Wrestling with God
Wrestling with God, by The Rev. Tracy Dugger *Proper 24C*
Genesis 32:22-31* Psalm 121* 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5* Luke 18:1-8
Have you noticed the increasing business of our lives, the demands of caring for our health, our families, ourselves, not to mention the demands of our jobs…Lots of us are wrestling with an unwieldy load, and we’re one missed alarm, or 3 red lights away, or one lost paycheck from the whole thing crumbling down… Despite all this many of us put on a really good front that we’ve got it all together. We have beautiful homes, lovely clothes, pinterest boards and Instagram snapshots of when we’ve got it all together. And when life gets chaotic and messy, we just stop letting people in…Why is that do you think?
In our society loneliness and isolation is on the rise, because we don’t want people to see us when we don’t have it all together. Or rather we want people to see us, and not our struggles. We don’t want to be defined by our cancer battles, we don’t want to be labeled as the hot mess mom that barely got everyone fed and dressed today. We don’t want other people to know when we’re battling depression and mental illness. We like to share our accomplishments, not our ever growing to do list.
That’s what makes today's Scripture lessons so incredible to me. Jacob not only doesn’t try to hide his struggle. He allows it to become a part of who he is and will be for the rest of his life. Jacob’s wrestling match leads to his new name, Israel, One who wrestles, grapples, or contends with God. How many of you remember Jacob’s bigger story? The lectionary gives us a snippet this morning, but to really appreciate the fullness and the glory of what has happened we need to zoom out.
Jacob was a twin. Brother to Esau. Son of Isaac and Rebekah. Descendant of Abraham, whom God promised that through his line he would bless the whole world. Jacob although the younger son, was the son of the promise, but he didn’t always trust in the promise, see his deception to steal his Father’s blessing, putting him at odds with Esau for YEARS.
Jacob then goes off and attempts to marry Rachel, but he then is similarly deceived and is wed to Leah instead. He goes on to work for his Father in law Laban and is eventually allowed to marry Rachel as well. Over the course of many years Jacob’s father in law continues to try and cheat and swindle him. Laban the Father in Law and Jacob have been at odds now for decades when a tentative peace is reached, and Jacob is finally free to leave, and he is on his way back to his homeland with his wives and children. But now on the way back he must pass through the territory of Esau, the brother he tricked. Maybe his years of being tricked by Laban brought home the need for peace and reconciliation. So, Jacob sends a message of peace, only to hear from his messengers that Esau was on his way toward him with an army.
It is in the face of this looming disaster, when Jacob stands on the brink of losing all he loves, and must decide how to prepare, that we enter today’s story. Jacob stops for the night. And he prays, and he calls on the promises that God has already made to make his descendants more numerous than he can count. After praying he selects gifts, animals, and emissaries to go ahead to Esau. His hope was to buy Esau off.
So, while the gifts go on ahead. Jacob camps, and waits, everything he owns, and everyone he loves is at risk. And Jacob is left alone. To doubt, to fear, to wonder “Am I the biggest fool ever to send everything ahead?” It is here that Jacob encounters the man, the angel, the emissary, the messenger, but instead of offering words of reassurance. Jacob and the man are embattled, in a wrestling match…not unlike the brothers the two grapple and fight, not seriously hurting or harming, but making no progress towards peace either. Finally, the man says “stop it, dawn is breaking.” And Jacob says no… “Not until you bless me” “Not until you give me the reassurance that I need.” The man says “What is your name?” “Jacob” Which meant heel snatcher, because Jacob was born grabbing and grappling with his brother. And Jacob finds himself now with a new name “Israel, one who grapples with God and men…” and wins.
Jacob now Israel is astounded. He renames the place he stands “face of God,” and marvels that he was spared. Isn’t amazing how God will allow us to wrestle through the night, and throughout our lives. We cry out all the time for reassurance, for healing, for a promise that no matter how dark the night or our circumstance is, everything will be all right.
Jacob calls the place “face of God” and marvels that he was allowed to see God face to face and live. Now throughout the rest of Genesis we see that Jacob is often call Israel…Jacob is given this new name, but he chooses to tell others of it. He chooses to allow himself to be defined by his wrestling with God. Why?
I think it’s because of what happens in the very next chapter. Jacob doesn’t just wrestle with God over what will happen…he receives the confirmation that to receive reconciliation is to receive and see the face of God. Because day dawns, and Jacob now Israel continues his journey. And he meets with Esau, and he finds himself embraced. The brothers weep, and Esau tries to refuse Jacob’s bribes and gifts. But Jacob insists…perhaps because he feels these gifts are a way to make amends, and make a path forwards, and then Jacob says something really amazing, “What a relief it is to see your smiling face, it is like seeing the very face of God.”
Twice in as many days Jacob sees the face of God, at night in his struggle, and by day in the face of his brother.
Friends it is a good thing to wrestle with God. When we struggle in the darkness of a broken world and we can’t see the way forward. When we face ill health, job loss, fighting in our homes and our family, when we fear for the future, and for those we love…It is good to wrestle with God. For it is when we grapple and in our perseverance of faith we say, “I’m not giving up, I won’t let you go God,” when we demand an account of the covenant promise, it is there that we will see the face of God, and we find that God has been with us all along in the struggle.
All of us have an invitation to live our lives like Jacob now Israel. In baptism we are receivers of a covenant promise. In our baptism, we are sealed as Christ’s own forever and we make covenant promises, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. -+*
In a few weeks on November 3rd we’re going to renew our baptismal promises, and if you would like to enter into these promises for the first time, and to be baptized please let me know.
As Christians we have a lifelong invitation to seek out the face of God in those we meet, and especially those we wrestle with. In our grappling attempts to live out our promises we find our answers in perseverance, in the repeated response, “We will with God’s help” Not only do we get to see God face to face in heaven, we get to meet God here as we are reconciled to God and our brothers and sisters by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, our Immanuel, God with us.
We are reconciled with one another as we make peace. In a handshake or a hug we see God face to face. So yes we’ve got a lot of work to do in this broken world. Some issues we may wrestle with God to understand or to conquer the rest of our lives, and that’s ok. For it is in wrestling with God that we are blessed to carry forward. In the fall, all humanity lost the ability to be in right relationship with God and one another. Relationships this side of heaven take work. But I hope we learn from Jacob that the struggle is worth it.
In our lifetime together as the church we will wrestle, we will grapple with the Holy texts and what do they mean. We may grapple with one another as we disagree. But we will also see God face to face in each other, in the promises made, the miracles of promises kept, and we will persevere in prayer, hope and petition for the promised not yets, the healings awaited, and the hopes deferred. And we’ll see God together at the Table, and in struggles of ourselves and others. Struggles that may remain a battle, but a battle fought with grace.
The world doesn’t need any more Christians, or any more churches, pretending they have it all together. The world and Port St. Lucie needs us to be who we are, a beautiful mess of people, united by God’s grace. People who persevere in hope, cling to our covenant promises and share the stories of the blessings we’ve received in the midst of our struggles. Let’s be people who share our struggles, and together we’ll see the face of God.