(Genesis 32: 22-31)
And Jacob was all alone.
That’s where our story begins today – Jacob alone in the wilderness. Although it’s not really the beginning, is it? Or the end? Like any good story, there’s a wider story at play, a story before and story after. And that story is revealed much like the opening of a stage curtain with each tug of the rope, revealing more and more of what’s going on, more than just Jacob being alone.
So if we open the curtain a little wider, we see that Jacob hadn’t always been alone. His family and friends were with him, before he sent them on ahead to where they were going. And if we open the curtain even more we see Esau, his brother. The Esau of his past, the one whose birthright Jacob stole – father Isaac fooled by the deception of his younger son, fooled into dispensing a blessing that was not Jacob’s to receive but could not be undone once spoken. Jacob had left that Esau years ago on understandably poor terms, his older sibling never forgiving him for taking what was rightfully his.
And we also see the Esau of his future, the one Jacob would reunite with tomorrow. Jacob was eager to put the past behind – but would Esau want to do the same? That was the question. Jacob had done everything he could to make amends, sending his brother a slew of livestock as a peace offering. Sending his very family just that night. The message implied: I am giving you all I have, Esau. Will you give me your forgiveness? Will you let me be your brother again?
And Jacob was alone, all alone.
You ever had a night like Jacob’s? It’s 2, 3 in the morning and the house is hushed. Everyone else is asleep, but not you. Your mind is racing, even though you’ve told it many times to slow down. It hasn’t listened. Something is weighing heavy on your mind. Something awaits you when the sun rises – a move? Surgery? A new job? A family reunion? It could be amazing, or it could be a disaster. It could go either way, whatever it is. Have you ever felt, in that in-between time, so very alone?
Jacob did. Because he was. Until, quite suddenly, he did not.
It’s almost comical the way it reads: Jacob was all alone, (comma) and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. It’s like someone recounting a story and leaving out a step or two, an important piece of information; so instead of going from A to B you jump all the way to G. More questions than answers: who is this “man”? Where did he come from? And what in the world does he have against Jacob?
Now you can read this story from the 32nd chapter of Genesis over and over again, you can consult different translations, you even reach out to last week’s Gilchrist Sunday speaker Carson Brisson and get what most assuredly would be his beautiful take on the original Hebrew if you want. But you will never find answers to those questions. Because there aren’t any. Because that’s not what’s important to this story.
What’s important is this: Jacob was all alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
A long time to wrestle! Turns out that Jacob was not a stranger to wrestling. His whole life, it seemed, an extended wrestling match. Wrestling with the ghost of a brother he wronged so many years ago, still haunting him. Wrestling with the heavy guilt that had weighed him down ever since. Wrestling with both the hope and fear of what tomorrow would bring, which Esau would show up – the loving and forgiving Esau ready to put the past behind, or the wrathful Esau eager to exact revenge. Truth be told, if Jacob was wrestling with anyone that night, he was wrestling with himself.
The fight goes on and on. The stranger even takes a cheap shot and knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. But Jacob keeps fighting. And then as dawn approaches, the stranger tells Jacob to let go. But Jacob has other plans. Give me a blessing, Jacob demands through clenched teeth. A blessing. He doesn’t say this, but you can almost hear him begging through those four words, Give me a blessing, one that is rightfully mine, not one that I’ve taken from someone else. I want, I desperately need my own blessing, please! Give it to me, and I’ll let you go. And that is when Jacob is told: he is no longer Jacob, but Israel, because he has wrestled with God and with humanity and prevailed.
Wrestled with God. Whaaaat!? God, the God of the universe, of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah, God who created everything everywhere forever – God got in Jacob’s grill that night, and Jacob got right back in God’s! God knocked Jacob’s hip out of joint and Jacob got a new name out of it. The name of a country, the name of a nation of people. And here, the name of one man: Israel – the Hebrew literally meaning, “Scrapper-With-God.”
So what do you think it means to “scrap with God?” Is that possible? Is it even allowed?? I mean, don’t you get struck down by lightning if you try to do something like that? From our earliest years we’ve been told that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-everything. And we are not. God, therefore, is not meant to be scrapped with, wrestled with, contended with. No! God is to be obeyed. Served. Revered.
And yet throughout scripture, if we look, we find online pharmacy usa, space for this. The word of God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah in his first chapter, inviting the conflicted people: Come, let us argue this out, let’s settle this matter, let’s have it out over this. Even Jesus himself, huddled in the Garden of Gethsemane, yelling at God in agony: Take this cup away from me! I don’t want anything to do with it!
Jacob, Israel, the “Scrapper-With-God,” wrestles with the Almighty and “prevails.” Meaning not, I think, that he “won.” This isn’t about winning. This is about the wrestling; the contending with God and, by proxy, himself – the Jacob he doesn’t like, the Jacob who does things he’s not proud of. A blessing is what he gets out of it. A new name symbolizing a new thing. God, doing a new thing through him. Through us.
