Jacob's Struggle


Mr. Jason VanBorssum, Postulant

In the Name of God: ✠ Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

This morning we continue our reading and preaching from the Book of Genesis. We have been reminded of the faithfulness of Abraham, the miraculous birth of a son to Sarah, the hospitality shown to three holy strangers (“entertain[ing] angels unawares”) the near sacrifice of Isaac on a stone altar, the scheming of Jacob to swindle his brother Esau out of his inheritance and birthright, and after twenty years in exile, Jacob’s encounter with God.

Genesis represents much more than the story of Creation, Noah’s ark, and the ancient history of a nomadic desert people. The overarching theme of Genesis is of relationship – holy relationship – in other words, COVENANT. An unbreakable and sacred relationship between God and humankind. In the First Book of the Torah, God reveals Himself as the absolute Sovereign of the Universe, the Creator and Father of all; His pure love for Creation is evident; His plan for humankind is proclaimed; and a foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) is revealed. These covenantal themes illustrate the parent–child relationship between God and humankind and, more importantly therefore, the Divine charter of man’s mission. Created in the imago Dei, that is, in the image of God, human beings have a mission to bring about the fulfillment of Creation by carrying out the commandment of God. Adam and Eve failed, and were driven into exile. This state of exile (that is, sin) is the intrinsic, inherited state of man without covenantal relationship. We sin, but we can come back and be restored and redeemed. This is the linear underpinning of the whole of the Hebrew Bible, whose narrative reaches its zenith in the birth, life, rabbinate, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Divine Logos, made incarnate through the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary (the second Eve) as Jesus the Christ.

This morning’s lesson about Jacob wrestling with a messenger of God should reaffirm for us the reality of the human condition: life is a struggle. And our struggling is made more intense when we refuse to face our fears, refuse to acknowledge our shortcomings and our pride. Here, I should like to distinguish between human beings created in the “image of God” and what it means for us to bear the “likeness of God.” We might think at first that “image” and “likeness” are synonymous. And they may be, depending on the context. But in terms of our relationship with God, I would suggest that the imago Dei reflects our intrinsic state, whereas bearing the “likeness” of God requires effort on our part. What do I mean? Adam and Eve – that is, humankind – were created to have the form of God: intellect and reason. To reflect the likeness of God, we must reflect the content of God. Adam had the form of God but not the content of God. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they were immature and rebellious – like children! – and needed to develop; i.e., they were expected to grow into the likeness of God, the content of God. To show love, compassion, empathy, and sorrow at levels that are vastly much greater than evolution requires. To move from our innate ability to discern right from wrong to actually living and doing in accordance with this God-given innate ability.

This is what St. Irenaeus called “soul making.” The development of humanity into a more perfect reflection of our Heavenly Father. At birth, we are instilled with the Divine spark of life, but are nothing more than the raw material for further stages of God’s creative work. Struggle and suffering are our reality. We dislike this reality, but struggle and suffering are a necessary part of God’s created universe. It is through struggle that human souls are made noble. We are honed and humbled, we learn, and we mature and grow, changing from merely human animals into “children of God.” Our potential for a higher level of moral perfection is tested by the choices we make in times of struggle and experience, as we choose God and the content of God rather than our baser instincts. God allows struggle and suffering for our benefit. Again, we dislike this. I know that I dislike it. I sometimes rage against it and wrestle with it. Like Jacob.

Like Jacob, we wrestle with God because facing the truth feels too painful. We don’t easily submit to God, and we may not even want to. In the West, and even in the Church, we honor and celebrate wealth, power, strength, prestige. We admire “winners” and we crave victory. We view weakness, failure, and doubt with disdain. Although we know intellectually that fear, anxiety, feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, grief, and depression are part of life, we tend to view these as signs of failure or even as a lack of faith. However, as disciples of Christ we know that trappings of glamour and success are fleeting and that the accolades of the world are shallow and fickle, and are ingredients of a recipe for despair and discontentment. Sooner or later, the hard realities of life hit us squarely between the eyes. The story of Jacob pulls us back to God’s eternal reality.

Jacob’s story was one of constant struggles. Although God promised Jacob that through him would arise a great nation – the Jewish people – he was a man full of fear and anxiety. He was ruthless. He was a liar. A manipulator. A hustler. A con artist who deceived his father Isaac and who betrayed his brother Esau. As Fr. Michael explained last Sunday, the name “Jacob” (Yaakov) means “deceiver.” And it also means more literally, “grabber.” About to meet his brother after twenty years of exile, Jacob knows that the embittered Esau, seething with anger for twenty years, is at the head of a small army coming to serve up a cold dish of revenge à la mode. Alone in the desert, divested of all his worldly possessions, physically exhausted, and finally and at long last all aware that he is not in control of his fate, Jacob collapses on the banks of the Jabbok River. He was too spent to struggle any longer.

