When You Wrestle With Your Past

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 9
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 32: 22-31
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
Genesis 32:24 (NIV)


We continue this morning with he story of Jacob. If you recall, two weeks ago he had deceived his father and taken the paternal blessing that should have gone to his older brother Esau. Esau was understandably upset and vowed to kill his younger brother for his deceit. Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban looking for sanctuary which he found. Last week, Jacob found himself on the other side of a deception when Uncle Laban rather conned him into marrying not one but two of his daughters.

Today’s story is found in Genesis 32:22-31. It’s now twenty years since Jacob fled from Esau and found sanctuary with Laban. He has worked hard and Laban has given him part of the flock of sheep as payment for his labour. Not only does Jacob have lots of sheep. He also has lots of kids: eleven sons and one daughter to be specific. Jacob’s been busy but he’s also homesick and wants to return to his birth family. And so he leaves Uncle Laban and heads back home with all that he has.

As they are approaching the land where he grew up, he hears some scary news. Esau has heard that Jacob is coming home and has decided to meet him with 400 men. So what is this: a big welcoming party or an army? And that scares the wits out of Jacob because the last he heard, his older brother still wanted him dead. And so Jacobs stops for the night on the banks of a river. He sends his family and his possessions across the river to protect them from Esau. And he waits, all by himself, for the morning when he will meet his brother. And that is where our story starts today. Reading from Genesis 32:22-31 (NIV):

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.


So what we have here is Jacob waiting alone on the banks of a river for morning to come. He does not know what the morning will bring except that it will involve his brother Esau and 400 men. So there he is alone, frightened, uncertain about his future and unsure if he will even be alive to see another sunset.

What going on here? What’s going on is that Jacob’s past is finally catching up with him. Twenty years later, after deceiving his father and older brother, he is ready to pay the piper, whatever that cost might be.

But I think it’s interesting that Jacob is in this place because he’s chosen to be there. It was his choice to return home. He could have stayed in Haran with Uncle Laban, safely tucked away from Esau and his anger. He could have stayed there forever and been quite comfortable. But instead he made the deliberate and intentional decision to return home and face the music.

Why did he do that? The Bible doesn’t really say why but we can guess by reading the story and maybe reading between the lines just a little bit. One key verse is found in Genesis 31:3 (NIV) which says this: “Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” This tells us that Jacob doesn’t decide to return home on a simple whim. He makes the journey because it is the call of God on his life. And God also doesn’t just call someone on a whim. God calls his servants with a purpose. And what is the purpose in this case? To try to answer that, I want us to look at the character of God. God is many things. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. But God is also just and I think that is the key characteristic that is active here. God demands that justice be done.

There has been an injustice done by Jacob upon Esau and that injustice has to be addressed and, as much as is humanly possible, remedied. And the only way to remedy the injustice is to send Jacob home to face what he did twenty years earlier. So this has something to do with God’s character and the fulfilment of God’s purpose.

But it also has something to do with Jacob. Jacob needs to be reconciled to his brother but he also needs to be at peace with himself. And clearly, what he did as a young man is still gnawing at him. Clearly he knows the harm he did to Esau? But why go back home now? Who knows? Maybe he finally has enough worldly possessions that he thinks he can bribe his older brother into a workable truce. Maybe he wants to see his aging parents one more time. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s finally grown up enough to admit his guilt and face the unintended consequences of his actions. If you ask me, I think the last one has more of a ring of truth to it. Jacob has finally grown up and is in a place in his life where he is willing to face the wrong he did as a younger man and seek the justice that God demands. In a nutshell, he wants to make amends wherever that will take him. And so he finds himself alone on the river bank waiting for morning to come.


That is not an unusual place for us to be. All of us know that there are things in our past that we are not proud of, things that we wish we could do over. Sometimes those are thing in the distant past but sometimes they may have happened just a couple of weeks ago or maybe even yesterday. Regardless, there are things in our lives, loose ends of harm or hard feeling that need to be addresses and cleared up.

I know people, and you do too, who have grudges that go back ages. I know families that have been torn apart because of something that happened decades ago and brothers and sisters haven’t spoke with each other since.

I want to show you a video right now about one of the classic grudge cases of all time. This is what happens when people hold grudges. (Play the cartoon video Dynamite Dance)

Elmer Fudd met Bugs Bunny when he was hunting wabbits. Over the years, however, it ceased to be about hunting and began to be all about getting even with Bugs at any cost. This reminds us of two things. First, the only person getting hurt is the person trying to get even. That’s what happens when people hold grudges. Usually the only person they hurt is themselves. The second thing that tells us is that Elmer Fudd would be a whole lot better off if he would just let it go. The same thing holds true for the rest of us.

