We are in the part of the church calendar year known as “Ordinary time.” Ordinary time means that we have no big holy days coming up like Christmas or Epiphany or Easter or Pentecost to think about and prepare for. As a preacher, I like to challenge myself to find the extraordinary in this ordinary time. This year I wanted to take some time to move us out of the gospels and to spend some time in the Old Testament because I think we sometimes forget our roots, our extraordinary relationship with God that has developed through the ages. So today and the next few weeks we will spend some time with our Ancestors in faith in the book of Genesis.
This Sunday brings us to a short passage of the long Genesis saga that is part of the story of Jacob. For such a short story, it has become known by many names, "Jacob wrestles with an angel"; "Jacob wrestles with God"; and as our pew Bibles name it "Jacob wrestles at Peniel.” After reading it, I called it” Wrestling with Dreams.”
Before I read this morning’s passage, please indulge me as we have a quick-ish refresher lesson on who Jacob is and how he got to where he is when our story starts today. Jacob’s grandfather was Abraham, his father is Isaac and he is the younger twin brother of Esau from whom he stole the family birthright. He ran away from the wrath of his brother and went to work for his uncle Laban for 14 years. During that time, he married Laban’s two daughter, had intimate relationships with two of the household maids and between the four women fathered 11 of the 12 children destined to become the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of the 14 years, during which time he became a rich man in his own right and with some trickery, he takes his household in the dead of night and flees from Laban with the idea that he will go back to his family. But as he approaches his own family, he begins to doubt how he will be received by his brother and his father, the first victims of his tricky cunning. After fording a stream just east of the River Jordan, he decides to send his two wives, the two maids, the hoard of howling children, plus all the servants and the livestock ahead of him so that they will be the first things Esau sees when he comes out to meet them. Jacob hopes his brother’s heart will be softened by the sight of his family and potentially be awed by the vastness of his belongings. And maybe, just maybe, if he still needs to kill someone for revenge, he will take it out on one of them, not him.
It is in that moment, after the dust settles and Jacob finds himself alone that our narration todays begins, hear now Genesis 32:22-31
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
May God Bless to our understanding, the Words that we hear today.
Will you pray with me please? May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight oh Lord, Our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
Have you ever wrestled in the dark of the night? When the house is quite and everyone has gone on into the land of nod and you are alone with your own thoughts. In that shadow time, we dream awake…of our hopes, of our future, of our failures, of our fears…scenarios run over and over and over again in our heads as we try to find a clear path to walk on. When we wrestle with those dreams God may or may not be a part of our invocations as we seek guidance, and clarity, maybe even peace and sanity, but most of all,some sort of answer.
And even as we invoke God, and appeal for guidance or signs, we argue or disbelieve the answers we get, hanging onto, clinging onto our dream and refusing to relinquish control to God. That is where we find Jacob today wrestling with his dream of his future, literally locked in a battle of wills.
Jacob is a rascal, a grabber, the clever one who stole the birthright and blessing from his brother and father, family and goods from his uncle. Jacob has already wrestled and won so many times to get where he is now. Jacob has always been one step ahead of everyone else, lead by God to become the man that he is, but still feeling like he is the one making all the decisions about the man he is yet to be. On this occasion, it is as if he needs to battle his own grabbing life in order to discover his place in the ongoing story of the nation that will be Israel and God’s choice for them and for him.
We are all Jacobs in our own way…all hell bent on following the course we feel we have chosen for ourselves, chasing our dreams, our desires all under the guise of having God show us the way and being given God’s blessings and when it doesn’t seem to go the way that WE want, we wrestle, holding on hard through the night fighting for the right that we think is ours instead of maybe finding our place in the ongoing story that God has for us.
Dreams are hard to let go off, I know, I know that first hand. Before Michael and I came to Greenbelt, I served a church in Florida. The church was a challenge and it wasn’t necessarily a happy call, but I felt that God had placed me there to do some hard work and we loved living in Florida. Did I mention that we LOVED living in Florida? We did, we lived on a barrier Island, if I walked out my front door and turned right I was two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, turned left and it was two blocks to the Indian River. We loved the laid-back lifestyle of the beach, loved the weather, loved lying in our bed at night with the windows open and hearing the waves, loved our Friday morning dates at the Starbucks on the beach, the ocean air, the seafood, the fresh produce, even the sand. We loved living in Florida, so when it became apparent that the funding at the church was running out and they were not going to be able to employ a full-time pastor I was crushed… at the loss of the church and at the idea of having to leave my beach lifestyle. So even though I was praying and trusting in God to guide my next steps I was still trying like crazy to lead the dance where I wanted it to go. I fought like hell to stay in Florida, I wrestled with what was going to happen next on pretty much a daily basis. I prayed every night to God to show me the way, I told God that I believed that God would provide for us, I trusted that God would not leave us destitute but would lead me to the next call, but in all of that praying and in all of that worry I didn’t stop fighting God. We were bound together head to head in a daily wrestling match of wills.
