Our text is today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 32:22–32): 22 The same night 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. 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.” 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. 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. (ESV)
As Christians, we are constantly fighting the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. No sooner do we successfully fight off one temptation when out of the blue comes a completely different temptation. You feel like you are finally having some control of your anger when BAM, suddenly you are overwhelmed by thoughts of despair. You feel like you’re making some progress in loving others when something happens to make you question God’s love for you and whether He even exists. We have all been Christians long enough to know that our spiritual enemies will never take a break from fighting us. And we expect such a fight, for we know that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are out to get us.
But what we do not expect and what often surprises us about our life in Christ is our having to fight with God. Of course, there is a BIG difference between fighting against our spiritual enemies, who seek our destruction, and fighting with God, who seeks to strengthen us in the faith.
We speak of God the Father, Jesus the Good Shepherd, and the Holy Spirit the Comforter. This language is an absolutely true way of speaking of God. Of course, the second person of the Trinity is not a real shepherd, but shepherding describes what He does, just as comforting describes what the Spirit does. But “Father” is not a mere description of the first person of the Trinity. The first person is not like a father; rather, He is Father, just as the second person is Son and the third person is Spirit. This one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has saved us from hell for heaven, from eternal death to eternal life. So great indeed are the words and deeds by which this God saves us that we are taken aback and shocked by the thought of having to fight with this God.
Every Christian must fight with God. You see, at some point in your life, God is not going to act according to how you think a loving God should act. In short, God is going to disappoint you, and probably, He already has. The question is: how are you going to respond to God disappointing you? Are you going to stop praying, stop attending church, stop believing? Or are you going to take your disappointment and your struggles to God? Are you going to take up your fight with God?
God wants you to fight with Him, but not in the way of rejecting Him, for that is not fighting at all; rather, that is abandoning God in unbelief. Rather, God wants you to fight with Him in the way of honestly expressing to Him your anger and fear and your deep anguish. Most of all, God wants you to fight with Him by holding on tight to God in true faith and expecting God to bless you, even as you are suffering.
That is what is going on in today’s Old Testament lesson. Jacob wrestles with God and he prevails. But then, after winning the wrestling match, Jacob—for the rest of his life—walks with a limp.
Which leads me to ask you: how’s your limp? You say you don’t have one? I’m afraid you do. And so do I. All who live in Christ walk with a limp. And how did we get our limps? We got our limps from wrestling with God, as Jacob did of old. Jacob had a big problem. He was returning home, and his brother was coming to meet Jacob—the same brother, Esau, who had once swore to kill Jacob for stealing his birthright. And now Esau is coming to meet Jacob with four hundred armed men. And Jacob is afraid. But the night before he meets Esau, Jacob wrestles with God. And two things happen. Miraculously, Jacob prevails over God—he wins the wrestling match! But in the midst of the match, God gives Jacob a limp.
Now, what’s going on here? Well, for starters, we have to say that Jacob is a beautiful example of faith struggling in infirmity. You see, Jacob’s faith-struggle is to hold on to God while suffering great adversity. And isn’t that your struggle as well? To hold on tight to God when the going gets tough? Jacob wrestles with God to receive God’s blessing in the time of great trial. And in your trials, this is your calling: to wrestle with God to receive God’s blessing. And we all know what a great wrestling match it is hold on tight to God even as we suffer so that we may live in His blessing.
And then, what about that limp? Well, that limp signifies the change that takes place in you after having wrestled with God. Wrestling with God changes you; it destroys your pride and makes you humble. Wrestling with God reveals your weaknesses so that you may no longer trust in your flesh but rather learn to take refuge in God. The psalmist proclaims: Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8). God allows us to experience weakness so that we learn to take refuge in Him. Understand this: your will power, your intellect, your sincerity—all that is within you—is of no avail at all in wining any kind of spiritual victory. For the rest of his life, Jacob’s limp would remind him to place no confidence in the strength or weapons of his flesh and human nature. That limp would remind him that his only hope was to cling to God and His Word. So it is with you and me. The limps we receive from wrestling with God remind us everyday that our only hope is to cling to God and His Word.
