Genesis 32:22-30 (The Message)
22-23 But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
24-25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
*Hymn - Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown (UMH 386)
How many of you are fans of professional wrestling?
I have to admit, this is a huge gap in my knowledge base. There are two friends of mine down in Haverhill who are avid fans of WWE and I asked them - “What would you tell someone who knows nothing about wrestling what they need to know about wrestling in 30 seconds or less?” And in the midst of our conversation, I was directed to this clip, one of WWE’s legends - and some background here: Vince McMahon, the CEO of WWE, told Ric Flair that if he ever lost another match, he would have to retire. This clip is of the match between Flair and Shawn Michaels. Flair, incidentally, was Michaels’ childhood hero. Here’s what happened:
Now I know that the world of professional wrestling is *vastly* different from the sport you might find in high school or at the Olympics. Professional wrestling is this dramatized combat where the storyline serves to heighten the tension between the characters -- in many ways, the fight itself serves the greater narrative. It is about what happens between the characters, the relationship and interaction and that’s part of what makes the matches so interesting to watch. It’s, as my friend described, combat theater, an Avengers movie as a stageplay, the heart of these stories being good vs. evil. There’s a hero, there’s a villain, and the story goes on from there.
Given that, our story from scripture today would fit into any WWE match.
Here we have Jacob, twin of Esau, and the two of them had been at each other since before they were born. When Rebekah finally delivered them into the world, Esau was born first and Jacob second, gripping the heel of his older brother. This sibling rivalry even pitted parents Isaac and Rebekah against each other -- Isaac’s favorite being the older boy Esau and Rebekah preferring Jacob. Jacob is completely the underdog - being the younger son, all of the blessings of Isaac’s lineage, all the inheritance - everything would have gone to Esau.
Jacob, though, is a devious guy -- a thief, a trickster, and an all around pain in the you-know-where. He gets Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew and connives with his mother to receive Isaac’s blessing - the blessing intended for the firstborn. Esau is so furious that he starts plotting to kill Jacob. Jacob finds out and flees to Paddan-aram where he starts a family in the household of his uncle Laban. During the 20 years he lived there, he becomes so prosperous that Laban and his sons become suspicious, so Jacob, at 90 years old, takes his family and his flocks and his servants and flees back home.
On the way, though, he has to pass through Esau’s territory. Jacob sends messengers ahead with gifts of livestock and provisions, and receives word that Esau is coming to meet him and that 400 men are with him. Now Jacob’s worried that Esau’s finally going to have it in for him, and this is where our reading from today picked up - with Jacob sending his wives and children to safety while he remained behind to await his fate.
Jacob is alone. It’s the night before he will meet up with his brother and - presumably - his brother’s army. He’s afraid, he’s distressed, he doesn’t know if the goods he sent was enough to appease his twin brother. He isn’t sure this meeting is a good idea - and at this point there’s nothing he can do to get out of it. He’s probably reliving all the times he was a little snot to his older brother and getting ready for some major payback.
Into this turmoil a man appears to wrestle with Jacob all night long - tradition points to this being as an angel of God. Jacob, remember, is 90 years old. This angel of God can’t get the better of him even after hours of struggle and so he decides to fight dirty and put Jacob’s hip out of joint. Jacob doesn’t give up, and won’t let the angel be on his way until he gets a blessing -- perhaps echoing back to the moment that started this chain of events when Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. We don’t know what blessing the angel spoke over Jacob -- we don’t even know this mysterious figure’s name, even though the angel makes it a point of knowing Jacob’s name. (Maybe it signifies that the angel Jacob wrestled with was within himself). The angel gives Jacob a new name - Israel - God-Wrestler - literally one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. The angel departs and Jacob names the places Peniel - God Face - because he realizes how lucky he is to have seen God and survived to tell the tale.
Jacob, wrestling with God -- renamed Israel, a people who as we read time and time again also wrestled with God.
