Wrestling Toward the Promise…
“Your name will not be Jacob anymore. Instead, it will be Israel. You have wrestled with God and with people. And you have won.” Genesis 32:28
As most of us are painfully aware, our county is reeling from ever-deepening political factionalism. This factionalism doesn’t stop with the evening news but invades our workplaces, friendships, homes, and churches. We want to sidestep this ugly fact about our lives, but I ask you to take a risk and follow me in an exercise. Take a moment to think about a person you love and long to be in relationship with, but from whom you are now alienated. Hold this person in your mind. Don’t avoid the brokenness or the hurt. Just sit with this person and your feelings for a minute or two. When we, as God’s people, can’t seem to be reconciled with those we most love, it’s hard to find a way “to give reason to the world for the hope that’s in us.” (I Peter 3:15)
The Colossian Forum is an experiment, a possibility, an idea with which to wrestle. What if we used all the energy surrounding these political conflicts, not to deepen division and warfare by our desperate need to win, but to deepen discipleship and witness? What if “that person,” (the one you can’t talk to) has been gifted to you for your sanctification, motivating a renewed and authoritative witness to Christ’s gospel of reconciliation?
As we ponder the possibility of personal sanctification, I would like to wrestle with a biblical text—the story of Jacob as an overtly political act. This text opens a window into two different politics, two different visions of “the good life.” (Genesis 25 to 33)
Before their birth and throughout their lives we see the politics of Jacob and Esau on display—brothers wrestling, angling, and seeking dominance over one another to attain blessing, wealth, and security. Esau comes first and is the perfect specimen to carry on and extend Isaac’s worldly holdings. He’s not dependent upon God for his wellbeing, nor does a transcendent vision guide his life. He’s privileged enough to despise his birthright, even selling it for a cup of soup.
Then comes Jacob, the heel-grabber, usurper, deceiver. He envies and despises the status and success that come naturally to Esau. Jacob’s a wannabe, the weaker brother, who must use his brains to manipulate Esau to steal his birthright and blessing, even though God already sovereignly bestowed it upon Jacob before his birth. Jacob can’t depend on his natural ability or the social order to provide worldly security—he needs God’s promise and blessing. But as the younger brother, the blessing is not naturally his. Instead of conserving the social order, he spends most of his life scheming to subvert it for his gain and Esau’s loss.
And Jacob pretty much succeeds. Until years later, as he flees from his father-in-law Laban, God sends him into the heart of conflict to face Esau. As confrontation with Esau draws near, tension mounts. Is Esau going to forgive him or slaughter him? Will he be able to outfox Esau again? Will God’s promise be fulfilled? By every measure, Esau appears to be the child of blessing—the natural and social order are in his favor.
That night as Jacob rests alone by the Jabbok river, he discovers that he has company. Someone is wrestling with him. He’s always wrestled, hasn’t he? Since before his birth, he jostled with Esau in the womb, and throughout his entire life, he’s competed with Esau for his father’s love and blessing. In this late-night wrestling match, neither he nor his opponent get the upper hand. He then realizes that he is wrestling with heaven—with God himself, and acknowledges his defeat. His opponent touches Jacob’s hip, and the fight is over. Jacob is crippled.
From another perspective, however, the fight goes on. The now-crippled heel-grabber caught up in the mystery of divine-human agency, continues to grab, not letting go. If Jacob lets go, he has nothing. He is nothing. It’s his name, after all. It’s who he is. By refusing to let go, he desperately tries to extort one last blessing as, perhaps, the final ploy to escape his conundrum with Esau. But his opponent, immune to such manipulation and compelled by Jacob’s refusal to let go, gives him far more.
“What is your name?” asks his opponent. Who are you? What are you? What constitutes you?
Hip out of joint, pinned down, and Esau approaching, Jacob can no longer evade the ugliness of his scheming, lying self. Wrestling by the river Jabbok, he replies, “My name is Jacob, (heel grabber, deceiver, usurper).” He has lied, cheated, and stolen what God has already abundantly given him. Trickster is Jacob’s identity. But . . . no longer.
Jacob will no longer be the heel-grabber. Instead, he is given a new existence, baptized into the fulfillment of his true identity. Jacob, the heel-grabber, is now Israel—the God-grabber. He is named one who wrestles with God and the world. It’s the politics of baptism, death, and resurrection, as well as the politics of promise and abundance. Through Israel’s struggle with God and the world, we also have been grafted into this identity and bear the name of Israel—God-grabber. In Jacob’s destiny, as fulfilled in Christ, we find our destiny. In the politics of Jesus, we locate ourselves in the promise.
Perhaps “that person”—the one we love, who is so wrong—gives us a chance to live out our identity and be more than a cliché. Perhaps we wrestle with God as we wrestle “that person”—refusing to let go even when we disagree. We encounter brokenness that mirrors our brokenness. Perhaps it’s when we grasp God and “that person,” we encounter God in “that person.”
I suspect this is our hope—holding on to God while holding on to one another. Only as we wrestle will we move from fear to hope, and be capable of “giving reason for the hope that is within.”