Today I am preaching and presiding over the Eucharist at Pennfield Presbyterian Church. Here is the sermon.
Back when I was in college, I had a pretty strict and narrow view of the Christian life. I thought that certain doctrines must be believed without question and certain moral precepts must be followed without deviation. If I followed these guidelines, or so I thought, life would inevitably work out well for me because I would be blessed by God.
All of this came to a screeching halt during my senior year, as I returned from a student mission trip to Eastern Europe. Just before I left, I was flirting rather intently with a lovely fellow student from my church, with whom I’d had on-again/off-again romance. I left for the trip high on cloud nine, thinking that we were finally about to get together for good. I thanked God for leading me to do things “the right way”: I was a serious student of the Bible, volunteering at my church, on the leadership team of my campus ministry, spending my spring break delivering presents to orphans in Romania, and about to begin a relationship with a wonderful person who I both respected and liked very much. I was doing and believing all the right things, therefore God was blessing me.
But life and relationships, as I have learned after a decade in ministry and marriage, are often much more complicated than that. I came back from that trip to find out she had met someone else over the break, had started dating him, and was moving to Mexico. This felt like a slap in the face at the time. What was the point of all that hard work if it didn’t lead to me being blessed in the way I want? I was utterly confused.
I’m not the only one who has had to deal with disappointment like that. A lot of people have very specific ideas about the spiritual life that don’t necessarily correspond to the way things actually are. People think that growing spiritually leads to material prosperity, inner peace, lessened doubts, better behavior, or harmony within the family unit.
As we should do with all things in life, I would like to test that hypothesis by holding it up to the light of Scripture.
In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, we get to spend time with one of my favorite people in the whole Bible: Jacob. God has been involved in Jacob’s life from the beginning. There were prophecies spoken about him while he was still in his mother’s womb. He was the heir of God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac. He was destined to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He had dramatic visions of angels going up and down between heaven and earth on a ladder. If anyone had a deep, spiritual connection with God, it was Jacob.
But does that also mean that Jacob had a smooth life, or that he was morally impeccable, or that he never struggled with doubt? Apparently not, according to the text of the Bible.
If we were to read the whole of Jacob’s story, we would see that he had a very complicated relationship with an overbearing and manipulative mother, a contentious relationship with his twin brother, and a tendency to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wanted in life.
Jacob’s miscreant ways eventually led him to go on the run as a fugitive, after cheating his brother out of his birthright. He ended up living and working in a foreign country, where he was lied to and manipulated to a strange double-marriage with two sisters and a house full of kids who fought even more than Jacob and his brother had.
After several years, Jacob was finally forced to return home when he found himself with nowhere else to go. He was still terrified that his brother might be out to get him, so he sends his whole family and everything he owns ahead of him as a bribe, in a desperate attempt to manipulate his way back into his brother’s good graces. And so it was that Jacob finally found himself alone and empty-handed on a cold, sleepless night in the desert.
That night in the desert, Scripture tells us, Jacob was wrestling with something. The identity of the one with whom he struggled is not at all clear. At first, the text says it is a man, though some have speculated that it might have been an angel. Modern psychologists might theorize that Jacob was wrestling with his own unconscious self. But ultimately, as we learn from Genesis, Jacob is really wrestling with God.
Even though he is exhausted and in pain, Jacob refuses to let go. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” he says. The strange figure asks Jacob his name and then gives him a new one: Israel, which means, “He wrestles with God.” Taken aback, Jacob asks the stranger his name, and the stranger responds cryptically, “Why is it that you ask my name?” and blesses him. The story ends with Jacob limping off into the rising sun: wounded and blessed at the same time, having glimpsed the face of a God whose name he didn’t even know.
I think it’s fairly plain to see, by this point, that Jacob’s special relationship with God did not in fact lead to inner peace, good behavior, or the absence of doubt. This is why I like Jacob so much: not because he was a hero, but because he wasn’t. Jacob’s messed-up life reminds me of my own. And it gives me great comfort to know that, if God wouldn’t give up on someone as flawed as Jacob, then God won’t give on me either.
Jacob’s new name, Israel, means “he wrestles with God.” This name has been given to God’s people in Scripture ever since. In the New Testament, the Apostle refers to the nascent Church as
“the new Israel.” We are the ones who wrestle with God. We, no less that Jacob, limp our way through life, simultaneously wounded and blessed.
Faith is a struggle for everyone. None of us lives a life that is free of problems, failure, and inconsistency. We have family drama, raging doubts, character flaws, and dashed hopes. We are flawed and finite creatures in desperate need of grace.
The good news is that we also have a God who is not unaccustomed to meeting sinners in the midst of their own self-made mess. The great story of Scripture is that God, when we humans had foolishly tried to become the masters of our own destiny and instead become slaves to forces beyond our control, became a man and came to wrestle with us in the darkness of this world.
This God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, went toe-to-toe with arrogant and hypocritical religious leaders. He smacked his forehead repeatedly at his blundering disciples. He was exhausted by the seemingly endless needs of sick and oppressed people who came begging for his help. Finally, he stood silent and defiant before the mighty judgment of imperial Rome, in the person of Pontius Pilate.
God’s wrestling with the world eventually led Jesus to the cross, where he refused to strike back, but instead absorbed the blows of human violence into his own body. His death ended the wrestling match between God and humanity. Selfish humanity, it seemed, had wrestled with God and won.
But therein lies the trick, you see. Scripture and tradition tell us that Christ descended into hell after his death and proceeded to rip the gates open from the inside, thereby freeing the souls who were trapped inside.
On the third day after these things took place, God raised Jesus from the dead, overcoming the power of death and hell forever.
Brothers and sisters, this is good news for us who struggle. Knowledge of God’s boundless grace gives us the strength to be gentle with ourselves in our own struggles with sin and doubt. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we finite creatures are constitutionally incapable of out-sinning God’s infinite love for us. All the might of our selfishness, violence, and hate cannot stem the tide of divine grace. God loves you and there is, quite frankly, nothing you can do about it.
God’s grace also gives us the ability to be patient with others who struggle with faith. If I accept that I am utterly imperfect, but loved by God anyway, then I can extend that same grace to my friends, neighbors, and enemies.
Friends, faith is not about getting it right. It’s not about having the answers, or being free of doubt, or living morally impeccable lives. None of us is perfect. Life isn’t perfect.
In the face of life’s imperfections, faith is an act of courage that we undertake with all the storms of fear still raging inside of us. Faith is the refusal to let go through long, sleepless nights. And in the end, faith is the slow, painful limp into the sunrise, blessed with a new identity and a glimpse at the face of a God whose name we don’t even know.