During this season of Lent, we are taking a look at the ways God speaks into our lives and how we hear what God is saying to us. Last week, we talked about God getting our attention, like Moses at the burning bush. But not all our encounters with God are ones that bring peace. Sometimes, we struggle and wrestle with God. Sometimes we know what God wants us to do and we don’t want to do it. Sometimes, we wrestle with God because we’re afraid or angry about something in our lives. Sometimes, we wrestle with God because there’s a big decision to make and we don’t know what to do. Sometimes we’re wrestling with ourselves, and all God wants to do is give us the grace to make it through.
Last week I shared that God has been trying to get my attention around taking some time to make sure I’m taking care of myself and that it’s OK to ask for help. To be honest, God and I are in a bit of a wrestling match on this one. It’s a hard pattern to change - I’ve had 34 years to practice these bad habits of supplanting my needs with those of others and to stubbornly insist that I can do it all and God, through the gift of motherhood, is slowly dismantling that illusion even as I hold on to it all the more. In some ways, I’m not even aware of how I’m fighting back, like I’m operating on auto-pilot until God tries to get my attention again - through something I read on Facebook, or getting sick, or any number of ways that God is inviting me to stop and rest.
Let’s just hope that I get the message before God throws my hip out of joint.
We all wrestle with God - it’s part of the life of faith. God works on our hearts and in our lives and invites us to grow in ways that are uncomfortable. Growth is hard. (And before you say that you are too old to grow, just remember that Jacob was 90, and reconciling with his twin brother Esau was a huge step). It can be hard to do the right thing, or to make an important decision when you don’t know how it will impact you and those you love, and you are trying to figure out where God even is in the middle of it all. We even wrestle with God around the big questions - where is God when life feels awful, or why does God let good people suffer, or what is God doing while we’re all down here making an awful mess of things at times?
Where are you wrestling with God? What is God pushing you to do that you may be resistant to? What’s your struggle?
Jacob marked the place of his struggle - giving it a name, giving it importance. The text doesn’t make reference to this, but often in ancient times, an altar would be built to denote the place as significant -- generally with a pile of rocks.
Last week, we named the places where God was trying to get our attention by creating our burning bush. This week, we’ll create an altar of the places where we are wrestling with God face-to-face. We have stones and sharpies up front - as you are moved to do so, I invite you to come forward and write a word or two that represents where you are currently wrestling with God, and we’ll create our altar together.
[invite folks forward]
We have here all the places where we are currently wrestling with God - and I want to affirm each of you who wrote something down here in that struggle. It can be a tough spot to be in, but the opportunity for life and growth is huge, as we offer up those places of doubt, challenge, uncertainty, fear and distress. Perhaps that is the blessing in all of this -- the blessing that Jacob receives -- that the struggle can be a window for God’s grace and love to work in us, moving us closer to where God wants us to be.
Perhaps the blessing is that God persists with us in our wrestling. God persists, God strives, God doesn’t give up on us. We have a God who is willing to enter into the fray with us humans - a God who even came to be among us and experience life as one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. We have a God who in Jesus, as we read in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians - though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be [grasped…something to be] exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a [servant], being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself….”
This is the kind of God that Jacob wrestled with - humble, self-giving compassionate...but also wily and fierce, as one commentary put it -- willing to dislocate hips if necessary to get the goal accomplished. God is with us in the struggle - God isn’t somehow distant to our questions, our uncertainties, our challenges - but is right there in the middle of it.
Perhaps the blessing is in the fact that Jacob left the banks of the Jabbok river as, in the words of Henri Nouwen, a wounded healer. The hope is that he would use his experience and injury to heal others, not to wound others out of his woundedness.
And, in fact, it seems like the defiant trickster has learned something of humility, for if you keep reading in the story, the two brothers reconcile, with Jacob bowing before seven times as he nears Esau, and with Esau running forward to embrace his brother.
It is in our places of greatest struggle, it is in our places of deepest pain, that we can offer others that same kind of love and grace that God offers to us -- that humble, compassionate, self-giving love. We know what the struggle is like because we’ve been there, because we’ve striven and seen God meet us face to face.