But only then did Jacob’s real struggle begin: a wrestling match with God Himself. That night, an angelic stranger visits Jacob; the two fight and wrestle throughout the long, cold night until daybreak, at which point the Messenger of the Most High God injures Jacob, dislocating his hip and crippling him for the rest of his life. It was only then that Jacob realized that his life of resisting and fighting, of scheming and guile, ended in submission to God: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” In other words, I have been spared. I have been saved. I have received the gift of salvation.

Before he could return from his exile of pride and sin and egotism, Jacob had to face his fears and his own past and struggle with God. The outcome of the struggle was a blessing, signified by a new name: Israel, which means “he who wrestles with God.” Isn’t that significant and powerful and beautiful? That the people chosen to be a “light unto the nations” would be named “wrestles with God?” Our human instincts struggle against growing up. As spiritual children, we rebel against our capital-P Parent. Instilled by God with intellect and reason, we question, we have doubts. The Body of Christ, the Church, is grafted onto the Tree of Israel. The people of the New Covenant are the branch of the people of the Old Covenant, the root. And we, too, wrestle with God because we are “in the world but not of it.” This is a daily wrestling match that comes with the territory of being set aside in covenantal relationship.

Jacob finally prevailed when his faith and trust overcame the pain of his past. Clinging on to the Angel like a terrier on a pant leg, Jacob’s real struggle was to wrestle with who Jacob thought he was and with the man God intended Jacob to be. This is what it looks like to go from bearing the “image of God” to reflecting the “likeness of God.” And note that Jacob’s struggle taught him an important lesson, and he was left with a permanent, physical reminder. For the rest of his life, Jacob was crippled and walked with a limp. The injuries and wounds we sustain through the struggles of life can be viewed as either a handicap, or, more rightly, I would suggest, as a badge of honor that serves as a reminder to us that, like Jacob, when we submit to God we will see Him “face to face” and our life is preserved.

In the Epistle appointed for this morning, the theme is affliction and consolation. Affliction and consolation. In his Letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul stresses that being in Christ is to endure the experience of Jacob: that weakness and suffering signal God’s empowering presence. Suffering and affliction of covenantal people are evidence of God’s love. St. Paul asserts that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” – clay jars – that is, our human bodies, which are weak and impermanent and so cannot be the source of the power of the treasure found in knowledge of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The idea of the human body as an earthen vessel, which ultimately returns to the dust of the earth out of which Adam was created, depicts the Creator as the potter of humankind.

St. Paul goes on to say that “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” The Stoics of the ancient world spoke about these afflictions to demonstrate their indifference to adversity. In contrast, Paul looks to the vulnerability and flaws and struggling of human beings – like Jacob – to make a theological point: adversity demonstrates our frailty and unworthiness, and the overcoming of adversity is proof of Divine power.

Again, Jacob’s struggle taught him an important lesson, and he was left with a permanent, physical reminder. For the rest of his life, Jacob was crippled and walked with a limp. The injuries and wounds we sustain through the struggles of life can be viewed as either a handicap or as a badge of honor that serves as a reminder to us that, like Jacob, when we submit to God we will see Him “face to face” and our life is preserved. In this morning’s Epistle reading, Paul teaches that in struggle and adversity, we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus. In other words, Jesus’s suffering and death are replicated in the suffering of the Church – and sometimes in the very physical bodily sufferings Christians endure. Thereby the life of Jesus becomes visible. Struggle, suffering, and affliction are counterparts to the suffering which Jesus endured for the sake of redeeming the world. As covenantal people, the world will cause us pain and suffering. That’s reality. Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Orthodox Church in Syria are proof of that. These our sisters and brothers have literally been nailed to the Cross of Christ. And so, as St. Paul explains, the suffering of Jesus is made manifest in the very flesh of Christians through our struggle.

Through his exhausting struggle and his crippling injury, Jacob prevailed and submitted to God, seeing Him “face to face.” In the Eucharist, we encounter the Real Presence of Christ in His blessed Body and Blood. We come “face to face” with God only after we have made the confession of Jacob: “Forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of Thy Name.” But we are no longer Jacob; we are Israel, one who struggles with God and nonetheless receives the full covenantal promise of undeserved grace. Grace given to us through the God-Man who wrestles with us until we fall to our knees and acknowledge, “We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in Thy manifold and great mercies.”

Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, each one of us must be renamed from Jacob to Israel, from being a self-serving manipulator to a child of God who surrenders to God’s power and receives blessing. Just as Jacob finally prevailed when the power of faith in God defeated his rebellion, so we can be freed from our own exile by proclaiming “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Note the order of this morning’s Lesson: it is only when we tell God our name (i.e., who we really are) that God meets us “face to face.” Jacob’s wrestling with God reminds of this hopeful truth: though we may struggle mightily against God and His will for us through the loneliness of the dark night, by daybreak, through Christ, His blessing will come. Amen.