“When Faith is a Fight”
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, January 30, 2022
Readings: Genesis 32:3-8; 24-26; 29-31
Those of you who have been around the United Church for a while know that we’re not big on being afraid of God – our denomination focuses on God’s grace, powerful mercy, and the exhilarating adventure that opening your life to God can bring. Still, the understanding that God is both good and at the same time a little bit dangerous, is one worth holding on to.
In her book: Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Annie Dillard makes this point:
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the eternal and absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
Something of that resonates with me. The reality that an encounter with the Almighty could involve danger; God has attributes that we cannot tame; God has purposes and methods that we cannot fathom and might not want to face. Being in the presence of the living God, alone or with others should be a wee bit ominous.
So, a question for all of us: Have you ever had a moment where it felt like you were fighting with God? Maybe it was a night when you couldn't sleep because you had too much energy or caffeine. This restless moment was different. It was one of those times when you faced a situation or a struggle in your life that was so difficult, so disturbing, so overwhelming that you could feel it at the core of your soul. You could feel the pain, the uncertainty, the doubt, and it was like you were physically fighting something or someone. I know I'm not the only person amongst all of us who has a story of the gloves coming off, of feeling cut to the core, of life shrinking down to one moment, one situation, one struggle. I know I'm not the only person who has received difficult news that shook and wounded. Maybe you have been there. You got that call or sat and listened to hear: "The prognosis isn't good," or "I don't want to be married anymore," or "We have to let you go."
Someone said we live our lives in the tension between our theology and our biography, that is between the tension of what we hope to be true about God and our life, and then what we actually experience in our day-to-day existence. God doesn’t seem to send all sweetness and light. In fact, sometimes our lives can often be filled with brokenness, disappointment, heartache, or hardship.
God didn’t protect or insulate us from that. In fact – it may even feel like God initiated it all – that God actually instigated the challenges we sometimes face.
Chapter 32 of Genesis gives us an account of Jacob falling into the hands of the living God. We have learned in previous encounters with Jacob that he is a thorough scoundrel. Jacob was shrewd, shifty, deceptive, and before their father died, he swindled his brother Esau out of the family heritage, blessing and birthright. Now, after 20 years away, he’s about to face the music.
Jacob had been frozen in great fear on the banks of the River Jabbok. He was afraid to go forward or backward. He knows that he has cheated his brother Esau again and that Esau is probably waiting over on the other side of the bank to pay him back for all the wicked things he has done to him. Then comes this haunting scene: Out of the deep of the night a stranger leaps. A man? A being? He hurls himself at Jacob, and they fall to the ground, their bodies lashing through the darkness. It is terrible enough not to see the attacker’s face, and his strength is more terrible still, the strength of more than a man. All the night through they struggle in silence until just before morning, when it looks as though a miracle might happen. Jacob appears to be winning. Then, suddenly, all is reversed. The stranger, this being merely touches the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and in a moment, Jacob is lying there crippled and helpless.
The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, that the whole battle was fated to end this way from the beginning, that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force, that he could muster were enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is not a grip of violence but of desperation, like the grip of a drowning man. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” he cries. Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.
“I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” It seems cheeky, doesn’t it? Do we dare say, “God, I demand that you bless me?” I think, yes, we do. I love the gutsiness of Jacob’s request. He did not say, “Bless me – if it be Thy will.” There was no such hedging. We believe it is God’s nature to bless – that it is always God’s will. God wants to bless us with what we need, and what is best for us; but that may not be what we ask for, or what we want.
I’m curious to know exactly what Jacob wanted when he asked for a blessing. He may have wanted more money, more flocks. He may have wanted simply to have his life spared. I’d like to think that he was smart enough not to tell God how to bless him, that rather, he demanded an open-ended blessing. To demand what God wants to give us is not cheeky or arrogant.
Listen: God may want to bless you with a new level of kindness; God may want to bless you with a new measure of patience; God may desire to instill in you a higher wisdom, a greater compassion, a larger level of trust and faith. A larger generosity! But the process to get you there may not be pretty – or easy. You may have a fight on your hands. So let me ask you, can you muster the courage to cling to God and cry out – I will not let go until you bless me…. with what you want me to have.
If you know the rest of the story, from this point forward, Jacob is never the same. This moment is a turning point for Jacob. This moment changes his life in such a dramatic way. After this, he makes peace with his brother, he lives with more humility, vulnerability, and generosity. In a way, his fight with God is what finally restores his life with God, so let’s try to understand why.