If you are here in the middle of a deep wrestling match with God, I want to tell you to keep heart. Keep wrestling - don’t give up because God isn’t giving up on you. There is blessing to be found - even as the pain can be great. If you are here and you’ve been in the ring with God a few times and lived to tell the tale, be compassionate to those who are still in the thick of it. Offer your support, your wisdom, your patience, your story to those who are limping a bit.
We have the gift of each other - knowing that unlike Jacob - we are never alone in the struggle. We have the gift of the struggle - knowing that blessing can be found. We have the gift of a God who is willing to wrestle with us - even until the break of day. Amen.
Scripture - Exodus 3:1-15
3 1-2 Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the west end of the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a bush. He looked. The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.
3 Moses said, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this! Amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
4 God saw that he had stopped to look. God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
He said, “Yes? I’m right here!”
5 God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground.”
6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.
7-8 God said, “I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey, the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
9-10 “The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I’ve seen for myself how cruelly they’re being treated by the Egyptians. It’s time for you to go back: I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt.”
11 Moses answered God, “But why me? What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
12 “I’ll be with you,” God said. “And this will be the proof that I am the one who sent you: When you have brought my people out of Egypt, you will worship God right here at this very mountain.”
13 Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”
15 God continued with Moses: “This is what you’re to say to the Israelites: ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.
Hymn - Like A Rock
During this season of Lent, we’ll be exploring stories from the Bible of the many ways that God gets our attention -- hearing passages about dreams and voices and visions -- and talking about the ways that God speaks to us. We have a tendency to think that God doesn’t try to communicate with us anymore - that the people we read about in the Bible were somehow special and different from us. We think that God had important things to say to them and work for them to do, but we don’t feel like God has anything meaningful to say to us.
Yet God does continue to speak, and God does have work for us to do - the question is: are we watching and listening for God? Or does God have to send a burning bush our way to get us to pay attention? I hope that as we go through this series together, you’ll find new ways to hear what God is saying to you - in the stories we read, in your time of prayer, and in your everyday life.
Moses and the Burning Bush is, I think, the quintessential story for God doing something dramatic to get us humans to pay attention.
Consider the story of Moses, for a moment. Moses was born into a time when it was dangerous to be a Hebrew in Egypt -- not only were they slaves, but they were so numerous that pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, the one who the Egyptians understood to be God in the flesh, had ordered all the baby boys born to the Hebrews to be killed. When Moses is born, his mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the river, only to be picked up by the pharoah’s daughter. She was moved with compassion and took Moses into her own household, raising him as her son. When he’s older, he goes out into the work camps and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and gets upset about it, and, seeing no one around him, kills the Egyptian. Word got out, Pharaoh gets angry -- enough to kill Moses, and so Moses flees to the land of Midian. There he stops at a well, and defends the daughters of the priest of Midian from some shepherds (who probably had some unsavory business on their minds) and the priest is so thankful for this act, Moses is welcomed into the family. He marries one of the daughters of the priest of Midian and he becomes a shepherd in his father-in-law’s household.
All this time, the Hebrews continued to be slaves in Egypt, and the old Pharaoh died -- and God continued to hear their cries for help.
This all sets the scene for the scripture passage we heard this morning -- where Moses is going about business as usual, tending the flock of his father in law. When all of a sudden, something very out of the ordinary appears and grabs his attention -- a bush that looks like it is burning, but the branches are not consumed. And Moses is like, “I have to check this out! This is amazing! I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
God notices that Moses stopped to look. I find this kind of interesting, because I can imagine God trying out all these different ways of getting Moses’ attention and realizing that finally, this is the one that stuck. So once God knows he’s got Moses hooked, the conversation plays out -- God’s command to Moses to remove his sandals on this holy ground, God’s revelation of who God is...and Moses’ initial reaction is to hide his face from God. (There’s a whole different sermon on that image alone, but we won’t go there today).
But God continues, telling Moses that he will be the one to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, that he has heard their cries for help. Thus begins this whole back and forth between God and Moses where Moses thinks up excuse after excuse for why he’s not the one for the job, and God keeps coming up with solutions until finally there’s nothing left for Moses to do but accept.
