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Reminiscere, The Second Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2024; Rev. Kurt A. Lantz, Pastor
Reminiscere. Jacob wrestling with God.jpg

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The Masked Wrestler

A masked attacker came upon him in the night. That is what he was afraid of. It was dark. He was alone. He was full of anxiety and fear about confronting the one he had cheated out of birthright and blessing. Jacob had even taken precautions to protect his wives and children and servants in case the attack should come. He sent them across the river Jabbok so that he would face his fate on his own.


He had no doubt his brother would still be angry. They had fought one another even while still in their mother’s womb. While Esau had always been physically stronger, Jacob had found ways to get the better of him through trickery and crafty schemes. That only made Esau all the angrier and more dangerous, to the point where Jacob had to run away from home in order to preserve his life. The fact that Jacob had prospered while away working for his uncle Laban only made it seem worse. What would Esau do when he saw how his conniving brother had become so rich after running away with the stolen inheritance?


Esau had been an outdoorsman all his life. He was a bit of a wild one. Jacob was more one to stay around the house. He looked after domesticated animals while Esau hunted in the wild. What would happen when the two of them met again? It would not be out of the question for Esau to make a sneak attack to get back at his sneaky brother. And as Jacob feared, so it seemed to happen.


In the dark of the night, suddenly he was upon him. They rolled and wrenched and grappled for control. Jacob was fighting for his life. He was fighting for the survival of his family. He was fighting to protect his wife and children. He fought like he never fought before. There was no chance of trickery now. There was no taking advantage of an adversary who came prepared for this contest. There was no opportunity to scheme his way out of this confrontation.


It was as he feared. He was not strong enough. No matter what he did, his opponent had the better of him. Every trick he tried, every move he made was countered effectively. It was almost as if he was being toyed with. Jacob was becoming exhausted and had little left in him. And then it happened. A searing pain erupted from his hip. Seemingly with just a touch, with hardly any pressure at all, as if he could have executed this blow at any point over the last several hours but chose to do it only at this particular moment, the adversary touched Jacob’s hip and out it popped from its socket.


Jacob felt like he was going to vomit. His head went light as a flood of endorphins tried to counter the searing pain. He saw stars, not in the night sky but floating before his vision, which was going dark as his hands and arms began to go limp. But at the last moment he regained his resolve and locked his grip upon the foe. If he was going to walk away victorious he would have to do so dragging Jacob’s battered, bloodied, and bruised body with him. Jacob was not going to let him cross the river to set upon his wife and children. He would hold on even to a death grip.


The sun was now beginning to rise and the darkness was dripping away. The sky went from black to navy to a grey-blue. And in the growing light the dark mask of the marauder was lifted. For the first time in almost twenty years, he saw the face of a brother standing over him while he clung in desperation to his foot. But it wasn’t Esau’s face that he was looking upon.


Still, Jacob would not let go. If his foe had not yet struck the fatal blow, which it appeared he could do at any time, then perhaps that was not his intention. An enemy this strong and mighty and skilful was to be feared, but what if he was no enemy at all? What if this adversary was friend and not foe? What if he should bestow blessings after a time of testing, and not blows to end in death?


This adversary looked familiar. Jacob had seen Him somewhere before, perhaps in a dream, in that life-changing dream when he had fled from home (Genesis 28). Then he had seen the LORD at the top of a great ladder between heaven and earth. When Jacob awoke from that dream he had made a vow, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Genesis 22:20-21).


Yes, this was the same One he had seen in that dream, and this One had been with him all those years he had been away from home. This was the One who had blessed him with wives and children and livestock and wealth and safety all those years. This was the One who was bringing him home again in peace. He would not have to wrestle like this with Esau. In stead, this God, the LORD, had come to wrestle in human flesh. He came as a brother to Jacob. So Jacob clung all the more physically as well as spiritually, and would not let go until the blessing was imparted.


There are times in life when we are in the deepest struggles that we no longer recognize friend from foe. That can be a physical struggle with health or poverty as well as an emotional struggle with friends or family, but always it includes a spiritual struggle with the One who faced off with Jacob at the Jabbok River. The contest is really one of faith with the LORD and sometimes that is not revealed until the breaking of the dawn, until the darkness lifts and we see the face of the One against whom we have been fighting, until He lifts the mask and reveals Himself.


Then faith clings to the LORD all the more, knowing that He comes with blessing. That is how it was for Jacob and also the Canaanite woman who cried after Jesus in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28). Not all spiritual struggles are against the devil and his temptations. But whereas the evil foe is seeking for us to fall, the LORD God is strengthening our faith. It is His intention to bless, not to beat, and our faith clings to Him for that blessing and our faith strives with Him when the blessings seem to be withheld.


It is in the midst of such conflict with God that we pray that the LORD would not remember the sins of our youth (Psalm 25:2). For we are not so different from Jacob, who was conniving and crafty to deceive and defraud his brother. We have treated others that way, too, in order to get for ourselves what is theirs, in order to come out on top. But the LORD reveals to us that He has bridged heaven and earth in order to provide forgiveness and blessing. He has come to us as Jesus the Christ, God hidden under the mask of a man. He has come as our brother; one with whom we can wrestle; one with whom we can contend in our fears and weaknesses during dark times; and one to whom we can cling when the light reveals His glorious face.


This God in human flesh fought with us tooth and nail. We put nails through His hands and feet to affix Him upon a cross. We pierced His heart with our sins and it looked like He hung there defeated and dead in the darkness. He strove with God the Father and with sinful mankind. But when the sun rose on the third day, it revealed that our adversary had prevailed. He conquered death. He conquered the devil. He conquered sin. He conquered us. And He remained faithful to the Father who had sent Him into the fray.


The true spiritual battle was won there as Jesus held the field through the darkness of death until the dawning of the resurrection. Now every spiritual battle that we fight against sin, death, or despair is enlightened by the victory of Jesus on our behalf. We know more certainly than Jacob that He has a blessing to give. We know more certainly than Job, who in the darkness of deep despair confessed, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him; I will argue my ways to His face” (Job 13:15).


The LORD has come to meet us at the ford of Holy Baptism. He contends with our sinful nature and breaks down our every attempt to best Him. He proves His superior strength and with His promises spoken there He causes us to cling to Him in faith. He changed the name of Jacob to Israel, and in Holy Baptism He gives us His own name, so that we might live a new life under His blessing with confidence and trust in grace, knowing that He has forgiven the sins our youth, and remembers us in love and mercy.


But that doesn’t mean there won’t be days of intense struggle with the devil, with our sinful nature, and with Him. Our comfort is that He fights with us against two of those enemies; and that even when He is fighting against us, He is still fighting for us. When we are deep in fear over our past sins and what the consequences will be, like Jacob about to face his brother Esau, the LORD fights with us so that despite our sins we will cling to His promises. When we are deep in despair over the condition of our children, like the Canaanite woman, the LORD rebuffs us so that we will hold Him to His gracious and merciful character.


It is not always clear that He is on our side. That is what faith is all about. Faith clings to Him even when it appears He is fighting against us. Faith believes that He blesses even when we are struggling against Him. Faith remembers who He is, and calls for Him to remember it too. “Remember Your mercy, O LORD, and Your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (Psalm 25:6).

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