Rev. Paul J Cain
Wrestling with God
Second Sunday in Lent, Reminiscere, 01 March 2015
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
There are many people in this world that wrestle with God.
Some wrestle with His very existence. To me, it seems that Atheists have two Commandments. 1. There is no God. 2. I hate Him. We may smile with that as bit of humor that is far too true, but the spiritual condition of these folks is quite serious. Often, self-proclaimed “atheists” are actually agnostics, those who don’t believe in organized religion, because they usually had a bad experience with a congregation, a pastor, or a Christian. And it scarred them. Mocking those who mock the one true God is counterproductive when it comes to telling the good news about Jesus and also defending the faith.
Others wrestle with God as they wrestle with the gap between what the Bible says and what they personally believe and do. The devil loves to tempt us to widen the gap, to deny that the Bible is God’s Word, to turn us in hypocrites whose walk and talk are inconsistent, to get us to rationalize further departure from God’s word as a good idea, and to ultimately give up entirely on receiving God’s gifts, hearing His Word, or even giving up on faith: doubting both the existence of God and the devil. The devil doesn’t mind if you don’t believe in him.
There are those who wrestle with God apart from Christ and despair that they cannot find a merciful God. Such ones are all over the world and even in our community. We are given to proclaim Christ to them.
The faithful especially struggle with God. We see the world as it is and wonder why it isn’t as it should be. We know the world and all that is in it, including us, is fallen due to sin, yet there are days when we yearn for fairness. Death, disease, and disappointment are all unfair. If the Lord were truly fair, Jesus would have gone free and we would be rightly punished for our sins for all time and eternity. Thank the Lord He is not fair and is merciful and gracious to us in Christ Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer borrowed the language of Jacob’s Genesis 32 experience to describe that of the Old Testament prophets: These were men who wrestled with God and with their own age, an age in which everything was out of joint, an age in which national and [ethnic] völkisch arrogance was paired with godlessness and immorality, men who felt called by their God and stepped out among their people, men for whom the covenant with God became their undoing—and today we will try to understand these men as a prelude, as it were, to what was to come, and will try to reexperience and understand their tragedy.”
Godlessness and immorality in our own day make a Sunday morning study of the Minor Prophets all the more timely and appropriate.
We’ve now concluded both Hosea and Joel. Ten short prophetic books remain, all from about 850 to 430 years before Christ. They may be minor in size, but they are large in content. And are regularly quoted in the New Testament.
Let’s turn to the Old Testament reading for Lent 2, Genesis 32, beginning with the 22nd verse:
22 The same night [Jacob] he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.
Jacob is preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau. One of his sons is yet to be born. But before that happens, the Lord needs to give Jacob yet another blessing.
Jacob had to wrestle with God first. When lecturing on Genesis, Dr. Luther spent no less than twelve pages on just verse 24. Here is a sample:
We shall therefore make an attempt to see if we can dig out the true sense and doctrine of this passage. If we cannot attain it perfectly, we shall nevertheless not be very far from the mark. First of all, however, the hindrances of various opinions must be removed. Hosea adduces this passage when he says (Hos. 12:3–5): “In his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, etc.” From this all the interpreters infer that the man wrestling with Jacob was an angel, but we always observe this canon, that whenever Holy Scripture makes mention of apparitions, as above in Gen. 18, when three men meet Abraham, and the word angel is not expressly mentioned, there we do not interpret it as angels because it is clearly stated: “The Lord appeared to him,” not an angel. But afterwards, in chapter 19, when two angels go on to Sodom, we concede that they were angels.
So also in chapter 28:12–13, when Jacob sees the angels ascending and descending and the Lord stands on the ladder. Here we understand the Lord not as an angel, as those who ascend and descend are called angels by name, but as the Son of God, who was to become incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man. By the communication of properties we say: “Man is on high above all creatures, and God is the lowliest one.” This is the mystery “into which angels long to look” (cf. 1 Peter 1:12), because on account of the unity of Person they see God below but man above. So also we say: “Man sits at the right hand of God the Father.” Likewise: “God descends into hell and ascends into heaven.” This is the communication of properties concerning which we spoke more copiously above.