This Lent, Grace and I are taking a good hard look at what it means to “encounter God.” More than just a casual conversation in daily prayer, more than a weekly meeting in the pew every Sunday morning. What happens when we come face to face with the living God and encounter God in ways we perhaps never have before?
Well, if Jacob has anything to say, I bet he’d say that more often than not we, like him, are surprised by the encounter. Caught off-guard by it. Alone one minute, scraping the next. Because our God is not a God who’s necessarily inclined to give us a heads-up when making an entrance. Our God does not grant us the pleasure of dictating the terms of the encounter. What, I wonder, are those instances when God has shown up in your life, unannounced, maybe even uninvited?
I think Jacob might have a thing or two to say about how a God-encounter can leave us a little nicked up, a little wounded. It’s odd to say that out loud, right – a God-encounter wounding us? What happened, we wonder, to the God of healing?
And yet, truth be told, that is the healing. Because, as I mentioned in another sermon a while back, to be wounded is to be made vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is to unearth some part of ourselves we’ve kept neatly buried over the years, out of everyone’s view and maybe even out of our own. And so there is some level of pain involved when this encounter takes place; there’s a noticeable limp we walk with after.
Many years ago in seminary, I found myself depressed. And not “upset” depressed or “bummed-because-my-team-lost” depressed. Clinically depressed. It was my night alone by the river Jabbok, wrestling with questions of life and love and call. The wrestling had been going on for a while, but I’d done a fairly good job of keeping it out of view. Keeping it within me, where it of course did its greatest damage.
And so one night I wandered into the seminary chapel, late enough so no one else would be there. I was alone – until God was with me. And we had it out. God got right in my grill and I got right in God’s. I screamed at God for an hour that night. No hip knocked out of joint, but I was a little hoarse the next day.
But – in the silence that followed when words could no longer be screamed, I felt it. Not the sense of abandonment and rejection I expected. No, I felt grace – which, if you’re wondering, feels a little like a long embrace; arms holding tightly, not the least bit interested in letting go. And the blessing I received that night, the new thing that took me into the next day and all days after, was knowing that this God of mine could more than handle my angry tirades, and in fact welcomed them; for through them I was fully communing with God; meeting God at the intersection of my vulnerability and authenticity. In a weird way, it was as if God picked a fight with me just as God did with Jacob, helping me face my wounds so God could finally begin healing them.
Noted South-African pastor, writer and anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak, who spoke at the national NEXT Church conference in Atlanta this past week, is fond of saying that, “when we go before God, God will ask us, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And if we say we have no wounds, God will then ask, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?’” (1)
Tell me something, Trinity Presbyterian – where are your wounds? What for you is worth fighting for, worth getting in God’s grill over? Are your wounds the wounds of the heart, of a relationship gone awry? Of a promise unfulfilled? Are your wounds the wounds of a society so divided along political, ideological and racial lines that true reconciliation is rendered near-impossible? Are your wounds the kinds of wounds you’re willing to share with your brother or sister in Christ; share your wrestlings with God?
This past year our Congregational Care folks began leaving a prayer request box in the Fellowship Hall on the nights we have Room In The Inn there, so our guests experiencing homelessness can, with pen and paper, share their wounds with a praying community if they so chose. Reading through their prayers I find myself overwhelmed by both the depth of the wounds and the power of the sharing. Here are just a few from this past Wednesday night:
Please pray for me to be totally delivered from homelessness and poverty.
I pray that we get a good place to stay, close to a good school for my kids.
I would like for you to pray for my health and strength. Thank you.
I pray for a really nice jeep to get me to work.
Need God’s real guidance to keep moving.
I would like to have a home.
Would you mind joining me for a brief moment of silence so we can lift these up in prayer?……
Amen. Thank you.
One final question: when you scrap with God, when you learn what’s worth fighting for, what is your new name? In what ways are you changed and transformed; that glorious limp forever reminding you of who you are and whose you are?
I want you to know, friends, that whether you know you have a new name or not, others know it. It’s true. Even our Room In The Inn guests know. Prayers lifted up not for themselves, but for you:
I pray for this church and its members to be blessed with all their needs. God bless you!
Thank you for giving me a place to stay for the night. You are blessed.
Well, there it is! Your blessing. A blessing because you’ve scraped with God one way or another, because you’ve been wounded before and will be wounded again, because you’ve found something worth fighting for and have prevailed. Go forth, then, in God’s grace and love. Go forth with your new name. Go forth, forever and always blessed!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
(1) – https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/415587-when-we-go-before-him-god-will-ask-where-are, visited on 2.23.2016.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.