Wrestling With God

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31

Given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on 10/20/2013


 I love the Scripture from the book of Genesis that we have for today. I love it because within it, each person in this place can find something to grasp onto, something that speaks to them, something that moves them. The story begins with a person in the midst of a journey who sends his family ahead of him and then returns to the former camp by himself, alone in the dark. While in the dark he is accosted by an unknown person with whom he fights throughout the night until in the morning light they discover that neither is strong enough to overcome the other – neither has the ability to defeat the other and both leave the fight forever changed. However, this is no simple story, this is no basic account, this is the struggle of one person against God, against himself, this is one person’s struggle to find light in the midst of darkness, to find courage in the midst of doubt. I like this passage because each verse tells something very important about the central character Jacob, but it also tells us something of our own experience with God, our own experience with each other, our own experience with ourselves. And so, let us look at each verse and seek to truly hear the words of God come through the words on the page.-*

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

Jacob was traveling with literally everything he owned and his whole family. He was traveling with everything that was important to him, everything that makes him, him. We can understand traveling with everything we own. Even if we have never left this area of the country, maybe even left our house, never had to pack up and move everything to a new place, we all know what it means to go from one place to another with everything we possess, everything that is important to us, everything that makes us who we are. We each arrive to this place and at this time having come from somewhere else, having chosen to take our whole beings and put it into the life of this congregation. Some have traveled a great distance to be here, others just down the road, but we have all arrived at this place with our whole spiritual beings, hoping and believing that here we find a better way to live and a better way to be with one another. Just as Jacob sought to move his whole life, so we too seek to move our whole beings to this place in this time.

He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

We have all had those moments in which the weight of the world has become too much for us and we need to be alone. We need to have time with God, with ourselves, away from the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day life. So in the midst of the journey, Jacob comes to a place where he has to be alone. Where he has to take stock of his life and the journey of which he is in the midst. And don’t we need to do that too? Don’t we need to stop, to ponder where it is that we have been and where we are going?

It is difficult to be as Jacob, alone in the darkness, alone in the night, with no one by your side and no one to keep you company. But it is in those moments in the darkness, those moments in which nothing disturbs our thoughts, that we delve the deepest into mystery – into the night, into God. But it is also in those moments, those lonely quiet moments, that we begin to see the world – that we begin to see creation, that we begin to see this world and this creation as both beautiful and broken, both blessed and cursed, both holy and terrible. And it is here the struggle begins…

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

I think we all understand. Don’t we? We all struggle with something. We struggle with something that often comes out of nowhere, out of the darkness, out of the mystery. We struggle with ourselves, with our inadequacies and our shortcomings. We struggle with God and God’s mystery. We struggle with a world and creation that was created good but that has fallen away – become broken, become violent, become destructive. And we seek a better way.

In my personal journey, I have struggled throughout my life and my faith with reconciling the God that I affirm to be loving and full of light with the suffering of so many of the children of God. I struggle to make sense of war and drone strikes. To make sense of hunger and greed. To make sense of natural disasters that strike the most vulnerable of our number. I struggle, often unfulfilled, in my search for definitive answers upon which to build a faith. But this is the mystery of faith. To take all this we see and all we perceive and still seek to locate hope and promise in each new day. To awaken alive in the spirit of the Risen Christ and ready to boldly proclaim with those who came before us and bequeathed the faith to us, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. And we gather to affirm to one another that which we each believe so intimately in our our souls. There is a light. There is a light that shines brighter than the darkness of war, than the darkness of sin and violence, than the darkness of self-doubt and nervousness, there is a light, and we struggle towards it, and we wrestle 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.

The fight we fight with ourselves, with God, with others is ultimately not winnable. We are constantly redefining and reclaiming space from one another. Seeking to find security in our things. We are constantly redefining and reclaiming what God means to us and some days these are beliefs anchored in hope in the new day and sometimes they are beliefs that have been forged in the darkest part of the night. Each stage of life is met with its own challenges, its own hurdles over which we must try and overcome. It is ultimately a struggle to which we will return over and over and over again in our lives and each time we will find ourselves forever altered by the experience. In Jacob’s fight with the mystery assailant, he struggles to a draw, as the one who is unable to overcome him, alters him. Jacob in his efforts against the darkness discovers that his being remains as powerful as the one he is wrestling against, as the one who he is struggling with. And there is the connection. The two men, the two individuals, intimately connected with one another even though they struggle. There is the connection that exists deep within our souls and deep within our very being. While we wrestle against that connection it remains. Holding us, sustaining us, giving our lives meaning and peace and love.

