Struggling Through

Read: Genesis 32:22-32; Psalms 17:1-7; Romans 6:3-22; Matthew 10:34-42

A married couple in a church I once was minister of in the Midwest had a son every parent would be proud to have. He was a good boy who brought pride to his parents and honor to himself. He eventually became an Eagle Scout and almost from the day he was born he was the embodiment of every Scouting ideal: kind, obedient, loyal, trustworthy, reverent, and all the rest – and he did “a good turn every day.” His proud parents gratefully accepted the praise of friends, teachers, and others for the beautiful job they had done in raising such a fine boy. And they began to believe they deserved some credit for their model son. After all, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

About ten years after the first son was born, the Lord unexpectedly blessed them with a second boy. And what a contrast! The second was nothing like the first. HE WAS A PISTOL! And almost from the day he was born it was a running gunfight between him and his parents. He was Trouble with a capital T. So much for parental pride.

We have such a Jekyll-and-Hyde brother combination in the Old Testament story of Esau and Jacob. Esau was the “naturally” good boy, and Jacob the “naturally” rotten one. Esau did everything right and Jacob did everything wrong. To their father, Isaac, the two boys were trick or treat – tricking the dim-sighted Isaac on his death-bed into giving him Esau’s birthright.

Jacob was one of those people who do things the hard way. Born grasping Esau’s heel, as if trying to wrestle his twin brother over who should be born first, Jacob struggled all his life. He was a wrestler, from the struggle inside his mother’s womb to the wrestling match in the Old Testament reading above.

After a lifetime of strife and struggle, the crafty, scheming, contentious, independent Jacob was finally pinned to the mat by a messenger of God. The experience Jacob has been effectively enlarged upon by an unknown author: “Night has fallen, also the night of Jacob’s soul. There is no sleep for him. An agony of many sins settles upon him – sins against his parents, sins against Laban, sins against Esau, yes, sins against God. It’s God you have to reckon with in the last analysis, Jacob. He is your real antagonist. There he is Jacob. He clutches you, Jacob, you who clutched Esau’s heel. He embraces you, Jacob, you who embraced your father with falsely hairy arms. He crushed you, Jacob, you who crushed Laban at the last. Jacob, God wrestles with you. He has a strangle hold. What will you do now? Quick, a scheme, a plot; some stratagem . . . Jacob there is a faint light in the Easter sky. All night you’ve strained and struggled. Jacob, you are lame. This bout you cannot win.”

Yes, God finally defeated Jacob. That was a surrender such as Jacob had never made before. All Jacob did was to hold on and plead, “I will not let thee go unless thou bless me.” God did bless Jacob there and gave him a new name: Israel, Prince with God.”

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of the world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Paul wrote out of personal experience, but wrote, also for many of the saints of Christendom who have struggled long and hard before breakthrough to spiritual victory.

John Calvin (1509-1564) wrestled with laziness; he was by nature “a lover of shade and leisure.”

Teresa of Avila (15-1582) wrestled with poor health, as well as profound religious struggles, describing one period of her life as a Spanish mystic and reformer as “nearly twenty years on that stormy sea.”

St. Augustine (354-430) struggled with sensuality through his early years.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrestled with depression, before breaking through and writing his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, with the pilgrim Christian making his way through “the Slough of Despond.”

George Whitefield (1714-1770, pronounced Witfield) wrestled with arrogance.

John Woolman (1720-1772) the Quaker saint, wrestled with his affluence.

Charles Finney (1792-1875), the evangelist, wrestled with a judgmental, censorious attitude.

David Livingstone (1813-1873) wrestled with his strong ego.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) struggled with doubt until he gained the trust he needed and then gave us the immortal hymn that spoke of his victory:

          “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

          Lead Thou me on;

          The night is dark, and I am far from home;

          Lead Thou me on . . . “ 

Francis Thompson (1859-1907) wrestled with opium addiction, until he as last gained the victory, and wrote his classic poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”

Ethel Waters (1900-1977) the singer who blessed many through the Billy Graham meetings, wrestled with inferiority, which stemmed from her being born out of wedlock in a ghetto.

There and countless others, like Jacob of old, have vied with an opponent and emerged injured but triumphant.

In Richmond, Virginia, a man told the police about his wrestling match with a burglar who had broken into his home: “I got hold of his leg and twisted it over his shoulder. Then I got hold of his arm and twisted it round his neck, and before he knew where he was I was flat on my back.”

Sounds like Jacob, doesn’t it?

In the wrestling match we call life, a tie or split decision simply will not do.

The Bible shows us, as the history of the church has so often confirmed, that some of God’s greatest saints have earned the right to bear that name only when by God’s grace they have fought and won their battle against the power of evil within them which had well-nigh destroyed them. That’s our sermon for all the wrestlers in our congregation trying to struggle through.