Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
March 13, 2022
“Then [God ] said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” Genesis 32:26
Last week we learned how to strive with Satan and win through faith in Christ. Today we learn how to wrestle with God. If Satan seems like an intimidating opponent, how much more God! Why is it that God lays such heavy crosses on those he loves? And doesn’t it seem like God fights dirty? He knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. That certainly isn’t a legal move in the rules of wrestling. Why does God hide his face from us in trials? Why does God wrestle with us? The answer is simple: because a person is saved through faith alone. You are not saved by your own good works. You do not earn your salvation. You are saved solely through trusting the promise of forgiveness and salvation for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Now, how does that make sense? Why then the trial? Because faith that does not go through trials grows faint and weak and dies. God must put faith to the test in order to keep it alive and focus the faith on the promise, which alone gives life.
We learned about this a few weeks ago in Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed. The seed that fell among the thorns and was choked out were those who heard the word of God, but the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life choked the word, so that the fruit failed to mature. Now think of it; the thorns are cares, riches, and pleasures in life. They don’t seem like thorns in real life, although they are! They seem like a busy and even productive life. We chase after our cares. We pursue riches. We strive after pleasures. And we enjoy it all. We call them good gifts from God as a pretense for our idolatry, but we fail to give God thanks and praise for them. Meanwhile, the thorns grow ever thicker, choking and strangling until the Gospel is squeezed out of our hearts to make room for the transient pleasures of life.
God sees this, and he rushes to rescue us, as a parent rushes to save his child from drowning. And he rips the thorns off of us in order to save our souls! Yet, we don’t see it that way. We liked the thorns. We thought we needed them. We thought they were proof that God loved us. So, when the thorns are ripped out, we assume that God must hate us; he’s turned his back on us. We wonder whether God will ever give us a good thing again.
Yet, it was the thorns that were killing us. God certainly knows what we need and will eagerly provide it for us. But by laying a burden on us, or by taking something we like away, he is actually directing our attention to his promise in order to save our faith from destruction. God knows how much to give and how much to take away for your own good, as the Proverb goes, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9)
Jacob certainly has reached the extremes of that prayer. He crossed the Jordan with nothing and now he goes back with two camps. God has made him rich and has promised him even more, to make him a great nation and to bless all nations of the earth through his seed. Yet, here again, Jacob is brought low. He is in danger of losing everything. His brother Esau, whom he had cheated twice, now comes to meet him with 400 men. Jacob fears he will lose his wives, his children, his servants, and his flocks and herds. It appears that God is taking away everything that he had given him, and worse, that God was revoking his promise to make him a great nation and to bless the world through the Christ, who would be born from him.
This is what this wrestling match is about. The man, whom Jacob wrestles through the night is none other than the pre-incarnate Christ, God himself before he has become man. Christ has taken the form of a man and wrestled with Jacob through the night as if to say, “The promise is lost. You’re done. God has forsaken you.” Yet, despite God knocking Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob still holds on. He causes God to plead with Jacob to let him go, but Jacob won’t let go until God blesses him. Why? Is Jacob just a stubborn old man? No. rather because when Jacob is on the verge of losing everything, the only thing he can hold onto is the promise.
God promised Jacob to make him a great nation. God promised to bless the whole earth through Jacob, meaning that the Christ would be born from his lineage. And moreover, God promised that he would not leave Jacob or forsake him until he had done what he had promised. (Genesis 28:13-15). Jacob believed the promise (Genesis 32:12). So, he clings to the promise. As he clung to the body of the man he wrestled even as his hip sat out of joint, so his heart clung to the words of his Savior even though it felt like it would break. Jacob may have been limping at the end of his match, but his faith was never stronger.
And so, Jacob teaches us to cling to the promise. There is nothing that you are worried about that Jacob did not worry about in his struggle with God. Are you worried about your property, your children, your spouse, your eternal salvation? Jacob was set to lose everything he owned, to watch his children murdered and his wives taken as slaves, to see the Gospel itself snuffed out in front of him. Yet, he endured. Follow Jacob’s example. Cling to the promise!
And has God given you a promise to cling to? Has he ever! Are you worried about the needs of your body and of your children? Listen to these words from our Lord Jesus, “Consider the lilies, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, owe you of little faith.” (Luke 12:27-28) Put these words to memory. Imprint them on your heart. And when you worry, say them back to Jesus. Tell him what he said. And don’t stop telling him until he gives you what he promised.
Do you fear that God will not answer your prayer? That he has hidden his face from you? Learn these words of our Lord Jesus, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8) Learn this saying of Jesus by heart. Remind yourself of it whenever it looks like God has forgotten you. Hold on to this promise and don’t let go.
Are you afraid of your enemies? Hear the words of Saint Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will ne not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31) Say that to your doubt. Confess this when your enemies come for you.
Do you have a guilty conscience? Are you afraid of being condemned to hell? Commit these words of Scripture to memory, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) You don’t need to memorize the entire Bible. But there are many passages you can easily put to memory that will strengthen your faith, drive you to prayer, and comfort you in trial.
God renamed Jacob after their match saying, “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel”. The meaning of the name Israel has confused many Bible scholars throughout the centuries. Some have suggested that it means, “Man who sees God.” Ish is Hebrew for man. Raah is Hebrew for sees. And El is Hebrew for God. Ish-raah-El. That sounds nice, but that isn’t what God said. God said, “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” A better translation would be, “He who rules God.” Sar in Hebrew means chief or prince. Sarah means to rule as a prince. So, the name Yi-Sra-El would mean, “Ruler of God.” Yet, this seems almost blasphemous. How can we say that a man can rule over God? But it is not that God is conquered against his will! No, God wants to be ruled, so to say, in this particular sense. He wants to be ruled by his promise, because that means that he has our complete trust.
If a thug holds a loaded gun to my chest, I would willingly hand over my wallet and the keys to my car to save my life. In that sense, I’ve been mastered. The thief has the upper hand. But God certainly cannot be caught in that way. Yet, I will gladly give much more than the contents of my wallet or my car to my child throughout my life, even though my children are weaker and smaller than me and can’t force me to do anything. Yet, their trust in me and my love for them drives me to empty myself for their sake. This is how God is ruled by us, when we trust solely in him from the heart. No good thing can he deny us.
This is what Israel means. This is why the Canaanite woman with the demon oppressed daughter was truly a daughter of Israel. She caught Jesus in his words and clung to his promise, even if his promise called her a dog. And her great faith received much more than help from a demon. She received eternal life!
God does not wrestle with us to be cruel to us. He wrestles with us, because he loves us. He wants us to trust solely in him. God has sent his Son to die for us, so that our salvation is purchased with God’s own blood. He promises that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved and to seek first his kingdom and righteousness and all the rest will be added unto you. In so many simple and clear words that you can carry around in your pocket or in your heart, God has promised forgiveness, protection, and eternal salvation to you. God wants you to learn these promises and cling to them, so that when he tests you, you have something to hold on to, so that you may overcome and be victorious.
So often we neglect prayer, because we don’t know what to pray for, or we think it won’t do any good. But when you cling to God’s promise, you find strength to pray, and you find that your prayer has power to bend God down to earth to hear you and answer you. And that is exactly what God wants to do. Amen.