|Jacob Wrestling With God, Painting © 2011, by Jack Baumgartner|
This coming Sunday, we will be hearing a passage from the Book of Genesis that relates a seminal moment in Jacob's return from his exile. The exile was self-imposed, because he had stolen his brother's birthright and his father's blessing. We shouldn't be surprised that his hi-jinks didn't begin with those events. He struggled with his brother in the womb, causing his mother no small measure of distress. Even in exile, he wrestled with the treachery of his father-in-law, Laban...eventually cheating the cheater at his own game.
This is one shrewd customer. He fights to win, and winning means fighting for advantage with unyielding tenacity, ready wit and quick reflexes.
I wouldn't want to wrestle with him. Come to think of it, I don't believe I would particularly enjoy his company much at all. And this is the one in whose person the nation chosen by God as a light to the world would find its origin and expression. It all comes from Jacob.
As I was meditating on this lesson, and what it means for us as people who engage in a daily wrestling match with the world and with God, I was struck by this image of this event as it is depicted in the above painting. Most of the more classical artistic representations fail to affect me as this one does. They are beautiful, and most of them accentuate the terrestrial strength of Jacob, his will and resolve, over and against a more ethereal opponent...an angel whose expression usually lingers between bemusement and indulgence, if there is any expression at all to be read.
This rendition catches me up short, and provokes memories of the moments in my life when I have found myself by proverbial dark riversides, wrestling with God in the wee hours of the dark nights of my soul's walk in life.
When we wrestle with God, we realize quickly that we have bitten off more than we can chew. God is, after all, God. God fashioned every fiber of our being. God knows our strengths and our weaknesses...and so even as we pour it all into the struggle, we realize quickly that we are matched, known and our measure as an opponent has been taken. We grasp, we grapple. We refuse to let go, because to let go is to be swept away....to hold anything back is not an option.
In this piece, the tension and resolve are there in Jacob's face. He is giving it his all....and yet what he is holding onto offers little purchase. Handfuls of robe, folds of fabric with only the hint of a physical form in them. All that, just for the hint of a person whose arm
be there to lock, whose leg be there to sweep.
What is solid, what is of note? A hand reaching around Jacob's back. He seems oblivious to it, and yet I find myself anticipating it finding its purchase. A hip is about to be put out of joint, a muscle is about to be dislodged from its sinewy tethers.
As well, another hand grasps his ankle, locking the joints in a way I recognize from my own martial arts training. Grab a foot that way and twist, and the body will spin and a person's whole being is in your hands; and on top of that, the locked leg is about to drag across river stone.
This will not end well for Jacob. If I were a betting man, my money would be on his opponent. When he falls, and he will fall...I wouldn't believe that he is getting up again. And yes, we can all acknowledge that his state is a place we, too, have been in our contending with God.
How many times, when we wrestle with God, with Life, do we find ourselves in such straits? More often than we are willing to admit. I have been a pastor for years, and I have seen people grapple with God, or with the unknown, with that frustrated resolve time and again. What amazes me is the way people struggle on, even past the point when hope should perish...we hold on to that one last shred and refuse to let go. It is true, "Faith is belief in things hoped for...." and that hope is expressed in being willing to grapple, grasp and hold on to God with the abandon of resolve Jacob and the artist offer us in the above image.
The thing about wrestling with God is that when we are willing to REALLY take that on, we wind up in a very close relationship with the Almighty. It is one in which we are being utterly honest with God and with ourselves....all our weakness, and our strength, is on exhibition. Nothing can be held back.
Jacob is our model in that struggle. When broken, he won't let go. When beaten, he holds out for the blessing. When thrown down, he holds on to his opponent and refuses to let go until the sunrise.
It's not pretty, but it is a primary illustration of how our struggles can become a creative, resurrection experience of renewal. What we can't afford is the assumption that we can emerge from those struggles unscathed. Jacob held out for the blessing, even after experiencing dislocation (spiritual AND physical). He held on for the blessing, and thus blessed he wound up limping for the rest of his days.
We just have to be ready for that challenge...to open our hearts and hands for the engagement with the Almighty, that when we choose to wrestle with God we are willing to go all in, and all out. We are willing to put it all on the line, and to hold out for the blessing. We are willing to take on the transformation that such close contact with God impacts on us.
We are willing to become something new....it was then, in that moment, that Jacob received his new name: Israel. One who struggles with God.