Wrestling & Grace
Wrestling and Grace
Genesis 32.22-32; Romans 8.35-39
12 November 2023 - Bloomfield Home Gathering
It is fall, so leaves and plants are dying, turning brown, the green of life draining from them. The days are shorter and colder, more darkness and less light. Some animals are going into hibernation. Some birds are flying south. It is not surprising the fall brings melancholy and some degree of depression for many. And this fall, we enter a deathly stalemate of war in Ukraine, a horrendous war in Israel and the Occupied Territories, especially Gaza, and continued war in other locations, e.g., Ethiopia, Syria, and Sudan, to name a few. This fall we realize we are one year away from another national election, and that polling just revealed that Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden in a number of critically important states. We wonder how such a horrific monster of a human being could actually be desired as president over the comparatively intelligent and decent person who is now president. We wonder how a political party that actively works to destroy democracy and produce authoritarianism can gain votes and elected offices over a party whose members, whatever their various faults may be, actually want democracy, human rights, and freedom for all. The eclipse and demise of the warmth and brightness of summer is more than mirrored by the eclipse and decline of so much decency and basic morality. We live in a society and a world that seems to be spinning off its axis as millions of people embrace hatred, bigotry, fear, greed, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and other systemic and structural sins. Not that things were entirely wonderful before, but now? O my God! Lord, have mercy.
We come together week after week, sit together, speak together, feel the closeness of one another, look into each other’s eyes, and feel the hearts and spirits of one another because we know that in order to remain sane, to find any healing, we must belong to a community of hope. We know that we will only find hope through love. And we believe that it is Love itself, the infinite Love we call “God” who breathes love and hope into our lives. God is its source and its sustenance. And so we come, week by week, to see in each other and hear from one another, about this healing, hope-giving, graceful, healing, loving, God. We come not only to see and hear about this Love and Hope, but to encounter it, to be in relationship with it, to have God take us by the hand and heart, to hold us and heal us, to feel the care and courage, the loveliness and love, the goodness and grace, of God.
This story of Jacob at the Jabbok River is powerful for its central message. It is something we sometimes seem to know, but often forget. Something about which we need to be reminded again and again. A truth easy to embrace in theory, but one we reject in the truth of our actual lives over and over. Our blessings and our wounds come to us bound together. Grace and pain come intertwined. It is good to have children sitting with us this morning, hearing this message, as it is one that is hard to learn and one that we are best off if we begin to grasp it early in life.
We pick up the story at a river toward the end of the day, as Jacob and his family are traveling. There is no need for our purposes to discuss the purpose of the travel. He sends his family ahead, across the stream, so that he is alone. The name of the stream, or river, “Jabbok,” seems to be a play on “Jacob.” It is an eastern tributary of the of the Jordan that originated near present-day Amman, Jordan. We get a picture of Jacob preparing to sleep alone on one side of the river, with his family and resources on the other side. The crux of the story is that Jacob is encountered by a “man” who wrestles with him for quite a while— until daybreak. Jacob is wounded, his hip is hit or stretched quite hard, and it causes him pain and gives him a limp.
This is the story where Jacob becomes Israel. “Israel”—his new name—means “the one who strives with God” or “God strives.” We can see how these meanings can bleed into each other. God is a God who will wrestle with us, who will strive with us, who will contend with us—and we certainly know that we humans are apt to wrestle with, and contend with, God. It is important that Jacob demands to be blessed. If God is going to wrestle with Jacob through the medium or messenger of someone who seems like a man, Jacob figures he should get some kind of blessing out of the encounter. The Hebrew does not call this figure “God” directly, but when Jacob receives the blessing, he responds by naming the place where this happened, “Peniel” which means “the face of God” and he declares “I have seen the face of God.” It’s clear that Jacob has wrestled with God, that he has asked for a blessing, that God gives him a blessing and a name to match the moment. We are not told what the blessing is. It would be to miss the story’s point to focus on the blessing itself. The point is that God’s blessing comes to Jacob, turned into Israel, through a painful and difficult encounter that leaves this new man wounded, and pained. Physically, he has been diminished. But he has not been diminished so much as he had been empowered. He is not less, he is more. But pain is involved.
Everything that God has in store for Israel, the covenant, the grace, the judgment, the heartbreak, and promise-keeping—everything comes from a loving God whose blessings are bound to woundedness, suffering, and pain. This pattern is seen in its fullness in the Anointed One, the Messiah (“Christ”) who comes to us as God and suffers even to the point of death on a cross, as the means of giving us the greatest blessing possible—our liberation, our salvation, our healing, our union with God in Christ. This cruciform truth that appears early in the story of Jacob-turned-Israel, reaches its paradigmatic climax in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this cross-shaped reality in life is not exhausted in Christ—as Philippians 2 makes clear. It is a reality that remains true for us also.
When we are young, we can scarcely understand why things cannot always go smoothly for us. And when things do not go smoothly, we see it as an affront, as an interruption of a pattern of what should be uninterrupted goodness defining our reality. “Why is this happening to me?!” is a question that erupts from our hearts, and sometimes our mouths, often. As we get older and mature, we gain the skills to take things in stride. Well, not entirely, of course. We still struggle with many of the events in life that give us pain, that wound us. We can all quickly recollect a large number of events and facts wherein we’ve been wounded deeply, but if we live in Christ, if we’re being transformed into Christ-like disciples who live in the grace and love of God, experiencing courage and hope—we can see in many of those events, the presence and power of blessing as well.
But why am I sharing this message? If this is an obvious, nonoptional aspect of life, why bother to mention it?
It seems to me that some religious people pray for God to take hardship away from them, and while many of us do this from time to time, some religious people make such petition a defining element of their faith. Their faith is overwhelmingly, if not entirely, palliative. They want God to relieve them from pain and suffering, and often even from inconvenience. If God is not a God who delivers for us in this way, why bother to believe? That’s how many religious people are religious. But this view bears no relationship to the God we meet in scripture or in real, honest life, and I do not think those who are sitting here this morning harbor such innocent, childish, and self-centered “theology.”
We are living in a particularly challenging moment, as my opening remarks indicated. But this does not mean that God is absent or completely powerless. God still delivers blessings, grace, love, courage, hope, and change—bound to suffering and pain. This is to say something surprising and counterintuitive, if we look at it a certain way. When we see or experience suffering and pain, can we not also look for the how it might be a vehicle for blessing, a means for grace, an opportunity for love and transformation? Not because we’re optimists! We’re not optimists! We’re disciples. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Of course, we often do not know what God is doing in the world, and often it seems like God is doing very little indeed. But we know better. We know that God brings strength out of weakness. God brings life out of death. God brings joy out of sorrow. God brings freedom out of slavery. God brings light out of darkness. God brings hope out of hopelessness, pessimism, and cynicism. God brings love out of fear. As Romans 8.35-39 declares so eloquently—what can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! As we wrestle with God, let us take our wounds and limp forward— blessed, graced, loved and empowered for the journey.