Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gone Wandering 3: Wrestle Mania

Gone Wandering[1] 3: Wrestle Mania

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Genesis 32:22-31 Sunday, July 24, 2011

We have come some distance so far in our short series of readings from Genesis for the summer. We began with the birth of Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, moved last week to Jacob’s dream at Bethel of the heavenly stairway with angels ascending and descending. This week we bypass stories of the bait and switch pulled by Jacob’s Uncle Laban when Jacob married first Leah, thinking she was Rachael, then finally married Rachel. As we re-enter the story today, Jacob is on his way to meet with his twin brother Esau. Because he snookered Esau out of his first-born birthright those years ago, Jacob was understandably anxious about the coming meeting. He sent presents on ahead in hopes to appease the long-simmering anger of his brother. He lay down next to the river for a fitful sleep before the next day’s meeting, and it was there, on the banks of the river, that he wrestled with God, who gave him a new name. He had, all his life, carried the name Jacob, which in Hebrew means “one who grabs by the heel,” as he had done, emerging from Rachel’s womb, contesting Esau’s right to be called firstborn. Now, following his struggle at the river Jabbok, he received a new name, “Israel,” which means “the one who strives with God.”

We wonder about all the struggle chronicled in the stories of Jacob. We wonder if, by the end, he will be different than he was at the beginning. Will he always be the same, grasping, conniving person, or will he finally become a person who can be real with others, whose life can be honest and forthright, and satisfied.

Israel: the one who strives with God. Probably that would be a good name for many of us. Few people in my experience come to faith as an easy, simple matter. For most of us there is some element of struggle, whether it is for understanding, or a sense of calling, or a desire to experience the presence of God more directly. We all struggle with God, seeking God’s blessing, some word from God about the purpose, the meaning of our lives.

I recall hearing a story about a pastor in his earliest ministry, when he served a very poor little church in rural Tennessee.[2] The church had been in existence about fifty years but had never had a called pastor. The lives of the people were filled with tales of the sort of hard-scrabble existence that once characterized a good portion of the population of the South, and still does in many places. When the pastor came to that poor little church and community they wanted to celebrate his arrival by decorating their small one-room frame church building. They had no beautiful art to hang above the pulpit behind the preacher, so they had a contest for something to hang on the wall as a centering point for their worship. One of the children won the contest. She had found, in a magazine, a close-up picture of the face of a bulldog. That picture won the contest, and it was put on the wall above the pulpit in the sanctuary, with the following words written underneath it:

Get a good grip on your faith and don’t turn loose!

The people of that poor little country church were saying to God what Jacob said to the angel. “We will not turn you loose until you bless us.”

Sometimes faith has to be like that: tenacious, unyielding. Sometimes faith has to be gripped so as not to let it slip from our grasp, leaving us without faith, without hope, without purpose. Do not turn loose of God until you are blessed, be insistent about it, like the psalmist who cried, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?... Rise up, come to our help.”[3]

One thing is sure. No one comes away untouched from grasping after God. Jacob found that he had a limp in his gait from that day on, a persistent, step-by-step reminder in his hip socket that once upon a time he had grasped after God and perhaps had found more than he bargained for.

What led to his grasping for God?

Remember that twenty years before, Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright as the eldest son of Isaac. He had run away to Haran from the anger of his brother, where he arrived with only his walking stick and his life. While he was there he worked for Laban, his uncle. He earned two wives from this sharp dealing relative (perhaps it takes one to know one!), as well as amassing an Old Testament version of a sizable fortune in oxen, donkeys, flocks, slaves, wives and children. Now he prepared to return home to encounter his brother. Word was out that Esau had put together a small welcoming party of 400 soldiers. What would you do? How would you feel?

After sending all his entourage and his goods across the Jabbok River, Jacob remained behind, where he spent that famously restless night which turned into a wrestling match.

Have you ever had a sleepless night? Of course you have. You toss and turn, items from the troubles of the day rolling through your mind. The problem isn’t that you are sleeping. The problem is that you are very much awake when you should be sleeping. You worry, you fret. Small problems loom large. What am I going to do about the mortgage payment when there’s nothing in the bank? Where did I leave that memo that was supposed to be on my boss’s desk by this morning? How can I possibly clean the house in time for company when I have to work until 5:30? In the quiet of the night when our defenses are down, thoughts return to us, unbidden, until we find we cannot sleep. We are wrestling with our anxieties, if not with angels.

Consider Jacob’s guilty reflections. I can imagine Jacob thrashing back and forth until he bid God to help him in his worried sleeplessness. And God came, not as a host of angels or a menacing thundercloud on the mountain, but in a form unbidden, as a man who would wrestle with him until together they had made peace for Jacob. One writer asked, “How could Jacob even stay in the ring with God?”[4] But this was not God in all God’s glory. Here God took human form to encounter Jacob at his own level. The man who wrestled with Jacob – whom Jacob was entirely convinced was God – could not defeat Jacob any more than Jesus sets out to defeat us when we encounter him. It is not his purpose. God’s purpose is transformation, which is why God could transform Jacob’s name into “Israel,” while Jacob could not fathom the name of God. Staying perfectly in character, Jacob demanded a blessing from those he engaged. As he demanded a blessing from his brother, his father, his father-in-law, so here he demanded a blessing from God.

But a blessing from God never leaves us unchanged. God’s blessings are the very stuff of change, and Jacob discovered as dawn broke that the stiffness in his leg wasn’t his arthritis acting up. He was going to be sporting a limp in his walk from that day forward. Each step of the rest of his life would serve as a reminder of the One who, in blessing him, also transformed him into someone more human than he had been before.

Jacob went to Esau, limped up to him as it turns out, and did not make demands of him but simply invited him to share in the bounty which he now recognized had been showered on him, not by his own craftiness, but by the undeserved grace of God.

What Jacob learned at last – and maybe the limp he had to carry through his life was to serve as his daily refresher course – was that it is never by our strength alone that we do what we do and become what we become. The miracle in this story is not that Jacob finally came to terms with the fact that he was a sly deceiver – which he likely knew already. The miracle is that God recognized that quality in him too but loved him anyway.

What was true for Jacob can be true for us. As we limp along through our lives, finding daily reminders of our own shortcomings, we may rest in the assurance that God loves us enough to transform us, enough to save us, enough to wrestle with us through all the failures we throw in our own way, and his, contending with us through the man Jesus, who – like a mysterious wrestler in the night – came to us so that we might come home to God.

[1] Third in a series of five sermons on the Jacob/Esau cycle in Genesis.

[2] From a Southern Folk Advent Service, Candler School of Theology, Emory University © 1994.

[3] Psalm 44:23.

[4] Terrence Fretheim , New Interpreters’ Bible, Volume I, Abingdon, 1995, p. 568.