Struggling with God
A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 3, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When I was a kid I was taught and encouraged and sometimes even pushed to fight with other boys. And I got into a number of physical altercations until I was12 when I decided one day to purposefully avoid them.
Until I decided “no mas,” in that era of being raised toward macho-might I fantasized about going into boxing or wrestling. I am pretty sure that if I’d followed one of those paths my nickname in a ring would’ve been something like “Kid Candle” one little blow I’d go out . . .
Actually, forget the ring, I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been the only fighter in history knocked out while shadow boxing. 1 ///
In our Lectionary lesson for the morning Jacob’s got the macho fight thing going. He is so good that he lasts through a nightlong fight with God, and that struggle earns him a blessing and a new name. Because the fight is with God we need to look beyond the literal champion or co-champion of a bout kinda thing, and names in the story help– they are a good place to start.
Names tell us a lot in the Old Testament. Today the name Jacob is honorable and heroic based. But the name Jacob in the story has a few literal meanings in Hebrew that are meant to be there for the story’s sake. Jacob means “the one who grabs the heel” because Jacob and his twin Esau struggled in the womb and Jacob came out of the womb second holding Esau’s heel.
Jacob is a name that commentators also report means “underminer,” “supplanter” and even “trickster” – and these meanings also fit well because Jacob deceitfully usurped his brother’s birthright making himself the primary heir of their father Isaac’s titles and estate. 2. While no “Kid Candle” as a fighter, Jacob comes into the fight in today’s story with a name meant to suggest he was a nefarious trickster sort. And it is no small thing that such a man finally struggles with God and leaves that struggle with a new name, Israel, which commentators suggest means both, “struggles with God” and “God rules.” 3
There is a powerful message in this new name as the Hebrew nation ends up adopting it as their name as well. The people of God, those of “Israel,” admit and name themselves as those who struggle with God even as God rules over them.
Actually in the news all summer long we hear this struggle going on, God’s call for peace, God’s call to love neighbor and to treat aliens as equal citizens is in conflict with political and military decisions to bomb and retaliate against actions and threats. The struggle with God keeps Israel questioning its own actions and cease firing and thinking about peace talks. We can argue about Israel’s decisions and actions but it is plain to see it’s struggling with God.
Many Christians in our country assert a frightening certainty as to who God is and what God wants. But one Biblical lesson for children of God from today’s lesson is to understand that we actually collectively struggle with God, even as we claim God rules.
Our way as a nation and a people is often in conflict with God, we struggle with God as community and as individuals. Whether they’d admit it or not, even those with claims of certainty, have struggled with God. For example, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell claimed that God ordained racism and segregation, yet in his struggle with God he was eventually forced to concede and recant those claims. 4 The reason racism lost the struggle, I submit, is because God is love and loves everyone.
It sounds all nice and sweet and somewhat easy to claim God is love and loves everyone, but Christians are not supposed to just say it but to live to bring that very God – LOVE– into everything. This requires the hard work of not just loving God, but loving God and neighbors and enemies and doing to others what we want done to us. We have to give up our ways that wound the world and others, like racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism, and just plain being uncaring about, well, anyone. This is all summed in in Micah 6 (8) and on the wall hangings behind me as seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Micah notes that is ALL that God requires. It may not sound like much, but we wrestle and wrestle with God on this stuff.
Jacob did not act loving toward his brother prior to his night alone with God waiting to enter the Promised Land. But when he was done wrestling with God that night, he did act lovingly, and kindly and justly and only then does he get to the Promised Land. All of this occurred at twilight on the dawning of a new day while Jacob is alone with God. Jacob gets a new day, a rebirth. He is transformed and because of it in the next part of the story, Jacob finally experiences God’s face in his enemy, his brother’s, face.
As we heard Jacob also walks away wounded. Metaphorically he feels the wounds caused by the vibrations of his previous misdeeds. He knows now to get to the Promised Land he needs to remedy them as best he can– which works toward doing.
All of us in our struggles with God always metaphorically walk away wounded once we face God and the consequences of our past wrongdoings. When God does not prevail in our lives we are struck with the pain of our conduct that fought off God. This is not just at the human level, it’s at the national level too.
Slavery in this country is one of the examples I often name. Even as our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, declared the equality of men, we enslaved millions and participated in the enslavement and vicious brutality of many more until we reached a point that we could stand it no longer and we struggled and fought with one another in a horrific civil war that, while ending slavery, vibrates still in history lessons and monuments to our nation’s scars; AND in the still open wound of racism and poverty we have subjected our equal African American brothers and sisters to. We will limp long from this struggle with God (who calls us to love, to equality, to kindness, and to justice), we limp because we fought bloody and hard not to listen or follow that call.
I’ve mentioned other struggles we’ve encounter too. The oppression of the Poor and Women and Aliens; Native Americans and LGBTQ. In each of these struggles with God we have changed and we will come out of the fight a new people, better for sure, but the scars and wounds we inflict cause pain.
