Becoming Israel

On Sunday mornings, for over two years now, here at Grace, we’ve been slowly and methodically going through the book of Isaiah. Now we aren’t done yet. We still have 10 chapters left, but it has been a profound journey. And throughout it, you find these powerful nuggets that stick with you. This past Sunday was one of those times for me. In chapter 55, the Prophet says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Think about that for a moment. Seek the Lord while he may be found. There is a presumed understanding in this verse that we are not in control, we cannot make God appear or find Him wherever we want, rather God allows Himself to be found. He locates himself at His pleasure where we might get ahold of Him. And when that happens, well that’s not a time to be shy. You better seek Him out. And I kept thinking about this throughout this past week. I wondered to myself, and now asking you, what would you do if you got ahold of your God? 

If you sought Him where He was found, and you actually got your hands on God, what would you do? No doubt, among your brothers and sisters in Christ the answer you give would be quite straightforward and simple. You would worship Him; you would fall down on your face at the feet of your God. But then what? Plead for forgiveness perhaps. Thank Him for all He has done. Glorify His name the best you can do. Perhaps you would go so far as to offer yourself as a living sacrifice for God to use as He sees fit. But I wonder if there would be another response you might give if you were out of earshot of your fellow Christians. Maybe it wouldn’t be your first go-to, and you might not admit it out loud. But deep down there may be part of you that would do more than worship and praise God if you got your hands on Him. There is that lingering part that might have more nefarious plans. A part of you that wants answers for the trials and suffering that you’ve endured. A part of you that wants an explanation for the tears and heartache. A part of you that doesn’t just want to sing the praises of God, but wants to fight Him instead. 

Now, I know your personal piety wants to say that I’m crazy in even suggesting such a preposterous idea. But take a moment and think about the trials and struggles of your life. Think about the nights of tears that you have cried out to God for relief, or for an explanation of something, and you have been met with silence. Maybe it comes when you stand by the grave of the one you have no idea how to live without, or it is the destruction of a relationship that you imagined enduring for all time, or it is the unspoken plague of depression and anxiety that robs you of sleep and productivity and simple joy. If you could get ahold of God, wouldn’t you want to get an answer or some explanation for it all? If God all of a sudden showed up, He comes near, so near you could grab Him, wouldn’t you take your chance? 

Last month I was in St. Louis at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, which is always a great time. Such a visit brings back fond memories of my seminary days and not only do I get to reconnect with old friends, but I also get to reconnect with my professors. It is enjoyable to talk to them about the changes they’ve seen over the years. They can see the difference in the emphasis at the seminary, along with the change in the worries and fears of the students, and the challenges that they anticipate in the parish. As a professor and I were discussing the current struggles facing the church, he threw up his arms in frustration. He said that we need to get back to teaching our people that they are not God, that they are creatures of the Almighty. He doesn’t owe you anything, you are the clay pot, He is the potter that fashioned you. This means that God cannot be controlled. He cannot be commanded by you. He doesn’t play your games or bend to your will. 

These two things, both the desire to get ahold of God and the confession that you cannot control Him, come into a violent clash in the story of Jacob as he prepares to cross the Jabbok. Jacob is at a critical moment in his life. He has finally left the house of Laban who had exploited and used him. But what lies ahead of him is a reunion with Esau, the brother that he had defrauded of his birthright. He isn’t in control, and he is out of options. He sends his whole household off ahead of him, as some sort of parade that might slow his brother’s anger and he remains alone for one night by himself. That is when God comes near. So near, in fact, that they fight. All through the night, they wrestle. There is no trash-talking, no back-and-forth banter. The man that attacks him in the night is silent, he says nothing. Every fear then of Jacob, every imagination of the heart, every hope and frustration are projected on this unbeatable foe. And so, he fights for all it’s worth. He fights with everything that he has. He fights because there is nothing else he can do. He must get this opponent to speak. He must get something from a God who has come so near. 

The man puts Jacob’s joint out of socket, but still, he won’t let go. As the sun begins to rise, he finally speaks, saying, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.” The name Israel means “to wrestle with God.” Jacob got ahold of God. He got ahold of him, as Isaiah says, “while he may be found.” It wasn’t in some beautiful act of worship or praise and thanksgiving. It wasn’t falling at his feet in honor and humility. It was fighting for his life. Fighting throughout the night, through the terror and fear and uncertainty of it all. Fighting until he got a blessing from the one he could never defeat or control or dominate.

It is God himself that relents; God is the one who graciously allows Jacob the victory that day. And it is in that fight that Jacob loses any sense he had of control or power or oversight. At a critical juncture in his life, he is robbed of everything, and all he can do is hold on. Now let me tell you something, if you’ve never been in a fight, if you’ve never wrestled with someone, it is one of the most intimate experiences you can have. You are close to each other, body on body. There is often sweat, spit and blood all mixed together. You can feel the heartbeat of your opponent and measure his breathing. It is violent and exhausting and terrifying, at times. You don’t come out of the fight the same person you went into it. It is this struggle that Jacob has with God. And through it, he becomes Israel.

Jacob lives the rest of his days with the marks of this battle. He walks everywhere with a limp, a constant and painful reminder of the God who allowed himself to be gotten ahold of. God came near and Jacob sought him, he sought him with everything he had. No more silent and distant God, he demands a blessing that would mark him for the rest of his life.

This is the struggle of all of us. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God that created all things, the God that does not answer to your whims or bend to your will. He is the Lord Almighty, the Sovereign God, maker of the heavens and the earth. But then, when we are at our wit’s end, He allows himself to be found, He invites us to come to Him when He is near. And He has come near. He comes near in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, He comes near in the Word and Sacraments of the church, He comes near the promises that ring in your ears this day. 

God tells you where He can be found. He locates himself for your hope and confidence. And it is here that you, in your own, way wrestle with God. You become Israel. For you fight through the trials and the struggles to get ahold of a God in preaching and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You hold fast to him where he may be found, and you hold on. Perhaps it is foolish, perhaps it seems impossible to win, but what else can you do? Where else can you turn? And so, through your doubts and hesitations, you fight through the night in hopes that your grip will not weaken and your body will not break. And finally, He speaks. He speaks to you here and now. He says you are forgiven; you are His beloved, His saints, heirs of eternal life. You, by faith, have striven with God and men and have prevailed. Amen.