This is an excerpt from my sermon on Sunday 25 October on Genesis 32:24-29.
Ah, the story of Jacob wrestling with God for his blessing: what an inspiring account! How comforting it is to know that if you just wrestle with God long enough in prayer, he will give you what you want. Or at least, that’s how some people interpret this story. In fact, that is a horrific lie, perpetrated by the false prophets of the so-called “health & wealth gospel.” If we want to get a proper understanding of this story, we need to look at the larger picture: who is Jacob, and what is this blessing he seeks?
What’s the deal?
How do we fit into this picture? First of all, we should remember that Jacob’s new name “Israel” (struggles with God) became the name of his whole family, tribe, and nation. God’s people ever since have been known as those who struggle with God. This includes us as Christians: the New Testament speaks of us having been “grafted” onto the vine of Israel, so that we are joined with them. Therefore we, too, are people who struggle with God. But we’re not normally called Israel anymore; normally we’re called the Church. The word “church,” or ecclesia, means “assembly” or “gathering.” We’re no longer characterized primarily by our struggle with God, but by family relations with God! There’s an important reason for this: becoming God’s family is itself the awaited blessing. Jacob was wrestling with God in fear that he would be killed by his brother before he had a chance to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him into a great nation. The nation of Israel was constantly wrestling with God in search of a Promised Land, a Sabbath rest, in search of salvation from sin itself. And now that struggle is over, the long-sought Savior has arrived, and he is building us a home right now, he gives us peace right now, and he saves us from our sins right now. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the struggle is over, our Savior is here.
Of course, there is still struggle in our lives as Christians. But the key difference is this: we no longer need to struggle with God. He has already given us “every spiritual blessing in Jesus Christ,” as it is written in Ephesians 1:3. Now our struggles are against sin in our three-fold enemy: the world, the flesh, and the devil. We hear about this somewhat in Ephesians 6. Our struggles in this life are reflections of spiritual goings-on just out of sight. Even if it seems like our enemies are visible – other human beings – the reality is that our enemies are invisible: demons, Satan, the power of sin. And so we struggle against those things in whatever form they take against us, be it mockery or slander or abuse or persecution or apathy or illness or distraction. The Devil is resourceful and he fights dirty, and so our struggle is great. So great, in fact, that we are powerless on our own to win. As we will sing in a few minutes, “on earth is not his equal.” But above all earthly powers is one little word who will fell him in a moment. That word is Jesus Christ, the victorious conquering King. Since we are no longer struggling with God, and have surrendered ourselves to God, and have been adopted by God, we are now on God’s side! And therefore we have divine empowerment to fight this battle against the Devil and his wiles. Because we are one with Christ, we have the “full armor of God” described by Saint Paul.
As a result of all this, prayers like Psalm 90 take on a different light. Its scope of recognizing God’s work “throughout generations” draws us away from an overly-narrow view of the story of Jacob or the story of Me, and invites us to consider the bigger picture of what God has done for us. Psalm 90 reminds us that God both sweeps away and restores – he gives and he takes away. We see that our lives are finite, in fact, nothing next to God; and if we understand this, we are truly on the path to wisdom. So in the end we are invited to consider God’s work to be of primary importance, rather than our own. And yet, because we are united with Him, we pray that God’s work would be manifest in us: may He prosper our handiwork.
All this to say, “rely not on your own understanding.” Strive to work according to God’s plan, under God’s blessing. As another Psalm puts it, “if the Lord doesn’t build the house, the laborers labor in vain.” There is no longer any need for us to wrestle with God; he has given us all his promises in Christ. Let us instead take the fight to the enemy and valiantly face against the spiritual enemy of sin. And, at the last, may Christ’s victory become yours.