The message for Sunday, June 23 “Wrestling by the River” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.
Wrestling by the River Genesis 32:22-32 June 23, 2019
No matter what kind of mood I was in I would feel blessed after coming back from the river. The river I am referring to is the Yellowstone. As you might guess, the Yellowstone River flows out of the mountains and the large lake in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. We were living by the Yellowstone River on a piece of property as a part of my parents work. It was during my High School years and the river became a gift to me as I navigated those teenage times when you are trying to grow up to figure out who you are and who you are being called to be. The Yellowstone River became my quiet place. Whatever issues I was wrestling with, whatever emotions, or decisions I was wresting with, when I went to the river I could either let them go or I could contemplate them in a calm manner. There was always adventure to be had by the river as well. A variety of animals to be spotted and observed, rocks to be skipped on the water and new trails to be found. The river was a spiritual place for me where I could wrestle with the deep questions I had inside me, but where I could also feel closer to God.
The moving waters of a river sometimes have a way of bringing peace to our souls. Getting away and spending some time by a place where there is water can give us the space to find some calm when we are feeling restless or give us the space to think and pray when we are wrestling with decisions we need to make. This summer we are going to journey through the Scripture traveling to many of the rivers mentioned in the Bible. As we do so, we will learn about the important role rivers play in the drama of Scripture and in the lives of the people of the Bible. We will learn what is revealed about God and what that might mean for our lives.
We start our tour of rivers today by going back to book of Genesis, to the first book of the Bible. The river we are visiting is the Jabbok river. Today this river is called the Zarqa river which in Arabic means “The river of the blue.” Geologically it is about 30 million years old. It flows out of the country of Jordan for about 65 miles down a deep ravine and is the second largest stream flowing into the Jordan river from the east. It falls about midway between the Dead Sea and The Sea of Galilee. Its watershed encompasses some of the most densely populated areas east of the Jordan. As a result it is heavily polluted, but its restoration is one of the top priorities of the Jordanian ministry of the environment.
Back in the time of Genesis this river was known as the Jabbok river to the Hebrew people. It is near this river that we find Jacob in our story this morning. Jacob has sent his family ahead so that he is by himself. He is about to cross over the Jabbok River, but it is more than just a physical crossing he is going to make. He is about to cross over into his old home territory where he hasn’t been for years. He is about to cross over and confront his past. He is about to face the possible results of his deeds of deception from years before and he is not sure what that might mean for him and his family.
You see, on the other side is his brother Esau. This is the brother whom he hasn’t seen for years. The brother whom he cheated out of a blessing and a birthright and who subsequently wanted to kill him. This is the brother whom he fled from and now he is getting ready to see him. Jacob must have been wrestling with his mixed emotions of fear of his brother and longing to return to his childhood home. He was probably wrestling mentally with how to approach Esau—what strategies to use to try and how get back in his good favors.
As Jacob is wrestling with his concerns, and how best to approach his brother, a mysterious figure suddenly appears who begins physically wrestling with him. (next slide) We later discover that this figure is a representative of God who changes Jacob’s name to Israel and tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God and prevailed. Because of this exchange, after the wrestling match we can sometimes view this story and think that perhaps Jacob had stayed back by the river to reflect, to wrestle with God in prayer. But that is not how things start. There is nothing in the beginning of the text that says Jacob was coming to God, rather it is the Lord who is the instigator of the wrestling. As the author James Montomery Boice states:
“It is not that Jacob was seeking God so earnestly that when God, as it were, got close to him, he grappled with him and refused to let him go until he blessed him. It is true that Jacob later begged for a blessing. But at the beginning it is not Jacob who seeks God to wrestle with him; rather, it is God, who comes to wrestle with Jacob to bring him to a point of both physical and spiritual submission.” (blank slide)
From an early age, Jacob had been gifted with smarts and clever thinking. He had used his cleverness to trick his Father, his brother and his uncle Laban in order to further advance his own status and wealth. His intelligence and treachery and made him rich and had gotten him many wives, children, and possessions. It had also gotten him into trouble on several occasions and had brought division in his family. But as he is on the verge of meeting his brother, he is perhaps relying on his own wits again to try and get himself out of this mess.
This could be why God comes in as this mysterious figure to wrestle with him. It could be that God wants to test Jacob and wake him up to fact that he can’t always just rely upon himself—that if he is truly to have courage to face the next day and the brokenness that he caused between himself and his brother, he is going to have to remember where his true source of strength lies. He needs to remember to trust in God.
Jacob seems to discover this as the wrestling match goes on late into the night and into the early morning. He seems to realize that this is no ordinary person he is wrestling with—that this is a divine emissary sent from God. This could be reason then, why he will not let the phantom figure go until he gets a blessing. It is as if Jacob has heard the wake up call and he wants an assurance that God will be with him as he goes into the next day. It is as if the wrestling has revealed God’s presence to him and reminded him that he needs God’s blessing.
Has God’s presence ever become more real to you as a result of wrestling with a difficult time? Have you ever felt closer to God after having wrestled with a tough decision? Have you ever moved forward with a choice you had to make, wondering if it really was God’s will you were following or not, but then looking back you realized you had been blessed?
A point in my life when I had to make a difficult decision happened a couple months after I graduated from college. I wasn’t sure what my next step in life should be. I had given some thought about seminary because I had felt a curiosity and a calling to learn more about my faith, Christian history, and the Bible. The problem was, it was the middle of summer and I had no money. I had also learned that if I wanted to start seminary in September I would have to take a class in the Greek language in August. That meant I only had a few weeks to decide what to do and to make arrangements to leave home. I felt God calling me to explore seminary, but would God really want me to leave with so little time to prepare and no finances to really make it happen?
Thus, began two weeks of wrestling with this calling that I felt God had instigated and put on my heart. I prayed a lot and looked for all kinds of signs. I even resorted to flipping a coin a few times. Nothing quite resulted in the revelation I was looking for. Finally, a conversation with my pastor helped me find some peace. He said that perhaps either decision could be God’s will and that God might work through either path I took. So I decided to wait and not to go. Then began more wrestling with what I would do for the coming year. I fretted and worried as my job search went on for weeks. Would I be able to make enough money to save up for seminary? Would I find a job I like? Would I find a job at all?
In the end, I got a job at a school working with a special needs student and a fifth grade classroom. I even got to teach 8th grade history and coach middle school basketball. I was also able to find a great church that year within walking distance of where I was living. They had a men’s group, a basketball and volleyball team in a city league which I joined, and I helped out in their youth ministry. I even made connections that year with a retired couple who needed someone to house sit for them while they were gone for an extended time so I was able to not have to pay rent for several months and I saved up enough money to pay for my first semester of seminary. What had begun as a time of stress and uncertainty where I had wondered if I was really doing what God wanted me to do, ended up being a year of great blessing.
I don’t necessarily believe that every difficulty or tough time that comes our way is God testing us to see if our faith is strong enough. But I do believe that sometimes when we face a difficulty or a tough decision in life, it can cause us to seek out God more intensely. I think that God can use a difficulty or tough decision to drive us back to God or wake us up to remind us that we cannot always just rely on our own wits, but we need to also rely upon God. It is looking back at such moments that we then sometimes realize that there were blessings along the way that we did not expect or could not see happening at the time.
When Jacob realized that it was God he was wrestling with by the Jabbok River, he refused to let him go. He persisted in clinging onto God until he received a blessing. When we are anxious and facing uncertainty we too can trust that God will come to us—even in the midst of our wrestling with questions and doubts. We too can trust that when we keep hanging on to faith we can go out and move forward knowing we go with a blessing and that God will be with us.