Wrestling God

Wrestling God

Genesis 32:22-32

by Daniel Harrell

It’s been a delight to plow the depths of Reformation this past month. October 31 marked the moment, 500 years ago, when Martin Luther stormed the basilica, so to speak, and hammered his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. He did so to protest church abuse and arrogance—which you’ll remember Pastor Dee McIntosh placing at the feet of all Christians. As a priesthood of all believers on this All Saints Sunday, we are not always saints. Scholars thank Martin Luther for the advent of liberal modernity, the rise of science and democratic thought, but they blame him too for centuries of theological division and political strife, much of which has done great violence and damaged the very faith Luther sought to save. Dr. Amy Marga, described how for Luther the issue was more than being saved in Christ, we need to feel safe too. And yet this yearning for safety first easily excludes and isolates. Justification by faith becomes self-justification by pride—a self-contained spirituality, tailored to fit my preference with do-it-by-myself expedience, my earbuds tuned to a personalized podcast designed to reinforce my perspective and dismiss those who aren’t like me.

Luther’s world was not so different from our own. One writer remarked how, “In 1517, old certainties were failing, and politics was in turmoil. New discoveries transformed understanding, and poisonous nationalisms emerged. Media technology altered how people received information. And most crucially, a crisis of faith marked his world.”

Crisis comes from the same root as cross. Crisis is where God does his best work. Persisting at the heart of Reformation, as Dr. Lois Malcolm insisted, is a deeper experience of Jesus. Not the shallow Jesus we make in our own image, but, as Kyle Roberts preached, the Christ who crucifies fake depictions so we might see God’s true heart—a cross-shaped heart of intensity and deep love, unconditional mercy and ironic beauty. Plenty wonder whether another reformation is in order. With Christ it’s unavoidable. Semper reformanda we like to say: the church must “always reform”. And so we yield to the will of the Lord. We pray and seek to hear and heed what God is calling us to next.

The possibilities are as plentiful as the Reformation itself. Luther’s protest resulted in not only Lutherans, but eventually Evangelical Lutherans, Evangelical Lutherans of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Free Lutherans, Evangelical Lutheran State Lutherans, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and more. Those following the path of other Reformers diverting from Luther—such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, John Knox, or even Henry the Eighth—established their own identities as Presbyterians or Methodists or Baptists or Congregationalists and every derivation therein. Many grew up in a day where a different denomination occupied every street corner—sort of like hamburger chains or gas stations on interstate highway exits. I grew up in the South where every intersection featured four different Baptist churches.

These days, with theological fussiness on the wane, faith distinctions minimized and religious exclusivity challenged, denominational brandnames are losing their luster and loyalties. Churches worry that their brandnames offend some segments of society, especially younger people who’ve fled churches in droves. Trying to lure them back, or at least not offend them further, Trinity Baptist Church in Maplewood now goes by the name “LifePoint.” Maple Grove Evangelical Free Church is now just called the “The Grove.” First Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake is now “Community of Grace.” Edina Covenant Church is Mercy Commons. Church plants don’t even bother: Awaken, Substance, Lighthouse are all funded by denominations as silent partners. A recent survey by an Arizona marketing firm found churches with denominational names were almost three times more likely to be viewed as old fashioned and rigid. Wooddale’s former pastor Leith Anderson says rebranding is important for outreach. This need not mean a church abandons its theological distinctives, he added. “The International House of Pancakes doesn’t use that name anymore, but they sure do specialize in pancakes.”

Which is good as long as pancakes suffice. But a deeper experience of Jesus flips a flapjack into a fabulous French soufflé. A name change without transformation is just a marketing gimmick. True transformation requires the Holy Spirit. The church may always need to reform, but cannot reform ourselves. God is the potter and we are the clay, the work of his hands, lovingly formed and purposed for perfection, poured out and broken, called but also recalled and fixed and sent out as new. In Christ we are new creations, the old is gone. And sometimes this means a new name. In the Bible, Abram “exalted father” became Abraham “father of many nations.” Simon meaning “one who hears” became Peter, the “Rock” on which Christ built his church. Saul, meaning “longed for” humbled into Paul “the least.” We boast how a person has “made a name for herself,” but called by God, your name makes you.

This morning features one of the most significant name changes in Scripture. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and inheritor of Isaac, was the last guy you’d think God would choose from whom to make his chosen people. Born with his hand clutching the heel of his twin brother, Esau, Jacob’s name means usurper or deceiver, not a great way to start your life. Jacob was also a hustler, first hustling Esau out of his birthright by withholding a delicious dinner on a day when Esau was too hungry to care about who was born when. Jacob then cooked up another scheme, with the help of his mother, and hustled Esau out of his inheritance. Taking advantage of their father Issac’s dotage and blindness, Jacob disguised himself as Esau and taped goat hair to his arms and neck. (since Esau was a hairy guy). Jacob lied to his father and got the blessing for himself, which understandably horrified Issac and infuriated Esau who determined to get his revenge.