Do you know what that is? To be honest, it’s silly. Life is just too short to hold that kind of grudge for that long. Do you know what else it is? It’s unbiblical. Ephesians 4:26 (NIV) is very clear when it says this: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” So not only are we not to hold grudges for years, we’re not even supposed to hold them overnight. And yet we let things go on and on and, ultimately, the only person we hurt is ourselves. God calls us to face what we have done and deal with it. That means facing out past and that means being honest about what we have done. Our God is a God of reconciliation and, if we are to be faithful, we need to seek reconciliation in all aspects of our lives.

The ultimate expression of this in today’s story is the man who shows up during the night to wrestle with Jacob. It says in verse 24 that this man wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. All night they wrestle because neither Jacob nor the man can overpower the other.

How many times have you spent the night wrestling with one issue or another in your life? Is there anyone who has not had a sleepless night, lying awake in bed, staring at a dark ceiling, worrying about something or other? I think we’ve all done that. Who knows, maybe you did it last night.


We learn later on in this story that this man is none other than God in human form. They wrestle all night with neither one prevailing. It is an epic battle. But as the sun is coming up and it is time to finish with this struggle because you can’t struggle forever. There comes a point when the issue has to be faced and there can be no more delays. That time, in this struggle, is when the sun rises.

God does two things to bring this wrestling match to an final end. He touches Jacob’s hip and he gives Jacob a new name. Both of these are significant and I want to tell you why.

Let’s look at the hip. When God touches Jacob’s hip it creates an injury what causes Jacob to limp. You might think that was rather unfair of God. With all the power that God has at his disposal why harm Jacob any more?

I want you to think about this. When we really wrestle with our past, the things we have done, the people we may have hurt along the way, if we do that honestly we do not come away unscathed. It’s not easy facing your past. It’s not easy admitting the hurt that you have caused to others, either intentionally or otherwise.

But here’s the upside – because there is always an upside – it is in the pain that we often find growth and reconciliation. Even as a culture it sometimes hurts. All of us have to be aware of what’s going on with Black Lives Matter these days in the aftermath of the death of Floyd George. I admit that I have some concerns with the tactics used by some in the Black Lives Matter movement. While I believe in peaceful protest I see no need for the violence that we have sometimes seen. I’m okay with the removal of statues when it is done through proper administrative channels but I have a lot of trouble when it is done by mob rule. And I think it is unwise to try to judge people who lived 150 years ago by the standards of today. But ultimately, none of that takes away from the fact that systematic racism has been a real issue in our society and still is in some places. And while we cannot change the past, we can certainly learn from it and try to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I think that one of the reasons why some people react so negatively to Black Lives Matter is because, like Jacob, it hurts to face the reality of our past. It causes us to feel wounded because of the pain that comes from wrestling with our past. So if you feel like your limping away from this struggle, if you feel wounded, don’t be surprised. I feel the same way sometimes.

Jacob walks away with a limp but he also walks away with something else. He walks away with a new name. In verse 28, God says to him, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” I’ve mentioned to you before that names in the Bible are important. They aren’t just monikers that are used to identify people. They actually signify something important about the character of the people who holds them.

So, what does this mean for Jacob. Jacob’s original name means “seizes by the heal” and comes from the day when he and Esau were born as twins. As Esau was born as the first twin, the Bible tells us that Jacob’s little hand was wrapped around his foot so he couldn’t get away so to speak. It’s actually a term that has negative inferences that point to a deceitful person. So Jacob’s original name speaks of his deceitful character which is on display in Genesis in more than a few places.

His new name, however, is Israel which means “he wrestles with God” and how appropriate that is. This name has positive connotations because it indicates someone who is willing to wrestle with issues and find solutions. It indicates someone who is willing to confront the things that God shows him head on and make amends.

These two names indicate a change in Jacob’s character. He has grown up. He has matured. He has wrestled with his past – a past of which he is none to proud and he is waiting for the morning to see what the new day will bring when he meets his brother Esau.

This sleepless night has transformed Jacob. He is not the same person. The frightened man who waited by himself on the riverbank is no more. He has wrestled with his past. He has wrestled with himself. He has wrestled with God and faced the reality of his own deceitful ways and he is ready to face head on the consequences of his actions two decades ago.

He is walking away with a limp. It will always be a reminder of his struggle but it will also be a reminder that with God anything is possible. Even deceitful Jacob can overcome and be a better person by the power of God working within him.


