Second Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I remember the first time I beat my dad in ping pong. I was just a kid (we had set up a ping pong table in the car port to play just about every evening). I strutted around and told everyone I met for the next few days. It was only after I grew up a little that I realized that my dad was holding back. He let me beat him. Maybe it was to teach me, maybe it was because he liked the look on my face when I won, maybe he took as much pleasure in my victory as he did his own. (Incidentally, if you ask him next time he comes around, I bet he also remembers the first time I beat him at ping pong).
On the shores of the Jabbok, Jacob wrestles with God. The scene is set when Jacob is about to greet his estranged brother Esau, the old brother whom he had tricked out of inheritance and blessing. He was frightened that Esau’s wrath would cause him lash out at his little twin brother (he was always the more aggressive one; Jacob was more tame). To gear up for what he thought would be a fight (that didn’t actually come) he sent all of his household and possessions across the river by night, but stayed by himself on the far shore of the river.
That night he got up, and taking his two wives, his two maids and his 11 sons, he sent them across the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them and all he had across the stream. [Then] Jacob was left behind alone (vv 22-24a AAT). Undoubtedly he was alone to pray. Soften Esau’s heart; give me strength; send and earthquake; make them all disappear in a puff of smoke—who knows what he was praying for. Maybe he didn’t even know what he was praying for.
And it was at that moment something peculiar happened. When Jacob was left behind alone, Someone wrestled with him till the dawn came; and when He saw He wasn’t winning against Jacob, He struck the joint of Jacob’s hip, so that it was dislocated as He wrestled with him (vv 24-25 AAT). The first question is, who is this someone? Who is this man? All of the household was across the river. Jacob was alone. The Jewish interpretation was that this was an angel, like the angels Jacob saw ascending and descending on a staircase just a few chapters earlier. But this is one angel, and he is not identified with a name like Michael. Furthermore, at the end of this contest, Jacob reflects on what happened and says, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life was saved” (v 30b AAT).
So Jacob wrestles with God Himself. But there’s more to it than that. God tells Moses that no man can see His face and live, but here, Jacob not only sees His face, but manhandles Him. And yet his life is saved.
Luther comments on this section with these words: But our opinion is this, that the wrestler is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God’s Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers. For God in His boundless goodness dealt very familiarly with His chosen patriarch Jacob and disciplined him as though playing with him in a kindly manner. But this playing means infinite grief and the greatest anguish of heart. In reality, however, it is a game, as the outcome shows when Jacob comes to Peniel. Then it will be manifest that they were pure signs of most familiar love. So God plays with him to discipline and strengthen his faith just as a godly parent takes from his son an apple with which the boy was delighted, not that he should flee from his father or turn away from him but that he should rather be incited to embrace his father all the more and beseech him, saying: “My father, give back what you have taken away!” Then the father is delighted with this test, and the son, when he recovers the apple, loves his father more ardently on seeing that such love and child’s play gives pleasure to the father.
This Someone with whom Jacob wrestles is none other than the One who would become the Son of Jacob, the infant who lies in a manger. It’s a rather delightful play that God designs. When the Patriarch Jacob is praying, the Father sends the Son to become the father and the patriarch becomes a son, and in this way, He draws Jacob in for a blessing. “Let Me go,” He said; “the dawn has come.” “I will not let You go,” Jacob answered, “unless You bless me.” “What is your name?” He asked him. He answered, “Jacob.” “Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel,” He said, “because you have struggled with God and with men and have won.” “Please tell me Your name,” Jacob said. “Why do you ask for My name?” He asked. And He blessed Jacob there (vv 26-29).
It is a beautiful thing, the way God engages with Jacob on the shores of the Jabbok. Just a few chapters earlier, Jacob had a vision of the stairway to heaven—God up above and angels going up and down. But he awoke before He could climb up to reach God. Now, as he prays, God comes down to him. And He does so in a way that He can be seen, touched, grabbed hold of, without causing harm. Furthermore, He allows Himself to be subdued. Though with a skillfully placed finger, He reminds Jacob who has the real power. Yet, He is subdued.
This is the nature of the Son of God. He hides the full glory of God under a form that can be seen, touched, grabbed hold of, without causing harm to sinful man. He does so by taking on flesh and blood. When Jesus appears to Jacob, it’s in a pre-incarnate form, but in time, Jesus would appear in flesh, a Descendent of Jacob, descended from heaven in order to draw all people to Himself like a loving Father.
And He does so by allowing Himself to be subdued. In flesh, Jesus makes Himself even weaker than He did on the shores of the Jabbok. He makes Himself vulnerable. He exposes Himself to insults and accusations. He permits His face to be slapped, spit upon, and laughed at. He presents Himself to whips and rods and nails and spear. He wrestles with death itself.
But still, hidden behind the weakness is the power of God. At any moment He could have come down off the cross, He could have lashed out at His opponents, putting more than their hips out of joint. But He doesn’t. He absorbs all of the hostility into Himself, allows Himself to be subdued in order to draw us closer. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself (Jn 12:32). The Descendent of Jacob descends into the flesh to put a blessing on the world.
Jacob’s wrestling match is also your wrestling match. You also pray—to soften other people’s hearts; for strength; for a snowstorm so you don’t have to face what’s coming tomorrow; maybe for your enemies to disappear in a puff of smoke. Maybe you don’t even know what to pray for. But it seems to go on and on through the night. It’s a wrestling match with God. You are, by nature, an enemy of God on account of your sin, and even though He has made you His friend, your fleshly nature still remains. The wrestling match is something you initiate. But God uses it for your good. He engages you. He descends from His place at God’s right hand for you.
In answer to your prayer, Jesus again makes Himself seen, makes Himself tangible, allows Himself to be subdued. You don’t have to ascend to heaven to find God; He comes down to you. But the righteousness of faith says thus: “Do not say in your hearts, ‘Who will ascend into the heavens, that is, to bring Christ down?’ or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss, that is, to bring up Christ from the dead?’” But what does it say? “The Word is near to you, in your mouth and in your heart,” this is the Word of faith that we preach (Rom 10:6-8).
He descends to you in His Word and His Sacrament. He implants it in your heart, He places it in your mouth. He allows Himself to be subdued, grasped hold of, pinned down in these means. Though they do not come without some pain. Jacob had his hip, Paul had his thorn, Peter had his cross—you have your own scars from wrestling with God, reminders that this struggle was won by the scars that Jesus now bears.
But it is in this way that God blesses you. He allows Himself to be seen, touched, subdued in order to draw you closer. And when you have Him in His Word, in His Supper, don’t let Him go until you get your blessing.
Like a dad who lets his son win a ping pong game.
Jesus Descends from Heaven to Put a Blessing on You
In + Jesus’ name.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
 Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 6: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 6, p. 130). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.