Then [the Lord] said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed’” (Genesis 32:28).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Most of you recognize that struggle builds character, and something earned is more appreciated than something received without any effort. As a result, toddlers take a couple steps, fall, get back up again, and eventually learn to walk. Business owners put in long hours to get ahead. Loving parents administer discipline. Coaches preach: “No pain, no gain.” The road to anything worthwhile seems to be the tougher one.
So why are we surprised when this is also true of our spiritual life. Why do we get discouraged when living our Christian faith doesn’t get easier but, in fact, becomes more of a struggle?
Certainly, it doesn’t help that most of the literature found in Christian bookstores paints an unrealistic picture. We read much about victory, triumph, and peace, but little about struggle, failure, and conflict. The impression is given that once people have faith in Christ, we escape the troubles of the world and lead blissful lives free from all ills. Seldom do we hear the biblical message that we must undergo many trials before we enter the kingdom of God.
And unfortunately, it doesn’t get any better when we move to our own conversations. We are quite ready to talk about our successes but are reluctant to mention our failures and struggles. It is as if everything unpleasant must be censored from the stories of our lives. Sadly, I’ve noticed this tendency to gloss over failure is common among Church workers, too. Even when my life is in an utter mess, I, as a pastor, am still prone to justify myself professionally to my peers by referring to the successful areas of my ministry and ignoring all the difficult struggles. It is as if we observe a secret sanction against failure.
Now some of this may stem from a healthy reluctance to burden others with our problems, as well as a natural defense against the possibility of criticism. But it could also come from an unhealthy attempt to avoid hurt and deny loss in the hope that what remains unmentioned will cease to exist.
This censoring of experience has certain negative effects on us as individuals, as well as on the Church. First, it can create an air of unreality that confirms the cynicism of skeptics and confuses new disciples. Second, it stops people from facing reality together with God and thus hampers their spiritual growth. Third, it creates intolerable tensions with those who honestly struggle with the disparity between their own obvious deficiencies and the apparent triumphs of others. These strugglers conclude that they haven’t made the grade spiritually and don’t belong to the Church since it appears to be a club for the spiritual elite rather than a sanctuary for repentant sinners. Fourth, since people never mention their troubles to each other, we can’t bear one another’s burdens in prayer. Last, and worst, it gives Satan room to attack the Church through the evil and hurts that have been repressed and ignored rather than dealt with by confession and absolution.
As Christians, we know that we shouldn’t harbor doubts about God’s goodness, nor should we feel hostile toward the people around us. It just doesn’t seem right that we should be striving with God and men. But we do! And we don’t receive much help from the Church in dealing with it. Where can you go when even God seems your enemy? How can you get rid of bitterness and hatred toward those people who have humiliated and mistreated you? What can you do with the guilt and shame you feel about your failure to be the kind of person you should be?
People seem to think that such experiences and feelings are out of place in the life of the Christian. And so, we deny these troubles and hope that they will go away. The pity of it is that by this very stratagem of denial we miss the best opportunities for growing in our faith toward God and love to one another.
With that in mind, this morning we attempt to learn how God uses our struggles and failures to help us grow in our Christian faith. Based upon our Old Testament lesson, Genesis 32:22-31, we will consider three people who “Have Striven with God and Men and Have Prevailed.”
The first is Jacob. After twenty years of self-imposed exile, he headed back to the Promised Land. But time does not take away guilt. Jacob feared what lay ahead, for he had, by temptation and trickery, taken the inheritance and blessing that belonged to his brother. And now God’s angels told him Esau was on the way with four hundred men. Had Esau been waiting for his day of vengeance?
Jacob divided his household into two camps, hoping at least some would escape Esau’s wrath. He crossed back over the Jabbok stream alone. As he poured out his heart to God in prayer in the darkness, someone grabbed hold of him and wrestled him to the ground. The mysterious struggle continued—for hours—until the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky. Unable to go on, Jacob threw his arms around his opponent and held on to him with all his might.
The Man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” He delighted to hear Jacob answer: “I will not let You go unless You bless me.”
“What is your name?” the Lord asked him. Jacob means “heel-grabber” or “cheat.” That old name no longer fit him, and so God gave him a new one that better described the new nature and character the Spirit of God had patiently and painstakingly created in him: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
As Jacob left, he did so with a noticeable limp, but the terror and fear and guilt were gone. With the Savior’s promise ringing in his ears, he was ready to meet Esau, ready for whatever surprises that new day might bring.
Could God have won this match at any point? Certainly. No mortal man has the slightest chance if God wants to reach out in His divine, omnipotent justice. So why? Why did the Lord God engage in this wrestling match? Why did He allow Jacob to prevail? Why did God inflict a painful injury that dogged Jacob for the rest of his life on this earth? At least four reasons: First, so that Jacob’s sin could be forgiven. Second, so that Jacob’s guilt could be taken away. Third, so that Jacob’s slavish fear could be replaced by godly fear and trust. And fourth, so Jacob could hobble into the Promised Land.