The detail that jumps off the page at me, the first thing I notice about this story is the seemingly diabolical fact that God starts the fight. Did you notice that? Does anyone else feel a little uncomfortable with that? Think about it. Jacob is alone. He's afraid. He has nowhere to go. He's at the end of his rope. This is a moment… One might have a picture of God where God would show up in a manner that is gentle and tender and soft and comforting, but instead God comes and starts a fight. It’s gloves off – beyond any MMA or UFC cage fight, no rules, grab and gouge alley fight. But shouldn’t we know that in a struggle with God it’s going to get personal, and we better bring our real selves, our whole selves. Nothing held back! We better get real!
I know a man who was going through a very serious problem in his family, and he told of an incident when he was driving his car, he just couldn't hold it in anymore. He had been going through the motions for too long, and he just started yelling at God at the top of his lungs in his car, and it was not the Lord's Prayer he was yelling. This was rated R, earplugs kind of stuff. Some people might call that blasphemous; I think God calls it prayer, because the guy finally opened up. He finally said what was really on his heart. God knows that's in there, by the way. He knows what you're really feeling and thinking.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called Till We Have Faces. The title of that book refers to the idea that we cannot see God face to face until we are willing to bare our own, until we have a face (a true face) of our own.
The Beatle’s have many brilliant lyrics – one of the most insightful is in the song Eleanor Rigby:
Waits at the window,
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
The truth is we put on a lot of different faces… even for God, and then we wonder, "Why, God? Why can't I see you?" What's the true face deep inside that you feel like you have to hide from God?
At last, just before dawn, with his hip thrown out of joint, Jacob begs for a blessing from the mysterious stranger. The stranger tells Jacob that he will be changed, surely that is the implication of his renaming after that night. "You shall no longer be called Jacob – that is the grabber, the conniving thief, and usurper of your brother. You will be called Israel. God will do great things through you."
The story is deep, dark, primordial.
Jacob is not just wrestling with himself, his alter ego, his shoddy past, or some inner struggle. He has been encountered. He has been met by some strange, shadowy, powerful figure other than himself. He is wrestling with God. And Jacob holds on for dear life. And, in wrestling and holding on, Jacob is given a new life, a new name. He begins to become a new person. It is like he goes through the womb again and is given a new future.
It is like he is born again.
So, what have we got in this story? Granted that God is good. Sometimes God might start a fight for our own good; you better bring your real self, your whole self to the struggle; and you’d better be willing to receive God’s blessing even when it will change you.
What have you been up against? There are all manner of histories, and habits that need to be confronted and wrestled with. We do this because no one need stay the same! No one is forever shackled by the past or present. Maybe you experienced tragedy in you past; maybe you had an abusive childhood; maybe some are haunted by their mistakes, their personal demons, you can be encountered, and wrestle the habits or memories that haunt you and threaten to control you, harness and ride you, every day of your life. You can change. You can change, not just through skillful therapy or encounter of your own ego, though such measures may help; not through some superficial self-affirmation or acting as if your past really doesn't matter. You can change by being encountered, by being met by God, fought, wrestled, and changed by a power greater than yourself.
I’m guessing There are people in every congregation whose lives illustrate the dramatic power of God to change people.
Dana sent me an e-mail. Years ago, and miles from here she was in the confirmation class and the youth group I was leading. Her last year of high school she got pregnant. I conducted the wedding between her and Jason, then coached them a bit through the rocky early years. Some time went by; I moved to another church and then Nancy and I were invited back to celebrate one of their anniversaries.
More time passed, and now, more recently… Dana sent me an e-mail to fill me in on the recent hard, dangerous journey. A lost job – a crisis in their family, pressure and tension – that they had to struggle through, and somehow God was with them in the struggle – somehow wrestling with them. Listen to what she wrote to me:
“…so we have accepted that this was God’s way of bringing us back to Him… What an eye opener! God truly is amazing; to think we kind of got way too busy to spend time with Him and all of a sudden we needed our faith to ground us and bring us through this crisis.”
Near the end Dana said this: “I still remember all those years ago when I was doing my confirmation class and you once said that all we had to do was ask God and He would be there for us, and until now, I don’t think I ever really believed that completely, but I found out through this that it is true…. The ride has been scary at times…So, the last year has been a journey we will never forget, and we thank you every day because you showed me how to bring God back into it all those years ago!”
I’m still processing this. You say something to a goofy 15-year-old, and you never know – but then life jumps her and she’s in the fight of her life and maybe the battle is with the one who chases and haunts and wrestles us until we are blessed by Him to be the people we can be.
I don’t know when your great life struggles have been or will come – but I want you too to know God’s with you in the struggle, and even when it seems God is against you, He is the beloved opponent. Like Jacob, you may limp away from this battle but the Holy One will have given your life and your heart another start and a new direction.
Thanks be to God. Amen.