A masterclass in prayer – Jacob wrestles at Peniel


August 2nd 2020, Trinity 8


I wonder if you have found the last few months a struggle in any way? Struggled with the lockdown, with loneliness perhaps, illness, uncertainty, loss, or struggled with faith? What about struggled with God? This morning we come to one of the most unusual stories of the entire Bible – the story of Jacob wrestling with God – and winning!  The Bible is peppered with stories of direct encounter with God – think Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 2,3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), Isaiah before the throne of God (Isaiah 6), the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), The revelation to John in the last book of the Bible. These direct encounters, direct experiences of God shape the course of subsequent faith history – as you might expect. I just heard from God!


The story of Jacob’s wrestling-match with a man who turned out to be God is perhaps the most mysterious encounter of all. The story is set early in the Bible, in the first book, Genesis, probably around 1500 BC – 3,500 years ago, long before Jesus. Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, was a cheat, and a bit of a mummy’s boy, unlike his huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ elder brother Esau. Jacob cheated Esau out of his birth right as firstborn for nothing more than a bowl of porridge when he came in hungry after a day’s hunting, and then had to flee Esau’s wrath when the truth dawned. Jacob ran to his uncle Laban, who cheated him back in a long and complicated story involving switching brides on honeymoon night – can you imagine? No lights on, one fancies – so he marries Leah first, the eldest. Poor Jacob works for another 7 years to finally get lovely Rachel too. And as the story goes on, Jacob becomes rich and powerful, eventually leaves Laban and goes on his way – only to find his past catching up with him in the form of his brother Esau, coming to meet him. His worst fear is going to be realised – the wrong he did to his brother is about to return to haunt him. Not only that, 400 men will be with him! (32:6) He fears the worst. He prays for deliverance (32:9-12), sends gifts to Esau to try and appease him, sends his wives and children away to safety, and crosses the Jabbok river on his way to face down his fear in the person of his brother Esau. On the way, he meets a ‘man’ and wrestles with him until daybreak. When the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob, he puts Jacob’s hip out and asks to be let go. Jacob refuses, ‘unless you bless me’. The man gives him a new name, ‘Israel’, which means ‘one who strives with God’ but will not give Jacob his own name. Jacob realises that it is God, or his angel, he has been wrestling with. How can this be? How come I am still alive? But he is blessed, and limps on his way as the sun rises. As the story goes on, Jacob’s fears come to nothing and there is reconciliation between the two brothers.


What on earth do we understand happened here? An important message in terms of the history of the Bible, is in the change in names – from Jacob to Israel, the one who strives with God. For all their mistakes, the nation that sprang from Jacob, Israel, remained intertwined with God, struggled with Him, wrestled with Him even, but was blessed by Him. In other words, the wrestling-match was a sort of picture of what the relationship would be like between Israel and God. A struggle. With pain.


But what do we make of it? What do we do with it? This story is, I believe, given to us because it tells us something profound about the relationship between God and humanity – by humanity, I mean you and me. It is called a ‘mystical’ encounter, where the word ‘mystical’ means that it is a felt experience of encounter with God. It is contained within a story because stories are so much better than mere descriptions, they touch us and stay with us, they have depths that sometimes you can’t even get to the bottom of, and even if you think you have, there’s more. I want to reflect on this for a few minutes and make some suggestions that we could even take into our own lives. In fact, into our lives of prayer, because this story is a masterclass in prayer.


I wonder if poor Jacob, scared half to death by the thought of meeting Esau, actually thought to begin with that it was Esau he met and wrestled with? For he did actually face his fear, he was on his way to meeting his fear, personified in Esau. But it turned out to be God he ran into. What is it we fear most? What is it you or I fear most? Illness? Abandonment? Failure? Death? Or what is it we are trying to ignore, to escape from, to run away from, like Jacob running away from Esau? What is the nightmare? For all his weakness, his deceitfulness, Jacob faced his fear and found he was facing God at the same time. I just wonder if in facing our own deepest fear, we would find God there?


As I looked at some of the pictures that have been painted about this encounter, I was immediately struck that wrestling – unlike boxing – is an experience of being held! Sometimes our relationship with God might indeed seem like a struggle – so much is happening to us, so much going on, we are wrestling, but we are held. Could there possibly be a safer place?


This experience of Jacob’s was intensely physical. Wrestling is perhaps the ultimate contact sport with skin-to-skin, body-to-body full-on contact, every part engaged. There was even physical injury, poor Jacob’s hip was put out, perhaps sprained or even dislocated. We too are physical beings, not disembodied spirits or just minds on legs. Our bodies tell us so much, react and respond in all sorts of ways. This is of course very familiar to us. We walk into a meeting and the pit of our stomach tells us something is wrong. Our throat tightens as we choke with emotion, we weep with sadness or joy, it seems like our heart literally goes out to someone, our heart sinks as we hear bad news, our gut tightens with anxiety. We actually speak of ‘being touched’ when we hear a lovely story. We listen to a beautiful poem and we are stilled, our heart stops as we are gripped by it. Gripped! Look at how physical that word is! If these ordinary, everyday things literally touch us, does not God do this also, as we walk with him?  So, when we come to prayer, when we are still before God, we may perhaps begin to become aware of what is happening in our bodies, of how God is touching me at this moment. What is God saying through this experience? After all, as Paul asks us, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).


The final thing that speaks to me from this story is that Jacob knew what he wanted. He wanted God’s blessing. In fact, it wasn’t the first time he had sought for that. In cheating his elder brother Esau out of his birth right he was seeking all the rights and blessings which came with being the first born in that ancient culture. Now, as he faced Esau again – even perhaps as he thought that to begin with it was Esau he was grappling with – he feared losing that privilege that he knew was rightfully not his. ‘No, don’t take it from me! Bless me! Give me that which I have wanted all my life!’ And God did give it to him, but not without pain. Sometimes, or perhaps often, when we come to prayer, we don’t ask for what we really want. Maybe we don’t even know what it is we want. It is something to think about, to reflect on. What is your desire? Imagine that you answered the front door to Jesus himself. As you welcomed him, he asks you, what do you want?


I have taken this encounter of Jacob with God as a picture, a parable of conscious relationship with God – by which I mean prayer. Whenever we move away from our anxious thoughts and preoccupations and acknowledge God – whether in silence, in contemplation, in spoken words, in weeping, in song, in reading, in body posture – kneeling, standing, in gestures like arms raised, dancing, reverently crossing oneself – whenever we do this, we are at prayer. Mysteriously, as we face our fears we can find ourselves facing God. We are held in our struggle with him. Prayer can be physical too, what is God saying through my body experiences? What is it that you want, you desire?


I wonder how all this leaves you? You might like to hold on to just one insight from this strange story we have read and explored. Perhaps you can find a moment today to read the story again in a quiet place and find if there is a phrase, a word that touches you – that causes something to happen to you physically – that may be a nudge from God: take note! You may find that there is something about this story that maybe calls you to a deeper place of encounter with God yourself and you want to explore that. Plenty of reading material here – Richard Rohr is always a good place to start, I would suggest his little book ‘Just this’. You may want to find a partner to share with and perhaps spiritual direction is a route you would like to try.


Here are Jacob’s words to end with: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me!’


Richard Croft