Archive for July 31st, 2011

“On Wrestling with God”

Genesis 32:22-32

Daniel J. Ott

The story of Jacob’s dark night wrestling match is one of the most intriguing and mysterious in all of scripture.  There are ambiguities in the text that leave us with questions and leave open room for interpretation.  Who is it that comes to Jacob in the night?  Is it a man?  Is it a spirit or a demon?  Is it a personification of Jacob’s own fears and anxieties?  Is it the spirit of Esau?  Or is it a god, or is it the God, or a representation of multiple gods?  And what is the nature of this wrestling match?  Is it a battle to the death?  Is it the intimate wrestling, like of two brothers or a father and a son?  Is it a dream struggle – a psychological event?   Or is it a metaphorical struggle that may be several of these things at once?

As I read the story, images come to my mind.  I picture Robert Duval as the less than perfect Pentecostal preacher in the film The Apostle yelling at God till sun up.  It’s a dark night, thunder rumbles in the background and in an attic window one lone lamp glows.  The apostle paces back and forth raising his fists and his voice:  “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme peace, gimme peace.  I don’t know who’s been fooling with me you or the devil, but I’m confused.  I’m confused.  I’m mad.  I’m angry.  I love you.  I love you, Lord, but I’m mad at you.  Deliver me.  Deliver me.  I know I’m a sinner every once in a while… and a womanizer.  But I’m your servant.  Since I was a little boy, I’ve been your servant.  I call you Jesus and you call me Sonny.  So answer me Jesus.  It’s Sonny calling.”  On into the dark night he wrestles never getting the answer or the peace that he wants, but never letting go either.

I remember the poem by the medieval mystic John of the Cross, The Dark Night.  John’s poem is one of mystery and struggle – the night is truly dark.  But his poem is one of intimacy and love.  The mixture of intimacy and pain that John expresses in the final stanzas of his poem remind me of Jacob’s adversary who touches his hip socket thus wrenching it.

O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that was united

The lover with his beloved,

Transforming the beloved in her lover.

Upon my flowering breast

Which I kept wholly for him alone,

There he lay sleeping,

And I caressing him

There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret

Parting his hair,

He wounded my neck

With his gentle hand,

Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself

Laying my face on my beloved;

All things ceased; I went out from myself,

Leaving my cares

Forgotten among the lilies.

The dark night is a night of blessing, a night in which we are wounded by the love of God, caught up with God in intimate wrestling.

I also think of the Jewish people and their beautiful tradition of wresting with God.  This text is a pivotal one for Jewish people.  Jacob gets his new name, Israel, “Because you have struggled with God and men and won.”  The people of Israel sustain this struggle. The Jewish tradition is not passed down as a set of decided doctrines, but as a set of important questions with which one should wrestle.  And out of the wrestling comes the blessing.

Next to the Bible, the Talmud is perhaps the most important book in Judaism.  The Talmud is a book of arguments, a book of wrestling.  In its pages you read the Rabbis wrestling with texts, arguing with each other, struggling to understand the scriptures and to understand God.

I often share a video with students when I’m teaching about Judaism.  The footage is of a small seminary in Israel.  The classroom is also their prayer room and it’s about half the size of this sanctuary.  When the video cuts to the classroom the viewer is accosted by a cacophony of sound.  There are thirty or forty men, young and old, standing around in pairs, yelling at each other.  They are not angry, but they do seem to be arguing.  The voiceover explains that this is the education method employed at the seminary.  The students are paired up with each other or with a teacher and they argue, debate, wrestle with texts, struggle with questions.  And they believe that by wrestling with each other, they also wrestle with God.  They come to understand God and what God is trying to say to them a little better.  Wrestling is very important in the Jewish tradition.

Another symbol that might have something to do with our story this morning is the sacrament of baptism.  As Jacob wrestles with God in this story he is marked, named and blessed.  In our baptisms, we, too, are marked named and blessed.

When I met with D. and M. about being baptized this morning, they were a little concerned about the mode of baptism.  Would I be dunking them?  Just how much water would I use?  Would they need a towel?  They knew that they would be marked with the water, but what would the mark be like?  Sometimes I wish the mark of Baptism were more visible and lasting.  We need to remember our baptisms.  We need to remember that we have been marked as Christ’s own.  Maybe we should have a cross marked on our foreheads with indelible ink – sort of like the ashes that we wear at the beginning of Lent, but permanent.  I guess that’s a bit much, but simply wearing a cross around our necks has become meaningless – usually a fashion statement.  Maybe something like Jacob’s mark would be most appropriate.  He was marked with a limp.  That’s something you sure can’t forget.  It’s also a great symbol, because it reminds him not only that he has a relationship with God, but that he has wrestled with God.  Those of us who dare to wrestle with God can never be the same.  The wrestling changes us.  No longer can we live meaningless, apathetic, selfish lives.  God-wrestlers are the ones who ask the big questions, the ones who dare to care, the ones struggle everyday to better love God and their neighbors.  Baptism marks us as God-wrestlers.

In some traditions, like Catholicism, those being baptized receive a new name.  Usually, today it’s added on as another middle name.  In other traditions and cultures, young men and women are given new names as part of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.  Jacob’s name change is rather dramatic.  He goes from the heel-grabber, the supplanter, the crooked one, to God rules, or God is Lord.  This is quite a transformation.  The one who was always angling and seeking to control, now attests by name that God is in charge. Actually, I think Daniel is probably a good baptismal name for me.  It means something like “God will judge. “ A theologian who makes his career guessing what God is like and presuming to explain God to others might need to remember that God will judge.  What would your baptismal name be?  If you’re a fearful person, maybe “God will guard.”  If you’re riddled with shame, maybe “God forgives.”  If you have doubts or struggle with your faith, maybe “God wrestles.”

Finally, when Jacob hangs on to God for long enough, God blesses him.  Surely, we are blessed in our baptisms.  But what kind of blessing do we receive?  In just a few minutes I will read the official answer as part of the baptismal liturgy.  In our baptisms God claims us.  God seals us to show that we belong to God.  God frees us from sin and death and unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection.  We are made members of Christ’s church and join Christ in ministry.  That’s quite a set of blessings!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jacob keeps asking for blessings.  Jacob’s striving to be blessed is one of the main themes of these stories.  Jacob even asks this mysterious night wrestler for a blessing.  And the wrestler eventually blesses him.  But what is the nature of this blessing?  What is the outcome of this blessing?  Is it a foreshadowing of his immanent reconciliation with Esau?  Is it a reiteration of God’s promise to return him to Canaan and prosper him there?  Or is the blessing to be found in the wrestling itself?  Is God’s deepest blessing to Jacob that he continues to come to him in the night, to speak with him, to be intimate with him, to wrestle with him.  Perhaps the deepest blessing we receive in our baptism is that God promises to come to us, to come close, to wrestle.

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