Wrestling With God

A while back I was struggling with the lectionary text of Genesis 32, the famous all-night wrestling match between Jacob and God.

I had seen many creative efforts to explain what could possibly be meant by a story in which a human fights with and prevails against God. I had tried several, myself.

It is such a ridiculous premise that even the best efforts fell short of providing me with a satisfactory explanation.

On the day that I was struggling with this text, I received a free copy of the premiere issue of a magazine called Our Iowa.

Inside was a story about a high school wrestling match between Ogden and Humboldt. Humboldt had a senior on their team with Down syndrome. He was not capable of wrestling at a competitive level and posed no challenge at all to any wrestler. But the coaches asked if anyone on the Ogden team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat.

An Ogden wrestler offered to take him on. He not only wrestled him for the entire six minutes, but allowed his opponent to beat him on points. He gave the Humboldt kid the thrill of not only competing, but of raising his arms in victory. Both wrestlers got a standing ovation, and there was hardly a dry eye in the gymnasium.

And for the first time, I understood what that Genesis story of a man wrestling with and prevailing against God was about.

The unique message of Christianity is that God is not an impersonal force, or a terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate in any meaningful way. God is not a person who expects only praise and sacrifices and groveling from us and has no further use for us. God is ready and willing and eager to get down and dirty with us.

We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be.

Of course God could squish us like a bug in a nanosecond. But for our benefit, God is always available to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are capable of wrestling.
God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to experience the love that flows from God.

For me, every sermon is a wrestling match with God. In every text, I challenge God. I probe for God’s weak spots and if I see something that looks vulnerable, I don’t try to protect God; I go in for the pin. I throw everything I have at God–doubt, anger, despair, questions.

God could pin me in a nanosecond, but God lets me wrestle. I may come away with elbow burns or with a limp. But God stays on the mat with me for as long as I need to in order for me to understand the love that flows from God.

The sermon is the tale of this week’s competition between God and the people who wrestle with God. If the story is told right, there should not be a dry eye in the house. Not because of how I tell the story, but simply because of what God has done.