclination is to flee from God and to seek our own pleasure. The world eggs us on in this desire. And the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he will devour, that is, whose faith he will destroy. If God were to leave us to our own devises, we would be destroyed. He would be a negligent father. Yet, Scripture tells us, “The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” (Hebrews 12:6)
So, God wrestles with us to make us stronger in the faith, to make us let go of our fears and cast our anxieties on Him who cares, to bring us to true repentance of our sins and to make us confident in His Salvation and love for us.
In Jacob, the Canaanite woman, and Jesus we see that God wrestles with those whom He loves and intends to bless. So, when trials meet you, do not despair. Do not flee from God’s Word and preaching or neglect your prayers. Look to God’s promises to you in Christ Jesus. Cling to these promises. Receive them in faith. And pray fervently according to the promises which God gives you through Christ. And God will most certainly bless you. Amen.