As the sun rises so does Jacob, alone again, still unsure of what the day will bring but willing to face whatever it will be. I can’t imagine what it would have been like watching Esau crest the rise in the road followed by 400 of his men. Jacob must have held his breath for a moment. Genesis 33:3-4 (NIV) tells us what happens next: “[Jacob] himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”

Jacob humbles himself before his brother whom he so grievously wronged not knowing how his brother will respond. For his brother has all the power and he has none. In the end, it is the best of all outcomes. Jacob is not the only one who has grown up. So has Esau. His anger is gone. His desire for vengeance is gone. His need to slay his brother is gone. It sounds like Jacob is not the only brother who has spent time wrestling with his past. Jacob might be limping but Esau runs to him and embraces the brother he has not seen in twenty years. They embrace and they weep in their reunion.

It is not easy to wrestle with our past because we often walk away wounded. It is not easy to seek reconciliation but it is God’s call on our lives. Every now and then each of us finds ourselves on the banks of a river of our soul with memories of what we have done.

When that happens we make a choice. Sure we can walk away if we want. Many do. Or we can choose to confront the wrongs of the past in order to secure a better future. Our God is a God who seeks reconciliation. That is why he sent his son Jesus to pay for our sins so that we could be reconciled with him through the power of his blood and the glory of his resurrection.

God wants each of us to be reconciled to each other as well. So take some time to ponder this week what God is calling you to do.


God of All Creation, your Spirit flows around us reminding us of your love and care for even the least of your creatures. We give thanks that you are as close as a prayer. When life seems to be too much to bear, your hand reaches out to us offering hope and help and healing. We give thanks for all of your precious gifts.

We put our lives in your hands. On our own, we are helpless to clean up our lives. The temptations are too strong, the bad habits too engrained. But you, O God, can do anything. You can take the meagre gifts in our lives and use them for your glory. Just give us the faith and the courage to let you do it.

We offer great thanks for the marriage yesterday of Adria Marci and Brian Chauvin. Bless them, O God, as they begin their married life together. Bless them and help them to grow in their relationship with each other and with you.

We pray for so many people around the world who live in times of struggle and hardship. We pray that needless violence may cease and lives be saved. Enable, O God, those who advocate violence to see past their own limited self-interest so that they may embrace the truth of your word and the joy of your peace.

We lift up in prayer those who are suffering from broken relationships. Heal their woundedness, O God of life, that they may move on to experience the abundant life that you promise to all those who put their faith and their trust in you.

We also pray for those who need your healing touch, remembering especially Richard, Gary and Nellie’s parents. Bring hope and your Healing Spirit into their lives.

Holy God, we know that all life is valuable in your sight. We are grateful that your love and compassion are limitless and unconditional. When we are faced with difficult decisions or situations, help us to remember that you are always ready to help offering guidance, strength, patience and wisdom. You provide the example of how we should treat others. Keep us faithful as you are faithful. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


August 2, 2020 / Pentecost 9


Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7. 15; Matthew 14:13-21; Romans 9:1-5


God’s word is a lamp to our feet;

it is a light to our path.

The ways of God are awesome;

the power of God is pure.

Let us worship the One who saves us;

let us worship the One who gives us life.


Hear our prayers, O God of Life. Enter our worship as you enter our lives. Instill within us a new sense of your praise and glory. Give to us a passion for justice for all people. Remind us of our responsibility to share your Good News of salvation and reconciliation with all people. Your testimonies are pure. They fill our hearts with joy and give us the courage to continue down the path of your making. Amen.


We put our lives into your hands, O God of Mercy and Compassion. We acknowledge that we are unworthy of your love. The paths that we travel are not your paths. The creations of our hearts are not of your making. The thoughts in our minds are not worthy of your thinking. Cleanse us from our self-centred ways. Forgive us of our sins and enable us to always look for the good of others. Amen.


There are times when we think that we are too sinful for God’s mercy. There are moments when we think that we are too hopeless for God’s grace. In those times, know that God’s power to forgive is greater than any power on earth. That is the strength of forgiveness that we receive. That is the strength of forgiveness that we are called to share with one another.


For all that we have, for all that we are, for all that we will become, we offer our thanks and our praise. Enlighten us and encourage us to use these gifts that conflicts may be solved and peace may be found. Amen.


As children of God, we have worshipped in faith and truth. As followers of Christ, we are called to go forth from this place to share the Good News of salvation and reconciliation in Jesus’ name.

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