Wrestling with God
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by David Barton on Sunday 20 October 2019
Political chaos swirls around us, and while it does the Lectionary goes on, doing what it always does. Today it offers us a story, a strange haunting story that reaches back to times long before such things were written down. It’s worth pausing to hear, even – perhaps especially – in times like this.
It’s about Jacob. Always remember two things about Jacob. The first is that he is a trickster, always out for himself. The name means “one who cheats”. He was the youngest of twins, born second, but he came out of the womb grabbing his older brother Esau’s heel, presumably in a effort to be the first. And he goes on being like that. When old Isaac is dying, Jacob famously tricks him into thinking he is Esau, by putting an animal skin onto his arm and making the old man feel it. Esau was hairy, Caliban to Jacob’s Ariel. Old, blind Isaac was taken in, and passed on the blessing given by God to his father Abraham. So Jacob grabbed the inheritance intended for his brother. Blessings once given can never be taken away. Esau was furious, and to escape him Jacob travelled East to his uncle Laban. And in Laban he met an even greater trickster. Seven years Jacob worked to win the hand of Laban’s youngest daughter Rebecca, only to have Laban substituteher unmarried older sister in the dark of the wedding night. It took another seven years to win the woman he loved. But then Jacob turned the tables on Laban and made himself a wealthy man at Laban’s expense.
Surprisingly though, the other thing to know about Jacob is that God actually shows him favour. When he is escaping from Esau’s anger, he sleeps in a deserted place, and sees a great vision of angels travelling between earth and heaven. It’s an insight into the connectedness of things, to God’s eternal caring presence. A greater blessing than anything Isaac had given him. And just before today’s reading two angels appear to tell him of God’s continuing protection. You and I might think that odd. But the author of Genesis is very clear: God had promised His love would be on Abraham and his descendants for ever, and God does not break promises. God goes with Isaac’s mistake and accepts the scoundrel Jacob, pouring out his love in just the same way. But there is more.
Jacob is now returning home after 20 years. He still fears Esau. Will Esau have forgotten his anger and the theft? Or will he be out for vengeance? That becomes even more likely when Jacob hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men! They are at the Jabbok, a creek that runs down to the Jordan. The other side is Esau. Jacob should trust God’s blessing. But he wants an insurance policy. He divides his flocks up into three to make a triple whammy of a bribe, and sends them on ahead. Each generous flock a present for Esau. Then he sends over his wives and eleven children. Now he is alone. Its night and it’s dark.
The night is what we the hearer might imagine it to be: have you ever spent a night alone, in a lonely place? Or a night where, wide awake we struggle with ourselves? Times of darkness when the whole of our life seems under review? All of that for Jacob. But more: God is here. Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were made in the image of God, so it should not be a surprise that God appears in that guise now. “A man wrestled with him until daybreak”. The story does not tell us why. Nor is it clear that this is a violent encounter. So we are left to guess. But, we know, God’s love is just there, as it always has been, consistent, unfailing, knowing everything, but loving us for who we are are, not for our clever show, our cheats, our self sufficiency. The fact is, such undeserved blessing (and Jacob had it in abundance) finally catches up with us, or at least some of us. The pursuing love has to be reckoned with. Before it, all our pretences crumble. Our tricks are exposed. So Jacob struggles with the shadows, facing what he would rather not face. And God remains with him, struggling. Notice how Jacob asks for a blessing. But it is not given until he answers his name. He has to acknowledge honestly, before God, just who and what he has been: the “one who cheats” and all that implies. And God’s response to such honesty is a blessing that brings forgiveness. And a new name: Israel – the one blessed by God.
This story belongs to a time when it was believed that to see the face of God was to be destroyed. Jacob lives and it amazes him: “I have seen the face of God, and my life is preserved”. He limps as he walks away from the face of God – that’s what Penuel means. But he now knows: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of life not death.
This is an extraordinary story. One of the most remarkable in the Old Testament. It has a capacity to linger in the mind, forcing the questions. This is a God who is extraordinarily intimate, and deeply interior, sifting our thoughts and motives. In which case what of the worries and concerns of our own lives? Are these things that just happen to us, or is God more deeply engaged here than we have allowed for? And story tells of a God who stays with us. All the long night God stays. What Israel always forgot, but we should remember, is that this God’s loving presence has a way of highlighting the shadows of our lives, remaining disconcertingly close, forcing us to see and admit what we would rather ignore – all so that we can learn the truth of God’s life giving forgiveness and love. Jacob emerges purged, a better person, with a simple inner trust of God’s abiding presence. God calls us to just that trust.
This story holds up a mirror to the spiritual experiences, and the inner disciplines of our lives. It suggests that our faithfulness in prayer matters, the honesty with which we face ourselves and our motives matters. How ready are we to hear what we would rather not hear? To say “Lord have mercy.” But notice too: this God stays with us. Compassionately stays with us.
So we might stay with that and then hear that odd little parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, which goes in the same direction.
Its all pretty serious stuff of course. But, wonderful teacher that he is, Jesus lightens the point by making it into a kind of Joke. Our translation is rather polite. The Judge worries that the woman is “bothering me”. The Greek for “bothering me” implies something more physical: the Judge fears the lady might hit him on the nose, so he gives in. We are to be as persistent in our inner lives, our prayers, our standing before God, as that woman. And then Jesus flips it all round: we are not dealing with an erratic judge here. Unlike the Judge God has no reserve, no hesitations. His gifts of love and forgiveness are there for all of us, poured out in abundance.
That’s the end of our readings. And we land back in a troubled society again. But, all of it is a reminder that when troubles strike, we need to go back to our roots in God and cherish them. Then, no matter how much the winds blow, like well rooted trees we can bend and yet stand firm, because our roots are deep.