Still, God honored the blessing, despite the deceit, and Jacob showed his gratitude, we presume, by pledging a tenth of all he owned to the Lord, a helpful reminder as we come to the year end budget needs for our church. But then again, knowing Jacob, you wonder whether his tithe worked more like a bribe. Fleeing Esau’s fury, Jacob ends up at his uncle Laban’s farm, where he’s bowled over but Laban’s daughter Rachel. Overcome by her beauty, Jacob threw himself “on her neck,” we read, and loudly wept, which I guess was one way to score a memorable impression. Jacob bargains with Laban for Rachel’s hand, to which Laban agrees if Jacob will labor seven years on the farm. Jacob’s yearning for Rachel fueled his endurance. At then end of the term, he demanded of Laban, “Give me my wife! I want to sleep with her!” So Laban showed Jacob to Rachel’s tent, and Jacob goes in, but in the morning he awakens to find he’d slept not with Rachel but with her older and less lovely sister Leah. I’m not exactly sure how this happened.

Princeton Seminary president Craig Barnes describes how when officiating at weddings, a bride and a groom, almost every time, as they stand hand and hand and prepare to say vows, will first sneak another peek into each other’s eyes, you know, just to be sure they have the right person. Barnes says they’ve probably read the story of Jacob and Leah. Incensed at having been duped by Laban—a twist of poetic justice to be sure—Jacob agrees to another seven years of hard work to get Rachel, which must have made Leah feel awesome. But this is what happens in most marriages. In our spouses, we end up with both the person we adore and the person we never expected. And we have to learn to love both Rachel and Leah.

With two wives and two concubines, and eventually twelve kids, Jacob gets back at Laban by stealing his household idols: possessions of worship Laban treated as lucky charms. And then Jacob takes off, having heard his brother Esau, with an army 400 strong, is hot on Jacob’s scent. Terrified, Jacob prays for God’s help, but just in case, he also puts together a massive peace offering to appease his brother’s anger. Jacob then sends his wives and children and all his possessions on ahead, and camped out by a riverside to await the confrontation. For those acquainted with Bible stories, you know big things usually happen down by the riverside.

Out of nowhere, in the dark, as he waited, Jacob is ambushed, not by Esau, but by a mysterious, nameless man. Tipped off by the unspeakable name and the darkness, Jacob will recognize the man to be God in the flesh. They wrestle until daybreak, which Martin Luther understood as a proofing of Jacob’s faith. A lifelong hustler and deceiver by name, could Jacob be transformed? John Calvin called it a test of faith—something God does now and then—tough love you might call it. We’re don’t like this idea, in the Lord’s prayer we ask God not to do it—don’t lead us into trial. Why would God put anyone to the test since we’re bound to fail every time?

My Dad was a state champion wrestler in high school and used to wrestle my brother and me, putting moves on us from which he had no hope of escaping no matter how hard we’d try. He’d make us cry uncle to remind us we weren’t as strong or as capable as we thought. Somehow this was good for us. I mostly remember it as painful. (Which is why I moved to Minnesota.)

The big surprise here, however, is that Jacob out-wrestled God—even after the Lord popped Jacob’s hip out of joint. Jacob held on—maybe using a full nelson, or a leg trap camel clutch if you’re a WWF fan. Jacob knows who he’s got in his grasp, and how he’d better hold on for dear life and get a blessing before daybreak since nobody sees the face of God and lives to tell about it without a blessing for cover. The Lord cries uncle and gives Jacob his blessing. He renames him Israel which means: “for you have struggled with God and have won.”

How was this possible? What human is stronger than God? But then again, God’s strength is so unlike human strength. Neither brute force nor coercion, it is the power of pure grace. Strength made perfect in weakness, victory by way of suffering and defeat, a preview of Jesus dead on a cross and thereby saving the world. Jacob, the usurper, had hustled his whole life, conniving and deceiving, he’d made a name for himself. But God changes his name and the transformation is immediate. Jacob as Israel, having wrestled with God, makes peace with his brother and makes peace with God. He builds an altar at Bethel and gets rid of his idols. He credits the Lord with the goodness he enjoys instead of taking the credit himself. He learns to love Leah.

And yet Israel’s transformation, while immediate, is not quite complete. Jacob as Israel still wrestles. Unlike others whose names are changed—Abram to Abraham or Saul to Paul—Jacob is sometimes Israel and then Jacob and then Israel again. He moves forward and backward, never losing his limp. True for Jacob and true for the chosen nation that takes on his name. Rabbis teach how the name Israel implies constant struggle with God, steadfast and tenacious. Faith wavers and never goes unquestioned. To have faith is to wrestle with God.

Last fall, our Confirmation Class before last required each student to complete a project tied to their faith journey. Most created timelines or collages to display the ways they’d witnessed God at work in their lives. However, you may remember my speaking with one student who wondered whether it would be OK to do a project on all the ways he struggled to believe.

I asked whether he’d ever heard this Bible story of Jacob. He said he couldn’t remember. So I told him about how Jacob, an inheritor of divine blessing by way of deception, wrestled with the Lord and actually pinned God to the ground. No way, said the student. True word, I said. Genesis 32. God touched Jacob’s hip socket, and popped it out of joint, allowing God to wiggle free, but not before Jacob demanded another blessing. So God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means to wrestle with God, and he thought that was so cool.

And it is. To have faith is to wrestle with God. Over and over we crash against the body and blood of Jesus, broken by us and broken for us, we’re transformed by the cross and its mercy, but never to the point of not needing it. We come to the cross, to the bread and the cup, sin and forgiveness, resistance and grace. Semper reformanda: Though reformed we remain ever in need of reforming. To have faith is to wrestle with God. And when we wrestle with God, we win.