This sermon was given at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE on Sunday, September 27, 2015. It is a continuation of their current series on Elements of Faith.
A recording of the sermon is available on iTunes here.
For a number of years, through seminary and the years that followed, I struggled. I struggled a lot. I couldn’t figure out how, if I’d been called to the ministry, I wasn’t in a large church being as successful as my colleagues. I was stumped that my husband was the first to receive a call to a congregation instead of me, since I was the one who passed the ordination exams first and had the slightly higher grades in seminary, and certainly in college! God couldn’t have been playing a big joke on me with all of this, right? Surely I didn’t spend six years working on my seminary degrees, seven years working in a new worshipping community, two years a local campus ministry, and also helping lead ministries in my husband’s congregation only to be left wandering in the ministry wilderness perpetually. I struggled. I fought. I cursed God more times than I care to admit. I was bitter. Never mind that I always wanted to be one, I hated being a stay-at-home-mom simply because it meant I was changing diapers while my husband was pastoring and changing lives. At least, that’s how the landscape looked to me. I spent my fair share of days bargaining with God, reminding God of my faithful discipleship and leadership even in the years of cancer treatments, and I never failed to share my strong opinions that it was my decision to go to seminary while Mason just merely followed me. I hoped it would make me feel better to belittle the call of God on others and place myself on a pedestal, but it didn’t. I wrestled for more than a night over all of this, and I’ll admit I’m still in the healing stages.
When we arrive at this message Jacob is about to face his brother Esau for the first time in a few decades and he’s terrified. Jacob fears that Esau still desires to kill him for a lifetime of past deceits. In preparation for the return, and in hopes of not losing the majority of his possessions, Jacob separates himself from his wives, children, maids, livestock and wealth. Having first sent a significant gift across the river to his brother, he now sends his family ahead in hopes that Esau’s men would realize he was not present and spare their lives even if he still required Jacob dead. Although Jacob felt he had changed during their time apart, he was unsure of how his brother that he treated poorly in earlier years, would receive his return home.
Our protagonist was duplicitous in his younger life. Born the second twin of Isaac and Rebecca, he emerged from his mother’s womb clenching the heel of his brother Esau. Jacob always felt cheated of the firstborn’s birthright so he took it from his brother. A life of trickery and struggle for what he felt was rightly his led to an adult life in exile seemingly reaping what he had sewn. Rebecca learned of Esau’s desire to kill Jacob and sent her favorite child to live with her family in Haran. During his time there, Jacob essentially became his father-in-law’s servant as he worked many unnecessary years to earn the right to marry the daughter of his choice. Jacob spent around twenty years living as an alien in a foreign land, worshipping alien gods. His earlier life rife with struggle for what he thought should have been his, and his adult life full of struggle for a place, a family, and acceptance, it seemed only appropriate that Jacob would wrestle with a messenger of God just before he returned home.
Wrestling with God, or in Jacob’s case a messenger of God, is a spiritual experience though one we consider uncomfortable. Tussling with the divinity is about as enjoyable as stepping on a Lego that your son has left on the floor, or banging your funny bone on the kitchen counter. It’s not very funny, is it? Our reaction is visceral. We say things we regret, often in the midst of people we wish hadn’t heard our words, namely our toddlers. We leave the experience physically bruised and emotionally battered. Our psyche takes a beating, too. I was simply walking across the living room barefoot, because that’s what we do at home, and the green toy of pain ended up lodged in the ball of my foot. FUDGE! “Son, put your stupid toys up before I throw them away!” Not a single bit of wrestling with God seems beneficial to any of the parities involved while the struggle ensues. It’s how we recover from the battle that matters most.
“Often we have those dark nights of the soul where we wrestle with personal issues and circumstances. This is true on a bigger scale with institutions too, for the church, in many ways is doing just that…wrestling.”[i] We individuals are not alone – our church as a whole is in struggle right now, also. There are even conflicts in this very congregation and other congregations in our presbytery, too. It’s real. It’s unpleasant. It’s uncomfortable. But, it’s vital. Christianity as a whole has felt persecuted by “the other.” Our denomination is facing congregations leaving in droves. Families get insulted pastors and leadership decisions and therefore seek a new spiritual home. Committees argue over how to appropriately spend funding. Communities are divided over the loss of young lives and how the persecute the perpetrators. The crossroads exits and the struggle is real.
This week Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to our country. He’s spent much time in conversation with our leaders, both political and spiritual. He’s laid hands on and dined with those whom we’d just as soon overlook. His words have been both encouraging and piercing. He’s living into his role of apostle – being sent for the purpose of challenge and transformation. This Pope is a polarizing leader in the Christian church. Additionally, he’s a beacon of hope to so many. Recently he’s been quoted as saying, “May every Church and Christian community be a place of mercy amid so much indifference.”[ii] He, like Christ, understands that we are going to face difficult decisions and confrontational conversations, but expects us to remember that we have choices to make. We have a past we must recognize in order to move into the future to which God in Christ is calling us. We are at a crossroads, personally and as a church, where we must come to terms with our past before we can move forward. We must accept the struggle as the part of the journey that makes us more appreciative of the future destinations. “Suffering is a call to conversion: it reminds us of our frailty and vulnerability.”[iii]
Jacob has sent his family across the river and remains alone and encounters the intruder: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (v.24). Hebrew Bible Professor Vanessa Lovelace notes that: “the reference to daybreak was to cue the ancient audience that the attacker was not human. More than one commentary has noted the belief in antiquity that demons and spirits inhabited the night and rivers.”[iv] We do not know precisely who is the attacking visitor or the purpose of the attack, but we know that the unwelcomed guest is non-human. Only because of the reference to God in verse 28 can we assume the wrestler is from God: “…for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” In this meeting Jacob physically struggles with a divine presence who helps him come to terms with, and therefore metaphorically struggle with his past in the hope for a better future. It does not much matter with whom the struggle takes place so much as that the struggle takes place. Only when Jacob is alone, on the brink of returning home after a long time in exile, does he have the opportunity to let go of his past. When he lets go, when he defeats himself for who he’s been, he receives new life, promise.
In her memoir, girl meets GOD, Lauren Winner shares two different conversion stories: first her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, and later her conversion to Christianity. Winner is the daughter of a Jewish father and a “lapsed Southern Baptist” mother who spent her formative teenage and collegiate years entrenched in the study and devout practices of a Jewish life that led her to make the decision to convert to Orthodoxy. Despite having endured an intense conversion process, including an examination by a triumvirate of Rabbis and required swim in the mikvah, Winner shared that she felt Christ at work in her life.
She shared: “My boyfriend in college was Dov, an Orthodox Jew from West-Chester County whom I had met through Rabbi M. Dov thought all this was weird…He saw that I was reading a book about Southern fiction called, after Flannery O’Connor’s memorable phrase, The Christ-Haunted Landscape, and he was worried… I lectured him about identity. I explained that this hypothetical Jewish-Catholic made perfect sense; she was probably trying to synthesize all parts of her being into one seamless whole. ‘You read Arabic,’ I said. Dov was a Near Eastern Studies major at Harvard. ‘You spend all your time studying Persian and writing papers about medieval Arabic philosophers and poets,’ I said, ‘and I don’t worry that you are about to convert to Islam.’ ‘Lauren,’ Dov said. ‘It’s not the same. It really isn’t the same. You chose to be Jewish, ostensibly because you love Judaism so much. Yet you can’t be bothered to squeeze one little Hebrew class in between all your courses on the New Testament and the history of North Carolina?’ At the time, I thought Dov was overreacting. Now I think he could see something I could not see. He could see Jesus slowly goading me toward Him.”[v]
Names are important, particularly in Jewish culture. As a teenager I had a long list of names for my future children, but when I learned I was pregnant with my first child the weight of the reality of naming someone became immense. It could go one of two ways: my child would proudly be known by the moniker we had chosen for him, OR, he would hate it so much that he chose to legally change his name, thus “sticking” it to his parents for making a crummy decision. I am reminded of the importance of names when I think of religious celebrations. Hindu families host a namakaran on the eleventh day after a child’s birth. My Jewish cousins name their sons at the brit malah on his eighth day, and their daughters by their fathers at the Torah reading on the first Shabbat after her birth. We ask, “What is the Christian name of this child?” when we baptize a baby into the life of Christ in our congregations. Names are essential. Names carry significant weight.
Jacob means “takes by the heel,” “supplanter,” and “cheat.” All of Jacob’s past is wrapped up in that name. From the day of his birth when he came forth holding his brother’s heel, his lot was a life of struggle with truth. Before Jacob can reconcile with his brother, he must first contend with God and receive a blessing and a new name. This new name gives him a new life. Shedding the old, Jacob is now Israel. Israel means “God rules,” “God protects,” “God preserves,” “God strives,” and “one who has prevailed.” This protection from God means that his brother will offer him forgiveness. It means that out of a man who took so much from others, God will bring forth the nation tribes from his 12 sons. Jacob made himself right with God, saw god face-to-face, and then was able to be righted with the world he wronged.
