20 October 2019 Wrestling Martin Baker
We continue our series on encounters with God.
Jacob has cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, Jacob has left his family out of fear that Esau was going to do away with him
To cut a long story of fear and deception short, Jacob believes that God is calling him back to the land he left. So Jacob decides to return and make peace with his twin brother Esau.
And so we have this mysterious story. On the night before Jacob is to reach Esau, Jacob finds himself once again alone on this journey.
Jacob has come from a place of chaos. There is fear. The steep banks of Jabokk river, the dangerous crossing. The bandits that existed at that time in this area. In the midst of all this, there is the possibility of new creation. Can the future be different?
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 Penial, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Can you remember? As a child, lying in your bed at night, it never usually seems to happen in the mornings, but lying in our beds at night, and we hear a noise in the other room. And we hear this noise and just from that one noise we can create entire fearful fantasies where we picture whole rooms full of evil things coming toward our door.
And maybe the adult equivalent of that is waking up at some point in the night or maybe not getting to sleep and going over and over again some point of worry or concern or anguish.
That wrestling with things at night, sometimes almost in a dream like way is not such an unusual thing for some of us.
Today we hear another strange night time story. The whole story has an intentional sense of darkness, a feeling of shadows and lack of clarity; again almost a dream like sense is the feeling in the story. A sense that fear could overcome the night. Jacob is alone and we are told he wrestles with this unnamed man until daybreak.
This kind of wrestling is a terrible intimate thing. The word in Hebrew comes from abek. To get dusty. To get muddy. The only time the word is used in all of scripture is in these verses. This wrestling with this figure, which somehow turns out be God is a dusty muddy event.
If you’ve ever done amateur wrestling at school. I did it for a while. We’re not talking about the Star Stomper leaping from the top of the ropes onto the Mad Marauder. We’re not talking about Hulk Hogan here. We’re talking here about the wrestling that involves locks and holds and pushing and pulling. Nelsons, half nelsons. The sharing of sweat. There is no other sport I can think of that requires closer body contact than wrestling. This is how our scriptures talk about our encounter with the divine one in our midst.
Think for a moment of two opposing statements. In one corner - how could God let those poor innocent people be hurt in the indiscriminate bombings by Turkish or Russian or Syrian or even American jets. And in the other corner - thank you God for the bravery and heroism of those white helmeted rescue workers who risked their own lives to save people. On this side the overwhelming tragedy that we connect with logic that disproves the existence of God. And on the other side the overwhelming love, kindness, sacrificial support shown to me by strangers that proves that people are driven by a much higher motivation which speaks to us of the nature of God’s love.
The same event and we can come to opposite conclusions about the reality or absence of God. Maybe both possibilities – maybe we need to decide to choose.
Jacob and the man wrestling. And when the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob he struck him on the hip socket - and Jacobs’s hip was put out of joint. Then this unknown figure says ‘let me go for the day is breaking.’ Quite a spooky sort of thing to say. But Jacob answers I will not let you go unless you bless me. So he said to him was 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.
And there he blessed him. This wrestling with this stranger who turns out to be God, leads to a new identity and a new future for Jacob. As Israel, he is the one who has faced God, been touched by the holy one, and prevailed, gained a blessing and been renamed.
Jacob wrestles, but why was there was a match at all? Surely it’s a foregone conclusion. God's thumb comes out and squashed us into the ground. But what happens when we discover that God is unconventional. That it involves getting muddy. The God we worship doesn’t conform to the patterns of power and authority and manipulation that we are used to. God works in some other way.
God's power revealed most profoundly in vulnerability and weakness.
Paul wrote in Corinthians, God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.
Jacob after this encounter, this wrestling has changed in two ways.
He is now called Israel, and he has changed in one other way. He now has a limp. Remember in the wrestling Jacob has been wounded. At the end of the story we are told that he is limping because of his hip. So this meeting with God, not all rosy healing forgiveness and reconciliation, Jacob had a new name and he has a new injury. Something of the very aspect of God’s people is their woundedness. There are no untroubled victories with this holy one.
Jacob says - God is in this place – that is a claim of blessing but also a claim of dread. You had better watch out when you talk about encountering God. And in some very deep way we start understanding more about Jesus and the gospel of the cross.
Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister writes, "if, in the end, we too are to become true. We must confront in ourselves the things that are wounding us, admit our limitations, accepts our situation, re-joins the world, and move on."
The story also speaks to us of a hard truth. The potential for the greatest injury comes from those whom we love. In fact wouldn’t we say that a relationship which doesn’t have the potential to injure is a relationship which is hardly worth having. To never wrestle with another. To never be touched, never be embraced never intimately mindful of another.
The story of Jacob is about being the people God invites us to be. About engaging about being involved vulnerable. Getting rid of the pretence and allowing ourselves to be affected by another. Perhaps that other, is the child who calls from the refugee camp in Syria or the Myanmar border. I was speaking to Rebecca after the service last week and she tells me how she and her children have slowly being getting to know the three homeless men who live outside the Countdown in Papakura. Just the act of crossing that distance engaging. She doesn’t wrestle with them in the carpark but you know what I’m saying. Shes giving them some Bibles. Or maybe the other who we need to re-engage with is the friend or the partner of husband or wife or child or grandchild who has drifted into the background of our lives.
Remember what Jesus said to his troubled disciples on that evening before his betrayal. The affirmation forming the basis of their lives as they face the horror of their saviour’s crucifixion. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid
Beside the Jabbok river or lying in bed at night. The things we wrestle with may not be the fantasies of our imaginations, but very real things. The fears or anxieties we have for ourselves and those love, or for our world. We don’t escape uninjured but we are blessed, and we are renamed. Despite all that he had done. The damage, pain and suffering Jacob had caused. There was a new future for Jacob. We might have to wrestle. But hold on. Don’t let go. The light begins to shine in the darkness. There is a new future for us. We are named. We are renamed as God children.
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