A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Say What? Series: Wreslting with Hearing from God (Genesis 32:24-31)
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."
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
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
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
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
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.