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Sermon - February 21, 2021
“Sacred Transitions: Tap Out or Fight Back?”
March 5, 2017
Jacob wrestled the angel of God, and Jacob won. I find myself drawn into this scene. Part of the attraction might be the same thing that happens when there’s a fight on the playground and everyone quickly gathers around to watch. I want to see what happens here, and already knowing that Jacob wins, I want to see how he does it and what happens afterward.
A little over a week ago, Carolyn and I were chatting about our choice of Lenten devotionals. As most any conversation in recent days, the context of the conclusion of my time as your pastor and my retirement lurked in the background. (Many times, forcing its way into the foreground, actually). Anyway, she made the comment that she has decided to quit viewing the current circumstances as an upheaval, instead labeling it a "sacred transition".
Her sharp insight pressed me to think about my preaching for Lent and developing a sermon series of the same title. When I googled the phrase, the top two entries were for a group in New Hampshire called the Sacred Transitions Midwifery Institute and a company by the name of Sacred Transitions which deals with end-of-life issues. In my mind, those two uses of the term Sacred Transitions provides two powerful images what lies before us. Which will we choose to shape the direction of our future?
What do I mean by a sacred transition? Well that is a tough question. According the Dictionary.com, when something is sacred, it is reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object. From the same source, a transition is defined as a movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, or concept to another. For example, the transition from adolescence to adulthood. I don’t know about you, but I do not handle change very well. I get stressed out. I forget things. I get tired and snippy. I pick fights. Well….. that doesn’t sound so sacred, does it?
Speaking of fights, Jacob wrestles with God. We find Jacob not sitting quietly with God, not walking faithfully alongside God, not on his knees speaking and listening to God, but wrestling, grappling, and struggling with God from dusk till dawn. It is a scene that resonates with my own experience, and I would imagine your experience as well.
Jacob is as unlikely a religious patriarch as you’re likely to find anywhere. And you have to ask if the tradition could not have come up with someone a little less flawed. Unless Jacob’s flaws, like his grandfather Abraham’s, are exactly the point.
Jacob received God’s promise to be with him, to keep him and bring him home. As the scene before us unfolds, he is encumbered with the threat of death at the hand of his brother, Esau, and, one assumes, is still carrying a burden of guilt and remorse for destroying his family, breaking his father’s heart.
Twenty years earlier he made his way across the border to his uncle Laban. He married Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, had many children, and prospers. His success is due again to his deception and fraud. In fact, Jacob has been systematically stealing Laban’s sheep out from under him. It is really quite creative. And when he has accumulated so much wealth it’s embarrassing, he decides it’s time to leave again.
So, while Laban is away, Jacob gathers everything he has and leaves, during the night again, and for good measure, Rachel runs back to the house and steals her family’s valuables.
Now they are out in the wilderness again, at a stream, peering across into the land of Canaan—home. Jacob’s eyes are peeled: his brother, Esau, is over there somewhere. Behind Jacob an enormous caravan of livestock and camels bearing all his belongings, his wives, and children stretch across the desert. Jacob decides to divide the entourage into two parts; in case Esau attacks, he won’t lose everything. He also sends elaborate and generous gifts across the stream to appease Esau.
Then he sends everybody across the stream, the Jabbok, all his livestock, his belongings, his family—everything he has. They are living shields. He plops down, alone, as he did twenty years before, in the dark, still a fugitive, still guilty and terrified, waiting for the dawn.
At the river Jabbok, Laban is behind him, Esau is just ahead of him, and Jacob gets jumped by an intruder. It’s not Esau, but a stranger, a man who will not be identified but with whom Jacob wrestles till dawn, who wounds Jacobin the thigh, not mortally, but enough to make him limp the rest of his life, so that as long as he lives, he will never forget that night. The stranger will not divulge his name, but he does bless Jacob and give him a new name, