Wrestling with God

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 9/Proper 13
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 55: 1-5 and Genesis 32: 22-31
The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have wrestled with God and with men and you have won. That’s why your name will be Israel.”
Genesis 32: 28 (CEV)


Genesis 32:22-31 is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. That story struck a chord with me because I was hoping this morning to tell you a little bit about what I was doing in Blackdown Cadet Camp when I was away for most of July. I want to tell you what I was doing and how I saw God at work in that ministry. But, like Jacob struggling with God, Blackdown was a real struggle for me; in fact, it was much more of a struggle than I thought it would be. It was so much of a struggle that half way though week two I texted Ruth and told her to be sure to never let me agree to go back there ever again. I was not having a good time. In fact, I was having a horrible time. One day, I almost packed up and left because I just didn’t think I could fulfill the entire four week contract and maintain my sanity.

But, when all is said and done, things turned around quite a bit. I settled in. I appreciated the other instructors and staff. I ended up loving the kids and was so proud of them last Friday when they graduated. And I may just agree to go back next year. How did all of that turn around so quickly? I turned around because of the hand of God which was clearly upon me as I wrestled with my situation at Blackdown.

To understand Genesis 32, we have to understand what Jacob is doing. He’s actually waiting to meet his brother Esau. If you know the story, Esau was the first born son of Isaac and, as the first born son, should have received his father’s blessing. This was a very important ritual in those days but Jacob deceived their father Isaac into giving him the blessing instead. And then he fled because when Esau found out what he had done, he wasn’t at all happy about it.

Jacob has now been away for a number of years. He left with nothing but is returning with two wives, two concubines, eleven children and great wealth. He has done well for himself but feels the call to return home to his roots. But to do that, he has to face Esau and he also knows from Genesis 32:6 that Esau is heading his way with 400 armed men. This does not look good for Jacob. And so what does he do? He sends his wives and children and all of his wealth across the river where they are relatively safe and chooses to face Esau alone.

Sometimes God calls us to face our challenges all by ourselves because it is our challenge and no one else’s. That’s why we have to face it alone. Rather than being surrounded by family and friends, we all by ourselves. Well, not quite by ourselves because never forget that God is there. This is one of those situations for Jacob. He is about to face is brother Esau and his 400 men. This is his challenge and his challenge alone. And he must do it all by himself.


So picture Jacob all by himself, his family safely across the river, waiting for Esau to show up with who knows what in mind. On one level, this seems like a really stupid thing to do. Jacob is out-manned, out-muscled and totally at the mercy of his older brother. But he waits there by himself.

And guess who shows up? A man shows up. Genesis 32:24 (NIV) says, “So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” We don’t know from where he came. We don’t know why. All the Bible tells us is that he shows up. Who is he? He isn’t named or even described but we know who he is. He’s another angel. He’s God’s messenger sent to do God’s work. And as God’s messenger, he actually represents God. So Jacob is wrestling not only with an angel. Jacob is wrestling throughout the night with God.

Does that sound just a little familiar? How many times have you wrestled with things all night long. You lie awake in bed wondering how this or that situation will work out. You know there’s a problem or you see a potential problem and all night long your mind races around looking for loop holes and solutions. Do you take that new job offer or not? When is the right time to retire? Do I bail my kid out one more time or do I finally make her responsible for her decisions? The doctor has given me three treatment options; which one do I select? Is it time to begin a relationship with someone who seems very interesting or is it time to end a relationship that just doesn’t seem to be working? All of us face decisions all the time and some of them keep us up at night and we wrestle with what to do.

Just like you, I’ve had those sleepless nights when I wrestled with what I should do. And the trouble is that you can’t put off the decision forever because, as Jacob knew, Esau is on his way with 400 men and once he gets there, times up. Eventually you have to make a decision and sometimes you have to make it before you want to. But that’s part of the struggle too.


I have to admit that I wrestled with all kinds of things while at Blackdown and my hunch is that some of you wrestle with the same sort of things on a regular basis. First of all, I wrestled with trying to fit into a new and different role. As most of you know, I was a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces for almost 30 years. I know how to do that. In fact I can do it very well. That’s not an issue. But I wasn’t at Blackdown to be a Padre. I was there to be a music instructor. You can blame Rebekah for that. When she turned sixteen, she asked if she could join the Windsor Regiment Band. But I had to drive her so I figured that I might just as well join too. I hadn’t played much clarinet since high school but I got a second hand one from a music store and began to relearn the instrument.

Back in the spring, the call came that the cadet camps in Ontario needed music instructors and I was asked if I would go. That was not on my bucket list so I said no. And then I said no again and again and again. But eventually I caved in and thought I’d try it because they were so desperate. My application was accepted. And that’s how I found myself at Blackdown as a music instructor.

But I didn’t know how to do that. Sure I’ve played music since I was a child but playing and teaching are two different things. When I got there I discovered that the next oldest music instructor had the same two numbers in his age as me – only they were reversed. Furthermore, most of the other thirteen music instructors were either professional musicians, music teachers or doing degrees in music at university. One young woman was working on her PhD in music. And I felt so inadequate. I’m not used to feeling inadequate. I’m a pretty confident person but I was clearly at the bottom of the heap in terms of experience and I didn’t like it. I didn’t know how I was going to fit into this new role.

And then the young navy Lt who was commanding the band company made me chief music instructor for the basic platoons. I didn’t even know what that was. Apparently she chose me not because of my musical skills but because of my past military experience which she assumed I could use to run the basic platoons. She probably thought that was a great idea. I wasn’t so sure.

I will admit, however, that the other civilian music teachers were really warm and accepting. At first they kind of looked at me a bit sideways – like who invited dad? – but within a couple of hours I was one of the team and that felt good and really helped to settle me in. But I didn’t know if this aging dog was ready to learn some new tricks and so I wrestled with the whole role things. What was I expected to do and how was I going to achieve it.

But one thing I have learned over the years is that if God calls you to do something, even new things, God does not look at your birth certificate to see if you’re the right age. Remember Noah? God called him to build the ark when he was almost 600 years old. Abraham was 99 years old when God told him he was going to be a daddy; Sarah was 89. Moses was eighty years old when God called him to lead the people of Israel on a forty year journey to the Promises Land. The list goes on. God is no respecter of age and he calls us to do what he wants us to do not because we’re in the right age category but because he has already equipped us to do that ministry.

I had to remind myself of that on a number of occasions, that God had me in Blackdown for a reason and even though I didn’t know how I was going to achieve what I was supposed to achieve, God did know and that God would guide me and strengthen me along the way. But despite that, I still struggled with my role.


I also wrestled with my new rank. When I retired from the army two years ago, I held the rank of major. I was the Deputy Division Chaplain for the 4th Canadian Division of the Canadian Army. I was partially responsible for the oversight of all of the army chaplains in the province of Ontario, both Regular Force and Reserve. I operated at the strategic level and got called to Ottawa for meetings from time to time. I enjoyed that. I liked being a senior officer. I was known and respected and I liked it.

My contract at Blackdown said that I was Civilian Instructor, a CI, which carries the equivalent rank and pay as an officer cadet. I hadn’t been an officer cadet since 1984. What a come down that was. What a humbling come down. I had gone from way up there to way down here. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one little bit. In fact, I really struggled with it.

I struggled with junior officers trying to tell me what to do. I had one young lieutenant try to tell me when I could and could not do my laundry. I was on duty that night which means that I potentially could be up all night depending on what happened on my watch. But I also had some laundry to do which I could not do when on watch. Now in the army that I’m used to – not the cadets – if I was an instructor or staff and I had laundry to do and a spare hour where I was not committed to anything, I went to my quarters and threw my clothes in the washer and got it done. But that’s not how the young Lt saw things. Working hours were working hours and laundry was not done during working hours.