Luther contends that the one who wrestles with Jacob is the pre-incarnate Christ. Consider what else Luther shares about those who wrestle with where and how to find God:
But the false prophets used to fight against this viewpoint and say: “God is everywhere; therefore He can be adored and worshiped in every place, both in Bethel as well as on any other mountain.” They did not have regard for the commandment of God. For when God fixes a certain manner and designates a certain place for His worship, it must not be said: “Wherever I will worship God, it will be pleasing to Him if only I do it in a godly and devoted manner,” or, “I shall make offerings to Him wherever it pleases me.” Isaiah, for example, censures this madness very severely, saying (Is. 57:5): “You burn with lust … under every green tree.” The Turks and Jews are accustomed to speak in this manner today, claiming that they are able to serve God outside of the unity of faith and the church of Christ. Mohammed claims that anyone is saved in his own religion if he prays, if he gives alms, if he does other good works. It is not necessary for him to be a Christian or that he should be in the unity of Christ and the church. In the papacy also all corners were occupied with chapels, convents, and idolatry of every kind…
This is true, indeed, that God is not bound, neither to Jerusalem nor to any other place, and that He is able to save also elsewhere. No one will deny this. But try it and see what you will get! If you invent forms of worship according to your own judgment, you will be in danger of God’s wrath. By His almighty power God could save the human race without Christ, without Baptism, and without the Word of the Gospel. He could have illuminated men’s hearts inwardly through the Holy Spirit and forgiven their sins without the ministry of the Word and of ministers. But it was not His will to do so. And God very strictly prohibited all erring forms of devotion and worship…
Finally, Luther directs us to where Christ has promised to be:
If you want to be absolved from your sins in this manner, go to your pastor, or to your brother and neighbor if your pastor cannot hear you; he has the command to absolve you and comfort you. Do not invent a special absolution for yourself. If you want to receive the Lord’s Supper, go to the assembly of the church and the public congregation and receive it there. Do not devise a special administration and use of the sacraments. For God does not want us to go astray in our own self-chosen works or speculations, and so He gathers us together and encloses us within the limits of the Word so that we are not tossed about by every kind of doctrine (cf. Eph. 4:14).
25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
This is no ordinary wrestler. Jacob realizes that his opponent is no mere man, but one who is capable of blessing him.
27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
TLSB: Luth: “Israel [means] a prince or God’s fighter, that is, he who wrestles with God and wins. This happens through that faith which holds so firmly to God’s Word, until it overcomes God’s wrath and obtains God as the gracious Father” (WA DB 8:137).
30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
TLSB: Luth: “For through faith, in the struggle of the cross, one learns to recognize and experience God rightly” (WA DB 8:137).
After this, Jacob was off to meet his brother. He didn’t expect it to go well. Yet, the Lord prepared him and his sons and his descendants for the future that lay before them because of His promises to them in Christ.
How are you wrestling with God now? Neither idolatry nor adultery offer any good future for the people of God. Wealth, fame, health, and computer data all rust and fade. They are no way to plan one’s eternity.
The baptized are given the name of Christian as God’s triune name is placed upon them by water and word “In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
He goes with us, every step of the way. There’s a collect I love in LSB on page 311, one for guidance in our calling. It goes like this:
Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
TLSB: Alone and faced with danger, Jacob finds God to be his adversary. Yet faithful Jacob wrestles and receives a new name and God’s blessing. It does not always seem that God is on our side. Sometimes He causes Christians to bear trials, temptations, and suffering—i.e., the cross. Yet, this is not to destroy us, but to strengthen us and finally bless us. Christian faith clings to God’s Word of mercy in Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
 Bonhoeffer, D. (2008). Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931. (D. W. Stott, Trans., C. J. Green, R. Staats, H. C. Von Hase, H. Roggelin, & M. Wünsche, Eds.) (Vol. 10, p. 328). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
 Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 6: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 6, pp. 125–126). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
 Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 6: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 6, pp. 127–129). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.