We understand that many times, we too will struggle with the forces of this world, we will struggle with God, and we will not be beaten. We will come to this point again and again and again, but we will not be beaten. We will struggle for justice even when all the forces of hell may seem against us, and we will struggle against the mystery of God even when the forces of disbelief scream at us to give up, and we will cast our voices into the depth of the dark and we will be affected, and at times it will hurt but we will not be beaten.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

As the light began to shine around Jacob, he knew that the struggle would soon be over, he knew that it would be time to return to the security of his family and his possessions and yet he was unwilling to leave without some indication that he had been forever altered, forever changed.  He had spent the better part of the night arm to arm wrestling with the strange man. He had spent much of the night struggling in the darkness and to walk away after a night of struggle was simply unacceptable. He knew there must be a blessing. There must be some element of goodness to come from this because otherwise it is just another night of tossing and turning and peering into the depths of the night sky. He knew that the only way he would return to this spot – to this struggle – was if he experienced some kind of a blessing.

And we struggle. Be it for justice or peace, be it for kindness or love, we struggle. But we don’t struggle for nothing. We don’t struggle only to call it a draw and be on our way, we struggle for hope, we struggle for change, we struggle for a blessing. And we believe that the day is breaking, we believe that the Kingdom of God is appearing in our midst if we have but eyes to see. We believe that hope springs eternal even when the road is long and at times dangerous. And we believe that out of the death of one can arise life for all. “Joy cometh in the morning, and day is breaking.” Or, as the old spiritual goes, “Bright morning stars are rising. Bright morning stars are rising. Bright morning stars are rising. Day is breaking in my soul.”

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.”

Jacob has fought and struggled with the mysterious stranger. He has peered into the darkness and found a light, he has struggled with himself and found a stronger person, and so no longer shall he be called Jacob, God has other plans for him. From this point on he shall be called Israel, because he has striven with God and humans and prevailed. Jacob, has stared into the darkness and fought against himself, fought against God, and found that day breaks after the night. He has found that simply by struggling against the mysterious fighter, simply by struggling against God, he has prevailed, and he will forever be known as Israel.

And we too know that the faith journey often is filled with starts and stops, with fits of anger and rage, and with blessing. We know that we look over the darkness of the world, over the brokenness of creation, and we still know there is hope. Hope tomorrow will be better than today; hope that in the mystery of God is still light, is still blessing. We strive against God, wanting answers, wanting change. We strive against our broken selves. We strive against the systems of a broken humanity. And we are made different. No longer are we the people we were. Now we are people of deeper faith, of deeper hope, of deeper love. We shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for we have striven with God and with humans, and we have prevailed. We are the people of the struggle. We are the people of God.

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.”

Jacob is still seeking to know more, still seeking to peer deeper into the mystery of God.  Like all matter is drawn into the vortex of a black hole, so Jacob, having peering into the darkness becomes ever more drawn to it. Desiring to go deeper, to explore more. But it is enough for now. He is no longer Jacob but Israel, he is no longer struggling but blessed, and he knows. He knows that he has seen the face of God, he knows he has touched the person of God and for now, that is enough. And so Jacob, aware of the holiness of the moment, aware of the uniqueness of the moment, takes time to name the place where his experience happened. He names it because he must remember. He names it because he can never forget. He must return here and know that even when he struggled with God in the dark and in his solitude, he was blessed, and he knew God, and it was enough.

And so we too know of the holiness of the moments of struggle, even when they are struggles. We know of the blessedness of the moments even when they seem futile, because we believe. And because we believe, it is enough. And we know when we have seen the face of God. And we know when we have seen the face of the Risen Christ. We know. And because we know, it is enough. And so we name this place sanctuary, and we call it a holy place and we come and we know.

My day often begins and ends in silence. In the morning, an opportunity to be aware of the presence of God in the beauty of nature and in the evening to be relieved of the busyness of the day. In the morning energy to move with the spirit for the day and in the evening rest for my soul when it is weary. We all need those holy places, those places where we see the face of God, and we know it is enough.

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This completes this story. Jacob has struggled with God, struggled with the darkness and now leaves as the sun shines on his face. The broken movements of a man hurting and desiring to return to his family. He is forever changed. But, he leaves knowing of God’s blessing. He leaves in the light, but limping from the encounter. He leaves more whole, but also more damaged.

This world can often be overwhelming. Whether it is the stories on the news, or the knowledge of hunger, or the threat of nuclear annihilation, this world can be overwhelming. And so when we peer into the darkness, when we stare at the brokenness, we are also changed. We are also hurt. We are more aware and more whole, but we are more saddened. But we keep moving, just as Jacob did. We keep striving knowing that it is in the striving that we truly see the presence of God. We keep working even as we live into the light because in the end, we believe that light overcomes darkness and love overcomes hate, and hope overcomes our doubts, and for today, that is enough. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen!

*-All scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version

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