This morning’s message begins with a public service announcement:
If you’ve never struggled through a hard time; if you’ve never wrestled with indecision, identity or guilt; if you’ve never stayed awake all night tossing and turning with worry or fear or anger; if you’ve never prayed desperately for suffering to end or for love to come back; if you’ve never felt stuck in a horrible situation; if you’ve never been worn down by trouble or worn out by grief; if you’ve never feared for your children and grandchildren’s future; if you’ve never wanted to yell and scream at God . . . well, then, there’s really nothing in today’s sermon that applies to you.
So, I guess you could just take a little break right now—hit the mute button on your computer or phone and pour a second cup of coffee or juice, continue reading the Sunday paper, or maybe wash the breakfast dishes and then come back for the prayers of the people.
Now, obviously, I can’t see you, so I don’t know whether you’ve walked away, but I’m guessing that we’re all still here—wherever “here” happens to be.
Because we are, after all, all human. And that means that most of us, at one time or another, have struggled with matters both large and small. Maybe we haven’t wrestled with God, exactly, but chances are we have, each of us in our own ways, wrestled with life itself—with adversity or fear, indecision or disappointment, anxiety or depression, grief or guilt, regret or the consequences of our own actions.
Maybe the struggle that comes to mind for you is something that happened long ago: a particular loss or setback, a time of serious illness or deep despair, a period of waiting and not knowing what would happen or how things would turn out. Or maybe you’re going through a hard time right now—something even above and beyond the life-in-a-pandemic challenge we’re all living with.
Whatever your situation and whenever it was, I invite you to reflect on three things: One, how you got through it; two, how it changed you; and finally, where was—or where is—God in it?
Think about it for a moment. . . . And then hold that thought.
Because now we’re going to look at Jacob’s story of struggle and transformation, Jacob’s experience of wrestling and striving and being injured and still refusing to give up or let go.
It has been 20 years since Jacob stole both the birthright and blessing of his twin brother Esau, 20 years since he deceived his dying father and tore his family apart, 20 years since he used every trick in the book to manipulate other people and get what he wanted out of life. And God loved him anyway.
After Jacob had to run for his life from Esau, he stopped in the wilderness, took a rock for a pillow, laid down to sleep, and then dreamed he saw angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. And then God’s very self stood beside Jacob and promised to always be with him and never leave him.
Jacob had been blessed by this experience, but he hadn’t really been changed. God’s blessing was a free gift. So while Jacob awoke from his dream filled with gratitude and awe, he continued to live only for himself.
Fast-forward 20 years and Jacob is the same con man he’s always been. His circumstances have changed—he’s now a wealthy family man—but his heart has not.
And still, God is with him.
And then, after Jacob’s conniving gets him into another jam, God tells him to go home to the land of his ancestors, the land of his brother.
So Jacob sets out with his family and livestock and everything he owns, aware that he is being called to confront his past, to face the brother he had cheated so many years ago.
It is a long journey, but finally Jacob and his entourage are getting close, when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him, along with 400 of his closest friends. Jacob, worried about what this could mean, sends his wives and children across the river ahead of him so he can gather his wits about him and try to prepare himself for what might be a dangerous encounter.
Finally, Jacob is left all alone in the dark—only he is not alone. In addition to his regrets and guilt and fears, there is, in the darkness, another being. The scriptures say it is a man, and Jewish midrash renders the being an angel—but Jacob believes it is God.
All night long the man-angel-God wrestles with Jacob. All night long Jacob struggles and strives and wrestles with this being, sustaining a serious injury. Finally, as day is breaking, the wrestler demands his freedom—perhaps because the match has come to a stalemate, perhaps because he’s done with Jacob, or as one tradition has it, because the angel is a singer in God’s heavenly choir and he’s running late for morning prayer.
Say what you will about Jacob, but he knows what he wants and, even in his vulnerable and injured position, he is audacious enough to demand it:
“I will not let you go,” he tells the wrestler, “unless you bless me.”
Well, this seems like a good time to pause, a good time to reflect on our own struggles and challenges, everything from the big life questions and the overwhelming burdens to the minor, everyday aggravations, and all those things we simply want to get through or get over.
What if, instead, we lived as if there were blessings to be had, even in the struggle, even in the pain? What if, instead, we chose to trust that God is in it with us? What if we could imagine that there is a blessing even in the brokenness?
How might that change our experience? How might our willingness to stay with our discomfort, to persevere through our pain, change us? How might our determination to wring something good and life-giving out of even the most complex and dire circumstances change the world?
Yes, please, apply these questions to your own personal struggles—all the doubts and fears and worries you wrestle with. What if you said:
I will not let you go, I will not let you win, I will not let you continue to torment me, I will not choose to believe there is nothing I can do, I will not give up or shut down, I will not close my mind or my heart.
Not until you bless me. Not until I am transformed and healed.
But let’s also consider these questions in the context of social challenges, national problems, and global crises: white supremacy, for example, and increasing inequality, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic.
We will not let you off, racism. We will not let you win, injustice. We will not let you continue to divide us, Mr. President. We will not live as if there is nothing we can do, climate change. We will not give up, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We will not live as if you are not there, coronavirus. We will not close our minds, transgender and queer folk. We will not close our hearts, hurting neighbors.
Not until you bless us. Not until we are transformed and healed, not until black lives truly matter, not until no one is hungry or homeless, not until no one lives in fear of deportation, not until there is peace, not until the earth is restored.
Our struggles can open the door to redemption. Even our wrestling with forces beyond our control can pave the way to transformation.
For 20 years, Jacob has been tortured by the awareness of how he betrayed and destroyed his family. How, when Isaac, his father, was blind and dying and ready to pass on his blessing to his firstborn son, Jacob pretended to be Esau. How, even when his father was confused and asked who he was, Jacob lied and said he was Esau.
And now the wrestler asks Jacob his name.
This time, Jacob tells the truth of who he is: Heel (the literal Hebrew meaning of Jacob), a taker, a supplanter, a cheat.
“That’s not who you are any more,” the wrestler tells Jacob-the Heel. “From now on you will be called Israel, which means the one who strives with God, because you have wrestled with God and with life—and you have prevailed. You cannot earn God’s blessing, but you have secured it by acknowledging your need, by believing in it and demanding it.”
And, just like that—after a lifetime of control and deceit and one long night of wrestling and vulnerability—Jacob moves from disgrace to redemption, from shame to forgiveness, from exile to homecoming, from having destroyed his family to being welcomed back into it.
And as the sun begins to rise in the sky, Jacob leaves that place, walking into his future with a holy limp, never to be the same.
Whatever our wounds, however deep our scars, may we, too, carry them into a future filled with promise. May we let God’s love heal us—even in and through the hard times. And let us wear our wounds as signs of grace and reminders of redemption.