Wrestling with God

Sermon for Sunday, August 3, 2014
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31

This morning’s lesson from Genesis, in which Jacob “wrestles with God,” tells us what it can be like for us to wrestle with God.  For example, wrestling with God is usually something we do alone, like Jacob did.  Wrestling with God is often done in darkness in the middle of the night, just as Jacob did.  And wrestling with God leaves us forever changed, whether limping or blessed or both, as Jacob was.  This morning’s lesson from Genesis is a paradigmatic story about what it is like when we humans “wrestle” with God.  I’ll define “wrestling with God” as the encounter that happens when what we want differs or seems to differ from what God wants.

I could talk about my own experiences of wrestling with God – things as large-scale as, “Do I make my life vows in the Society of St. John the Evangelist (where I was once a brother), or do I leave to pursue becoming a parish priest and perhaps getting married?” or things as small-scaled as, “Lord, even though it takes time, and even though many people say it’s not very ‘useful,’ are you really calling me to set aside time every day to pray?” – I could talk about my own experiences of wrestling with God, but what I want to focus on this morning is an experience that tends to be true whenever anybody “wrestles” with God.  To help describe that experience, let’s turn to the 11th century French rabbi and scripture commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki – better known by his acronym, “Rashi.”

Rashi commented extensively on today’s passage from Genesis, and in his commentary he notes how other commentators had connected the Hebrew word translated “wrestle” with the Hebrew word for “dust;” their Hebrew consonants are nearly the same.   These commentators translate the passage, not “and a man wrestled with him,” but, “and a man became covered with dust,” a translation that could make sense because, as one translator noted, “they were raising dust with their feet through their movements.”   But Rashi disagrees, saying instead that the word we translate as “wrestle” means something more akin to “attach” or “tie.”  “I believe,” says Rashi, “that the term means that he attached himself… for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”

As I look through the scriptures and in our Christian tradition, there are multiple examples of people making strong efforts to throw God down, but who in the process end up embracing God and attaching themselves even more closely.  Recall the story of Jonah, who tried to flee from God and the call to preach to the people of Nineveh. God waylaid Jonah’s ship with a storm, swallowed him with a whale, brought him safely to the beach… and then gave him an extremely successful preaching mission in Nineveh.  Recall the story of the apostle Paul, who – before he became an apostle and Paul – was Saul and a persecutor of the Church; Saul was trying to throw God down.  God appeared to Saul on the Damascus road, converted him, and made him the most important missionary in the Roman empire.  Or remember the story of Augustine, who – ignoring the pleas of his mother, Monnica – for years resisted becoming a Christian.  Eventually Augustine so embraced, became so attached to God, that he wrote, “I pant for you… I hunger and thirst for more…  I [burn] for your peace.”

Like the “Chinese finger traps” that grab our fingers even harder the more we try to extricate them, it can be the case that the more we wrestle with God, the more we tend to embrace God and become attached to God.
We could look at our “wrestling” in terms of fate – the outcome is pre-ordained.   As in Greek tragedies, the gods are the gods, we are human, and we humans must needs yield.  And so if God were calling us, say, to go to church every Sunday, or to get up and pray every morning, we would have no choice but to go and do it.  But this kind of “wrestling” is not our Christian model.  Our model of wrestling with God is one in which we have a chance, if not of prevailing, at least of God not prevailing against us.  For example, remember how God wanted to destroy the town of Sodom, and Abraham said, in effect: “No.  My nephew Lot is in that town.  Don’t destroy it!”  Abraham interceded for the town, and God held off destroying it.  Or remember when the prophet Isaiah came to king Hezekiah to tell him that it was time for him to die.   But Hezekiah didn’t want to die, so he prayed to God, and God added fifteen years to his life.  Or consider again the story of Jonah, how, when God saw the people of Nineveh repent, he “relented of the disaster that he said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).   God is not a capricious god, doing as he wills regardless of what we might want.  We can disagree with God; we can express what we want; our prayer does make a difference.  And not only can we make a difference, but as we wrestle, something unexpected can happen:  we can embrace and become even more attached to God.

We grow more attached to God because our God – in contrast to, say, the gods on the heights of Olympus or some of the ancient near-Eastern gods, and certainly our contemporary “gods” of wealth and power – is all about love and relationship.  Our God loves us, and He wants us to love Him in return.   And because we have a relationship with God, and because our God loves us and wants for us to love Him in return, the more we interact with Him, the more often we communicate, even if that communicating is a wrestling, the more we embrace and attach ourselves to Him.

I suspect that all of us here this morning have wrestled with, and perhaps continue to wrestle with, God, engaging God about what we want, which may differ or seem to differ from what God wants.  We probably wrestle alone, as Jacob did.  Maybe we wrestle in the middle of the night, like Jacob did.  Maybe we feel put out of joint when we wrestle, or maybe we feel blessed, as Jacob was.  But whenever we wrestle with God, we are in a mysterious way drawn closer; we become more attached to God, we more closely embrace Him.

I’m going to leave us this morning with a quote from one of Christianity’s best-known “wrestlers,” St. Augustine.  As I mentioned, Augustine resisted for years becoming a Christian, until finally – as he described in his Confessions – he had a conversion experience.  Of his initial wrestling with and subsequent embrace of God, Augustine writes:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

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