Sunday, February 1, 2015

Say What? Series: Wreslting with Hearing from God (Genesis 32:24-31)

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."

Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


Can you think of a turning point in your life?  Some moment, or experience, or series of events that altered the course of your life in a measurable and noticeable way?  Perhaps it was a circumstance or a relationship, some risk you took or pivotal decision you made.  Once you were headed down this road, and then something happened, and your course was changed?


Our lives are full of turning points.  Indeed, most of us can look back at the course of our lives and realize, probably not only one, but several places where some experience caused us to change course.  The older you are, the likelier it is that you can see several back there behind you.  And that’s the thing about turning points – they are best recognized in hindsight.  Rarely, at the time, do we recognize that we are at some major crossroads.  A turning point does not announce itself ahead of time – “Warning: Turning point ahead.”  Only after we’ve gone through it do we begin to recognize it for what it was.


Today’s Scripture records a turning point in the life of Jacob.  From the day of his birth, he was grabbing and scrambling – his name literally means, “cheat, trickster.”  Jacob is always playing the angles and calculating the odds to outsmart and outmaneuver his slightly-older brother Esau – indeed, cutting a deal to swindle him out of his rightful inheritance – then later jockeying for economic advantage with his equally devious father-in-law, Laban. Jacob is one who’s always looking out for number one, cheating and swindling everyone he meets to his own advantage.  But – as is always the case – the day of reckoning was coming. After long absence, Jacob is returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded. And it is under these circumstances that he meets God.


God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence. Rather, under the cloak of darkness, God comes as a mysterious adversary, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a wrestling match. The struggle is lengthy and inconclusive, but Jacob hangs on for dear life, refuses to let go without receiving a blessing. And the blessing he receives includes a new name: Israel – the one who strives, who grapples, who wrestles, with God.


I wrestled with this sermon all week.  No, the irony is not lost on me that I wrestled with a sermon about Jacob wrestling with God.  I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about wrestling.  Upon meeting me, more than one person has asked if I played sports in school, which I did, but many times they size me up and figure I must have played defensive back or been on the wrestling team, which, no – I was on the golf team.


I don’t know a lot about wrestling, other than what I’ve seen on tv, but I know enough to know that whatever wrestling actually is, it probably isn’t that.  Growing up, I had several friends who were into WWF wrestling – I think it’s WWE, now.  They had all these dolls – I mean, action figures – and sometimes I’d be over at their houses and they’d pull out their dolls – I mean, action figures – and ask if I wanted to play wrestling.  No, I did not.  For one thing, I couldn’t tell a Hulk Hogan from a MachoMan Randy Savage from a Rowdy Roddy Piper – I had to Google all those names – but I didn’t want to expose my own ignorance, and so in my overly-diplomatic eight-year-old way, I’d say, “Ummm, wrestling is stupid.  Everyone knows it’s fake.”


How many times do we see that scenario continue to play out in our lives?  We encounter something new, something different, something we don’t understand, and we immediately pass judgment – “Ummm, that’s stupid.  I don’t know a thing about it, but I know I don’t like it.  And since I don’t like it, I’m against it.  And since I’m against it, you should be against it, too.”


That’s the stuff of American politics!  Elections are won in this country because of that sort of fear-based mindset.


Thankfully, we’ve never seen that attitude expressed in the church!  People passing judgment or making up their mind about something when they know very little about it – nope, never seen anything like that!


It’s tempting to desire all the answers, to want to see the whole picture, to know the who, what, when, where, why and how of it all.  It’s human nature to want to have as much information and see things as brightly and clearly as we can.  That’s a very reasonable and rational approach – so reasonable and rational, in fact, that it crowds faith right out.


Faith, as it turns out, always has an element of mystery and the unknown to it.  Too often we want to fully understand something before we’ll put our faith in it, but the problem with that is that once we fully understand it, faith is no longer required.  The Scriptures tell us, “faith is assurance of things hoped for, and the confidence in things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1).


Back in the story, Jacob doesn’t encounter God in the bright of day.  Jacob is still very much in the dark when he encounters God, very much in the dark about what’s happening and what it all means.  It’s while he’s still in the dark that Jacob wrestles with God.


Faith is not having all the answers, a firm set of beliefs, seeing things clearly, a life in which blessings fall to earth as quickly as our prayers ascend to heaven – Jacob gives us a different idea.  Faith may simply be the willingness to wrestle and struggle with God and the things of God – even while we’re mostly in the dark about where it leads and how it will all work out.


We’re told to have faith like a child – often interpreted to mean having a wide-eyed, innocent, wonder, a blind trust about the whole thing.  Those of you who have children, however, know that it doesn’t work this way.  Children don’t take anything blindly, but will question every directive with a question of their own, “Why?”  Have faith like a child – feel free to ask, “Why?”  That questioning, that pushing, is how children develop and grow.  It’s how their little minds think deep thoughts and dream big dreams.


Faith like a child may include temper tantrums and meltdowns and questioning everything that comes along.  Faith like a child may include wrestling and grappling with issues that are less than polite and make the adults in the room blush with nervous embarrassment.  Indeed, childlike faith includes questions and pushback, but those things only make us uncomfortable; God isn’t threatened by any of it.


I’m sure we’ve all heard in some context or another that we should never question God.  Too often we treat God as some fragile and delicate stained-glass creation who might shatter if we push back against him.  Yet, this story from Jacob’s life shows us a God who isn’t afraid to get down in the mud beside the river and join us in our struggles, a God who is sturdy enough to handle us and anything we throw God’s way.


When we have fears and questions and doubts, God doesn’t say, “Away from me with all your uncertainty,” no, God plants his feet and says, “Bring it on.”


What amazes me is that God allows us to wrestle, when God could end the match at any time.  God could put us in a full nelson or a sleeper hold – whatever those are – and pin us down any time God wanted to.  It’s like when I was a kid and wrestled with Dad or Papa on the living room floor – and by mere strength and size they could have won the match at any time, but they let me wrestle, learn, stretch, and grow.


So, too, God could slam us down on the floor, make us believe, make us obey.  God could do all that in the blink of an eye, because God is God and we are not, and there’s nothing we could do about it.


But, God doesn’t wrestle that way. God chooses not to wrestle that way.  What would we learn?  We’d learn not to tangle with God, and every opportunity we have for our faith to be stretched and challenged and grow would be lost.


God chooses to let us wrestle and grapple in the ark, but the good news is we’re never alone.  God is there, wrestling with us.


Like Jacob, I can look back at those places of struggle and darkness and fear and doubt, and recognize them as turning points in my life – unpleasant and uncertain to go through, certainly, but the places where my faith was stretched and caused to grow the most.  Like a child, I can see that the places where I was allowed to question and push back were the places of my deepest spiritual awakenings.  What I found is that faith is not the absence of questions or doubt, but simply the willingness to wrestle and grapple with things that are beyond me, with a God who is beyond me.


Whatever we can dish out, God can take it – so feel free to bring your questions, your fears, your doubts, and wrestle God with them all night long, if necessary, and rest assured that God will wrestle you back, as long as it takes for the dawn to break and the light to shine into the darkness and lift the fog.


Friends, faith is formed in the struggle.  Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”


Sometimes, it’s only after we’ve wrestled through the darkness that we’re ready to receive the blessing.

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