Monday, August 15, 2016

Wrestling With God

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Genesis 32:22-31:

We are now one week down in the Olympics, with one week to go. Some of the things that were expected to happen, happened, and some things not expected to happen, also happened, just like life, and so we continue looking at what the Olympics can teach us about our faith, and today we look at one of the oldest of the sports, wrestling.  Wrestling was one of the original sports found in the ancient Olympic Games, as well as those of the Isthmian Games, which took place in Corinth. But, of course, the sport is even older than that.  It’s said that wrestling has been found among every culture in the world, and thus may be one of the original sports in which humanity participated. Since somehow walking is also an Olympic sport I’m going to have to say that it’s probably the oldest.  There is a Sumerian wall carving from around 3000 BC which depicts a wrestling match, along with what appears to be a referee overseeing it.  In a carving from the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptahhotep, around 2300 BCE, it shows six different wrestling holds, five of which we still use.

Wrestling also has had spiritual ramifications as well. According to Shinto legend, the ownership of the Islands of Japan was established when the thunder god Take-mikazuchi defeated his rival in a wrestling match, and in Greek myth, Zeus and his fellow Olympian gods wrestled the older Titan deities for ownership of the universe, ending with Zeus defeating his own father Kronos.  So perhaps it should not be surprising that we also have the story from Genesis we heard this morning of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger, whom we come to see as God. But perhaps, because of its prevalence and apparent importance in the ancient world, we should be surprised that wrestling is not found more often as a theme, or an event within scripture, but what is even more striking that of the places in which wrestling does occur, all of them, except one, which is a passage in Colossians about Epaphras wrestling in his prayers on behalf of the Colossians, all of the other references are found in the story of Jacob.

Even at the beginning of Jacobs life, there is wrestling involved, as we are told that he and his twin brother Esau “struggled” with each other inside their mother Rebekah’s womb, which sounds distinctly like them wrestling.  Rebekah is then told that two nations are battling within her, but it will be the second son who will triumph over the older brother. Esau is born first, named because of his red hair, and his brother comes out holding onto Esau’s heal and so is named Jacob, which means something like usurper or grasper. As his life begins in conflict, so it continues as we are then told that the father Isaac prefers Esau, while their mother prefers Jacob, thus more struggle. It is with the help of his mother that Jacob then tricks his father out of the blessing that is due to the first-born son, after he has already gotten Esau to foolishly turn over his birthright to Jacob in return for a bowl of stew because Esau was hungry. But in stealing his brother’s blessing, Jacob flees for his life into the wilderness where he has his first encounter with God, or at least a vision of heaven, an experience we commonly refer to as Jacob’s ladder.

Jacob then finds his uncle Laban, and falls in love with his cousin Rachel and agrees to work for his uncle in return for her hand, but on the night of the marriage, Laban deceives Jacob and has him marry Rachel’s older sister Leah, because, as Laban says, “in our country we don’t give things to the younger before the older,” a sort of brutal reminder of why Jacob has come to his land in the first place.  So Jacob then works another 7 years in order to be able to marry Rachel as well. But Rachel is barren, while Leah gives birth to sons, leading Rachel and Leah to be, in Rachel’s own words, “wrestling” with each other for Jacob’s affection and love.  As an aside, this idea from the reality show that women involved in plural marriages should see each other as sister wives is totally false because in scripture they are referred to as rivals or commandants with each other, not as friends.  But Jacob eventually gets his revenge on Laban, and takes his best flocks and leaves the land to go back home, but then he finds out that his brother, who last he knew was seeking to kill him or have him killed, is coming towards them with all his men, which is where today’s passage begins.  Jacob sends his family across the river and he finds himself alone again in the wilderness.  Jacob doesn’t ever strike me as someone who is good when he is alone, he’s much more of a people person, and indeed, strange things tend to happen to him when he’s alone. The first time we are told this happens is when he has his dream of heaven, and the second time is here when he wrestles with a man for the entirety of the night.

When we think of wrestling we typically think of high schoolers wearing three sweat suits in overly heated rooms, or rolling around in the mats in leotards, or worse of two, or more people, beating each other over the heads with chairs and throwing others out of the rings, in bouts that are scripted and determined before the wrestlers enter the ring, sorry to ruin the story for you pro wrestling fans. It is this second image of wrestling that actually caused the US wrestling team to be the only US team not to be able to attain any corporate sponsors for a number of years.  But there are two different types of wrestling that are common, and yes there is a point here.  The first is known as freestyle wrestling which allows the wrestlers to use the legs actively and aggressively in the match. The second style is known as Greco-Roman wrestling, which is more a battle of brute force and opponents are not allowed to use their legs against the opponent, nor can they touch their opponent below the belt-line.

Now this is important, because it appears in the description of Jacob’s match that they are doing Greco-Roman wrestling as the fact that his opponent touches him on the hip is made such a big deal of, that is it appears as if perhaps there is some cheating going on when the opponent is not able to overcome Jacob. This is really the story of Jacob’s life, and perhaps it was really done as a preemptive strike knowing that Jacob would probably do the same if he could, or when he got the chance.  Now before you all freak out on me, I am not saying that God is cheating, just that it seems unusual that this would be such a point of emphasis in the telling of this story.

