Sermon for Sunday, August 2nd, 2020, the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Genesis 32:22-31; St. Matthew 14:13-21
The Text: Genesis 32:22-31
The Topic: Wrestling with God
In World Vision magazine John Robb writes:
Seven years ago, a giant tree stood on the banks of the Awash River, in an arid valley about two hours’ drive southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It had stood there for generations, seemingly eternal.
For years, the people who lived in the surrounding district had suffered through famines….In their suffering, the people looked to the tree for help. Believing a spirit gave it divine powers, they worshipped the towering giant. Adults would kiss the great trunk when they passed by, and they spoke of the tree in hushed, reverential tones. Children said, “This tree saved us.”
In 1989, World Vision began a development project there, including an irrigation system….But even as they labored to build the system, the great tree stood like a forbidding sentinel of the old order, presiding over the community, enslaving the people through fear. In their mind, spirits need to be propitiated with animal sacrifices and strict observance of taboos.
When World Vision workers saw how the villagers worshipped the tree, they knew it was an idolatrous barrier to the entrance of Christ’s kingdom and transformation of the community.
One morning as the staff prayed together, one of Jesus’ promises struck them: “If you have faith, you can say to this tree, ‘Be taken up and removed’…and it will obey you.” In faith, they began to pray that God would bring down the menacing goliath.
Soon the whole community knew the Christians were praying about the tree. Six months later, the tree began to dry up, its leafy foliage disappeared, and finally it collapsed like a stricken giant into the river.
The people of the community were astonished, proclaiming, “Your God has done this! Your God has dried up the tree!” In the days and weeks afterwards, approximately 100 members of the community received Jesus Christ because they saw his power displayed in answer to the Christians’ prayers.
– pp. 543-544, Craig Brian Larson and Leadership Journal: 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2002, 2007, Reprinted 2008.
A great example of powerful prayer may be found in the story of the patriarch Jacob’s return journey home after leaving the service of Laban.
JACOB’S JOURNEY BACK HOME
Jacob had taken leave of Laban, his uncle, and was travelling back to his country with his wives, children, servants and livestock. He wanted to make amends with his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of the blessing the first-born son was intended to receive. After sending messengers to Esau to say that he was coming with all his company, he received the news from his returning messengers that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. This news made Jacob greatly afraid and distressed (Gen. 32:7), causing him to divide his flocks and herds and the camels into two bands, in the hope that if Esau struck the first company, the remaining company might escape (Gen. 32:8).Then, in his anxiety, he prays to God for deliverance from Esau. Subsequent to his prayer, he decides to send gifts of goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys ahead in droves to appease Esau. The servants in charge of each drove of animals are to tell Esau that all these are a gift to Esau from Jacob and Jacob is coming behind them (Gen. 32:20). After sending his wives, sons and remaining servants over the ford Jabbok, Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak (Gen.32:24).
THE WRESTLING MATCH
The wrestling match might appear to be a diversion in this important narrative, but if we look carefully at it, it is not. God had commanded Jacob to return to his own country and his relatives (Gen.31:3; 32:9), giving him the promise that things would go well for him. But naturally Jacob is apprehensive, because when he had left his home to go to his mother’s country and relatives, Esau had wanted to kill him since Jacob had cheated him out of his father’s blessing (Gen.27:41). Yet angels of God had met Jacob even before he had sent messengers to Esau. In view of all this, the wrestling match is really a symbol of spiritual warfare and intense prayer preceding what God was calling Jacob to do – to be reconciled with Esau. The man who wrestled with Jacob until daybreak was God himself, for Jacob concludes afterwards that he has seen God face to face, and yet his life has been preserved (Gen.32:30). The Lord blesses Jacob after this wrestling match, though Jacob is left limping from God’s touching of the hollow of his thigh. Jacob had refused to let his wrestling partner go until he had first blessed him. God gives Jacob the new name of Israel, which means “Prince with God”, a name that shows that he had power with God as a prince, and had prevailed. From Jacob, of course, came the twelve tribes of Israel, and a nation was fathered by the patriarch who wrestled with God until he received God’s blessing.
LESSONS FROM JACOB’S ENCOUNTER WITH GOD
The significance of the wrestling match appears in a number of ways. One important aspect of this is that God condescends to be wrestled with. Though he is the Creator of the universe, he allows and welcomes his faithful people to wrestle with him in prayer. It was not an easy thing for Jacob to seek reconciliation with his brother, but God had commanded him to return. God had given him so much, wives, servants, children, livestock, possessions, but he feared at first the loss of all these blessings, and even his own life, at the hands of Esau. Yet he did not adopt a fatalistic attitude, as if to say, “If I die, I die.” Nor did he insist on military combat training exercises for all his servants, but he petitioned God, sent gifts of livestock ahead to Esau, wrestled with God, and prevailed.
From Jacob’s example, we should alllearn the value of struggling with God in prayer for the blessings and the outcomes we hope for. Sometimes, we may be physically weakened by the intensity of prayer, as Jacob limped after his wrestling match with God. How we need to pray, petition God and intercede for our family, our church and our nation! Jacob believed that he could receive blessings from God, and he prevailed with God. So too, we must believe, wrestle and pray!
Now, one might argue, why did God let Jacob win the wrestling match? Holy Scripture bears witness in many passages to God’s might and power in defeating his enemies, but as a father wrestling with his son, aims to teach his son, and make him a better wrestler, so God deals with his people. He does not want to discourage his people by displaying his power to overwhelm them completely, but rather he wants to encourage his people to wage spiritual warfare effectively in prayer and to become overcomers!
What was the result of Jacob’s prayer for deliverance from Esau? When they finally met again, Esau ran to meet him, embraced him and kissed him, and they were reconciled and wept to see each other again! What a reconciliation! But the way had been paved by prevailing prayer to God and by positive acts of restitution – all the gifts that Jacob had sent on ahead to Esau.
What are the deepest concerns you have in your life? Have you wrestled with God in prayer for answers and blessings?