Jacob learned the hard way a lesson we all need to learn—in and of ourselves we have no power with God or man. We are much like helpless babies. Our only strength lies in holding firmly to what God has promised and crying out to Him for help. Apart from Jesus, we can accomplish nothing spiritually. Without the Holy Spirit, we do not know how to pray or for what to pray.
Unlike babies, we do not outgrow this helplessness. We never become spiritually self-sufficient but grow in our dependence. If there is one thing we discover as we mature spiritually, it is that before God we are nothing but beggars. In the face of death and God’s judgment, we can only cry out to Jesus as beggars did in the ancient world: “Lord, have mercy!” Or as Jacob did in our Old Testament lesson: “I will not let You go until You bless me!”
Yet that experience of helplessness is the best thing for our spiritual growth. If we can manage quite well by ourselves, we have no need to pray and never learn to praise God. But when we have come to the end of our own rope, our only hope lies in prayer. Only those who know they are helpless can truly pray. Only those who have been helped by God in answer to their prayers really praise God.
That brings us to the second striver with God and men—Jesus. On the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord was restless and His soul trembled. Jesus knew that a great troop had assembled and was advancing in His direction. Sinful men plotted His suffering and death. The Promised Land lay ahead, but first there were the sins of the world and the ever-increasing burden of guilt that prevents the world from entering Paradise. Jesus knew that time does not take away the sin and guilt of the world—only the shedding of His innocent blood could.
Seeking solitude, Jesus crossed the stream called Kidron and went to the Garden of Gethsemane late at night. His disciples fell asleep, and except for the trio of sin, death, and the devil, the Incarnate Son of God was left alone. Then the wrestling match began. “O, My Father,” He cried, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).
The Scriptures record no answer to Jesus’ prayer. The struggle continued as He repeated the petition three times. Throughout that dark night—even to the mid-day darkness on Good Friday—there was pain and suffering, instant pain of body, soul, and spirit as Christ was crucified. On the cross, the Lord Jesus struggled with the Lord God, even to the point of His crying out: “My God, My God. Why have You forsaken Me?” Though encouraged to come down, Christ remained on the cross, bearing the burden of your sin and the sins of the entire world. Jesus allowed Himself to be pinned in this Divine wrestling match. He would not release His hold on the cross until He earned God’s intended blessing for you.
Why did the Lord God engage in this wrestling match? At least four reasons: first, so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. Second, so that everyone’s guilt could be taken away. Third, that slavish fear could be replaced by godly fear. And fourth, so that those who believe in Him would be able to join Him in the heavenly Promised Land.
Now we come to the third person in this sermon: you. You are on a journey through this fallen world and to the Paradise of God. You live in a land where there are temptations, and in which you have fallen repeatedly. Perhaps it is pride that keeps you awake in the darkness before the coming dawn. Maybe it is slavish fear in the middle of the night. You are alone as you wrestle with your past, with your accused conscience, and with that ever-increasing load of guilt.
Then the Lord permits you to wrestle with Him throughout the darkness of this world’s night. He may reach out His finger and touch your heart or your home or a loved one. There is instant pain, and it continues. You hobble around and, despite the hurt and suffering, with strength and determination that can only be from above, you will not release this hold until you have God’s intended blessing.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Striving with God and men… and prevailing. Suffering. Enduring hardship. Hearing the accusations of the Law. All the time, holding God to His gracious promises in prayer.
“The wage of sin is death…” Yes, Lord, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. “The soul that sins shall die…” Yes, my Lord, but He was wounded for our transgressions. “There is none that does good; no not one…” Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.
Why does the Lord engage in such a wrestling match with you? Why does He inflict or permit a variety of painful injuries, horrid diseases, and awful injustices that might do you the rest of your earthly life? At least four reasons: First, so that your sin could be forgiven… and in Christ it is. Second, so that your guilt could be taken away… and in Christ it is. Third, so that your slavish fear could be placed by godly fear… and in Christ it is. And fourth, so that you are able to limp along and be ushered into the Promised Land… and in Christ you are.
The Lord provides you with His Word and Sacraments, not only to bring you into the Israel of God, but to sustain you in His Church. Recall your Baptism daily by drowning the Old Adam through contrition and repentance. Declare to Satan: “I am baptized. And if I am baptized then I belong to Christ.”
Know yourself… both the sinner and the saint. Know God’s Word… both the Law that accuses and the Gospel that forgives. Listen as the absolution is announced and take it to heart. Receive the true body and blood of the Incarnate Son of God, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin and the strengthening of your faith. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit gives you the strength to endure whatever the Lord God may permit to come your way and to remain faithful unto death and be given the crown of life.
Like Jacob, may you continue to hold onto the Lord even in those dark hours when you are unable to see God’s mercy and see only a face that looks angry. May you learn to say in prayer, “My Savior, I will not let You go unless You bless me.” Indeed, He does bless you. He soothes your suffering spirit. He calms all your fears. And He gives you peace and comfort even amid strife. In Christ, you have striven with God and men and have prevailed. That is to say: You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.