Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sermon: Ultimate Fighting With God

Genesis 32:22-31

[Opening] For a moment, let me review the Jacob story. Jacob is the twin who tricked his brother out of his birthright, and then cheated his brother out of his father’s blessing. His relationship with his brother became strained enough that Jacob left home to seek his fortune elsewhere.

But after many years, Jacob is returning home, hoping that bygones will be bygones. It is one of those stories that is humorous if you aren’t the one living it. Knowing that his reception might not be ideal, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to tell his brother Esau that he is coming home. He says, “I have sent these messengers to tell my lord (notice the submissive tone) in order that I may find favor in your sight.”

When the messengers return, they tell him that his brother is coming home to meet him with 400 men. This is not the homecoming Jacob wanted. It sounds like his brother is bringing an army to kill him. So Jacob divides all his flocks in half, sending them different directions, so that if one is destroyed the other will survive. Then Jacob begins to pray to be saved from his brother’s hand.

After praying Jacob takes 220 goats and he sends them ahead of his company with the servants instructed to tell Esau that these are a gift from his brother Jacob. Then he sends 220 sheep in another group with the same message. And then 30 camels, and then 40 cows and 10 bulls, and then 30 donkeys. So that by the time Esau would get to him he had received 5 gifts from Jacob, and would hopefully be in a better mood.

Which brings us to our scripture for the day.

[Scripture is read]

So earlier in the service I gave you the background of Jacob, and we read about the night a man appeared to Jacob and they wrestled until dawn. They were evenly matched, neither was able to get the better of the other. Near the end of their wrestling the other man struck Jacob on his hip socket and knocked it out of joint, but Jacob still would not let go. He asked the man for a blessing.

The blessing that the man gave was to rename Jacob as Israel, a name which means one who struggles with God. Through the name change the story implies that Jacob has been wrestling with God – not just a man. Jacob himself reflected that he has seen God face to face and his life was preserved.

There are several things going on symbolically in this story. For example, clearly Jacob is seen as struggling with his faith as he returns home and finds his brother about to kill him.

Although Jacob is unhappy with his situation he never lets go of his faith. He prays for help, and struggles through the difficulties. He is probably questioning God, wondering why this is happening. If God loves him, why isn’t his life easier, why does everything have to go the hard way? He is doing his best, but he is afraid. So he hangs on to his faith, like he hangs onto the one he is wrestling with and refuses to let go – until he earns a blessing.

But that does not mean he emerges unscathed -- in their wrestling Jacob is both injured and blessed. Consider that for a moment – he is both injured and blessed.

Part of what makes us like the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God is the fact that many of us can relate to the idea of struggling with God. We spiritually wrestle with God. So we showed the video of Raj and Howard, where two opponents jaw at each other a lot but not much really happens, and we asked you – is this you and God? Are you going in circles arguing with God but getting nowhere? Because we may feel like we are in a wrestling match, or a boxing match, or perhaps a mixed martial arts fight with God. Sometimes we may feel like we are getting beat up by life, other times we are simply running in circles. We want desperately to have an explanation, and even more we want God to bring us something good for once. Right? So we hang onto our faith through all the trials, and we hope to win some prize for doing so. This is such a common experience that people really relate to this story of Jacob wrestling with God.

As I was preparing for this sermon, I read the following story: Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most famous Greek writers of the 20th century, was famous for his books Zorba the Greek, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was constantly haunted by God.

He “once wrote of an experience he had when he went to visit a monk at Mt. Athos. "Father Macarius," he said to the old monk, "I remember that in your younger days you wrestled with the devil. Do you still do that?"

"No," Father Macarius replied, "the devil has grown old, and so have I. I no longer struggle with the devil. Now I wrestle with God."

"You wrestle with God?" said Kazantzakis. "You wrestle with God, and hope to win?"

"No," said Father Macarius. "I wrestle with God, and I hope to lose."[1]

When I read that story, it struck me as one of the most profound reflections that I have ever heard on life. It has been the subject of my meditation and thought for many days.

You see, when we are young we wrestle with the devil because we are striving to do what is right, we are fighting against evil, and in our minds we think, that if I can just defeat the devil then life will go well for me. But what we learn in life is that we must rely on God for that. We must accept God’s grace, and remember that in Christ, the devil is already defeated. Sin and death are done, and the victory is already earned in Christ. We don’t really defeat evil by ourselves, nor do we really need to.

So, if that is the case, if all we have to do is accept God’s help to overcome sin and evil, then our real struggle is not with the devil, but with God. Our problem is our unwillingness to follow God’s directions for our new life. That’s what we struggle with as our faith matures. Will we accept God’s help to overcome, or not? So often we simply want to argue with God, to tell God what is best, we want to wrest control of our lives from the divine, even to the point of trying to control God, as if we can outlast God. We tenaciously hold onto our faith, yet at the same time we fight with the one we have faith in. Like Jacob this wrestling can leave us injured.

But just as we learned that we need not defeat the devil alone, the wisdom that comes wrestling with God over the course of a lifetime is that we cannot defeat God – we no longer hope that God comes over to our way of thinking and does things our way – no, the wisdom is that we will be blessed to come to God’s way of thinking, that God will bring us to a point where we humbly admit defeat at the hands of a stronger and far more experienced being. And that’s what the monk was telling Kazantzakis. We wrestle hoping to lose. That God will win.

We know that in the process that we have been closer to God than ever before, that we have seen God fact to face, and it wasn’t the entirely pleasant experience we expected.

We realize that we were foolish to think we could win, and so we are forever changed. Wisdom suggests that when we finally lose our stubbornness, when we finally stop resisting what God is doing, that is when we will really be blessed. It is in allowing ourselves to argue with God, but be convinced that God is right, and that we were wrong – that real wisdom comes.

Perhaps we can learn like Father Macarius to hope to lose – to hope that God will change us, bless us even when we fight it.

What I love in all of this is the image of God that comes from all of this. God accepts our wrestling and our spiritual struggle. God doesn’t mind that we try to put God in a headlock, or a bear-hug. But God patiently lets us put up all the struggle that we can, until we come to our senses. God even uses all of that wrestling to bless us. God seems infinitely patient with us. Willing to be engaged with us as we fight against what is best and what is right, until slowly and persuasively we come to see God’s way. It is as though God is teaching us in every moment (even when we are fighting against God the hardest).

And I love that image of God. It suggests strength and resolve that knows what is best, but is willing to let us discover it for ourselves. It suggests lovingly allowing us to have our own opinions, until one day we look back and say, like children often do as they get older, my mother was right, my father was right. God allows us freedom and space, but always is pressing us and encouraging us to listen and obey.

So we are the people who wrestle with God – we who look to Jacob as one of the founders of our faith – and the wisdom we have to offer to the world is that when one wrestles God it is best to lose – for that is where the true blessing lies.

[1] .(ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., Collected Works, by Donald B. Strobe)

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