Wrestling with God

The following sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, October 16, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 22/Proper 24).

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

“And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

Our passage from Genesis this morning is one of my favorite episodes in the Old Testament, partly because it is so strange, and seems to come out of nowhere. (Maybe that says more about me than it does about Jacob, but still, it’s one of my favorites).

Jacob is returning home after fourteen years’ sojourn with his kinsman Laban. He has gotten married, twice, and amassed a large family and personal fortune. As he gets closer and closer to home, he gets more and more worried about his brother Esau. Remember Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, and promptly ran away. This is his first return home since then, and naturally he’s worried about his reception. So he sends gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan, and then sends the family on ahead to spend the last night of the journey alone.  

Why does he send them on ahead? Is he cowardly, wanting to put as many bodies as possible between himself and his potentially murderous older brother? Is it somehow to protect them, with distance between himself and the people he cares about? We’re unsure, the text doesn’t say. At any rate, as soon as they’re gone and Jacob is settling down for the night, a stranger appears out of nowhere and attacks Jacob. They wrestle all night long, neither of them getting the upper hand, until morning — and as day is breaking, the stranger touches Jacob’s thigh and puts it out of joint so he can get away.

Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, and the stranger certainly plays it that way, giving Jacob a new name in the way that God seems prone to do now and then. “Your name shall now be Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The dawn breaks, Jacob goes on his way, and finds his brother not murderous at all but overjoyed to see him again.

It is a strange episode. Is it a dream? Why did the stranger resort to these semi-miraculous means putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint in order to get away? If the stranger is indeed God himself, it certainly looks like God is prepared to cheat in order to win this wrestling match. As Genesis proceeds, we don’t really get any answers about this event. Jacob enters the Promised Land and follows in the steps of his forbears, becoming a great Patriarch, father to the twelve tribes of Israel; though he walks with a limp for the rest of his life.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt as though you were wrestling with God, or even that God seems to be cheating to get the better of you? At morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading through the book of Job. Now there is a man who has spent a long time wrestling with God: facing suffering he didn’t deserve, with friends whose easy answers tended to make things worse rather than better. Job doesn’t get any answers either, even worse for him since God himself shows up, unmistakably, and refuses point blank to answer the questions Job asks. Like Jacob, at the end he seems to come out better for having wrestled with God, but I have to think his life remained scarred for the losses and pains he endured.

Maybe you know what it feels like yourself: in the middle of life, politely minding your business, making your way as best you can, like Jacob maybe a shortcut here or there but on the whole trying hard to be conscious of God’s gifts, thankful for your blessings. And then out of nowhere, the stranger at the river Jabbok shows up and throws you off balance. You fight and you struggle, but it seems there is no way out. How is it fair? Loss, hardship, confusion, loss of confidence, all of it is difficult to endure. Is God responsible? Has God even cheated at the game, played dirty with fate or chance or Providence? Perhaps God even seems to you the unjust judge from Jesus’ parable today, and you or I like the widow, suffering some injustice and unable to get a fair ruling: coming day after day, night after night to God’s door begging for mercy and hearing only silence.

Albert Einstein, objecting to what he thought was the craziness of quantum physics, once remarked, “God does not play dice.” But all too often, our lives as we live them recall another quote, “Not only does God play dice, but the dice are loaded.” If God cheats with Jacob, if he refuses to answer Job’s cries, does that merely leave us to soldier on in the midst of whatever challenge we face? Are merely supposed to bear suffering like the ancient stoics, to bear loss of meaning or security by saying it must be God’s will and move on?

All of a sudden this strange story alone at night at the fords of the River Jabbok starts to sound more familiar, and all too common. What do we do when we are at our wits’ end, and the wrestling match takes a turn for the worse? What meaning are we supposed to make of it?

Consider for a moment that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we usually worry only about one side of the story, our own side. But I dare you, for just a moment, to consider the other side, God’s side of the story, the stranger stealing into Jacob’s camp at midnight.

Consider God’s own affair with the world from the first moments of creation: a world to love, and creatures to delight as they reflect his glory, persons made in his image, who are very good. But from our first disobedience in the Garden, the world fell from its first grace, and over the millennia God has been wrestling time after time to win us back to him, to redeem what was lost and restore it to glory.

Late in the match, long after Jacob and Job, He sent another stranger into the fray, his own Son, to wrestle the powers of sin and death which held the world in bondage. Not at night this time, but in broad daylight: as Jesus’ gave up his spirit on the cross, He cheats again, putting the whole world’s thigh out of joint.

The cross is where God puts the whole world’s thigh out of joint. And as he rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, all who are touched by him receive a new name, his own Name. You and I are made members of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where sin and sorrow and death are no more.

Certainly the hardships and struggles and sorrows of our lives scar us, and we bear those marks forever, just as Jacob limped his whole life long and the risen Christ bears the marks of the nails. Jacob, like Job, like you and me, asked himself “Why me? What does it all mean?” at the thought of the dangers he had gone through and the dangers ahead of him. It was a dark night for him at the fords of the Jabbok, and he did not know what the next day would bring; his preparations, sending his family on ahead, make him seem paralyzed with fear or dread. Would God be faithful to the promise he made to Jacob? Would his brother forgive him?  

But God did not answer his questions, did not allay his fears. He he did not answer Job’s charges either, and neither does answer ours — save by showing up himself. God does not answer our questions in any other way than by showing up himself: in our darkest, loneliest hour, grappling with whatever suspicion or anger or violence or doubt we might want to throw at him.

God himself shows up and picks a fight with us to bear, himself, all our rage, and cheating, at the last minute, bringing us up short, wounding us with his grace, so that we might be reconciled to one another and enter the land he has prepared for us with a new name, the one he has prepared for us from the beginning, a name befitting his sons and daughters.

If God has put your thigh out of joint, do not worry, he has put the whole world’s thigh out of joint at the cross of his Son. He did not cause your suffering, he is not hiding in the darkness, he is not afraid of your frustration. But his answer is to be with you in the midst of it, to suffer the brunt of it himself, and, as with Jacob, to grant you the grace to see his face right beside you, and to receive his blessing.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.