Today would have been the 8 month birthday of our granddaughter, Eliana. (Happy Birthday, Precious Little One!) She was born on February 17, 2016 and died 6 months ago yesterday, on April 16. In one of those not infrequent coincidences, the first lesson appointed for yesterday told the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32). It’s a mysterious story, and one that has received a broad range of interpretations through the centuries, both in Judaism and Christianity. As I taught through the lesson at two of our bible classes this past week, it touched me deeply and resonated with the wrestling I’ve gone through in the past year. In yesterday’s sermon, my own story provided the launch point for thinking and talking about an elusive God, about questions that remain unanswered and griefs that remain unresolved, and the God revealed in Jesus. The reference to a parable of Jesus near the end is from the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 18:1-8. You can also listen to the sermon on Faith’s YouTube channel .
Today marks the 6 month anniversary of the death of our granddaughter, Eliana. She was born on February 17 of this year with a genetic skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Aside from the extraordinary pain that was a constant in her life, she was prone to infection. Her 3rd encounter with infection ravaged her little body and she could not overcome it. On April 16, she died. In these 6 months, I have been Jacob, wrestling with God in the darkness. Some of my fundamental assumptions about faith and about how God works in the world and in peoples’ lives have been called into question. There have been times when I didn’t want to pray, when I couldn’t pray. There have been times when I have wondered even about prayer itself, wondering if prayer works or what, exactly, it is. For all of my struggles and wrestling, I don’t feel like I know very much more now than I did in those first raw days after her death.
In our first lesson this morning, Jacob the conniver becomes Jacob who wrestles with God. The Conniver is going back home. Jacob is the one who decades earlier tricked his way into his brother Esau’s birthright, stealing it outright. Jacob posed as his brother and their aging, nearly blind father fell for the trick. To escape the wrath and vengeance of his brother Jacob left home. Life in a faraway land had been good to Jacob. He had become a wealthy man. But he yearned for home. He prayed for safe travels and he prayed that his brother might receive him in love. But frankly he was worried. Now just before the crucial time when he was to meet his brother Esau, he sent his large family and his servants and his cattle and his sheep and his goats and his donkeys across the River Jabbok onto his brother’s land. And he stayed one more night on the far side of the river. He will meet his brother tomorrow; tonight he must wrestle with God.
This image of Jacob wresting with God gives us a different picture of God. This God is an elusive God, one who comes in the dark of the night and will not let himself be fully known. This God throws Jacob to the ground and holds Jacob’s arm behind his back and puts him in a headlock. This God will not let Jacob get to tomorrow without a struggle. When morning comes and the wrestling is over, Jacob walks with a limp. His hip joint was injured in one of those moments when God threw him to the ground. His encounter with God left a mark.
In my own struggles of the past 6 months, I have never believed like God was not present. But I have felt more acutely the things I cannot know about God. I realize that what I thought I knew about God and about how God works in the world is clouded in ambiguity and mystery. My mind has been changed. My heart has changed. And my faith has changed. Wrestling with God leaves a mark. In fact, I don’t think we can ever have an encounter with the divine and remain the same. I think God is always with us in the middle of struggle and doubting and questioning and seeking; but that doesn’t imply that we remain unchanged in the encounter. The pain we experience in the hard things of life leave a scar, a limp, an empty space. I was talking with someone this week who is grieving and they said they feel like they need to move on. I don’t know if we move on as much as we just keep walking. Sometimes with a limp. Doing the best we can.
When Jacob and God get to morning, they have wrestled to a draw. God has not defeated Jacob, nor has Jacob overcome God’s divine power. For Jacob, wrestling with God to a draw feels like a win. At least he’s alive; to get to morning after struggling with God all night is saying something. So Jacob asks for a blessing. What I think he was asking for was more of the same — the material blessings of sons and cattle and sheep and goats.
God gives him a blessing, but a blessing of God’s choosing, not of Jacob’s choosing. Instead of more material wealth, God gives Jacob a new life, a new name, a new identity. No longer will he be Jacob; he will be Israel. As the father of a people, he will be given a measure of that divine power and will be instructed to put to use for the good of all.
At the heart of our own life with God is the new name and new identity that God has given us. You are Christian. You are marked on your forehead with the cross of Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, in the waters of baptism we participate in the life-giving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Joined to Christ in the baptismal waters, you have a new identity and a new life. That new life is given brand new every day. We wake up in the morning, remember our baptism, make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our new identity, receive the forgiveness of sins. We are given a measure of divine power and instructed to put it to use for the good of all. It may not always be the blessing we seek, but it is the blessing that gives us life and sustains our life.
Feeling pretty good about this encounter with God, Jacob goes one step further. He wants to know intimately this God with whom he has wrestled. “What’s your name?” Jacob asks. In that question, Jacob wants to bridge the distance between himself and God. Jacob wants to remove the mystery, Jacob wants all the answers. Just like the couple in the Garden of Eden, Jacob wants to know God on his terms, not on God’s terms. In response to that question, God changes the subject and then turns and walks away. It’s the question that God will not answer.
Though we may wish it be otherwise, God is still God, and we are still creatures. Much of what we would like to know about God and about our place in the world and why things happen and what God is doing about the pain in our own lives and the evil in the world, lies behind the veil. Not every question will be answered. Not every struggle will be resolved. Not every grief will be healed. Not every problem will be solved. Most of the answers to the questions that begin with “Why. . .” will not be answered this side of eternity. God is still God and we are not. There is still much about God and God’s ways that remains a mystery.
And still somehow we go on. Somehow, still, by God’s grace we trust in God’s goodness. Somehow, in the midst of all we don’t know about God, we do know this about God. That God has come to us in Jesus. What we need to know about God, we know in Jesus. In the God we know in Jesus, there is grace and mercy and peace and hope.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable that is supposed to teach his followers to pray always and not lose heart. A widow keeps asking a corrupt judge for justice until he grants her request, just to get rid of her. When we talked about this story in confirmation class on Wednesday, one of the students asked, “Does praying more increase the chances that your prayers will be answered?” I think it’s a pretty logical question, but one that we know from our experience is not true. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this story. I think Jesus knows that things will sometimes be hard. And for whatever reason, the answers we seek are not available to us. The story ends with Jesus asking if he will find faith when he comes back to bring all things to fullness. Maybe that’s a key to living faithfully in the wrestling. To know and to trust that in the midst of things that are hard, things that we cannot fully understand, things which bring pain and sorrow, God is at work, God is good, and God will carry us through.
When daylight had come and Jacob’s combatant had left, Jacob took a moment for worship. He sang a song, said a prayer, and built an altar to mark the spot where he had wrestled with God. Peniel he called it, literally, the face of God. “I have seen the face of God.” It was time to get across the river, and get on with the business of meeting his brother, and whatever the coming days had in store for him. This morning, we sing a song, say a prayer, come to this altar. And then we go, confident that whatever limp we walk away with, whatever grief or pain we carry, whatever questions and doubts still linger, we have seen the face of God. And we will walk across that River Jabbok facing our own tomorrows in hope, secure in the love of God.