Reflection – Wrestling… by Anne Stewart
This story of Jacob wrestling in the night – what do you make of that? Have you ever had
nights of wrestling? The NRSV version we read from this morning describes Jacob’s
adversary as ‘a man’. Sometimes the word angel is used but it is generally accepted that it
was YAHWEH, the Jewish name for God, that he was doing battle with. There are a number
of significant things about this night-time wrangle but we will get to them shortly.
I wonder what images come to mind when you hear the word, wrestling?
I have to confess to a loathing for this ‘sport’. It’s not so much
the throwing around of people that winds me up. I can see,
that doing this well, and without injuring others, is not all bad.
I am sure those skills could come in handy at times. (not sure
what those times are but…) What does wind me up is the
hype that goes with much of it. The yelling and pumping up of, already out-sized egos, that
makes me feel a little sick. It’s the game that goes on between the crowd and the fighters
that seems to appeal to the basest of some human instincts; almost a baying for blood. It
evokes the same feeling in me that I remember feeling at school when there was a fight and
almost all the school would run to watch, and egg them on – I was always the one
disappearing in the opposite direction.
For me, when I hear the word wrestle, I think about the fighting my brothers and I did as
kids. There were three of them and they were all older than me but that never dimmed my
determination to not allow myself to be beaten by them. I almost always was beaten but I
gave them a pretty good run for their money first! When I first met Martin, I was intrigued
at the similar way that he and his kids wrestled. I soon understood the logic behind these
battles. They were teaching moments, as I suspect mine were as a kid. I think my Dad was
trying to help me learn to ‘hold my own’ and to not run from anything that came at me.
Maybe it was his way of helping me grow a backbone. Similarly, I soon saw that Mart was
teaching his kids that stop meant stop. That was really the only rule – when someone
called stop then it was all over. Important lessons for them all, for the boys and for Hana.
These examples are obvious wrestling images, but the one I am more interested in today is
the internal wrestling we all go through, from time to time. You might recognise this from
those times when you have had to make some momentous decision. Even the smallest
decisions can see us in a fine old wrestling match! You might be like me, and spend far too
much time in the night wrestling with worries, doubts, or sometimes just about anything –
mostly things which either don’t even matter, or, most certainly cannot be fixed in the
night! What is it about the quiet, dark space that takes us into those places where the most
unnecessary stuff can come to the surface to be wrestled with? Of course, Jacob’s story
helps us see that it’s not always unnecessary stuff we are dealing with in these wrestling
I don’t think it’s any surprise that it was in his dark space that Jacob encountered his
adversary. To get some context, Jacob was on his way to catch up with his slightly older
twin, Esau. These two boys had been at odds with one another from the time they shared a
womb. As they were born Jacob, not happy about being second, grabbed a hold of Esau’s
heel, earning him the name Jacob, or heel-catcher, or supplanter, or leg-puller, or, he who
follows on the heel of another. This is often translated as trickster, or deceiver. What
followed was a lifetime of competition between the brothers, who were very different in
character. Their mother Rebecca believed she had been told that the older brother would
end up serving the younger. In time, of course, we hear that Jacob, with some help from
his mother, tricked Esau out of his birthright.
Jacob’s story is a long tale of deception, he too, was on the receiving end of some of it.
Jacob had noticed a cousin, Rachel whom he admired greatly. He approached her father,
his uncle, Laban who proceeded to trick him into marrying her sister Leah, after he had
worked for him for seven years. The only way Jacob could marry Rachel was to work for
Laban for another seven years. Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and a couple of housemaids then
went on to produce between them twelve sons and one daughter. These are the eleven
boys who sold their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt. These were not straightforward
So, this story comes as Jacob is preparing to meet up with Esau again. Jacob is approaching
this meeting with great fear and anxiety. There is no hint that he feels any remorse ahead
of this meeting but he is wary of the wrath of his brother and that he, himself, has done
wrong. He is also aware that Esau plans to kill him for his past trickery. Jacob plans the
meeting meticulously; he sends gifts in the hope of appeasing his brother, ahead of the
meeting. But before this can happen, he has this night-time encounter.
