Wrestling in the Dark
The kingdom of God is like a man who sees a crowd of 10,000 hungry people at the end of day. Instead of sending them away, he takes five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks them, and gives them to the crowd. And all eat and are filled, and there are even 12 baskets left over.
We’ve been listening to parables of the kingdom of God the last two Sundays, the yeast, the mustard seed, the weeds and the wheat and so on. This week in our gospel reading, we see the same thing acted out. Jesus makes the kingdom of God real.
All the elements found in the parables are here: defying the conventional, surprise, growth, joy, super-abundance. But this time it’s for real, and that gives us a new insight, we get a glimpse of what’s driving it all, what’s making it happen. And this is what we see: the driving force of the kingdom of God is compassion.
Jesus sees the great crowd, and he is moved with compassion. No excuses, not even in this moment when Jesus had every excuse in the world. His cousin and mentor John the Baptist has just been killed by King Herod. Jesus is in mourning, and at risk, and not one of us would have faulted him for turning the crowd away. But his response when he sees the crowd is to be moved with compassion. And so he engages, he acts, he heals the sick and feeds the hungry and gives us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like. The driving force of the kingdom of God is compassion.
In our reading from Genesis today, Jacob also engages, but it’s a very different type of engagement.
There is no sport, and there are few activities, more intimate than wrestling. Two opponents clutch and grab each other, skin on skin, absorbing each other’s sweat and heat. Hands grab for whatever body part is available. Wrestlers lie on top of each other, wrapping arms and legs, grunting as breathing becomes laboured. When you feel the strength of your adversary, you respect it. When you smell the fear of your opponent, you exploit it. Exhausted bodies become slippery with sweat. Separation, when it happens, is momentary, then bodies engage once more, and tumble to the ground together. The match ends with the victor lying on top, hanging on with all their strength, refusing to let go.
This is the founding story of a nation, the people of Israel, of whom we are the spiritual descendants. We are the people who wrestle with God.
It is a story that takes place in the dark of night. Jacob is on his way back to the land of his birth, the land he had fled because he had cheated his brother Esau, and Esau had vowed to make Jacob pay with his life. But twenty years have passed and now God has told Jacob to go back to the land of his father and relatives, and God has promised that he will be with Jacob, just as he had promised to be with Jacob when Jacob fled his home those twenty years ago. So Jacob assembles his family and his servants and all his possessions and he begins the long journey back home. But he’s nervous. He’s still worried about Esau. He sends messengers ahead to find Esau and to advise him that Jacob is returning, to sound him out. When the messengers get back to Jacob, the news is bad: Esau is coming to meet Jacob and he’s bringing an army of four hundred men with him. Jacob is distressed, and terrified.
He prepares for the encounter with Esau as best he can. He divides his flocks and herds into two companies, thinking that if Esau destroys one, perhaps the other will be preserved. He prepares an extravagant gift of livestock for Esau, to be sent ahead and delivered as a series of presents. He calls out to God, and prays for deliverance from the hands of his brother. Finally, as our text begins today, Jacob even sends his wives and children ahead of him, thinking perhaps that if Esau sees them first, he will soften, and have mercy on Jacob.
And so Jacob is left alone, in the dark of night, with nothing, fearing for his life.
A man comes and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. It is a mysterious encounter. Is it a dream? Is it a vision? Is it really happening? Who is the man? When it’s dark, it is hard to know what’s going on. But sometimes, God does God’s best work in the dark. By the time the sun rises, Jacob knows that he has seen God face to face. It is the Hebrew bible’s expression for the most intimate, the closest encounter possible with God. But it is a risky encounter, an encounter that is fraught with danger. The ancient Hebrews thought that if you were to see God face to face, you would die. Jacob does not die; his life is preserved. But he is no longer Jacob, and as he walks away from his wrestling match with God, he does so with a limp - and with God’s blessing.
There is danger in wrestling with God, and perhaps that’s why many of us only do it as a last resort, in the middle of the night, when it is dark and we are feeling powerless and afraid and alone and we have no other options. The danger is that by wrestling with God, by entering into such a raw and honest and intimate encounter, we risk learning something of the truth about ourselves, and we risk being transformed.
Jacob wrestles with God, and will not let go. Even when he feels pain, even when his hip is dislocated, Jacob clings to God. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Remember that God has already promised to bless Jacob several times. But Jacob needs that blessing now. His life is at risk, he is afraid and alone. He is holding God to God’s promise, and he needs that promise now.
And so the man says to Jacob, “What is your name?” It’s a loaded question. Jacob responds, “I am Jacob.” The name literally means, “the one who supplants”. The one who takes what is not his. The cheater, the liar, the swindler, the thief. Yes, this is who I am. The face to face encounter with God is a moment of brutal honesty, of being painfully called to account.
And yet it is also a moment of mercy and grace. The man responds, “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
Jacob becomes Israel, the father of a nation. He is a new man, with a new name and a new identity. The name Israel literally means the one who wrestles with God. He is blessed and his life is preserved, no, more than preserved, he is transformed, and he leaves his encounter with God with a visible reminder of that transformation. He walks with a limp.
And as the sun rises upon him, the first thing he does is to undo his cowardly act of sending his family on ahead. He passes his family, and goes on ahead himself to meet Esau. When Esau arrives, Israel bows to the ground seven times, and the two brothers are reconciled to each other. It is one of the very few times in the Bible that two sworn enemies are reconciled.
Israel is not just the name given to Jacob. It is the name given to the descendants of Jacob, to the people to whom God first said “I will be your God and you will be my people”. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel, we too have been called to be the people of God. And so we too have been given the name of Israel, the one who wrestles with God.
What does it mean that we are called to be people who wrestle with God?
It means that when it is dark, when we are afraid, when we feel powerless, when we are alone, we can wrestle. When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, when your marriage is falling apart, when your child refuses to talk to you, when you lose your job, you can wrestle with God. Call God out, tell him it’s unfair, plead for mercy, hold God to his promises, tell him you want them now. Fight God for all your worth, grab on to anything you can, hold on and refuse to let go. God wants us to engage in that sort of raw, honest, and intimate relationship. Don’t hold back. Go in and try to pin God to the mat. I won’t promise that you’re going to win the wrestling match. But you will wrestle, and God will wrestle with you, and you will no longer be alone, and if you refuse to let go, you will prevail and you will be blessed.
You may be changed as a result. You may have a moment of brutal honesty and insight about yourself that is painful. You may have to change. You may be changed. You may even walk away with a limp. But you will have seen God face to face, and your life will be preserved. You will be transformed and you will know God’s grace.
I once had a professor in seminary who told us that the best way to assess someone’s spiritual health is not to ask them questions about what they believe or don’t believe but rather to ask the question, “Is your relationship with God passive or dynamic?”
I think he was on to something. Perhaps it’s a question each one of us should be asking ourselves.
And so, we’ll ask it this way during our open space this morning: Have you ever wrestled with God?
Homily: Yr A P18, Aug 6 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 32.22-31; Ps 17.1-7,16; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.13-21
Image by Cormac70, Creative Commons