11/20/2016 Sermon: Wrestling

Genesis 32:22-32

In this corner:  The son of Isaac and Rebekah, the husband of Rachel and Leah, the brother of red, hairy Esau.  He grew up preferring light, indoor work but has spent the last twenty years tending his father-in-law’s livestock.  Let’s hear it for… Jacob!!!!

 And in this corner:  a mysterious contender appearing out of nowhere who will reveal himself to be none other than… the One True God!!!!

Yeah, so… who you gonna put your money on in that match?  Mama’s boy Jacob or the Almighty “I AM”?

Believe it or not:  it was kind of a tie match.

Jacob is the move.  It started out a run – away from Laban and back to his home country – but ended up more of a comfortable pace after his uncle’s blessing.  Jacob is prepared for a not-so-warm reunion with his brother, Esau.  Remember how they left things?  Jacob stealing their dad’s blessing?  Esau plotting to kill his brother?

Jacob sent word to Esau that he’s coming:  “I’ve been with Uncle Laban, and I’m coming back with a small fortune in animals and people.  I want things to be OK between us” (see Gen 32:4-5).  Next comes the report that Esau got the message and is headed this way… with 400 men.

Gulp.

So Jacob prays.  “Um, God?  Remember how you told me to come back here?  I’m so not worthy of all that you’ve given me.  I went to Uncle Laban with nothing but a walking stick to my name; now look at all I’ve got!  But I’m afraid of Esau, God.  Save me from him, because I think he’s coming to kill us all!”

Not one to wait on God, Jacob decides to implement “Operation Butter-Up.”  He arranges for waves of gifts to come to his brother:  220 goats, then 220 ewes, then 30 camels, then 50 cows, then 30 donkeys… each with the message, “These belong to Jacob, but they’re a gift for you!”

Can all those gifts calm a murderous anger?

300px-jacob_wrestling_with_the_angel

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Gustave Dore (1855)

That night, Jacob sends his wives, maids, and kids ahead and is left alone.  And that’s when it happens:  a stranger shows up to wrestle him.

At first I thought the key to understanding this story was to understand wrestling a little better.  We have a former Andrews High School wrestling star (nbd) in our congregation, so I asked him some fact-finding questions.  Like:

Q:  What’s the longest wrestling match you’ve ever been in?
A:  Oh, like 6 minutes.  And I’ve played all four quarters of a football game before, and I’m telling you, 6 minutes of wrestling is way harder.

(So this all-night wrestling match with God?  Pretty tough.)

Q:  God takes a cheap shot on Jacob here by throwing out his hip.  Has anyone ever taken a cheap shot on you?
A:  No… [mischievous chuckle] Usually it was me taking the shot.
Q:  So I’m guessing it doesn’t bother you that God took a cheap shot?
A:  No, I would have done the same thing!

Q:  Have you ever been in a match where you were totally even?
A:  Not a lot.  It happens more often when you get to the higher levels – like wrestling in college.
Q:  If you’re in a toe-to-toe even match, how tempting does it get to pull a cheap shot to end it?
A:  REALLY TEMPTING!

I took this insight and started crafting this sermon – or, better said, I started wrestling with it.  I put words on the screen to try and uncover the right message about God.  But the more I wrote the more I had to wrestle, because something felt off.

See, Jacob and God aren’t evenly matched at all.

We’re talking about GOD ALMIGHTY against Jacob.  And lest we forget, this isn’t big, hairy, outdoorsman Esau – it’s soft-skinned, I’d-rather-be-indoors Jacob.  He’s probably been toughened up by all these years of servitude to his uncle, but still.  This is far from an even match.

I bet it was nothing like a high school wrestling match.  I bet it was a lot more like my frequent wrestling matches with my kids.

My son, in particular, loves to use my queen-size bed as a wrestling mat.  He’s only three so the size is about right.  He lunges at me with all his strength and I fling him off to a corner of the bed.  He bears in on me, our hands and eyes locked in a pretend epic battle.  “I’m going to beat you now!” he declares.  But of course he’s not.  I’ve got a 100 pound weight advantage.  I’ll let these matches go on for as long as we want with as much play drama as we want, but I’m always in control.  Much to my son’s displeasure, it’s me who says when the wrestling is over and it’s time to go to bed.  And in the end, he is often panting and exhausted while I haven’t even broken a sweat.

Is this the kind of wrestling match happening between Jacob and God?  Is that why it went on so long, why God didn’t end it on the first round?  Because Jacob wanted to wrestle and God was game?

Jacob is a man with a big problem looming over him.  He’ll meet his brother, Esau, soon.  He’s attempted to solve the problem with all those gifts, but it looks like Esau (and his 400 men) are still mad.  This was probably going to be a sleepless night for Jacob, wrestling match or no wrestling match.

I may never have locked arms with the Living God, but I do know something about wrestling with God in worry.

I worry a good bit:  about people I care about, decisions I’ve made, a future I can’t control.  Some of this worrying is pointless.  Sometimes I think I am wrestling with God but maybe I am just fighting against myself.  The difference can usually be revealed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

That blessed prayer will stop the lesser worries in their tracks.  Either I can do something about them (and should) or can’t do something about them (and should find peace).  But many worries are complicated, and I lack the wisdom to know the difference.  So I lay awake and work the puzzle, moving pieces to see if there is anything – anything – I can do to address the situation.  I’ll even get mad at myself for thinking about it, telling myself to stop.  Ever done that?

What if God is there on the other side of my mental wrestlings?  What if God is pushing and tossing me around like the ultimate parent – willing to wrestle if that’s what I want to do, always the one who’s really in control?

Eventually my worrying will break me down.  I reach a near-exhausted mental and spiritual state – worse than playing 4 straight quarters of football.  Pathetically, I’m still trying to fight.  God asks:

“MARY, HAVEN’T YOU HAD ENOUGH?  WE’VE BEEN AT THIS A WHILE.”
“God, I’m not letting you go until you do something about this!”
“MARY, YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME.”
“God, give me what I’m asking for!”
“MARY.  I ALREADY HAVE.  DON’T YOU SEE IT?”

And then, as God releases that divine hold, a wave comes upon me:  a new peace about the situation, or a new piece of the puzzle I’m trying to solve – or both.  I feel like Jacob:  blessed to have wrestled with God.

That’s how Jacob was blessed; that’s what changes his name.  He’s blessed before he encounters Esau.  He’s blessed because he wrestled with God.

Our great God of the Universe somehow, miraculously, cares about us enough to wrestle with us.  And the greatest blessing of those encounters – as hard as those times can be – is that we are drawn closer to our Creator God because of them.

Take this sermon, for example.

Writing a sermon is always a wrestling.  It starts Monday morning when I begin studying the Scripture and doesn’t end until God helps me find the real message – which I’d prefer to be Thursday at 5pm before my day off on Friday, but that is not always the case.  Like this week:  a Saturday afternoon rewrite, a Sunday morning wake-up-before-the-alarm epiphany about how I really ought to end it.  That’s what wrestling with God is like:  God is in control, God decides when it’s over.

But every time – every time – I am blessed to be drawn closer to God in the process.

God is daring you to a wrestling match.  In one corner:  you, with all your qualifications and shortcomings, exactly as you are.  In the other corner:  the Great “I AM” who breathed you into being.

Do you dare wrestle back?

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