Striving

04
Aug

A sermon preached on July 31, 2011 based upon Genesis 32:22-31

Usually when we listen to Bible stories, we try to derive a “moral to the story” — a tidy interpretation that encourages us to do good and keep the faith.   Sometimes – perhaps especially when we read portions of the Old Testament, the stories don’t cooperate with our attempts.     

For instance, as we listen to the Jacob story, we expect to hear something along the lines of how bad behavior leads to bad consequences, but it just isn’t so with Jacob.

Jacob is a wheeler and a dealer, a con man, a cheat, a liar.

His name, “Jacob,” meant “supplanter”, that is, somebody who took what wasn’t rightfully his.  His twin brother Esau, born only moment before himself, was entitled to the birthright, but Jacob tricked him out of that, getting Esau to hand it over at a moment of weakness and hunger in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew.  And then even more deviously, when Jacob’s father Isaac lay on his death bed, Jacob, with the aid of his mother, took advantage of his father’s failing eyesight to pretend to be his brother, even wearing goatskin so he would feel like the hairy Esau, conning his father out of the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s. 

When Esau, physically imposing, though not particularly bright figure, realized how his brother had stolen their father’s blessing, well, he was enraged, and vowed to kill his brother, so Jacob had left town to escape.  His first night out in the wilderness he had nothing but a stone for a pillow, and as he slept, he dreamed. 

If we were writing the story, well we would probably have Jacob’s dream be particularly distressing, with guilty conscience accusing him, moving him to repent of his thievery, and go back to his brother and his father to do what he could to make amends. 

But instead Jacob dreams an extraordinarily gracious dream, one in which he sees beautiful angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, and God himself at the top of the latter, who blesses Jacob, promises to be with him forever, and that the land upon which he is lying will be one day filled with his descendants, more numerous than he can number. 

The closest we seem to be able to derive by way of a moral from the story comes a thousand or so years later from Jesus when he declared: 

 “Loves your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest.”

Here is an instance of God loving the bad, since up to this point, we haven’t seen anything that might be called love coming out of Jacob.

In fact, although Jacob seems pretty impressed by what he has seen, it doesn’t move him to cease cutting deals, even with God:  “If God will be with me… then the Lord shall be my God.”   It is a peculiar response, since God has already promised to be with him, but of course, Jacob means for God to be with him on his terms.  It’s all conditional in Jacob’s mind.  If the deal doesn’t come through to his advantage the way Jacob hopes, well, in his mind, he’s free to go looking for another god to cut a deal with. 

And as such he’s not so very different from the rest of us.  

Jacob ends up in the land where his grandfather Abraham started out, where his wife’s cousin Laban lives.    For the next 20 years he engages in a battle of wits and deal-making with Laban.   Initially, Laban seems to be Jacob’s match in terms of being a manipulator and a conniver, but in the end, Jacob comes out ahead, leaving town with two wives, two slave girls, eleven sons and enormous wealth, much of it stolen from Laban. 

And so in lesson this morning, Jacob is finally returning home, maybe because he has worn out his welcome with Laban, or maybe because he is looking to cash in on the promises God made to him. 

As he draws near home, Jacob tries to cut some deals to win Esau over.  He sends emissaries ahead to tell Esau about the wealth he has acquired, with the idea soften Esau up with a generous gift.  (Hey, he fell for the bowl of lentil stew, didn’t he?)  But his emissaries return with the news that Esau is heading out to meet him in the company of 400 men. 

It’s not looking good.

Late in the afternoon Jacob reaches the River Jabbok, where he spends the last hours of daylight ferrying his family and cattle and all his possessions across the River.   With night falling, he is all alone on the shore of Jabbok.  As such, the night resembles the struggle of death itself:  who am I as I go into the great unknown as I am compelled to let go of all my rolls and possessions?

Something very strange and frightening suddenly happens by the river Jabbok.   In the darkness, a man attacks him, and they wrestle for all they are worth throughout the night.  Who is this man?  The story doesn’t tell us straight out.   There is an implication that he is some sort of divine being, an angel, even God himself.   

Oddly, the angel doesn’t seem to be winning the battle, so persistent and determined is the desperate Jacob.   At which point, the adversary hits Jacob in the thigh, dislocating Jacob’s hip.  He has, apparently, barely been using the full extent of the power at his disposal. Nonetheless, Jacob refuses to cry uncle.  The coming daybreak seems to cause the angel distress.  “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob refuses to let go. 

The angel asks, “What is your name?”  And he replies, “Jacob.”  The angel declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you strove with God and with men, and prevailed.”   (Israel means “God strove.”) 

Jacob cries out, “Tell me, I pray, your name.”  But the mysterious wrestler does not give up his name.  He does, nonetheless, bless Jacob, and with that the wrestling match is over.  Jacob calls the place Peniel, “because he said, “I have seen God face to face and my life is spared.”

