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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 6, 2017

Limping into Sunrise

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

            I never was a wrestler. Being 6’2” and 150 in high school, I was built better for basketball.  Because I was mostly arms and legs, I’m sure I would have been way too easy to pin.

            But John Irving, the novelist, was a wrestler in high school. Back in 1995, he wrote about the experience in a piece for The New Yorker. He talked admiringly of his coach, Ted Seabrooke.  Coach Seabrooke was a Big Ten champion and two-time All-America wrestler at Illinois.  That made him, according to Irving, “way overqualified for the job of coaching wrestling at Exeter.”  So Irving remembers his coach, sitting on the mat in front of the team, legs scissored in front of him, arms bent but reaching out toward them.  He would spar with a member of the team from that position, which one would think made him quite susceptible to conquest.  But Irving says, “Even in such a vulnerable position, he could completely defend himself; I never saw anyone manage to get behind him.  On his rump, he could scuttle like a crab – his feet tripping you, his legs scissoring you, his hands tying up your hands or snapping your head down.  He could control you by holding you in his lap (a crab ride) or by taking possession of your near leg and your far arm (a cross-body ride); he was always gentle with you, and he never seemed to expend much energy in the process of frustrating you” (12-11-95, page 72).

            In a sermon about Jacob’s wrestling with God, Frederick Buechner says near the end, “The sense we have, which Jacob must have had, [is] that the whole battle was from the beginning fated to end this way; that the stranger had simply held back until the end, letting Jacob exert all his strength and almost win so that when he was defeated, he would know that he was truly defeated; so that he would know that not all the shrewdness, will, brute force that he could muster were enough to get this [blessing]” (The Magnificent Defeat). 

            It is one of the best stories in the whole canon of scripture: Jacob wrestles with God at the Jabbok River.  Jacob, he of the charmed life; he of the shrewd theft of Esau’s birthright; who by his mother Rebekah’s designs fooled Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing; Jacob, the supplanter, wrestles with God and refuses to let go until God gives him that one thing that no trickery will ever provide.  Perhaps Buechner is right, and Ted Seabrooke is an apt illustration: perhaps Jacob is fated to lose, so that he can get the blessing that does not come by victory.

            It is one of the best stories in the Bible because it continues to make sense of our lives with God.  As much as I would like to offer you a gospel that is all about success, and the absence of struggle, and the avoidance of pain, I cannot offer it, because it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jacob is one of our fathers in faith, and it is worth noting that he was neither prophet nor priest nor king.  He was an entrepreneur.  He was a successful herdsman.  He worked hard and he worked shrewdly and he grew wealthy, and he had a large family.  Jacob does not seem to have thought much about theology.  He doesn’t seem especially virtuous; there is little about him that a preacher would encourage you to emulate, except when it comes to accruing wealth.  And with all that, Jacob cannot seem to get very far away from God.  It seems that God will not leave him alone.  God, after all, is the one who surprises Jacob in the darkness, grappling with him until daybreak.  God is the one who starts this wrestling match.  My theology professor, John Leith, said that our theological tradition teaches that “every human being has every moment to do with the living God” (Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, 67).  There is nowhere to go outside the presence of God.  You can run, but you cannot hide.  You can disbelieve, but you may as well be putting your hands over your eyes and imagining that God disappears.  In every moment we have to do with the living God, who will not leave us alone.  God will not leave Jacob alone.

            Jacob is a schemer.  He shows almost no redeemable quality.  He may leave us wondering how on earth he got the job to be the forerunner of God’s holy people.   And so he may be Exhibit A in God’s case for grace in the world.  God will not leave even Jacob alone.    

            And what does Jacob do?  What does he do once God starts wrestling him, like Ted Seabrook would, almost toying with him?  Jacob refuses to quit.  He refuses to let go.  Maybe God is not as dominant with Jacob as Ted Seabrook was with his team.  God says to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  And Jacob replies, “Not until you bless me.”

            The advice I offer you today is this: when God takes you by surprise, wrestling you in the darkness, do like Jacob.  Refuse to quit.  Refuse to let go.  Demand a blessing.

            One of the challenges we face as a congregation is our apparent success as people.  On the whole, we do not show much struggle to the world.  Judging by appearances, we are mostly successful, fulfilled, happy people.  Outsiders looking in are tempted to think that our lives are easy, trouble-free, painless.  We ourselves are tempted to put that face on even when we know it isn’t true, because it seems to be true for the people around us.

            Yes, we are much like Jacob before his Jabbok experience.  But all of us have our Jabbok River nights.  We have a nagging illness.  We have unspoken pain.  Our friends at school are depressed and some even have taken their own lives.  Despite all the blessedness we could name,  still there is that dark spot that cries out for blessing.  There is that joint that is struck, leaving us to limp through life.  And that, we are forced to admit, is God’s design.

            Think of Elijah, locked in conflict with wicked King Ahab, called to speak the truth no matter the consequences for himself.  Think of him, tired and alone and hiding in a cave, telling God, “I’m the only one left.  There is no one on the Lord’s side but me.”

            Think of Jeremiah, hated by the kings and by his own church family, because he demanded that they admit their rebellion against God.  Think of him, hounded and hated so badly that he rued the day he was born.

            Think of Paul, convinced that God gave him a thorn in his flesh, to keep him from getting too proud of the mysteries he had seen.  Think of him, “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” because they were for Christ.

            Jacob had all the signs of success, but for some reason, he wanted something else from God.  He had tricked both Esau and Isaac; he had come away with birthright and blessing, but he wanted something more.  Maybe we have to wrestle for that “something more.”  Maybe it’s the only way.

