Sermon - 16th October 2016
Wrestling with God
Scripture - Genesis 32:22-31
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel further with both than you can with just one.”
That quotation from the science-fiction writer John-Michael Stracyznski sums up the position in which we find ourselves in respect of the Bible. The reading from Genesis sparks doubt within us. Did these people really exist? It is more than a story? Can we quieten our 21st century minds of reason by telling ourselves that it is just an allegory: that is, a story which teaches us something?
Similar could be said of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Gospels: in particular, the miracles He performed, where our rational, reasoning minds might tell us that these stories of miracles could not possibly have happened, and again they are just allegories. Perhaps we might feel more comfortable with Jesus’ parables, which teach us to do rational and reasonable things, like to feed the poor or to fight against injustice. However, when it comes to Jesus’ birth and Resurrection, 21st century minds can no-longer conveniently redefine the Bible accounts, and it comes down to faith!
Just as Jesus’ birth and Resurrection prevent us from rationalising away Jesus as just a good, moral teacher – some might say, even the first Socialist – blind faith is just as debilitating as blind reason. The books within the Bible contain a mixture of stories – some historical, some mythical, some allegorical - accounts of miracles, letters of advice, poetry and the downright mysterious.
With mixtures in mind, I would like us to reflect on cake, where the usual ratio in cake-baking is: 1 part flour, 1 part fat, 1 part sugar, plus egg, milk and/or water. Have you ever wondered what would happen if those ratios were changed, or an ingredient were left out?
What is my point in all this? It is that the Bible contains a mixture, and each of those parts of the mixture in its proportion is an integral part of a good cake. Distorting the importance of one type of text in the Bible, for example the teaching on social justice, or even to exclude another type of text - for example, the miraculous - is just like baking a cake with incorrect proportions.
Similarly, just as we cannot ‘fix’ the cake once it has been baked, we cannot fix the Bible. We are stuck with the Bible as it is, so we must employ our reason and our faith in equal measure to make sense of it.
Having reflected on how we can approach the Bible texts, we must accept that we cannot just reason our way through them: some of it requires our reason and our intellect; other parts will need us to take a chance and to have faith. This sermon is entitled “Wrestling with God”, and seeking understanding of the Bible is one way in which we wrestle with God.
Back to our Old Testament reading: who was Jacob?
Here is a little background on Jacob in whose life there was considerable deception. Indeed, the name Jacob stems from the Hebrew word to mean “supplanter” or “deceiver”.
Jacob is Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson. Jacob was a twin; his brother, Esau, was born first. As is not uncommon, there was rivalry between the two brothers. Jacob deceived his aged, blind father, Isaac, into giving him the paternal blessing, which went discovered, infuriated Esau and broke their father’s heart. In fear of his brother, he fled to his uncle, Laban, where he fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. In return for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Laban made Jacob work for him for seven years. When the day of marriage came, Laban deceived Jacob who ended up married to the elder daughter, Leah. In return for another seven years’ labour, Jacob did finally end up with his beloved Rachel as a second wife.
After estrangement from his family, followed by 14 years’ patient waiting for his beloved, Jacob was ready to leave his uncle’s employ and seek reconciliation with his brother, Esau. Life as a family man had also been difficult for Jacob: his first wife Leah was very fertile, bearing him six sons and one daughter. Two concubines provided four more sons, but his beloved Rachel, remained barren for a long time, bearing sons years apart, one of whom was Joseph, made famous in our time in the Lloyd-Webber musical “Joseph”. Even that story is a further example of Jacob’s poor choice-making in showing clear favouritism to Joseph to the detriment of his other 11 sons.
So on the eve of reconciliation with his brother, Jacob sends his family over the river crossing, giving himself time alone, perhaps to reflect, to consider what he might say to his estranged brother whom he cheated out of his birth-right, and maybe even to pray. Rather than spending time alone, we heard in our reading, that he spent the night wrestling with another!
Who was this other? The first part of the reading mentions “a man”, but a later verse says “you struggled with God”. And for the first time in the Bible, the word “Israel” is used. The “-el” suffix means “God”. Jacob’s 12 sons became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob is father of the nation people of Israel. The word “Israel” in Hebrew means “he struggles with God”.
Getting blessed was clearly important in those times, important enough for Jacob to deceive his aged, blind father into blessing him instead of Esau; and here in today’s reading, Jacob will not let go of the stranger (whether it be a man or God) until the stranger blesses him. Jacob recognised that the stranger was one capable of giving him a blessing.
It could be viewed either way as to whether Isaac’s stolen blessing by Jacob had benefitted him: having to leave one’s family and wait 14 years to marry his beloved may not have felt like blessing; however, with time and patience, he did get what he wanted and had a large family which gave birth to a whole new nation.
Some other commentators have different views of the story. Queer theologians point out the homoerotic nature of two men wrestling the whole night through! Others see Jacob’s encounter as a panic attack, or even a psychotic episode. Yet others have speculated that the stranger is Jacob’s estranged brother, Esau.
Here is another strange thing: the text says that the stranger was not winning the struggle. If the stranger was God, that is almighty God, how can this be? Maybe God allows Himself to become weak, and so bring us to a point where we can be changed, just as Jacob was changed: ready to be reconciled with his brother, and ready to become the father of a new nation.
Names and the meaning of names are clearly important in this story. Jacob, a man whose name means “deceiver”, and who had become synonymous with deception in his actions, through this struggle with God, his name is changed, and he becomes “Israel”. The injury Jacob received to his hip, causing him to limp, will have been a reminder of his struggle with God, every time he took a step. This night changed Jacob or Israel’s life forever.
What does this mean for us? I am sure all of us have at some time taken time out deliberately to be alone and wrestle with our thoughts and feelings. For some, doing so is easier than for others. And as a result of that time alone, we become changed.
Even today, names have power. We might not think about the actual meaning of the word which is our name, but our identity is so bound up with our name. In recent years, names of some celebrities once held in the highest esteem are now synonymous with terrible crimes. When people mention our names, are we a blessing to others?
For Jacob, in ancient times, away from his family’s camp fire, it would have been very dark. The man with whom he wrestled would have been nothing more than a shadow. Nevertheless, the tiny amount of light gave Jacob enough to say “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive.” In our own personal darkness, in times of despair, our rational minds and our reason will often leave us. We will be hopping along with just one shoe, and the one shoe we have left is faith.
Historical facts span 5000 plus years of Jewish and Christian history, the roots of which are contained within these stories from Genesis. 2000 years ago, the four Gospel writers added to the stories of faith. Like Jacob, Jesus, too, withdrew from others to be alone. The account of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil, and the similar account at the end of His life, when He prayed earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As in the accounts of Jesus’ times retreat, reflection and anguish, God was there, just as God did not allow Jacob to be alone: He intervened and the struggled ensued. Jacob’s story is difficult for the mind relying solely on reason; and like many Bible accounts, this one contains something which goes beyond our reason and appeals to our faith.
Our readings today also show us that God will use us as He finds us and He will use what little we have: Jacob, who consistently made poor choices, became the father of Israel.
Today, I have offered you different ways of looking at the Bible: through reason and through faith. It is not so easy in the face of strange ancient stories, and even more difficult in the face of miracles and mysterious happenings, when the shoe of reason is uncomfortably tight.
Nevertheless, we have a Bible and a faith which is a mix of faith and reason. As the Psalmist wrote:
“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8 NIV)