Wrestling with God

Matthew 14:13-21 Genesis 32:22-31

July 31, 2011

The story of Jacob has many twists and turns. You might think that because he was favored by God, his life would be easy and straightforward, but it is not. When we last read about him, he and his mother had conspired to trick Esau out of his birthright. When Jacob received his father’s blessing in place of Esau, he wisely left town to avoid his brother’s wrath. In the intervening years between then and now, he has been working for a man named Laban, at first to win the hand of Laban’s daughter, Rachel. After the agreed-upon seven years of labor, Laban refused to give Jacob his first choice in wives, insisting that Leah, the elder daughter be heavily veiled and married off to the clueless Jacob. After it is too late, Jacob discovers that he is married to the wrong sister and insists that Laban give him Rachel as a second wife, agreeing to work for Laban another 7 years after the fact. A week later, Jacob and Rachel are married, but as you might suspect, the sisters are jealous of one another, and a long and heavy competition between them ensues. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, so that God takes pity on Leah and enables her to give Jacob children - sons, especially. Growing more and more jealous, Rachel tells Jacob to sleep with her maid and give her children in this way, which he does. When Leah sees this, not wanting to be outdone, she also tells Jacob to sleep with her maid, and more children are born to her side of the family. The family grows, as does Jacob’s discontent with working to bring wealth to Laban. He develops a plan, asking Laban to give him all of the sheep and goats who have spots or stripes or dark markings on them as his pay for all the years of labor he has given him. Several years later, after a masterful breeding program which produces more than the usual number of animals with dark markings, among them the strongest animals in the herds, Jacob decides it is time to leave. Knowing that Laban might not let him go after all, Jacob rounds up the herds and his family and servants when Laban is away, and steals off to find his way back home. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel steals her father’s household gods as well.

When Laban returns home and discovers that his daughters and their family have left, he takes off after them, catching up with them a few days later. He is angry that Jacob did not trust that he would have allowed them to leave, but doesn’t really argue that point. He searches their tents for his household gods, but cannot find them, and finally knows that he has no other excuses. He has no more reason to detain them, after over 20 years of doing just that. It is at this point that we enter the story this morning. Having finally left Laban behind, Jacob now has to prepare to face his brother Esua, and he doesn’t know if he will be welcomed or not. Anxious and uncertain, he gets up in the middle of the night and wakes his family as well, taking them across the river, into his homeland. I cannot imagine what that was like, for him to rouse them in the middle of the night and push them to cross the river because of the inner demons and fears he was facing.

Jacob returns alone to the other side of the river and settles in to sleep. But, no such luck, some guy shows up out of nowhere and wrestles with him all night long. At first Jacob assumes that his opponent is just some bandit or thief, but by morning he realizes that this has not been some ordinary encounter. Jacob realizes that he has been wrestling with God or at least an angel, and he refuses to let go until he is given a blessing. Back in his day, folks knew that a blessing could be demanded if you prevailed in a contest with the divine. The blessing he receives is a new name, Israel, which means God-wrestler. The divine opponent also touches a hand to Jacob’s hip and throws it out of joint so that Jacob will limp for the rest of his life, changed by this encounter physically as well as in ways that he cannot even begin to imagine at this point in time. The limp must every day after be a reminder to Jacob that he wrestled with God and somehow was not killed in the process, but also that, if God had chosen to use divine means, he could have won in an instant - as long as it took to throw Jacob’s hip out of commission.

Not many people can claim to have wrestled with God and prevailed. Usually, it is enough to simply survive when faced with such a challenge. We all have times in our lives when we feel as if we are wrestling with something far larger and stronger than ourselves. We may feel overwhelmed by the circumstances and may even sense that we are wrestling with God, but there is something inside of us that whispers it is not okay to challenge God. We are supposed to accept what comes into our lives as God’s will, and deal with it as best we can. Jacob’s story tells us that maybe it is okay to stand up to God. Maybe it is okay to face the challenges and say “no” even to God, sometimes. My mom asked me to read a book recently, called “Heaven is For Real,” so that we could talk about it together when she comes up to visit. Her friends have all been reading it and want to know what her minister-daughter thinks about it. The book is about a small child’s near-death experience and the things he told his family about what he saw and experienced during that time. It is fascinating in that the child started sharing experiences he had with Jesus, sitting on Jesus’ lap and talking about deep theological concepts that, as a four-year-old, he could not have learned in Sunday School or even as a part of a minister’s family. The book is fascinating, but one part I want to lift up this morning takes place when the little boy is in surgery for a burst appendix. His father, Todd Burpo, is a pastor. Todd is so upset that he feels he has to get away from everyone else before he loses his composure. He finds a small closet off the hospital hallway. Once alone, he starts raging at God. “Where are you? Is this how you treat your pastors?! Is it even worth it to serve you?” He then recounted everything else he had been through that year which included a multiple break in his leg, painful kidney stones and a mastectomy, saying, “this is how you’re going to let me celebrate the end of my time of testing?… You’re going to take my son?” Afterward, his son would tell him that he saw him “praying” in that small room that no one else even knew about. He also told him that Jesus used the surgeon to answer his father’s prayer. This story is powerful all on its own, but what makes it even more powerful to me is the reality that wrestling with God can actually be a form of prayer. More often we hear that “God knows best” and we take this to mean that we ought to just take whatever comes our way and be as grateful as we can for it. Sometimes this means taking a very tough situation and searching desperately for some kind of silver lining in the dark storm clouds that surround us. But to see that wrestling with God as Jacob did, or arguing with God as Todd Burpo did, is not necessarily a bad thing, opens our eyes to what might be a different approach to faith than we are used to. Life is challenging. Few of us make it through life without being wounded in one way or another. Our scars serve to remind us of what we have come through, of battles fought and won as well as of those we simply survived. Our wounds can shape us into new people, often they help us to become even better people that we would have been if left to float through life without the challenges that caused them. We are left, then, holding both of these truths in our minds and hearts at once; we know that the challenges of life have much to teach us, and we also know that prayer can change things. Maybe it is as Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane - “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” In that case, we know that God did not take the cup away from Jesus, but a little-noticed footnote to the passage reads; “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”

These stories tell us that when we pray, God does respond to us. Sometime the response is to change the whole outcome, to heal us or our loved one, sometimes it is to give us the strength to make it through even if the outward experience does not change in any other way. What this says to me, though, is that prayer is a worthy endeavor. Despite the fact that so much else has changed in the world, this one thing has not changed. Our prayers are heard, even the angry accusatory ones. God is big enough and strong enough to take our anger, to listen to us rant and rave and even to wrestle with us when we desperately need to work through what we are feeling, when we need to test ourselves, and express our feelings in action. Sometimes, maybe God even initiates the confrontation, as seemed to have happened with Jacob, helping us literally wrestle with and finally get in touch with our faith at a deeper level than we might have done if we just sat back and let matters unfold without confronting them or trying to change anything. I am pretty certain that I do not want to initiate a wrestling match with God, but if it ever happens that I am involved in one, I would like to think there might be a blessing in it somewhere.

God of all of life, you make us look at our lives in a deep way. Will you help us confront the challenges that come to us? Will you stay with us through the night as we wrestle with unseen fears? Will you challenge us to grow even in spite of ourselves? Thank you for the blessings - those that come easily and those that we have to search for high and low. May we know that we have been touched by you, no matter what. Amen.