After a few things like that, I needed to talk to someone because it was driving me nuts and the person I choose was a crusty old sergeant-major by the name of Neil Lester. You may know or you may have heard of Neil. He was on the Windsor police force for a number of years before retiring. And he spent some time in the army as well. Neil is now in his late seventies and has been going to cadet camps for the past sixteen years. And he’s not nearly as crusty as he makes out to be.

Neil and I understand each other. We’re from the same generation of army. So I texted him and practically begged him to come and see me at the band building when he got a chance. When he arrived later that day, we tried to find a place to talk but it was difficult because the band building is not that large and between the cadets and the staff there was upwards of 170 people there. Finally, we found a private place to talk – the woman’s staff bathroom. We checked to make sure that it wasn’t occupied and then went in and locked the door.

And then I fumed a bit. And SM Lester fumed a bit too. I got out all of the gripes and frustrations that had been piling up for the past week. And then we spent some time planning about how to remedy the situation. It took about ten or fifteen minutes but we came up with a plan which we would implement later that afternoon. It wasn’t complicated – just put some wise words into the right people’s ears. We both felt better and left the bathroom smiling.

But as we were exiting the women’s bathroom, one of the female staff saw us. Not long afterwards she approached me and said, “May I ask why you and the Sergeant-Major were in the woman’s bathroom and why he had a smile on his face when you came out?” My answer was short and to the point: “No, you may not,” and that was that. But our concerns were addressed at an orders group that evening so it was mission accomplished.

One of the challenges for any of us, of course, is realizing that no matter where we are, we are ambassadors for Christ and we need to always act accordingly. That means that I was his representative in that place and I knew that he expected me to be a good example of what a man of God should be like. That meant that I could not go off in a huff and start to bad mouth people and be a general pain in the neck. If I had concerns, and I did, I had to address them in the right way; lovingly, thoughtfully, respectfully and with as much grace as I could muster. That thought kept me grounded sometimes realizing that it was not all about me. It was all about the example I was setting as a man of God.


I wrestled with a lot of things at Blackdown. I also wrestled with being away from home, with not being able to keep to my fitness regimen and there were also some issues with the food. I’ll give the kitchen staff credit. It’s not easy to feed 7,500 meals a day. But God was able to help me deal with all those things too.

The last point I want to mention, however, comes from Genesis 32:28 (NIV). The wrestling match is over and the angel says this to Jacob: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob gets a new name – Israel which means “he struggles with God”. Why did he get that name? It says that it’s because he struggled with God and overcame.

Note what the angel does not say. The angel does not say that Jacob won against God. Rather he says that he overcame. Those are two very different things. You can’t win when you fight against God. God knows best. God is all powerful. God is all knowing. You can’t beat God. If you could, then God would not be God. But you can overcome. You can take the struggles that life hands you and choose to allow God to use them to make you into better people. That is always an option. We can’t always choose what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. That challenge is always to respond faithfully.

That’s what Jacob does. After giving Jacob a new name and blessing him the angel just up and leaves. At that very moment, Jacob looks up and what does he see? He sees his brother Esau approaching with those 400 men. Not knowing what to expect, Jacob divides his family in the hopes that if Esau attacks then at least some of his wives and children may escape. But there is no need for this because as we read in Genesis 33:4 (NIV), “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” It ends well. The brothers are reunited. Past hurts are forgiven and the clan – the descendants of Abraham – is brought together again.

Ultimately, that is what it’s all about. It’s about putting aside hurts and offering forgiveness. It’s about understanding how we have hurt others and seeking to make things right again. It’s about overcoming our struggles and wrestling them to a draw so that we can move on in faith to be all that God calls us to be.

If all goes well, I will be heading back to Blackdown next summer and I will try to be a positive influence on the cadets and staff that I will meet there. I’m sure that there will be more struggles next year but that’s okay because I know that I will not be there alone. My God will there with me just as he was with Jacob.


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 Eric and Lianne McInnis. 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 thank you for summer activities. We are grateful for cool lakes and swimming pools, good friends, refreshing walks, fish flies, early morning fishing and refreshing evenings spent on the front porch. We also ask for travelling mercies for those on the road.

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 6, 2017 / Pentecost 9 / Proper 13


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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