“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.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-second chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, Jacob was in trouble, trouble of his own making. He had came from the womb clutching his brother’s heel, and that was hardly the last time that he antagonized Esau. Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright, and then with the help of mom, he stole from Esau the blessing of their father Isaac. That last offense angered Esau so greatly that Jacob fled his murderous wrath. After years spent serving his uncle Laban and raising a family, Jacob is now ready to go back home. He sends messengers on to Esau, hoping for a favorable reception, but all they return with is the ominous report that his brother is coming to meet him, at the head of four hundred men! Now it is the night before he will see his brother again. The questions swirl in his mind: What will happen tomorrow? Has Esau forgiven him, or will his four hundred men simply crush Jacob and his family?
Jacob is rightfully afraid. His past sins have come back to haunt him, and they may perhaps lead the death and destruction of him and his family in the morning. He has learned one of the most difficult lessons that a fallen human has to learn in this world: sin has consequences. Each of us has learned this lesson, we know that our own sin has led to strained relationships, to conflict, to temporal punishment from friends, family, or even the government. So often, the troubles we face in our lives are the consequences of our own sin, not to mention the consequences we face for the sins of others! And while we are often the cause of our own troubles, like Jacob’s family we suffer as well in this life because of the sins of others. Sin surrounds us, and we, like Jacob, are afraid. We do not want to face those consequences, because the results are too terrible to even contemplate. God’s law tells us what our sin deserves before God: the same death and destruction that Jacob’s family faced, but more than that- eternal punishment from a holy God.
Jacob spends that last night at the Jabbok River, a beautiful rushing stream that cuts deep canyons on its way to the Jordan. This river forms the boundary between kingdoms throughout the Old Testament, and on this night it is the very boundary between life and death. He will meet Esau in the morning, and so he spends a sleepless night arranging his possessions and family, trying to do everything he can to prepare for the next day. And he prays. The sin of this world drives him to his knees in prayer. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with their children.” But will God really answer? Does He even care? What is His answer to the sin that surrounds us, that condemns us to its consequences; that condemns us to face His wrath? We see no end to sin in our world, and so we wonder with Jacob: is God even listening?
In desperation, Jacob cries out to God to remember His promise, protesting: “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” God’s answer is a strange one. He does not answer with a word, but instead with an action. “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Jacob wrestled with God. Let that sink in for a moment. God almighty came to Jacob in human form and allowed this sinful, scared, sleepless man wrestle with Him. That’s pretty amazing, but what is even more amazing is that God allows us all to wrestle with Him too- in prayer. For you see, this wrestling match is not some random event, but is instead the physical embodiment of what Jacob has already been doing as he prayed. He has been persistent, he has held God to his gracious promises, and he has prayed in faith and confidence that God can and will deliver him.
That is what prayer is for each and every one of us. We wrestle with God in prayer by holding him to His promises, His promises to take care of us and preserve us. That is what Jacob did, as he cried out to God to recall His promise to give him many offspring. We hold God to the promises He has given to us, we do not let Him get out of His pledge to deliver us from sin, to protect us from danger and the devil. That is what the psalmist does in our Introit for today. Listen again to what he says: “Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!” That is the very definition of holding God to His promises, and that is how the Bible teaches us to pray. We also wrestle with God when we are persistent in prayer, calling out constantly for deliverance from this world of sin. That is what Jesus teaches in our Gospel lesson. The widow demanded justice, she would not stop until she had received it. Jesus concludes: “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.” Wrestling is not a single action, but a continuous activity, one that fills our lives each and every day, because we are surrounded by sin each and every day. Jesus concludes His parable by saying, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” This persistent wrestling with God in prayer only comes by faith. We do not wrestle with a God that we do not believe in. We don’t hold God to promises that we do not trust. We wrestle with God because we believe in Him and in His promises, and that is why for a Christian, the highest form of faith is to struggle with God in prayer.
God in His grace does want us to wrestle with Him in prayer, but His will ultimately prevails, as Jacob learned quite painfully. “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.” With a divine touch, Jacob is defeated. God has proven that while we can and should wrestle with Him, there is no question who is divine and who is merely human. God’s deliverance may not come when or how we would want it to, but yet it does come, and it comes in the very person who wrestled with Jacob, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. This incident is probably one of the places in the Old Testament where we see Jesus appear before His incarnation, and it makes perfect sense, for Jesus is the ultimate answer to every prayer for deliverance. He took on our human flesh thousands of years later to shed His blood, die, and rise again to defeat the sin that surrounds us, the death that condemned us, and the devil that accused us. He came to answer every prayer for deliverance by giving Himself for ultimate deliverance. Now, while sin may torment us in this world, its days are numbered, and we know that sin is a defeated enemy, crushed by the mighty arm of our Savior, who triumphed over it’s corruption on the cross. Christ’s victory over the grave on Easter Sunday gives us the promise that we will overcome death, and this promise is given to us through a new name.
Jacob doesn’t realize until the very end of his wrestling match that his wrestling with God in prayer has taken on physical form, that he is actually wrestling with God Himself, and those two forms of wrestling have the same ultimate request: “But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” And the pre-incarnate Jesus answers Jacob in the same way that He answers you and me. “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.’” You may be familiar with the name that Jesus gives to you and me, because you heard it again at the beginning of the service. At your baptism, you had the Name of the Triune God placed upon you, as you were baptized “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We called upon that Name as our service began, reminding you of the day the Lord gave it to you. Because we bear this Name we can wrestle with our Father in prayer, we can depend on His promises, because we are those purchased with the blood of Christ, those who are joined with the Triune God for all eternity. It is only because we bear that new name that we can pray “Our Father, who art in heaven…” holding God to the promises He made in our baptism.
Jacob’s new name transforms him, it gives him a new identity. There on the banks of the Jabbok, that border river, at dawn, the border between darkness and light, Jacob is brought over the border from the darkness of sin into a relationship with God that is characterized by light. Jacob is made a new man, one fit to carry the messianic line and pass it onto his children. We too are given a new identity with our new Name. We are made Christians, those purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, those belonging to the realm of light. We are conformed to the likeness of Christ, seeking to follow Him by loving our neighbor. We are truly saints, but we are also truly sinners. Jacob is now known as Israel, but he does not perfectly carry this name through the rest of his life. Moses describes him with both his old and new names, reminding us that while Jacob was transformed at the bank of the Jabbok, he never completely leaves his old self behind. It is the same way with us. We have been given a new identity, one that gives us the privilege to wrestle with God in prayer, but yet we remain sinners in constant need of God’s grace. Therefore we live under the forgiveness won by Christ, knowing that He has brought us from darkness to light, and that He will bring us fully into that light on the Last Day, when we will be brought over the border between death and life and will experience life forever.
God kept to His promises, and as Jacob limped toward his brother, assured of God’s grace, Esau ran to him and embraced him. The two brothers were restored by our God who keeps His promises, our God who restores relationships, our God who answers our prayers ultimately with our Savior Jesus Christ. In the name of the One who truly is the answer to our prayers, Amen.