Here’s the thing, it is when we do not struggle with God that we hurt ourselves most, it is only when we face the fact we are in conflict with God in the dark of our evils that we finally come to grips not only with God, but with the wounds we have caused and experienced. In our struggles with God we do experience the pain of our sins–those failures to hit the target God aims us at (that is actually what “sin” means).
This works on an individual basis too. Jacob created a huge mess with his deceit and trickery. He’s about to meet his brother and expected a battle of another sort, not with God, but a violent-to-arms war with Esau. He sent his family over to the Promise Land and he stayed on the other side alone to prepare himself for what he expected to be a bloody conflict with his brother. Instead, he encounters God. Jacob did not apparently previously struggle with God.
And, see, here’s the thing, when you encounter God, when you conceive the Divine, you are usually alone. Like the Virgin Mary Story and the Moses’ Burning Bush story, getting that God exists is a solo human project at the outset. On an individual basis it’s always between you and God – and it is a struggle. Mary struggles a bit doesn’t she? She is perplexed and frightened and ponders and asks how it could be. Moses struggles too, he argues with God’s plan to use him and questions who God is. So here is Jacob a conniving tricky fellow and he is heading off to see his brother and alone he finds himself wrestling with God all night long. That’s kinda the way it works right? We stay up all night with our struggles.
If we are attentive we find God pushing and pulling us, holding us tight making us face what we are and what we need to become to get to the Promised land. The ‘what we are” shows us our wounds and gives us our limps. The “who we need to become” thankfully transforms us from the way we used to be. Like Jacob we are no longer the trickster, underminer, surplanter, or whatever, we are one who struggles with God . . . “Israel.” . . .
Like Jacob at the end of the night we face our pains and end up trying to hang onto a bit of blessing from God and move into the Promised land as a transformed person. The truth is that coming face-to-face with God means struggling to follow God as we limp along in our human frailty and foible-nesses.
A few weeks ago in our Talking About God discussion we were considering things that concerns us about Christianity. We listed a lot of troubling aspects like hypocrisy and hate, dogma and doctrine and self- righteousness, but one of the most poignant things we addressed was the fact that following Jesus’ Way is not easy.
It is hard work to get to the Promised land. It requires wrestling with doing what God calls us to – not what we want, or what earthly ways call us to. And so “Israel” can be understood not just as a name reflecting Jacob’s first tussle with God, or even the Hebrew people’s continual struggles with God, but the name for the truth of a big part of the journey into the Promised Land for all of us, it’s a struggle! The folks in the pews beside you and in other churches, the pastor who is preaching and all the others you may see or hear, all of us who have conceived God alone, struggle our whole lives with the wounds our stray arrows inflict when they fail to hit the target God aims us at.
Once we struggle with God, like Jacob, we do not swagger in the place God promises us, we limp carrying our wounds. This is true as a nation, as a people, as a church, and as individuals. Humans are on an imperfect walk to the Promised Land, to heaven. We need to walk humbly with God.
The Communion table we are about to share actually reflects this truth. We remember that humankind wrestled, struggled with God incarnate in the form of Jesus. As a result the body of Christ was broken and the blood of Christ was spilt. We– humankind– did that!
The most loving fully human person whom we celebrate and worship as God incarnate, was legally declared a criminal, beaten, broken stabbed and executed. Out of that struggle, out of that wounded and broken-ness, arose an even more powerful version of Christ, one who cannot be destroyed and gives us all hope and new life. Yet, as the Bible instructs, the wounds remain on the risen Christ’s body. We do not forget the wounds humanity caused God incarnate. Christ showed them to Thomas as evidence, and shows them to us too. They are not as just as evidence of Jesus’ past life, but as remnants of having been broken and executed, yet still alive, still positively affecting life and the world.
We share this table today in memory of the wonderful life and resurrection of Christ, and we take into us the broken-ness too. Christians, like Jacob, struggle with God. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of that.
And like Jacob we don’t let go. We hold tight and we hope and pray in so doing we can better experience the face, the presence of God in the ritual and in the wrestling as we travel into the Promise Land, hoping to see God’s face in our brother and sisters, our neighbors and our enemies. Because when we do that, the Promised Land comes to be, heaven breaks in and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Promise Land is the place where ALL love, and ALL seek justice and ALL love kindness and ALL walk humbly with God. It’s a doable, real place, and it takes a struggle to get there and to see God’s face.
1. These jokes and many others can be found at http://www.sportsjokes.co.uk/jokes/boxing/index.shtml
2. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol 1, p 521; Bruggemann, Walter, Interpretation Bible Commentary, p268; Anchor Bible Dictionary “Jacob Narrative” at p 599
3. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol 1, p 566; Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy, p 40.
4. See, http://www.georgecurry.com/columns/jerry-falwells-racist-past-;