Sermon for Sunday, October 20th, 2019
Our faith is full of stories that can be a bit odd. Our sacred writings, our scriptures tell tales that are at times bizarre, perplexing. Even for people that devote their lives to scripture, who study its languages and its history, even for professionals, these writings can be a challenge. The great saints of our faith, many of them the most brilliant minds of their time, even they had to struggle with some of these stories.
So when you come across a story like the one we get in Genesis this morning, and you scratch your head wondering what is going on here, you are not alone. Do not be discouraged.
Jacob, is one of the patriarchs of the faith. He is the son of Isaac; the grandson of Abraham. Jacob has been moving around the middle East. Why has he been moving? Family problems.
Now you may think you have family issues, and you might, but Jacob has serious family issues. He is at war with his brother Esau over an inheritance. He has been fighting with his father in law. He has been fighting with his brothers in law. He has two wives, two maids and eleven children. This is not an uncomplicated family. And Jacob is not a paragon of virtue.
This same Jacob, as he is wandering with his dysfunctional family, ends up spending a night alone beside a stream in the desert. And while he is there alone under the stars he encounters this mysterious man, this stranger, and right out of the gate there is a fight. Jacob has to wrestle with this man. Jacob is holding his own, but the man won’t quit, until finally the stranger strikes Jacob right in his hip socket, down to the bone.
Sometime during that struggle though Jacob must have realized that this wasn’t just some man he was wrestling with, because as dawn was breaking Jacob says to the mysterious man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.” We don’t know why Jacob started wrestling with this character; we don’t know how the fight started, but we know now that the reason Jacob won’t let go; the reason Jacob persists, is because he believes that this man has the power to bless him.
And what blessing does Jacob receive? He gets a new name; a new identity. No longer will he be called Jacob. Now he will be called Israel. And his children will be called the Children of Israel. And his name means one who has striven with God.
Striven. Struggled. Persisted. Fought. Wrestled.
Jacobs identity now is as someone who has struggled with God. And the struggle has changed him. He didn’t instantly become a better person. His family struggles didn’t go away. But he never walked the same way again. Before he had swagger…now he has a limp, and the difference between a swagger and a limp is pride and humility. Jacob, now Israel, has been humbled by struggling with a force far greater than himself.
But more than that, it isn’t just Jacob’s name that has changed. The way that Jacob sees the world has changed. He calls the sight of this mysterious fight Peniel, a name meaning the face of God. Jacob now recognizes that God is not just some generic higher power, but is a force active and alive in the world that he has dealt with face to face, and it happened here. A place becomes sacred because someone saw, and struggled with God there.
Jacob’s blessing, wasn’t instant virtue, easy money, it wasn’t artificial happiness or peace; Jacob’s blessing was a new identity (a new way of looking at himself) and a new way of looking at the world.
Such a short little passage of scripture. Just a few verses that don’t make a whole lot of sense if you take them out of context. It would be so easy just to pass over it, or to look at it for a moment and think “well this doesn’t make sense,” and then just go back to thinking about something else. You wouldn’t be alone. The problem with scripture is that sometimes its wisdom is obvious and its blessings come easy, but sometimes, many times, you really have to struggle with it.
But it is precisely because of that struggle that scripture is so valuable. It is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness because it causes you to struggle with God. The scriptures are an occasion for you to wrestle with your faith and your experiences and with the experiences of others. The scriptures will make you question yourself and your own righteousness; your own abilities. You’ll think you have things figured out; you may think you have found some answers and then some scripture story will come along and say nope, not so easy. You might be wrong there.
And then, after a long night of struggle, you get a glimpse of the face of God, and it was all worth it.
Faith is a struggle. It is supposed to be. If being a Christian comes easy to you, you are probably doing it wrong. If the Christian faith always makes complete sense to you, I hate to tell you, but there is a good chance that you don’t really understand it. Faith is a struggle. Sound doctrine doesn’t always go down easy like a piece of cake and neither does the truth. That’s why people don’t want to hear it. They want you to tell them what they want to hear; make them feel good. But what if, we are not supposed to live on a diet of cake all the time?
You know, a lot of times in life, things that are effortless are also very often worthless. You invest nothing and you get nothing back. We know that is how it works with diet and exercise, so then why do we expect faith to be different? We will persist and strive and struggle with the forces of this world, often all our lives and with minimal benefit, so why is it that when it comes to God, it is so easy to give up?
It is so easy to give up on God and the church. We say a prayer and it isn’t answered the way we wanted or hoped for, so we give up. We join a church and we encounter sinful, difficult people and we quit. We try to read the Bible and find a story that doesn’t make complete sense and we stop reading. We do this in other areas of our life to, but for some reason it is particularly easy when it comes to God.
We are more willing to strive with the forces of this world than we are with God. We will stand in line, we will wait, we will sit, we will listen, we will pay, we will have patience, we will keep trying, we will do all that for material things of minimal benefit to us, we will do it with the unjust forces of this world, but when it comes to God or church, if our desires aren’t met right away…we move on.
When the Son of Man comes, when the Lord returns either in glorious day or under cover of night, will he find faith on earth? Will he find Jacobs that are willing to hold on to him and wrestle with him? Will he find a Moses that is willing to follow and lead? Will he find prophets that can warn and rebuke? Will he find a Sarah or a Mary that can both question and believe at the same time? Will he find people willing to persist and strive with him? Will he find people willing to look past their own imperfections and the mess of their lives? Will God find people that he can rename and reshape and strike to the bone? Will God find people that can then look at the world and see his face in it?
If we find ourselves alone like Jacob under the starry sky and God comes to meet us, what will he find?