September 20, 2015
“Struggle and Change”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
22 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. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 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.” 29 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. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
I am not a great sleeper. I have been this way my whole life. It sometimes takes hours for me to fall asleep.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and it takes hours to fall back asleep.
The slightest sound or movement will rouse me.
And sleeping in a new or unfamiliar place, forget about it.
When I was a child, I liked to write poetry and I wrote a poem about how falling asleep was like an epic battle with the bedsheets.
Awake, in the dark, I can tell you that I am not alone. In the dark I wrestle my small worries and big fears, in the dark I meet good memories and painful regrets, in the dark old wounds are opened up again, in the dark I make lists of should dos and should have dones.
Fortunately, awake, in the dark, there is also prayer and God.
And perhaps because of all of that I have always felt a kind of kinship with this story of Jacob wrestling God in the darkness.
Jacob is one of the great anti-heros of the Bible. Even in the womb, we are told, that he was a fighter. So great was the conflict between him and his twin brother that his mother asked God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”
When they were born, Esau came first, strong and robust, and Jacob followed grasping at the heel of his brother and for that reason was given his name.
Part of the theological training for Presbyterian pastors involves learning to read the ancient languages that the Bible is written in, ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek.
Ancient Greek is a beautiful language because it is so precise and orderly. For example in the New Testament, hospitality is talked about using the word “philoxenia” which combines two words in the Greek, philos (the love you offer a friend or brother or sister) and xenos (the stranger) – to mean “friending the stranger.”
Hebrew is a beautiful language because it is so fluid. Jacob’s name can be translated a number of different ways – “heel grasper,” “supplanter,” “deceiver,” and “may God protect” and which is true?
Well, all of them are true in one way or another, which tells us important things about the nature about this deceitful man whom God loves anyway.
He is, like us, both sinner and saint.
Esau was strong and skilled at hunting and his father loved him. Jacob was quiet and thoughtful and stayed at home, and his mother loved him. And this legacy of favoritism dogs Jacob his whole life, impacting his wives and children.
Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright and tricks his father into giving him his blessing – and Esau plans to kill him, so he runs away to his uncle’s house, where his uncle tricks him into marrying the wrong woman and he in turn deceives his uncle, amassing a fortune.
When we find him at the river of Jabbok, behind Jacob is the land of his uncle where he has lived for 20 years and where now there is some bad blood. In front of him lies the land of Esau where there is even more bad blood, and he has learned from his messengers that Esau is coming for him with an army of 400 men.
Jacob hatches a plan to try to lessen the anger of Esau by sending him gifts, and to lessen the carnage by dividing up all his people and herds and belongings into two camps so that if one is destroyed, the other might survive.
That which he loves most, his wives and children, he keeps with him by the river and in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, they ford the river. And he sends them off ahead of him.
And possibly this was all about self-protection – Jacob was just trying to save himself. Perhaps, though, he reasoned that if he wasn’t with the women and children, they would be spared. It was risky. Women and children, traveling unprotected in a foreign land, were incredibly vulnerable.
And now Jacob is alone, everything that he owns and loves he has sent towards an oncoming army, and may be gone in the morning.
We see him alone, awake, in the dark, knowing that things he did 20 years ago, and things done to him even before that, he will have to face these things again.
For our youth ministry kick-off we did an activity asking the youth to pick whether they would rather see the future or change the past. One of our youth said they would change the past and undo some of the terrible things that had happened to them. Perhaps Jacob would answer the same. Perhaps some of you would too.
In the dark, wrestling with his fears and regrets, we are told that Jacob wrestles with a man.
If you look at the text it says specifically that Jacob was alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
So many ways this has been interpreted. He was wrestling with angel of God, or a demon from hell. His cheated uncle or his betrayed brother or father might have tracked him down in the night and battled him. He was wrestling with emotions so real and powerful, that it felt like a physical struggle.
Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her new book “Accidental Saints”: “We are all burdened by the ugly things we’ve done and continue to do. And for me, as much insulation as my ego provides during my walking hours, it clocks out as I’m about to fall asleep, and its then that the uglier truths claw their way to the surface. Oddly, it’s these times that I feel closest to God. Not when I’m on a mountaintop, but when I’m lying in bed half-asleep, feeling defenseless.”
Perhaps Jacob was wrestling with God; I like the last explanation best of all, and not only because that is how Jacob explains the encounter. He names the place Peniel, literally meaning “face of God.”
Jacob is both sinner and saint; Nadia Bolz-Weber would say that Jacob is a saint not because of what he does but because of what God does through him.
She writes about how she stood in front of 35,000 youth at a national youth convention and told them her story about a girl who didn’t fit, raised fundamentalist Christian, left church, entered addiction, got clean, met a nice Lutheran boy, became Lutheran, became a Lutheran pastor, started church.”
She told them, “Someone with my past of alcoholism and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing shouldn’t be allowed to talk to you. But you know what? Somebody with my present, who I am now, shouldn’t be allowed to either. I am a sarcastic, heavily tattooed, angry person who swears like a truck driver. I am a flawed person who really should not be allowed to talk to you . . . But that is the kind of God we are dealing with, people!” And 35,000 teenagers went nuts, screaming and clapping. She told them that God will use them, all of them, and not just their strengths, but their failures and failings. She told them, “Your weakness is fertile ground for God.”
If you go back and look at Jacob’s life, he has remarkable experiences of God. He has this profound dream, as he fleeing the only home he has known, running from his brother who wants to kill him, where God stands with him and tells him, “know that I am with you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” And Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely God was in this place – and I did not know it!”
But we get a different picture of God’s character in the dark night of the soul. There God is in the struggle and is the struggle. There God doesn’t give easy answers, but God is still there.
When God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, the beauty of the Hebrew is that it can read as “the one who struggles with God” or “God struggles.”
Several years ago there was a national study done on the faith lives of teenagers, which led to some really important findings that are guiding youth ministry today. One being that when it comes to the faith of our children, we get what we are. Meaning, our youth are a clear reflection of our own beliefs.
And the beliefs of our youth amounted to what the authors of the study called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” meaning: God wants us to make good choices, God wants us to be happy, we ask God to give us the things we want, and God is in control but is far removed from our lives.
The God revealed to us in the whole biblical story is not like this. We are walking through this narrative lectionary this year so that we can get this full picture of the whole story from start to finish, and one of the things we see throughout the biblical story is that our God is not a God far away, but a God nearby.
In the creation story, we see God who sets us up to be in communion with God; God walks beside us.
In the Abraham story, God walks right into Abraham’s hospitality.
In Jacob’s story, God is in the struggle, God gives new identity, God blesses.
God draws near on the mountain, God draws near in the tabernacle, God draws near in Jesus Christ, God draws near as the Holy Spirit, God draws near in the Bible.
The movement of God has always been towards us. And if it seems to us that God is far away, maybe that has more to do with us than it has to do with God.
God is in the struggle. For Jacob, God doesn’t solve the problem, take away the threat, promise happiness. Engaging with God means a new identity – and we know that – at baptistism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Engaging with God means a change, and perhaps not the kind of change we expect. Jacob is wounded.
Scholars suggest the language about his hip being dislocated or out of joint is misleading, because he wouldn’t be able to walk.
More likely it was an injury to the thigh muscle which is common in wrestling.
So Jacob must meet his brother not striding with confidence and bravado, but wounded to the brother he wounded. And the relationship is healed. When Jacob meets Esau and finds there forgiveness and acceptance, he says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God because you have welcomed me.”
In this story of Jacob we encounter themes that we find throughout the Bible – we see God drawing near to us again and again – watch for that.
We see God engaging in our struggle – that becomes of the utmost important when we see the life and death of Jesus Christ.
We have heard the story of a man who was both sinner and saint, and he was a saint not because of anything he did, but because of what God did through him.
And we will see that story again and again – in the life of king David, in the life of Paul, in our lives at this very moment. Amen.