This story is often thought to be the first time in Moses’ life that God tries to get his attention to get him to do something about the plight of his fellow Hebrews in Egypt. Yet, as I was rereading the story this week, and as the poem we heard at the beginning of worship points out - maybe this wasn’t the first time that God was trying to get a message through to Moses. Maybe the anger that Moses felt when he first saw the Egyptian beating the slave was God trying to get him to do something about the injustice his people were experiencing. Perhaps Moses didn’t respond in the right way -- but that was a moment where God was trying to get Moses to see something bigger than what was right in front of him. Or at the well in the land of Midian, and Moses defending the daughters of the priest -- wasn’t that, too, a moment when God invited Moses to see the injustice of the world around him - the strong preying upon the weak - and do something about it?
Moses just wasn’t paying attention in the right way -- so God needed a big, flashy sign -- and since they didn’t have neon signs back then, God had to work with a burning bush -- just to get Moses to focus on what God had been trying to tell him all along -- that he was the one to do something about the injustice of his people in Egypt, and lead them out to freedom.
Now I’m someone who would love for God to speak to me with neon signs or burning bushes but there have been other moments in my life that God had to pull out all the stops to get me to pay attention to what God’s been trying to tell me... and as I’ve gone along, I’ve learned better how to watch and listen for what God might be saying to me in the middle of my everyday life.
As I was sitting down to write, there were two moments from this last week that popped to mind -- I’ll tell one of them here and the other - you’ll just have to come to our small group on Wednesday to hear that one.
A few days ago I was scrolling through Facebook while I was putting Michael to sleep for a nap and a friend of mine from seminary posted this status update: “Quick! Someone explain to me why saying what I need makes me feel like I'm imposing on those around me.”
There was this whole discussion that ensued but the words she wrote felt like I could have written them myself. In case you didn’t know it, I’m someone who finds it really difficult to ask for help because I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. This online conversation allowed me to reflect on why that might be the case, and I thought back to my Sunday School days when I was taught the great commandments - Jesus said the first is that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Such an emphasis was placed on the “love your neighbor” piece that it was a years - well into adulthood - that I realized that the verse had a second component that was equally important - “as yourself”.
Maybe it wasn’t through a burning bush, but God clearly got my attention and reminded me that I need to be taking care of myself - and that it’s OK to ask for help.
God’s always trying to get our attention, to get us to stop and listen to what God has to say to us. God doesn’t always use a burning bush - but maybe some words from a friend, a passage of scripture or quote from a book, our reaction to a movie or the news or a song on the radio, something we see as we go about our day to day lives. God is always speaking - but do we have the ears to hear? Do we have the eyes to catch those moments? Is our heart and our mind open to notice those opportunities when they happen?
This morning, we’re going to create our own burning bush as a reminder of the ways God speaks in our lives. The ushers are going to pass around these flames -- and as they do that, I want all of us to think over the past week and to think of a moment that has stayed with you. You don’t have to know what that moment means to you or what God is trying to say to you through that moment -- just think of a moment from the past week that is sticky in your memory. Write that moment down on the flame that you’ve been handed.
And when you’ve done that, come up to the front and tape your flame on the branch.
[people do it]
Look at all the ways that God is trying to get our attention. Now, if you are at all curious about what God might be trying to say to you through the moment you wrote down, that’s what we’ll be doing together on Wednesday nights during the season of Lent, so come by the Parish House at 6 PM for this small group experience, and we’ll learn how to hear God speaking to us through these different moments.
Because God is trying to get our attention - God is trying to speak to us - God is trying to help us focus our hearts and our lives on God and what God wants for us and for the world. Lent is a perfect season for this journey as we reflect on our lives, reorient our priorities, and prepare our hearts for the resurrection of Christ and the new life that waits for us on Easter morning.
What is God trying to say to you? I invite us all to pay attention to the ways that God is all around us, always speaking a message of love, hope to us and to the world. Let us hear what God is speaking to us this week in the midst of our daily lives. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.