As the sun rises, Jacob limps off to meet his brother.  Who, Jacob will be surprised to find, embraces him lovingly.  

It’s a strange story.  Bible scholars believe the story of the wrestling match dates way, way back.  What does it all mean?

First off.  I don’t know.   It says something about the mystery of God.  God isn’t knowable, or capable of being manipulated.   All our attempts to manipulate God, to define God, to make Gods ways easy to predict find something stubbornly resistant here. 

What, for instance does “God’s presence” mean?  We like to think of God’s presence as a calm and soothing thing, and often that is how it is experienced.  But in this story God’s presence is disturbing, frightening, making for one truly terrifying, sleepless night. 

Parker Palmer writes about being brought low by a severe bout of depression.  He recalls that he was aided when a friend suggested to him that the depression need not be seen as an enemy.  Parker described it has pushing him down.  Could he see it as pushing him down to find a solid footing?  Could he think of his depression as speaking up for parts of his soul that had been getting lost?

The “angel” or whatever he was gave Jacob a new name:   Israel, the “one who strives with God and man and prevails.”  I wasn’t altogether clear on what the word “striving” meant, so I looked it up: 1) Make great efforts to achieve or obtain something; 2) Struggle or fight vigorously. 

There is no getting around the fact that life, in part, is a struggle — a fight.   I remember going with my home pastor when I was 21 to visit in a maximum security prison in New York State.   A burly chaplain show our pastor and around.  He spoke of the necessity of the inmates standing up for themselves in the often brutal environment.  I remember our pastor telling the chaplain how he taught his son to fight back if he were bullied.  It made an impression.  Our pastor made it clear you had to know how to fight before you are ready to “turn the other cheek.”

There is no instance of Jesus calling a child to be a disciple – to follow his path of laying his life down.  You have to have establish yourself in your capacity, when necessary, to fight the good fight before you can lay your body down as a peace maker.   Unless you have the capacity to fight, the choice not to fight is meaningless. 

Jesus told that strange parable about a poor widow who has an injustice under which she is suffering.  She goes to an unjust judge seeking justice, but he ignores her.   Day after day, year after year, she persists at knocking at his door, wearing him down, until finally he succumbs to her plea.   There is something about the capacity to engage the struggle with all you have that is an essential component of the spiritual journey.   The people Jesus commended for having faith were people who persisted against obstacles to reach out for healing. 

Darwin spoke of the survival of the fittest, and the creature that doesn’t fight for his existence becomes extinct.   Survival of the fittest isn’t the only principle at work in creation.  There’s also a great deal of cooperation, for instance.  But the capacity to strive is knit into every living thing. 

The prayer known as the “serenity prayer” speaks of the serenity of acceptance, of surrender, but it also speaks of the need for courage to do that which needs to be done, with the implication that there are obstacles to overcome. 

And so there is something compelling to the image of Jacob wrestling the divine adversary through the night, refusing to let go his grip until he gets the blessing. 

He is blessed – he catches a glimpse in the great mystery of God hidden beneath the great struggle of life, and in doing so, he is forever changed. 

In a sermon, Barbara Brown Taylor imagines Jacob speaking of his strange experience years later: 

“When Jacob told the story later, I expect his grandchildren had a hundred questions for him.

‘Who was it, really?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Where did he go?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Will he come back?’

‘I hope so.  What am I saying?  I doubt it.  I don’t know.’

“There is a question I would like to ask him.  ‘Jacob, why didn’t you run when you got the chance?  Then the sun came up, when he wanted you to let him go, why didn’t you shout, “Glory Hallelujah!” and head for the river?’

‘Because it was the most alive I had ever been in my life.  Because I had never seen anything like the shining in that face I could not bear to let it go.  I thought maybe if he blessed me we would be related somehow.  I thought the blessing might keep me company after he was gone.’

‘What about your leg?  Didn’t it hurt?’

‘Sure it hurt.  It still hurts, but it goes with the blessing.  They are a matched pair.  Every time I tilt to the right and feel that hot pinch in my thigh, I remember my name.  Israel.  The one who strives with God.’ 

The spiritual life is full of paradox.    We are required to engage the fight, to strive, to persevere.  But there also comes a time to surrender, to yield.  Without the capacity to fight and persevere, in some sense the yielding is meaningless.

In the end he knew that God could have obliterated him.  “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Putting his hip out of joint was the least of what God could do if he so chose.   God invited Jacob to strive with him, nonetheless.

In the end, there are some things in life that can’t be won, only received as a gift.  Jacob didn’t win his vision of the angels, nor for that matter did he win the blessing of the angel.  But how would he have known that without striving to his very limit?

Barbara Brown Taylor finishes her sermon with these words:

“Hang on with everything that is in you, even if it hurts.  Insist on a blessing to go with your wound and do not let go until you have got one.  Then thank God for your life, limp and all, and tilt your way home.”

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