The same thing happened to Jacob, all night long he fought and he wrestled until finally it became apparent that he was not going to let go, and his opponent was not going to let go, neither of them was going to stop fighting and so almost in an act of desperation when it appeared that Jacob was not going to let himself be beat his hip was pulled out of the socket.
That seems like a dirty move doesn’t it? Whoever the opponent is, angel, demon, dream, himself or God, when Jacob cannot be beat, he grabs the ball of Jacob’s hip and rips it out of its joint!
I’ll tell you, in my wrestling the same thing happened to me. I thought I had won, I thought I had gotten things to go my way, and even though it didn’t feel totally right, I felt elated because I thought I was going to get the best of all possible scenario’s and stay on my nice little beach in Florida when I took a punch to the gut so hard I didn’t know if I could stand it. I didn’t know if I could go on, I didn’t see how I could possibly go on, I seriously wondered if I should give up on ministry, was that what God was telling me? Somehow in the fog of the pain I could almost hear my dream screaming at me “LET ME GO!” and I could hear myself screaming back “NO, I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Bless me? Bless me with what? I had wrestled that darn Florida dream for 18 months. I had grappled with it, made my family crazy with it, lost sleep over it and now my hip was out of my socket and I was broken and I still could not let go? I was still demanding a blessing?
Jacob the grabber did the same thing, the man who had scratched and clawed his whole life to get what he wanted, Jacob demanded a blessing too. And he got one… “You will no longer be called Jacob, rather Israel, because you have struggled with God and with human beings, and have won.” It is hard to gauge the astonishment of that sentence. Jacob has won the match with the man, and the man has announced the victory by saying he had in fact won against God and humans, and as a result will henceforth be known as Israel, which might mean "struggler with God" or "God struggles." Whichever it means what did Jacob take away from his wrestling encounter? What do we take away from wrestling with our dreams?
I think we have to wrestle with our dreams sometimes…it is probably good that we do, even if it is hard, even if we don’t get the outcome we expect or even want. If we wrestle with our dreams, if we wrestle with God, that deep soul -searching wrestle, we will be changed…we may limp away from the encounter…we may feel a bit battered and bruised, but did you notice something here? In this contest of wills Jacob did not let go and neither did his opponent, not until there was a blessing. Then, Jacob could let go, he could let go because he felt he saw the face of God. Jacob struggled with his dream, he struggled with himself, he struggled with God and somehow through it he understood that wrestling with his dreams, while difficult and hard, could bring relief when he let go of them and let God.
That sounds trite, I know, but I really wonder how much pain we put ourselves through because we want to continue to hold onto something in our lives that we know is not working out, we continue down a path because its either the way of least resistance or we feel that if we badger God enough God is going to give in and let us have our way? When will we realize that sometimes the antagonist is not God but our own selves?
All through my 18 months of wrestling, God was sending me answers to my prayers, God was showing me that there were other ways, other places where my ministry would be a blessing and where I could even be blessed and I could not see it, I was so busy wrestling that dream of mine. At least I was until God ripped my hip from my socket…and just in time I let go of my dream in order to embrace the new place in my story with God. The same week that I got sucker punched I found out that this church that I had been communicating with for about 6 months in Greenbelt Maryland of all places decided I was one of their final choices as a settled pastor, and, well, you know how that story goes.
I still wrestle, in the dark of the night, with new dreams, new paths, new troubles and worries…wrestling with our dreams is good and I hope that you wrestle with yours…but may we learn from Jacob, that we can let go of some of those wrestling’s before we get our hips pulled out, may we learn that we can let go of some of those dreams that are leading us nowhere, may we learn that when we ask to be blessed, we need to trust that God will bless us and place us on our path to the rest of our story with God. Hallelujah, Amen