            Eugene Peterson asks in our behalf, “If the world is so wonderful, if life is so amazing, why all this trouble, this mess?”  He says, “I had a delayed but abrupt introduction into the mess of history.  I grew up in a Christian home with good parents.  I was told the story of Jesus and instructed in the right way to live.  I was loved and treated well…  And then I went off to school and discovered what St. John named “the world” – the society that does not regard God with either reverence or obedience.  This knowledge came into my life in the person of Garrison Johns.  Garrison was a year older than me and the school bully….

            “About the third day in school, Garrison discovered me, took me on as his project for the year, and gave me a working knowledge of what twenty-five years later Richard Niebuhr would give me a more sophisticated understanding of in his book Christ and Culture.  I had been taught in Sunday School not to fight and so had never learned to use my fists.  I had been prepared for the wider world of neighborhood and school by memorizing the verses ‘Bless those who persecute you’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’  I don’t know how Garrison Johns knew that about me – some sixth sense that bullies have, I suppose – but he picked me for sport.  Most afternoons after school he would catch me and beat me up.  He also found out that I was a Christian and taunted me by calling me “Jesus-sissy.”  I tried finding alternate ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me and always found me out.  I arrived home every afternoon, bruised and humiliated.  My mother told me that this had always been the way of Christians in the world and that I had better get used to it.  I was also supposed to pray for him.  The Bible verses that I had memorized began to get tiresome….  I loved going to school … but soon after the dismissal bell each day I had to face Garrison Johns and get the daily beating that I was trying my best to assimilate as my ‘blessing’” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places 135).

            Now, hear me out.  I am not saying for a moment that God is a bully.  But I am saying that in Christian experience, it can feel that way sometimes.  Everything is going fine; business is good, the kids are thriving, your marriage is great; and then in the dark of the night somebody grabs you and wrestles you to the ground.  And the life that you considered a blessing doesn’t feel the same.  And you just want it to be over.  So that’s your first prayer: Lord, just let it end.  Let it go back to normal.  But it doesn’t.  And so you are left with this choice: are you going to persist?  Are you going to outlast this struggle?  Are you going to hold onto God and demand a blessing out of this mess?  In other words, are you going to take your place among the saints who get a new name because they struggled with God?  Will you see the struggle for what it is – a calling?  Will you embrace this curious mark of success – the blessing that leaves you limping?

            I remember talking with Helen Dale one evening after class, and making reference to Buechner’s sermon.  He named it “The Magnificent Defeat,” and he applied that title as well to Jesus’ death on the cross.  He remembered “Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”  And Helen flat-out disagreed!  She refused to accept that what happened on that cross was a defeat.  And I am so proud of Helen for standing her ground!  I have since read theologians who see it just the way she does.  And Walter Brueggeman prefers the term, “the crippling victory.”  God started it, but Jacob won’t let it finish without a blessing.  Jacob won’t let go.  God even says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  And Jacob says, “Not until you bless me.”

            This occasion is recounted in the Bible because it defines the people of God.  Jacob gets a new name here – Israel – and his people get an everlasting identity.  We are those who struggle with God, refusing to let go until he gives a blessing.  We realize that life with God is complicated, and his blessing is an acquired taste.  If you are old enough to think about it, think about the way your tastes have changed over the years.  When you were a kid, Kool-Aid was awesome.  It was so sweet, you would have been fine for someone to open a central line and feed it to you straight.  But somewhere along the line, Kool-Aid loses its appeal.  And you acquire more complicated tastes.  I have become a coffee snob in the last few years.  I laugh at myself now, because five years ago I would have turned up my nose to any coffee.  The only way I could stand it was with a load of cream and sugar.  But now, I take mine black.  And I prefer it freshly roasted and freshly ground, and prepared in a French Press.  What happened to me?  I learned a little more about coffee.

            Life with God is complicated, and the blessing of God can be an acquired taste.  We are those who struggle with God, remembering that in all things God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.  Like Paul, we realize that God’s grace is sufficient for us in our weakness.  Even though our lives get messy, we are confident that God is up to something.  Did you see recently the coverage of that study of messy desks?  The authors suggest that a messy desk may be a sign of creative genius, because people with disorderly environments often have fresh insights (The Week, 07/31/17).  Eugene Peterson says that history is messy.  Maybe God is a creative genius, offering fresh insight to life in the midst of the disorder.

            Sam Wells is a pastor who “found [himself] sitting at a table across from a person with no fewer than 17 physical ailments.  They once shared a train journey and talked through all 17.  Recently the person had a major setback.  One thing led to another – several of the conditions set off others like a trip wire, leading to numerous planned and unplanned stays in the hospital.  [He says,] Of course, we could have talked about the latest setback.  We could have prayed, and I could have shown my mastery of medical science as I identified the right intercession to attach to each condition.  We could have had a drink and told stories.

            “But this person didn’t want any of this.  This person wanted to be brought face-to-face with God.  I wasn’t required to fix, to sympathize, support, or advise.  I wasn’t, in that sense, wanted at all.  What this person wanted was God” (The Christian Century, 07/19/17).

            This is the gospel I have for you today.  In all of life, in its beauty and in it messiness, you are dealing with God.  You can be sure that God is at work, always for good.  And blessing comes to those who are willing to struggle, who refuse to give up, who won’t let go without a blessing.  I urge you to hold on.  I dare you to demand a blessing.  It’s what makes us the people of God.  It’s why we know the names of Elijah and Jeremiah and Paul.  It’s why Jacob’s name is also Israel.  It’s why Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus the Christ, who emerged from that tomb, into the Easter sunrise.

            Maybe not a magnificent defeat, but instead a crippling victory.

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