This summer we’re talking about being a Sacred Community—not a perfect or flawless community, but a community that is authentic and blessed and walks with God on its journey through the world. As we’ve talked through stories in the Book of Genesis, we’ve seen some of the marks of sacred community: the central place of rest and friendship, the reality of brokenness and the promise of healing, the importance of inclusion and hospitality, the need to laugh together and not take ourselves too seriously. Today we come to a mark of sacred community that I will describe as wrestling with God—in sacred communities, people wrestle and struggle with God because they are unsettled. This wrestling is hard and frustrating, and it is a blessing that we don’t necessarily want to fix or make go away. Wrestling with God is part of being fully human. We will ground this message in one of my favorite stories in the Bible, the story of Jacob.
This is one of my favorite stories because, as I told you the first week of this series, these stories from Genesis are not about characters who are perfect moral exemplars. No, most often they are deeply flawed people whose imperfections are clearly on display for all of us to see. They are stumbling through life just like we are. Jacob is chief among these very human personalities.
This morning’s story comes from late in Jacob’s life, but I’m going to take a few moments to recap some earlier stories in Jacob’s life to remind us who he was. Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah and grandchild of Abraham and Sarah, the parents of the people of Israel. Jacob has a twin brother, Esau. In the first story about them, we learn that Jacob is not the firstborn of his family (which was a big deal in their culture), he is second; but he comes out of the womb clinging to the heal of his brother Esau, and from the start we know that this is a metaphor for his early life: his name, Jacob, means “takes by the heal” and “overreacher” and “supplanter.”
If you remember your high school or college education about the types of characters we meet in ancient stories, you’ll also identify that Jacob is the “trickster” in the Genesis story—he’s always finding some crafty way to gain an advantage—maybe some of you have a brother or sister like that. And in the story, we hear how Jacob claws his way through early life and steals his brother Esau’s firstborn blessing and birthright for himself: this gains him an advantage, but it puts him at such odds with his brother that he must flee the family home in fear for his life.
Jacob flees to a distant land to find a new life for himself, and on the way has a dream about a ladder ascending to the heavens, with angels climbing up and down, and he meets God, who promises to be with him on his journey and to make something great of his life. The dream is immortalized in that place, which Jacob calls by the name “Beth-El” (house of God). Jacob builds a pillar of stones—an “Ebenezer” to mark the place—this is one example of the often confusing words of this morning’s hymn in which we sing: “here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.” Jacob’s is a story about a deeply flawed person who is lost and wandering through life, but who is promised that God is still with him and that there is a purpose to his struggles that will one day see him home.
First though, Jacob will meet Rachel, who is to be the love of his life, and he will also meet her father Laban, who would seem to be the adversary in whom Jacob has met his match. Jacob and Laban will struggle for 14 years while Jacob strives to win Rachel’s hand in marriage. When that story finally resolves itself and Jacob has spent much time building a life for himself with a spouse and children and wealth he has amassed, he still though, is in exile, away from his home. So his wandering takes him back to where he came from, and that is where we pick things up today. Knowing that an encounter with his brother Esau, who he once disgraced, is at hand, Jacob spends a night alone. And you heard this story in the reading today: Jacob wrestles with a mysterious visitor—it is God.
Imagine the questions Jacob might have asked as he angrily rolled about in the dirt with his greatest friend and foe—the Creator of the World. Why did you make me this way, with these ambitions that led me to do such awful things? Why have I had to spend my life estranged from my family? Why did my parents play favorites with my brother and me and make our conflicts worse? Why do you say you still love me in the midst of all of these mistakes and sufferings—if you love me God, can’t you take those things away? Any of these and many more might have been Jacob’s questions, but only one is recorded in the story for us to hear—it’s the biggest question: Jacob demands that God tell him God’s name, which is to say, “God, who are you—and what are you up to?” And God does not give him an answer. But God blesses him—tells him again that God will always be with him. And then—as a reminder that God is One to be loved and trusted but also that God is a mystery, not to be understood—God strikes him on the hip socket, giving him a permanent physical injury as a reminder of the wrestling, and the blessing that came of it. The following morning, Jacob goes out across the river to meet his estranged brother Esau, the encounter he has feared for almost two decades. And Esau wraps Jacob in his arms, and forgives him, and welcomes him home.
In sacred communities, people wrestle with God in the midst of the brokenness of life. We wrestle with God because of our own personal stories: our family struggles, our personal flaws, our griefs and losses, our questions about why God made us the way we are and why our past can seem so difficult to escape or come to terms with. We wrestle with God because of things we see in the world around us and cannot make sense of: the misery endured by migrants in refugee camps and innocent people caught in the path of war because of the greed and violence of people in power; the reality of countless children who are not fed or clothed, educated or loved the way they deserve to be, and the endless and often thankless struggle involved in trying to do something to make a difference. We struggle to figure out who in the heck God wants us to be and why we are here. We journey through life from teenager to young adult to middle aged to older and find ourselves maturing in understanding, but we remain full of questions that we cannot answer.
Asking questions like these is part of being on the journey of faith. And being able to ask them is a blessing, for it seems to me that the one thing worse than the questions themselves is being told not to ask them. Everyone is different, and I suppose there are plenty of people who are happy enough not to struggle with the big questions of life. And some are happy in faith communities where certainty is prized and questions are discouraged. But others of us are deeply dissatisfied with the cliches and platitudes that discourage big questions: “Everything happens for a reason.” “It must just be God’s will.” Occasionally these things are comforting, but quite often they are salt in the wounds of life. People of faith need permission to struggle, to wrestle, to know that we can be unsettled and far from perfect, and still be blessed, and that is what this story of Jacob is meant to give us. Permission to be who God made us to be, and to know that we are loved, and to receive forgiveness and a second chance when we need it, and to pass those gifts on to others.
In today’s story, when dawn begins to break and the wrestling match is just about over, God gives Jacob a new name. He will no longer be known as the one who takes by the heal, the overreacher, the supplanter. Instead, his name will be Israel, which is translated variously as: God rules; God preserves; God protects; God strives. Jacob, now named Israel, receives the gift of knowing that he does not need to struggle alone, that he has a partner in his wrestling, one who will struggle with him and his questions all night long, one who will preserve and protect him, who will be his partner in his striving, and who longs to one day welcome him home.
Jacob walks away from the wrestling match blessed, and also wounded. He will carry with him the marks and reminders of the struggles of his life, and they will remind him that he does not need to go it alone in life, that he has survived much and lived to struggle another day, and that even as he is unsettled, he is loved. His Creator longs for him to be at home with himself, and with the family who loves him, flawed and incomplete though he is. Amen.