As I said before, I don’t think it is any surprise that this encounter took place at night – in
the dark. Isn’t this the place where many of the things that haunt us are played out? The
light of day can often present a whole different picture. I suspect that what many of us do
battle with in the night is with ourselves, our egos. Dan talked about this last week; about
how our egos can get in the way of our ability to hear the truth, and how terribly difficult
they can be to get beyond. This is the wrestling that this story reminds me of. Those times
in the night when you play and replay conversations you might have had, or wished you had
had, because lying deep within is some truth about yourself that the distractions of the day
won’t let you see. Or, maybe, this is where our ego’s dreams of ascendancy are played
out, and where God meets us to help us see the truth about ourselves.
Whichever way you see it, this night of wrestling changed Jacob. It opened his eyes, and
turned him into a new person. In the morning the adversary was gone and so was Jacob.
There remained only Israel, the same man, yet decisively changed. This new man is who
must now go and meet his brother; a broken man who walks with a limp. A man wounded
by his wrestling with God. As the theologian, Walter Bruggeman says, “Meeting this God
did not lead, as are wont to imagine, to reconciliation, forgiveness, or healing. It resulted in
a crippling.” Jacob prevailed but he also limped. He took God on, and he was reminded of
this every day of his life, in his limp. He got the blessing he most desired, but he did not
come out of the encounter unscathed. God wanted to enter into a relationship with Jacob,
however, he couldn’t do so until Jacob admitted his vulnerability to self-reliance, deceit,
and trickery. Jacob knows who he is now; he is not God. He approaches his brother with a
new power, which is found in weakness.
Is this another step in our understanding of who we are? Of what the truth that only God
can reveal, can do, and must do, to our egos? Dan talked last week about Jacob’s ladder.
This week I was talking with a colleague, about this story and he told me that he was
brought up in a church where the ladder was something he was taught that he had to climb
to get to God. Only now is he seeing that the ladder is God’s way of coming to us. If you
see it as my friend was taught, then it’s all about us and our journey to God. Actually, the
truth is the reverse, God comes to us, and journeys with us – it’s God’s story that we are
invited into, not the reverse. We don’t choose God, God chooses us – that’s where our
story starts. That’s why our services of worship start with God’s word, to which our
worship is a response. It’s not all about us and our egos!
Managing our egos, and keeping them in their place, is sometimes quite challenging, even
in the church family. Our surrounding culture is very much invested in promoting the idea
that it is all about us. I am often asked why I chose to be a minister. I’m not at all sure I did,
but try explaining the idea of call to anyone who cannot even imagine anything beyond
their own thinking or feeling. So often too, in the church, we want to be nice – after all, we
are called to embody the fruits of the Spirit. But the good news that Jesus brings to us is
not about being nice; it is about being honest and just. Truth is a difficult concept for many
in our world. The ego can’t win if truth is allowed its way. But first truth has to find its way
past the ego if we are to lead honest and God-filled lives. Our job is to learn how to be
honest, but with love and respect. Before we can witness to this, we have to make sure that
we can love and respect those with whom we disagree. For when we are hurt, we want to
hurt back. When we are put down, we want to get even. This is our ego’s natural defence
mechanism. The ego, or sense of self, is not all bad, except when it is allowed to think it is
the whole and only thing! Is this what keeps us wrestling with God, this desire for control
and resistance to brokenness? But when we do let go of thinking that we are the centre of
the world, or that our rights and dignity have to be defended before other people’s rights
and dignity, we can finally live and act with justice and truth. As we saw with Jacob, people
don’t really change by themselves. God changes us, through engaging us in a wrestle with
whatever it is that stops us from encountering God deep within.