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Genesis 32:22-31

This story of Jacob’s encounter with God is weird. While having a personal encounter with God is part of our Wesleyan vocabulary, how many people do we know who come away from such encounters with a new name and a limp? The God who confronts us in this story is wild and, at the end of the day, we can only get the barest of grasps on this God with our imagination.

One avenue for preaching is how this story shapes our imaginations regarding encounters with God. When the people in your congregation imagine a “person encounter with God”, what comes to their minds? Do they imagine an overflow of feelings or tears? Do they imagine a sense of release or homecoming or fulfillment? As Wesleyans, we are inheritors of a strong emphasis on such personal encounters. At its best, our emphasis on personal encounters sets people on fire to pursue holiness and at worst sends people endlessly chasing down one emotional high after another. What can help is to expand the range of what a personal encounter with God is like. I will explore four aspects of Jacob’s encounter with God: it comes when Jacob is alone; it is physical and spiritual; it is marked by struggle; and it is ultimately grace.

Jacob’s encounter with God comes when he is alone. Now this might sound like a great starting point for an encounter with God, but Jacob is not blocking off an hour in the morning with his coffee and journal in order to have some one on one time with God. Rather Jacob finds himself alone because he is a coward. He is on his way back home to meet his brother Esau after many years. Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing, to which Esau responded with murderous rage. Has the rage subsided? Jacob is not sure, so he sent all of his servants, belongings, livestock, wives, and children ahead first. They have been instructed to pledge fealty to Esau if he asks, and Jacob remains safely alone on the other side of the ford of the Jabbok. Jacob’s alone time is pure self-preservation, which is not unexpected of this man whose whole life has been one of trickery and deception.

God comes to Jacob while he is alone in his bid for self-preservation. This is reassuring on a number of fronts. God isn’t contained to the times when we have journal, pen, and coffee at hand. God is also not contained to corporate times together, such as worship. A sermon on this text could encourage people to look for God in unexpected alone times and times of isolation. Especially if one’s congregation finds it easy to experience God while the praise band is rocking the latest contemporary hits, but private time with the Bible and prayer are hit or miss, this story shows us God can show up in all sorts of times and places of our lives.

Jacob’s encounter with God is physical and spiritual. Jacob did not experience God primarily as interior feelings or sensation, but as a physical opponent in a wrestling match. Well, in a matter of speaking, Jacob did feel God’s presence in the grappling and shoving and heaving. Jacob experienced God in the dirt that likely caked his body and clothing. Jacob experienced God in the smell of sweat as they struggled until dawn. Jacob experienced God in the sound of his foe’s voice and the blow to his own hip.

As Protestants, we are at times overly skittish of the physical as the means of God’s presence, which is a shame. After all, God came to us physically and spiritual in Jesus Christ. Jesus gave us the sacraments of baptism and holy communion that weds physical things and spiritual grace. We can encounter God physically and spiritually in the waters of baptism. We can encounter God physically and spiritually through the bread and cup at the communion table. We can also encounter God physically and spiritually in our neighbor, particularly the poor and vulnerable among us. How else can you open your congregation to encountering God physically and spiritually?

Jacob’s encounter with God is struggle. Jacob certainly felt God’s presence, but not as a heart strangely warmed, but rather as his hip strangely rent. This news could be incredibly liberating for those in your congregation who find Christianity a bit too touchy feely. Encountering God in a quiet garden with bird song and a fluttering heart might sounds totally unappealing. But struggling with God in a high stakes, body-breaking wrestling match might be just the metaphor someone needs to want to begin a relationship with God. There is good news in Jacob’s story that he has grabbed ahold of God and is not fully aware of it. There is good news in the fact that the people of God take Jacob’s new name, Israel, “Struggles with God”, as their name. Life with God is not going to be one long emotional high or chasing down one discreet spiritual experience after another. Rather life with God is about an ongoing struggle with what such a life with this strange God revealed in Jesus Christ demands of us.

Jacob’s encounter with God is ultimately grace. As stated above, Jacob is strange character: a trickster and deceiver. His life is not what we think of as exemplary. His head is filled not with how to become holier but rather safer. Yet God comes to him anyway. Jacob has not merited this divine wrestling match. He is certainly not looking for God. Yet God shows up to struggle with him nevertheless. God graciously allows Jacob to grab ahold of the divine, though Jacob has no idea what is going on. God gifts Jacob with a new name that forever alters not only Jacob’s destiny, but all of Jacob’s descendants as well.

Hopefully we can receive this as good and liberating news! Any personal encounter we have with God is ultimately grace: a gift. We cannot force it. We cannot earn it. God is not a genie. There is no lamp to rub to guarantee a life altering spiritual experience with God. We can be ready and expectant that God show up. We can earnestly pray and hope for God’s grace poured out into our lives. We can pursue the means of grace that make us more receptive to God. But at the end of the day, God is wild and untamed. We can ask for God’s name all we want, but what we may get as an answer is a broken hip and a new name. But perhaps those are exactly what we need from our next personal encounter with God.