August 2, 2020
How many wrestling fans do we have here? I followed in the sixties; Vern Gagne was the good guy and “The Crusher” and “Mad Dog Vashon” were the villains. I didn't follow the career of Jake the Snake Roberts, but know he was a professional wrestle in the 80's and 90's. He had a pet python he used as a prop. His life growing up was hard. He wrestled in the ring for a living, but he personally wrestled demons from alcohol and drug abuse and a life growing up filled with abuse and rejection.
Our Old Testament lesson is about another wrestler named Jake, Jacob son of Isaac son of Abraham. He too was wrestling demons from his life. Today Darlene read an account of his wrestling match with an unnamed man. As I begin today, I want to look back at the demons from his early life and then see what lessons we can glean from this wrestling match that we heard read this morning.
We've been reading Genesis for 9 weeks now. Jacob made his first appearance in our scripture on July 12th, and his appearance in the world as we read of the birth of Isaac and Rebekah's twins. Esau was born first with Jacob following immediately grasping, as the bible tells us, onto Esau's heel. As was the law, the eldest son would receive the bulk of the father's estate as well as the special blessing so Esau was in line for all that. But Jacob managed to swindle his brother out of both the estate and the blessing; first by making Esau trade for a bowl of lentil stew then by deceiving his blind father into believing he was Esau and so received the blessing.
Well you can imagine after this, Esau was fed up with the deceitfulness of Jake the snake, and in fact was threatening to kill him. So Jacob ran. We read about the dream of Jacob's ladder 2 weeks ago. This occurred right after he left home. He ran to Paddan Aram and moved in with his uncle Laban and fell in love with Rachel. But at the wedding, the deceiver was deceived. Rachel had an older sister Leah and at Laban's direction, Leah was the one who joined Jacob in the wedding bed. Jacob did not like the fact that he was deceived, but the custom was more than one wife so he ended up marrying both—he was kind of a snake, married to sisters!
He worked with Laban for 20 years. They were very successful; although Jacob was not done with his tricks and got the better of Laban on several deals. Finally, Jacob thought it was time to reunite with his twin brother. Their last encounter, after Jacob stole the blessing, ended with Esau threatening to kill him. But after twenty years, he sensed God's leading to reunite with his brother.
We have 6 chapters of Genesis with stories of Jacob's conning, tricking, cheating, deceiving most of the people in his life. It can be hard to understand how such a person can be considered a patriarch of the faith. But it shows that God can use anybody; a lying, cheating Jacob, or a drunken Noah, a cowardly Jonah, a doubting Thomas, a denying Peter, a murdering Paul. Our biblical story is not all saints and perfection. It is real people with real flaws. And so we are invited to commit our lives to God, not because we are perfect but because God is. And perfect love can overcome any evil in our lives--Lesson one.
In today's reading, Jacob has left Laban and is soon to meet up with his brother. He has no idea how that is going to work out. So he shrewdly takes steps to protect what is his. That is why the scripture lesson tells us this, “(Jacob) took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.” If Esau was to attack, this would give his family a chance to escape. So Jacob followed God's leading but used his God-given sense to protect what he could. Lesson two, when we follow God's lead we are still responsible to act prudently with the things of this world.
And now comes the wrestling match. “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” We aren't told here who the man was. Commentators have suggest different possibilities but Jacob identifies him finally as YHWH; God. Jacob wrestles with God throughout the night and he seems to be winning as the man/God says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He won't let go, he continues to engage with the visitor and so, in a way, wins the match. Not because he was stronger than God, not because he was such a good person, but it seems he must have realized that he was a sinful man in need of forgiveness/a blessing. Lesson 3, sometimes when life is beating us down, our best response is to simply cling to God. Not that we will necessarily get any answer or even a positive resolution to our issues, but because sometimes God is all we have left. Beth Tanner writes of this need we have and the troubles we face, “Life is sometimes like that. Things happen that cannot be rationalized or easily understood. We survive by nothing more elegant than not giving up. Every loss, every divorce, every cancer diagnosis, every death of someone we love leaves its mark. Just like Jacob, we will leave with a limp.” We cling to God, not because God makes everything better—life leaves its marks on us. We will be changed by our encounters with God. But not necessarily the way we would wish. Last week we talked about Romans 8: 28, “We know God causes all things to work together for God for those who love him.” I pointed out that this doesn't say everything that happens will be good, will be things we like. And so sometimes all we can do is hold on tightly to God until the good is discovered...which may be for a lifetime.
Jacob left this wrestling match with a limp, but after this the story of his life was no longer deceit and dishonesty. Jacob left this to be a foundational part of the Jewish faith and, by extension, our faith. He held on and received his blessing. He also received a new name, Israel. And the writer tells us why as he gives the meaning of this new name, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel is about striving and surviving. Like Jacob, we are given a new name when we respond to the call of Christ in our lives--child of God. This name is about being members of the family of God. Jacob wrestled alone that night. And there is certainly a reality in which we must struggle alone with our doubts and fears and griefs and pains. But membership in this family means that we do have a resource, we are not completely alone on our journey. Our first comfort comes from God. But there is a bond with each other in this congregation and with the millions who share our name-child of God. Lesson four, while we are individuals, and faith is a very personal thing, our membership in the family of God means our burdens and tears and joys and victories are shared; burdens lightened and joys increased.
Julie and I are watching a BBC series about the life of Henry the VII of England. Wednesday night was an unusual episode as it centered on the final hours of a man convicted of heresy. King Henry was a devout Catholic and believed in the doctrines of the Church. This “heretic”, never named, felt the church was too powerful and that true faith was strictly between him and God. The day before he was burned at the stake, King Henry met with him seeking to convince him of the rightness and blessing of the church. Doctrine was discussed, but for me the key line that Henry gave was, “In the end, let the church embrace you once again.” The heretic wrestled with the question of his individual connection to God versus the mystery of the fellowship of the church.
As we share communion, we take the bread together as a sign of our unity, of our membership in the church; the bond we share in the body of Christ. But we take the bread as individuals, reminding us that we each have a personal relationship with God. The church doesn't save us, Christ does. But we are not saved to live solitary lives, we live the faith in community.
This sermon today, as is often the case, went in different directions than I first intended. I review the key points from the wrestling of Jake the Snake with the man unnamed by the writer: 1. God's love for us is greater than any of our personal flaws or sins. 2. Following God does not mean we live as if nothing can happen to us. We are to be wise and prudent in our actions. 3. When life is tough, cling to God. 4. Faith in God is very personal, very individual. But our life of faith grows as we share the resources of the church.
I conclude with another quote from Beth Tanner, “Faith is not just a gift from God; it is a lifelong pursuit--of God for us and us for God. We may never have the complete answers but in the struggle to hang on to faith and God, we become stronger, and we grow. In life, often all we can do is hang on. We cannot defeat grief or heartbreak; they will leave a mark. We must be like Jacob and refuse to let go of God until a blessing provides new insights that will once again transform us.”
May we be transformed by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. May we know the love and salvation offered by Jesus Christ. And may the fellowship we share bind our hearts in love, may our prayers unite us in purpose and hope and may our wrestling with God leave us, not alone and weak, but lifted up in community and strengthened for the journey. Amen.
Hymn: Blest Be the Tie that Binds