Soap Operas began as a phenomenon of the 1950’s, and they continue to be popular television fare today. I used to know some of their names…”As the World Turns,” “The Guiding Light,” “General Hospital,” and night-time shows such as “Dallas.” How many of you watch now or used to watch soap operas? Right. I’m going to bet that not everybody here is being totally honest.
We read today an episode of a biblical soap opera. It has all the elements of the TV version, except it’s better. I know that most of us have a passing acquaintance with the story of Jacob, but let’s review the plot such as it is which brings us to the ford of the river Jabbok.
A rabbi I know always said that of all the famous people in Jewish history, Jacob is the one you least want your son to grow up to be like. He is the bad guy in the story, the one who causes the plot to thicken. A J.R., if you will. You remember how it goes following some maternal advice, Jacob tricks his poor, old, blind father into giving him his brother Esau’s birthright. Esau was his twin brother not his identical twin, however, for where Esau is strong, hairy, and manly, Jacob is portrayed as a Mama’s boy. Jacob was the second twin born. Had it not been for that twist of fate, he, not his brother, would inherit his father’s possessions, and so one understands at some level Jacob’s conniving against the unfairness of it all. Esau, for his part, hates Jacob and plans to kill him. Not surprisingly, Jacob has to leave town quickly. So Rebekah sends Jacob to find his uncle Laban.
On the way there, Jacob has his famous dream about angels and a ladder up to heaven, and he takes a step closer to God but not all the way there yet. In his search for Laban, Jacob accidently runs into Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and it is love at first sight. Remember that this is the Middle Eastern version, so Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years to get the right to marry Rachel. There is a hitch: after the seven years are up, Jacob learns that the cultural custom dictates that the oldest sister must marry first, so he marries Leah and has to work another seven years for Rachel. Then another hitch happens: Jacob is still madly in love with Rachel, but it is Leah who bears the children. Of course, Rachel begins to hate her sister Leah. It gets even more bizarre, so Rachel has Jacob father a son by her maid, like Abraham and Hagar. Leah reacts by getting Jacob to father a son with her maid. The intrigue thickens and thickens. Finally Rachel does have a son, named Joseph, who you will recognize.
Jacob hasn’t changed much, and he figures out a way to cheat Laban. Laban does not take kindly to Jacob’s deceit. So Jacob runs away again and is pursued by Laban, who wants his daughters and grandchildren returned. To make a long story short, they reconcile and Jacob starts to go home with his family, which is where we find him today facing Esau, his brother, and 400 armed men. To Jacob’s surprise, Esau loves him and welcomes him, but not before his wrestling match on the riverbank. There is a lot more to this story. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped and his brothers take revenge. Joseph is sold into slavery. A famine forces this family into Egypt and so on.
So I hope you can understand why I say that the Bible is more like a soap opera than a history book. The Bible is about life and the struggles, hopes, dreams, and evil deeds of people like you and me. Unlike the Greek hero stories, the heros of the Bible all are human with clay feet. This ought to give us heart to know that God is with people in their life struggles, and if we allow Him, God uses our struggles to open up doorways into holiness.
“And there was a man that wrestled with him until daybreak.” This has to be one of the strangest and least clear stories in all of the Bible. Who is this person? And if his identity is unclear, so, too, is the outcome of the struggle. Who wins? Yet in a strangely powerful way, this incoherent story is powerfully suggestive to our imaginations, which help us see that the struggles of scriptural characters are also our struggles.
We know that Jacob is not an admirable man, that he struggles with his insecurities, his anger, his doubt, his selfishness. Just as the Devil appears in this world in the guise of good to turn good into evil, so the angel of God can appear in the shadows of our lives to turn darkness into light.
It is true that our greatest conflicts are internal. Our greatest enemies are within. Our deepest wounds are self- inflicted. So what is wrestling with God if it is not coming to grips with ourselves? It is facing what we prefer to flee, admitting what we would rather deny, letting the separated and alienated parts of ourselves have it out with each other.
It is no accident that this wrestling match occurs in the wee hours of the night. We all know that time. Whatever we are struggling with inside ourselves appears in those hours. Wrestling is one of the most intimate and difficult sports. It is the struggle for power over someone attempting to gain power over you. And you are close enough to smell their sweat and taste their breath. Someone or something that you are trying to take down while it is trying to take you down. We wrestle in the night with the dragons of our lives, our fears, our foreboding. Some of us are struggling with time that has passed us by. Some of us are trying to leave where we are. Some of us are wrestling with relationships that no longer work. Some of us are overwhelmed and pinned by remorse or guilt. Some of us are angry at someone else. Some of us are tired of the struggle.
That night on the river Jacob decides to deny his demons no longer, to wrestle with them for as long as it takes to bring them into the light; to wrestle with them until they yield him their blessing and relinquish their power over him. What makes this story so hauntingly real for us is that Jacob’s assailant turns out to be none other than God himself. For God wants us to become whole in body and in spirit. More importantly, God wants us to become holy, to be reconciled to ourselves so that we can be reconciled to others. That is the correct order, because we, like Jacob, sin out of our hurts. We wound because we have first been wounded. We grasp for another’s blessing only because we do not reach for the one blessing that each of us needs: the blessing of God himself.
Jacob doesn’t come home without his limp, but that limp is a reminder of how hard it was to struggle for wholeness. He knows now that God’s strength has made him perfect in his own weakness, which is the blessing of God. Having gone through all of this, Jacob is now free to go home or go anywhere, because his home is with God and his identity has shifted from himself and his selfishness to the wonder of placing himself in God’s hands. So if Esau is going to kill him tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. He has relinquished his fear and found his God. Having wrestled with God, Jacob is ready for the Promised Land, that serenity that lies not on the near but on the far side of conflict, the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity. And having wrestled with God, he is also ready for a new name that will be remembered by his descendants from generation to generation.
Ambrose Bierce, the acerbic writer of the last century, once defined a Christian as “one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” Until we wrestle with the within-ness of God inside ourselves, our proclamation of faith is useless and hollow. There is no way to win a wrestling match with a half-hearted effort and no way to win God’s blessing with a half-hearted faith. Most things that begin with the adjective “half” are bad news: “half-baked” not good for cookies or ideas. “Half-done” when you still have as much to do as you have already done. “Half-time” especially bad at Super Bowls. “Half-dead” never the look you want to go for. “Half-alive” which always begs the question which half? “Half- price” what’s wrong with it?
The most dismal “half” we know is that halfheartedness we offer to God and then wonder why our faith seems so weak inside us. Any cardiac patient can tell you that to try to go through life half-hearted is a constant struggle. You struggle to breath, you struggle for comfort, you struggle to climb, you struggle even to rest. All of these are symptoms of a half-hearted faith as well.
Wrestling with God is a way to a heart transplant, a way to new life, a way to living out of holiness. You won’t get there without a limp. I suggest that if you want to read a short biography of your life that you go home fix a cup of coffee or maybe a stiff drink go into your bedroom and close the door and read the stubs of your checkbook. That is the story about what you value in life and essentially about who you are. More than that. Those checkbook stubs will also tell you what you believe in.
No laming, no naming, no struggle, no Promised Land, no cross, no crown. The one thing about wrestling with God is that you cannot lose. God wants us to win, so that whatever inside us stops us from loving God will be thrown out. Then you change, your name changes, your life changes, and where formerly there was darkness now there is light. Reaching the other shore is reaching and pulling hard for God to be in our lives. It is not letting anything block that center core where we know and feel God’s gracious love for us. Oh, it is a struggle, but in the end it makes all the difference.