I had the amazing honor of preaching today at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University. I got to help kick off year two of The Walter Wangerin, Jr. Celebration Preaching Series, a preaching series to honor Walt’s ministry and legacy of preaching. Thanks to the entire chapel staff, but especially Brian Johnson, Lorraine Brugh, Char Cox, and Jim Wetzstein for the invitation and the gracious hospitality. I preached on both the First Lesson and the Gospel, Genesis 32 and Luke 18 respectively. Here is the text of the sermon I preached. It just so happened to be Family Weekend at Valpo, so there were lots of parents in the room.
Our 25 year old son has been living at home the past 6 months while on an unpaid internship in Chicago. I do not say this to frighten you parents. I do not say this to frighten you students. It’s good. He will only be here until December when he returns to school in North Carolina. Apparently, Tim has begun the task of organizing his stuff in preparation for leaving. Earlier this week, he came down to the kitchen with a couple of items in his hand and asked, “Anyone want any of these? If not, I’m going to throw them away.” One of them was this little tube of an over the counter medication called Mederma. “What’s that for?” I ask. “It’s a cream that removes scars.” “Sure, I’ll take that,” I said, thinking you can never have too much scar remover.
Later I grabbed the tube to take upstairs to the bathroom to store away in the medicine cabinet, and only then did it strike me as a little odd. Really? You can remove scars? Who knew? But really, does it work? Do the marks of our struggles ever really go away? I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jacob and a wrestling match. It’s not like this guy had never been in a fight before. In fact, as he was born, he was grabbing the heel of his twin brother. He and Esau must have been a handful for their mother; Esau the burlier, stronger one would grow up to be a man’s man; Jacob was the smaller, scrappier, smart like a fox little brother. After the boys had become young men, the sibling rivalry got ugly when Jacob stole the inheritance out from under Esau with a cunning plan to trick old Isaac. Jacob fled for his life to live with his mother’s brother, Uncle Laban.
Laban was a schemer in his own right, tricking Jacob into marrying the older daughter before he could take the one he loved. But Jacob showed him a thing or two. For years, Jacob bred Laban’s flocks in such a way that he, Jacob, grew quite wealthy at his father-in-law’s expense. Now, after 22 years, two wives, a horde of servants and livestock, Jacob leaves to go back home.
But what will he find? Despite the old cliche that time heals all wounds, Jacob is not so sure. As he approaches home, he is worried, nervous, anxious, and downright afraid Has Esau has held the grudge for all these years? He gets word that his brother is coming out to meet him — with an army of 400. So, the scrappy, smart like a fox little brother divides his party into two groups to minimize the potential losses. Then he sends a gift of livestock ahead to meet his brother, even dividing the gift into several groups with time and space between them.
But you can only delay so long. He sends the entire entourage over the River Jabbok for the reunion. But Jacob himself stays on the far side, one more night, all by himself. I’d love to know why. Wants to rehearse the speech where he asks his bro for mercy? He’s still afraid? An act of cowardice that will give him one last chance to escape if things get ugly? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that a mysterious visitor comes to Jacob by night. The scrappy, smart like a fox little brother, now a middle aged man, wrestles all night. This marathon match does not take place in the daylight realm of plain sight, but in the dark. While the identity of Jacob’s fellow combatant is shrouded in mystery, there are enough clues in the text to know that it’s God that Jacob is really struggling with. And wrestling is the right image. For his entire life, Jacob has been conniving and tricking and scheming and winning. But you don’t trick God. You don’t scheme with God. And you don’t hit God with a right hook that knocks God to the mat. The best you can hope for is to wrestle. And in wrestling with God, Jacob will not let go. He persists; in fact, all night long he grapples and will not let go until God gives a blessing. Whatever else you might want to say Jacob was persistent in the struggle. But it left a mark. He got up the next morning with a permanent limp. And no amount of Mederma would bring relief.
In the gospel lesson we have another story, a parable, to be precise. Luke even gives us an introduction so that we know what to look for. It’s about the need to pray and to not lose heart. A judge who was foolish and contemptibly obnoxious. A widow who was relentless. The judge had no regard for God nor respect for people. The widow didn’t care. She was bound and determined to get justice. She would not take “no” for an answer, and so she kept hounding, harassing, and haranguing the judge until he finally gave in. Not because he had even a shred of decency, but because she simply wore him down. One more character on a Sunday morning who is persistent in the struggle. So, Jesus says, will not God — who is not at all like that judge — bring justice, and bring it quickly?
Except, it seems like God doesn’t. While we all have our stories of prayers answered, it just plain doesn’t happen all the time. The great preacher Fleming Rutledge tells the story of a friend who suffered for years from a host of chronic and degenerative maladies. They prayed for her constantly, but to no avail. Finally, the woman’s husband spoke the unbearable truth. “Every time we pray she gets worse.”
So right here and right now, we hear an ancient story of an ancient conniver who struggled with God. We listen to a story about a woman who struggled to get justice. And we discover that in the hearing of the story, we have joined the crowd. Our own questions and doubts and struggles come flooding to the surface in the space between these words. Front and center now are the histories of our own struggles with who God is and what God is doing and where God might be in our own moments of anxiety or abandonment. We are wrestling: here on this campus wrestling with the reality of death, of too soon death, of too soon death that touches just a little too close for comfort; here on Parents’ weekend we realize that relationships change, and maybe there is grief for what is gone and uncertainty for what lies ahead; we yearn for clarity about decisions that affect our future; but how do you make decisions when there there seems to be so little to count; we yearn to be in relationship and we discover that they are hard, they end, and they are sometimes stifling; we are angered when we encounter institutions and bureaucracies and systems that care more about the bottom line or ideology than the people they are intended to serve. Yes, we struggle. Yes, we wrestle. And yes, they leave a mark. They always leave a mark.
But the mark of the struggle is never the last word. There was another who wrestled with God. The story was not read this morning, but the story is always at the center when Christians gather for worship. Hunched over a stone in a garden he prayed, “Father let this cup pass from me, but your will, not mine.” And later, hanging from a cross, he cried out in the anguish of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The anguish left a mark. On the third day when he rose, he was scarred on his hands and feet and side, and he was fullly alive. He became the exclamation that God will not let struggle and death and despair have the final word. God brings life. There is wrestling, and there is blessing.
When Jacob woke up the next morning he still had to get up and cross that river and walk into the unknown, still uncertain of how his brother would receive him. From that perspective nothing had changed since yesterday. But he changed. Or should we say that he had been changed? In that encounter with God he had been blessed. So he walked into an uncertain future confident of God’s presence and confident that the universe was not some random collection of random events where he was simply a pawn in some cosmic chaos. For Jacob, God’s blessing brought a new name, a new identity, and a new beginning.
When we were baptized, we were blessed, given a new name, a new identity, and a new beginning. We were also given a mark, the sign of the cross on our foreheads, the mark of Jesus’ crucifixion. “You, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” You bear on your forehead the scar of the crucified one, and with him, your old self has died, and you have been given fullness of life.
It’s my experience that the wrestling never goes away. Neither do the questions, the doubts, and the staring into a foggy future. It’s also my experience that justice rarely comes quickly enough; in fact to appearances it is not coming at all.
Yet I stand before you this morning to proclaim good news. We are blessed. God has come. We have been made new. We have been graced; we have been mercied. We have been promised what we need to flourish even in the midst of doubts and questions and disappointments and drifting, knowing that we do not struggle alone. And indubitably, just as it happened with Jacob, such struggling and wrestling with God turns out to be transformative. We are changed. Though God is a strong combatant in our struggles, and though we sometimes walk away with a limp, God transforms us with a touch.