During the wrestling match, the evening attacker realized that he would not prevail against Jacob, and therefore caused Jacob’s hip to fall out of the joint. This, however, did not work, for Jacob continued to wrestle and refused to let go until he received a blessing. Requesting a blessing may seem odd to the reader, especially when we don’t know for certain that the visitor is divinity, but is not unusual. Jacob realized during his time of servitude to his father-in-law, and during his time alone, in solitude from his family, who he had been and who he didn’t want to be anymore. He feared his life in meeting Esau for he had been horrible enough to his brother to deserve death. This wrestling match was Jacob’s repentance – to himself and to God. Asking for a blessing is the same as asking for forgiveness. Jacob wanted…needed…to move on from his past. Jacob lived an adult live of servitude and carried around the burden of the name “cheater” as a reminder of his life of struggle. Following the encounter and wrestling with God, Jacob left with a new name but also a displaced hip and a limp as a reminder of his struggle. Jacob needed to be challenged and he was. He prevailed, but would always carry the physical reminder of his encounter.
Old Testament Professor Walter Brueggeman’s book of prayers Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth contains one prayer written about the mission of the church entitled “Our Right Names.” I wish to share with you portions of the prayer that speak to our re-naming and claiming. Will you pray these words with me?:
“You God toward whom we pray and about whom we sing, and from whom we claim our very life. In your presence, in our seasons of ache and yearning and honesty, we know our right names. In your presence we know ourselves to be aliens and strangers. We gasp in recognition, taken by surprise at this disclosure, because we had nearly settled in and taken up residence in the wrong place. For all of that, we turn out to be we strangers, unfamiliar with our covenant, remote from your people, at odds too much with sisters and brothers, we aliens, with no hope without promise with very little sense of belonging or knowing or risking or trusting, It is in your presence that we come face to face with our beset, beleaguered existence in the world. BUT. You are the one who by your odd power calls us by new names that we can receive from you and relish in your company. You call us now, citizens…with all the rights and privileges and responsibilities pertaining to life in your commonwealth. You call us now saints, not because we are good or gentle or perfect, but because you have spotted us and marked us and claimed us for yourself and your purposes. You call us members…and we dare imagine that we belong and may finally come home.”[vi]
If we wish to move forward, we must first discern what our future must be and then come to terms with our past. We all have a future to which God has called us for life, ministry and community. Wrestling, struggling with the past allows us to faithfully examine God’s presence and purpose in us to this point. Wrestling is not always directly with God or even intentionally with us, but instead with what is good and righteous and appropriate for the other side of the river on our journey. When presented with time to sit alone, welcome the challenge. Struggles are where and how we find ourselves, where we wrestle with that which is holy, where we become intensely invested in the future and what the future can be. Struggle is a spiritual experience. Struggle is a holy awakening. Struggle is a naming ceremony. For when we emerge on the other side, we will bear the scars of a battle well fought, and with a life forever changed. We may, like Jacob or Lauren, have to spend decades and seasons of our lives in exile, in the wilderness, in searching. Our prayer should be when these opportunities arise, that we are able to persist like Jacob in the face of the struggle in order to receive a blessing, new name, and new purpose from God…and then act according to this new purpose.
Our prayer must be that we may dare to come home to life in Christ Jesus as citizens always led by the Spirit. Our prayer must be that our brothers and sisters will recognize the struggle and faithfulness of our lives enough to come running our way with forgiveness like Esau did for Jacob: “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (33:4). Wrestling is a spiritual encounter that allows the world to see God, experience the Spirit, and live in Christ through us. May we forever be changed in the holiest of holy ways when we struggle with the Divine. When we yell at God for the unfairness we’ve encountered in our past, might God remove the plank from our eyes to see the inequity we’ve also caused. As we arise from our close encounter, may we always limp forward into our new identity with the purpose of changing the world. And, Lord willing, we will always struggle with love – giving it in abundance as it’s been given to us – and shall we never take it for granted.
To our Holy God who grants us persistence in the struggle,
To Jesus Christ his son who offers new life and new names,
And to the Holy Spirit who shows up… and keeps showing up… for the holy experiences, to teach us how to respond and move forward,
Be all glory, now and forever. Amen.
[i] “Elements of Struggle” Bible notes from Spill the Beans, Issue 16, Pentecost 18, Sunday, 27 September 2015.
[ii] @Pontifex on Twitter.com, March 23, 2015.
[iii] @Pontifex on Twitter.com, March 24, 2015.
[iv] Lovelace, Vanessa. Commentary on Genesis 32:22-30 from workingpreacher.com, 27 September 2015. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2555)
[v] Winner, Lauren F. Girl Meets God: A Memoir (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003), 54-55.
[vi] Brueggeman, Walter. Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 97.