Like Jacob, you wrestle with God. Sometimes God seems so close to you that you could touch Him. And sometimes, God seems as if He is asleep at the wheel of the universe and you cannot understand why He does what He does. And quite often, you see nothing in yourself that really distinguishes you as a child of God. You fail. You sin. You fall short. You go about things on your own. You push and shove those around you—pushing your way right past God if necessary. But God holds on to you. He puts you near His heart. And He creates in you a new heart, so that by God’s grace you wrestle and struggle to cling to God and His Word in time of adversity.
And rest assured, in your struggles, God desires to bless you. Yes, in all your wrestling with God, God wants to bring you to the point where you can shout out with Jacob: I will not let you go unless you bless me. You can just imagine Jacob saying these words with a fierce determination, with his teeth set on edge: I will not let you go unless you bless me! Our problem is that we think our life in Christ should be a piece of cake, a walk through the park on a nice, sunny day. But it most certainly is not. On the one hand, you have the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh to contend with. And on the other hand, you have to wrestle with God; you have to strive to hold on to God in true faith, which means you have to believe that God desires to bless you even when you are tempted to think He does not love you, that He does not care about your problems, that perhaps He does not even exist.
Which brings us back to the question we started with: how are you going to respond when God does not act according to how you think a loving God should act? How are you going to respond to God disappointing you? Are you going to stop praying, stop attending church, stop believing? Or are you going to wrestle to hold on tight to God, telling God in no uncertain terms that you expect Him to bless you?
Our problem is that we have become such lazy Christians. There is no sense of urgency to our praying. I do a lot of praying on the go, praying for the people and the needs in my life as I dart about from one task to another. But I need to spend more time alone praying in concentrated earnestness. And I suspect you do as well.
Let me tell you about Martin Luther’s prayer life. Luther would go to his room to pray in private. He would pray standing and he would pray and sigh from out of the depths of his heart. He would pray pleading the Name, merit, blood, death, and intercession of Christ for help. And He would pray aloud, so loud that his house guests, of which he had many, could hear him praying!
Now, what if you and I were to spend twenty minutes a day in earnest prayer? Some Christians think that praying spontaneous prayers is better than praying from a prayer book, but that’s not true. Both kinds of prayers can become mere lip-service in which the heart does not participate. And both kinds of prayers can be prayed from the depths of the heart with true trust in God. And what if we prayed by getting down on our knees or by standing? Yes, our bodily gestures can help us in our praying. And what if we prayed so loud in such earnestness that other people in the house or in the apartment next door had to turn up the volume on the tv in order not to hear us? Of course, the main thing is not how long we pray or whether we pray spontaneously or from a prayer book or whether we pray kneeling or standing or silently or aloud. The main thing is that we pray from the heart, not in unbelief or hypocrisy, but fully trusting that God is good and that He will bless us.
Trusting that God is good and expecting Him to bless sinners is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Really, if you claim to be a Christian but you do not believe that God is good and that He will bless you, well, then, you have a real problem on your hands and you need to repent. True faith is confessing that the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— is good and that His mercy endures forever, as we confess every Lord’s Day. And with a fierce determination and a bold confidence, true faith believes that, in spite of our suffering, the Lord truly blesses and keeps us and makes His face shine upon us and is gracious to us and lifts up His countenance upon us and gives us His peace.
As we suffer in this fallen world, by God’s grace, we hold on tight to God and we say with our teeth set on edge with a fierce faith: “God, I will not stop praying until You bless me. God, I leave it to You to set the limits and the timing and the manner of Your answer to my prayer. And God, no matter how greatly I suffer, I confess that You are good and that Your love is steadfast and Your mercy endures forever. And I know that, in Christ, You have already blessed me and that You will bless me for all eternity”.
On the Good Friday cross, Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, stretched out His arms to embrace you in His love. He will never let you go. And in your suffering, He gives you the grace to never let go of Him, so that you live and remain in His blessing of life everlasting. Amen.