August 6, 2017
We jump ahead once again in Genesis. The Lectionary skips a lot of the story and I don't want us to miss out on the action in between the scenes we actually read. Last week we read of the marriages of Jacob to Leah and Rachel. He'd worked 7 years and Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and he had to work 7 more years for Rachel's hand. Finally, Jacob was ready to go home. He and Laban negotiated a settlement; a share of the sheep. Laban once again tried to cheat Jacob; but this time Jacob outwitted Laban. The writer tells us that God blessed Jacob and he left...actually snuck away with his share described as a large flock of sheep, slaves, camels and donkeys. He was now a wealthy man.
I need to fill you all in on his family. You know that the twelve tribes of Israel are founded by the twelve sons of Israel/Jacob. As we looked at last week, Jacob had two wives and two concubines. Here is the record of his family: by Leah he had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulan...oh yeah, the writers recorded one daughter out of all these kids, Dinah. My guess is there were more, but they didn't bother to record the daughters. Leah's maid had sons Gad and Asher. Rachel's maid had Dan and Naphtali. And Rachel had two sons whom Jacob loved more than any of the other twelve; Joseph and Benjamin.
What I want to do today is look at two aspects from this story. First, what sorts of things do we wrestle with God about? And second, what about Jacob's name change? It was another indication that it was God there for, Israel, his new name, means “God contended” and is the result of the struggle between Jacob and God at Peniel.
Let's start with wrestling with God. It would seem that no one could wrestle with God and win. But if we look closely, it is not that Jacob won, but that Jacob held on. We could name a lot of faults in the man Jacob. He cheated his brother, lied to his father, tricked his father-in-law. But he was tenacious. The man/God/ angel did not prevail and Jacob continued to hold on until he received a blessing. For Jacob was interested in a right relationship with God. He'd received the blessing in the “Jacob's Ladder” dream. He won a blessing here. And as Judy pointed out two weeks ago in her sermon on the dream, Jacob had kind of figured he was good with God since his father and grandfather were in such special relationships with God. But she also pointed out that every one needs to develop their own relationship with God -God has no grandchildren, only children. And for Jacob, as for us, it was an ongoing process. And for us, as for Jacob, it may mean some time wrestling with God for the relationship to even begin and then to grow.
What do we wrestle with God over? I tried to remember some wrestling matches I've had with God. When I left seminary, I felt I'd lost my connection with God. I wasn't like Jacob; I didn't hold on throughout. And that led to some time of separation from God. Not that God wasn't still there, but I was missing the knowledge of God's presence with me. But God caught me again and I'm back in relationship. What do we wrestle with God about? How about when something terrible happens. When my sister was killed in a car accident; I wrestled with why God didn't have intervene. But this time I did hold on through the long night. Understanding our salvation...I'm reading a book, Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Fascinating book connecting science and spirituality. She told about a certain atheist who converted and this line caught my attention as I was working on this sermon, “For a tortured year, Collins wrestled with God.”
Doubts about our salvation. Fears of the unknown. Disease. Death. Money problems. Family difficulties. Betrayal by a loved one. All things we might wrestle with God about. Our challenge... and our encouragement from today's reading is that if we can hold on; just hold on to God; we can receive a blessing. The blessing might not look like the type of blessing we'd seek; but God won't leave you. And holding on to God means that God's grace and peace can penetrate our troubles. Our troubles won't magically disappear, but God's presence will carry us through. Just hold on!
And sometimes we wrestle with God for control. I wrote this line then didn't know what to say next. But maybe wrestiing with God for control is the real root of sin and separation from God. It was Adam and Eve in the garden--”You can't tell us what to do, we must control our own destinies!” It was David with Bathsheba--”I will do what I want when I want to, I'm in control!” It was the Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus--”We will do what is best for us, God put us in charge!” We can wrestle God for control over our own lives; we can wrestle to be free of any rules, any limitations. But if we are wrestling to be free of God, that is probably a good definition of sin. However, when we are, like Jacob, wrestling to just hold on, that is where faith can grow. So wrestling with God; sinful if we are fighting to be free; Faith-building if we are fighting to hold on. And yet, there must come a moment of surrender as well. It isn't clear in Jacob's story but Jesus makes it clear in his story. We surrender our rights, our control, our need to work for a reward. The atheist who wrestled with God finally surrendered. It is an important part of our journey, surrender our control, come to Christ and Christ saves.
I really have two sermons today, the second would be titled: What's in a name? Names were particularly important in biblical times. They put great stock in the meanings of names. Now we tend to pick names that are different, unique; misspelled! Here's a few: CYDNEE; JAYCOB; DAFYDD; ! Wow!
After the wrestling match was done, Jacob was given a whole new name. As he was told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Israel as I said means “God contended”. A note, any time you see the suffix E-L, that means basically God. Peniel, the face of God. Bethel, house of God. Ismael, God listens. Small Hebrew/English translation lesson there.
Our name as a church is Christian. That comes from the Greek Christos which is the translation of the Hebrew Messiah which means “the anointed one”. We are followers of the anointed one of God whom we believe is Jesus. We also have the name Presbyterian. That comes from the Greek presbyteros which means elder. It deals with how we are governed. We are governed by elders who are in place to rule through wisdom and experience.
In last week's Independent Review, Judy's article talked about denominations. And she went back all the way to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to make the point that just as Jacob had to make his own way with God, so must we. Being a Presbyterian does not make us a child of God. We are Presbyterian because we have, by grace, in faith recognized God's call on our lives. We have accepted the premise that we can be children of God through faith in Jesus the Christ. And in community, we practice our faith in worship and service and prayer and fellowship. But our identity comes before our name. Jacob contended with God and persevered before his new name was given. We can be raised Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic or Baptist; but those names are not what make us children of God. It is when we place our trust in God's saving grace, then we are called Christian.
I often listen to Woody's World on KLFD in the afternoons. He is an entertaining announcer but he really struggles when it comes to reading the news; he reads too fast. He was reporting on a protest in Israel and read that the Muslim protesters were kneeling and bowling in the streets. Now I thought about that, it seemed an odd thing to do. Then I realized that he'd misread, it should have been kneeling and bowing. Now just because he read that the Muslim protesters were bowling in the street, it didn't really make it so. And just because we self-identify as Christian or say we belong to the Presbyterian Church, it doesn't make us a child of God. That comes through wrestling with the claims of Jesus Christ and accepting the gift of grace offered. Consider when and how you have wrestled through that opportunity. Again, God has no grandchildren. It is a personal decision to respond to God's call. When you've wrestled with doubts and fears and questions and decided you want to hold on to the hope offered, surrender your power and submit to the Lordship of Jesus, then your name becomes beloved child of God, Christian,
As we gather in community, as we share communion, as we sing and pray together, we are proclaiming that we are children of God. Not because we are members here, but because Jesus Christ is Lord of our life. When we share communion, I mention that we share the bread as a sign of our community which is so important in our faith journeys. But equally important is the fact that taking the cup as an individual represents that commitment you make to Jesus Christ. If you haven't wrestled through what that means, maybe today is the day. When your holding that cup in your hand, hold on to that gift of grace that makes you God's child. Jesus came to make that relationship possible. May we each know that Jesus is Lord, is Savior, is brother and friend. And may we hold on to that truth and never let go. Amen!
Hymn: Here O My Lord I See Thee Face to Face 210 HLC