But what is clear is that God is not just toying with Jacob in this moment, but instead there is a genuine struggle taking place. God is struggling with Jacob, but Jacob is also struggling with God, and neither will let the other go.  Then as morning is coming around and Jacob is told that he needs to let go, Jacob refuses.  Always the bargainer, he refuses until he receives a blessing.  This is a significant moment in Jacob’s life.  The first reason is because this might be the first time that Jacob has gotten things legitimately. That is, he has received blessings, and has accumulated possessions in abundance, but there has always been the deception that has gone along with each of them. But here, when he confronts God, when he wrestles with God, it’s just him, and he has a choice of what he can do. He could have let go early on in the struggle, he could have reverted to type and been the one to try and trick but he doesn’t. And indeed, God asks him who he is.  This is very similar to what happens when Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, because Isaac asks him his name, and that time Jacob lies.  But here, Jacob admits the truth. He is Jacob, the usurper, the grasper.  He finally seems to say to God, and perhaps to himself, “Here I am, this is who I am.”  But there is also a demand of wanting the blessing, that he is not going to let go until he receives it.

The second reason this is significant is because this seems to be the moment when he truly accepts God as his own. God has been a part of his life, and he has been taught about God by his family, but there has always been a sort of distance.  When he is talking with Isaac, he refers to God as “your God.”  And later when he encounters God in a vision, he makes bargains with God, sort of quid pro quo, if you do this, then I will do that. If you make me successful, then I will worship you.  That’s not really genuine faith. That’s merely an economic transaction. But there is a change that takes place in this moment, when God becomes Jacob’s God, so that God will be referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This transition is accompanied, as it often is in scripture by a change in name, the third reason this story is so important. God tells him that from now on he shall not be called Jacob the usurper, but instead he will be called Israel.  In Hebrew, Israel means “God rules.” But that is not what we are told here, instead we are being told that the name means “one who wrestles, or struggles or strives with God.”  Later Jewish interpretation also said it meant one who is honest or straight with God, meaning one who doesn’t hide anything with or from God.

I think it is crucial for our faith lives to always remember that Israel is not just a nation, or not just a group of people, but to remember it’s meaning of struggling, striving, of wrestling with God.  This has a much longer and more focused tradition in Judaism, where even today Rabbis, for the most part, don’t just see themselves as people to pass on the faith, but to also prod and question, to push people in their faith, and they do the same thing with scripture and they also do the same thing with God.  As one Rabbi once told me “we don’t really have conversations with God, as much as we have arguments with God.”  We have lost this to a large degree within Christianity, although we can certainly see this very thing taking place within the scriptures. But we shouldn’t be afraid to wrestle, to struggle with God with what is going on in our lives, because when we don’t do that, when we are afraid to do that, or when we think we can’t do that than our faith lives can get into trouble.  Because while we might struggle and wrestle with God during the good times, we are much more likely to want to, or to need to do it, during the bad times. The times in which our lives seem to be falling apart, or when all the promises we thought we could hold onto are crumbling around our ears. That’s when we need to be able to say to God, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” That’s when we need to ask questions, or maybe even demand answers, even if they aren’t forthcoming, but to genuinely struggle and wrestle with our faith.  To be open and honest with God about who we are and what we are feeling.

But here is the most important part to remember about our wrestling matches, and that is not to let go.  Don’t let go.  One of the things I see fairly often with people is that when they have a tragedy in their lives is that they turn away from God, they try and let go. I understand that response, and that desire, because we are so often told, or at least think, that God isn’t supposed to let anything happen to us, that there is a reason for everything and everything is part of God’s plan. We think that even if it’s not scriptural, because it at least sounds good and it tries to give some reasons for things which might not have any reasons.  But those things can drive us away from God, cause us to let go.

After the shooting in Orlando, I saw four episodes of All in the Family that I had never seen before, but which really showed how progressive and amazing the show really was.  In it Archie Bunker saves a person in his cab who he thinks is a woman, but it turns out he is a female impersonator, and so you can imagine Archie’s response.  Eventually Beverly and the family become friends, but he is beaten and killed, and Edith turns away from the church and from God. In response, her son-in-law Michael Stivik, affectiionately known as Meathead tries to talk with Edit about her faith, and Edith tells him she is mad at God. And it’s okay to be mad at God. So Michael asks her if she took algebra in school, and Edith tells him she didn’t understand Algebra and so she dropped it, to which Michael responds “Yes, but you didn’t drop out of school.” There are things we don’t, and maybe never will understand, but we don’t drop out of school because we don’t understand one subject.  We keep struggling, we keep striving, we keep wrestling.  The key is not to let go.

And like with Jacob when we encounter God, when we truly wrestle and struggle in our faith, we will not go away unchanged. If you are not fundamentally different from where you started in your walk with God, then something is wrong, although hopefully it has not left you with a limp.  In our wrestling with God, and in God’s wrestling with us, a piece we often forget that God is also actively engaged in this process, we should be different.  We should act different, we should live different, we should be different people because of this encounter.  Someone recently told me they kept asking for a sign that the work they were doing in their faith life was making a difference, but then they realized that they had been changed. They were different from where they were just a little while ago. That was the sign that God had provided. That in their wrestling with their faith, in their wrestling with God, they were changed.

We are all descendants of Israel, the child of the promise, the one whose name means struggles with God. Struggling with God is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, but we have to remember that in our wrestling with God that we have to hold on, don’t let go until the end of the match when God can say “well done my good and faithful servant.”  But we must also always remember that God will not let go of us.  God is not looking for people to be cheering on from the stands, God is looking for those who are committed, those who are involved, those who want to wrestle and those who look to be changed by the encounter.  May it be so.  Amen.

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