Wrestling with God

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on July 31, 2011, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials lately  for ancestry.com,  a web site where you can look for your family history. “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for,”  they say; “you just have to start looking.” Of course, that’s easier for some people than others.  I also learned last week that  the Rockefeller family archives are kept in a vast three-story underground bunker . . .  on the family estate at Pocantico  where there are forty-foot-long walls of shelves on rails, with ten full-time archivists  and 70 million pages of documents. I wonder whether they know that God has a record also  much more complete and much more important in the final analysis?  I understand that some of them have a good deal to answer for.

But who needs all those shelves anyway?  You and I can hold our vital family records in one hand. We’ve been reading from it week by week this summer.  And maybe one reason more people don’t research their ancestry is that they really don’t know what they might find  and would rather not know. Were you listening to the reading last week where we learned that one of our ancestors married the wrong girl because he was tricked into it  by his father-in-law?

As my wife and I were driving home  last Sunday I remember saying, “You know, that Old Testament lesson  was information, not inspiration.” There was one great line in it.  When Jacob’s future father-in-law told him he could have his daughter in return  for seven year’s labor, we read: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

Now that’s nice, but it comes in the middle of a story  that is so far removed from our lives it’s hard to see the value of it  as a Sunday reading. It does tell us that we’ve come a long way  from our ancestors and that’s a useful reminder and it does one other useful thing:  it reminds us that if marriage practices are changing today  they have also changed before. If anyone tells you the Bible prescribes marriage as  “one man and one woman” refer them to Jacob and Leah and Rachel,  our ancestors in the faith.

But that’s not today’s reading.  We read that last week and I only mention it now  as background for today’s Old Testament reading which may be even stranger. This week we have Jacob a few years later and he’s on his way home with his two new wives and the twelve sons that they and their maid servants  – marriage was very different then! –  have given Jacob and he knows he will be meeting his twin brother, Esau,  who has reason to be annoyed with him  because Jacob stole his birthright. So when night comes Jacob goes off alone for fear that Esau will attack him  and it’s there that he meets an angel, a mysterious agent of God,  and wrestles with him in the dark.

So what’s that all about?  Well, this is where we really ought to do some serious Bible study. There isn’t time in a sermon to do more  than scratch the surface. You can read it on several levels.  First as straight history. This is the tribal tradition that was handed down: this is what happened to our ancestors.  This story, however, may have been told and retold  for as much as four hundred years before it was written down. That’s the equivalent of relying on memory for stories about the settlement of America. That was about four centuries ago also  but John Smith and William Bradford kept records. What if we had only about it by word of mouth?  How reliable would those records be?

You might say, Yes, but this record was divinely inspired.  I don’t doubt it. But what if those who handed down the stories  were divinely inspired to add their own insights, to reshape the old stories  in the light of subsequent events  to show more fully what God had done? We do that ourselves even with the written record.  We want to know about the Virginia colony and Massachusetts  because our nation descended from them but we ask different questions  than the ones the first settlers wanted to answer. We want to see where the inspiration came from to create a democratic government but they were much more focused  on creating a Christian commonwealth. So the story they handed down needs to be modified  to tell us what we want to know not what they wanted to tell us.

And surely that happened also to the story of Jacob.  It began as simply a story about events on the lives of the ancestors but those who wrote the story down saw it as having to do with the creation of a new nation, Israel, which had come into existence in their day. Those who told it first knew nothing about that;  they saw it as evidence of God’s presence with them.  But those who wrote it down centuries later saw it as evidence of a powerful destiny, not just a tribal story  but the story of how God shaped a people for God’s own possession.

And we read it today, I think,  from still a different perspective again. We read it after Freud  and we know something about the way human beings wrestle with dark powers  in the middle of the night  and are forever changed by those powers. We see them as having to do  with the subconsciousness that we wrestle with mostly unaware. If we are Christians, we might also believe  that God is at work in us subconsciously wrestling with our more immediate desires  for safety and security and gratification  and trying to compel us  to look for deeper things, what we sometimes call “the things of the spirit.”  Jacob was wrestling with those as well, but first he wanted safety and security and to hang onto his possessions in a world where government and the rule of law  were still to be invented and where tribal law  and sheer numbers made a lot more difference.

What God forced him to understand was that it wasn’t only his personal survival  that mattered. It mattered also that he knew  that God was at work in his life toward a purpose. To do that, God would have to move him on  from his physical fears and in his world that was no small task. Think of the difference between Afghanistan and Connecticut. Jacob was living in Afghanistan  and his brother wasn’t necessarily his friend and American security forces  wouldn’t be along  for maybe three thousand years.  So Jacob wrestled with God rather than with his brother, and that’s a characteristic, I think,  of the people who have changed the world. It’s self-destructive to fight your brother but if you are willing to engage with the spiritual, to struggle to come to terms  with the deepest reality of humanity made in the image of God, then we have a chance to become who we were meant to be.  Jacob and Jacob’s descendants  have never ruled the world but they have been the ones  who changed the world for the better – by being willing to take on the deepest realities,  by struggling not to conquer  but to understand.

Now back in Jacob’s day  human beings had no language as yet to express these things  and I’m not sure the language we use today is ideal either. They used the basic language of physical reality, objective reality,  a wrestling match between flesh and blood and an objective opponent. We would probably say that language falls short  because it doesn’t go deep enough. We would prefer to talk about inner, psychological realities, but maybe our problem is that our language has a tendency  to become too subjective and become separated from the real world we live in  so that religion becomes something  isolated and separated  from our day to day struggles to survive.
Jacob went on his way limping;  he couldn’t pretend it had been “just a dream.” Does what happens here today make that kind of physical difference? I’m not suggesting that we limp home today, but it wouldn’t hurt if we did and the neighbors noticed  and asked where we had been and we told them that where we go to church makes a real difference.

But I think the difference does need to be seen  in a more than physical change. We need to become the kind of people who are different in ways deeper than how we walk  – and there I go,  using that psychological language again:  a deeper difference. But that’s often invisible.  How about a larger difference,  a social difference,  a measurable difference? How can we find words to describe  the difference God makes in our lives? What if we came away from our worship today  truly transformed, aware, as Jacob had to be with every step,  that God had met us here and we could never again be the same?

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