The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his 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 has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
- Genesis 32:22-31
I’ve been thinking about this passage from the Old Testament for days now, and I just can’t get it out of my head. It’s not a passage that’s often referenced during Advent, but it’s remarkably relevant to me this year for some reason.
The passage is in the Old Testament in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. It’s a story about a regular guy named Jacob. He’s just finished moving his family to a new place, and after they make it to their destination safely he is all alone by himself. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man tackles him and they begin to wrestle each other. It gets very violent. The man realizes he is losing in the struggle and he can’t escape, so he wounds Jacob by dislocating his hip.
Jacob falls to the ground in pain, defeated and then he realizes who he is really wrestling with.
Jacob is wrestling with God.
God says to Jacob that his name is going to change now that he has wrestled with him. His new name is going to be, “Israel,” which means, “one who wrestles with God.”
That’s just an odd story. Does God wrestle with people? Does God dislocate hips leaving us with a horrible limp?
I think there’s something here for us to take to heart as we worship God this evening.
You know human life, if we look it honestly, is a very wide panorama of ups and downs, ins and outs, victories and defeats.
That’s just what life is.
It is a story of our wrestling with life and wrestling with God.
Nothing calls to memory this “wrestling match” quite like Christmas does. Christmas memories touch us deeply- maybe because we spend Christmas with the people that touch us the deepest.
Christmas washes up vivid memories filled with strong feeling on the shores of our minds.
We can’t turn these off these memories. We can’t turn off these feelings. Resist them as we may, they just come.
For many of us, Christmas washes up good memories, warm memories of family and friends, and gifts, and tinsel, and that slimy, deliciously intoxicating grog we call “eggnog.”
Eggnog. What a disgusting name.
For others, the memory of Christmas washes up memories of all that we don't have, or all that we have lost. Feelings of loneliness and depression, of all that we’d hoped to be by now that we are not yet.
For most of us, I’d imagine it's a mix of both.
Christmas is a marker in our calendar years of both joy and sadness, the painful memories of those who aren’t with us this year who have passed on, and the excitement of new lives that have just arrived. Grief and goodness, hope and despair, love and loss, memories of where we’ve owned the world, and where we’ve been owned by it.
This is what it is to be honest about Christmas.
And I think, as a pastor, people in my profession often do our hearers a grave disservice during Advent when we don’t acknowledge that this is how Christmas really is for a great many of (maybe even all) us.
It’s the time of the year where we may feel like it’s, oh I don’t know, “incorrect” for us to acknowledge life on life’s terms, and yet nothing could be further from the truth, because Christmas is about God entering the human experience in Jesus, becoming a part of the mess and the bliss alongside us.
I think (and just give me some rope this evening) that Christmas is a time where we are to remember our struggle with God.
It is a good struggle.
It is a noble struggle.
And yes, we have limps to prove it.
This is what God wants from us at Christmas. Honesty about our lives, so that he can struggle with us. It is our honesty that gives him access to our struggles.
And that’s what this story has to teach us as we approach the Christmas Jesus tonight in this place.
At the end of the story, Jacob names this place where he wrestled with God. He does this so that he would remember what he learned there each time that he passed through this spot in his journeys.
And this is how I think we ought to think of Christmas as we pass through it each year in our own journeys. Christmas is a marker. A place where we meet God and we wrestle with him. We wrestle him because he is in love with us, and we love him back, and we will not let him go until he blesses us.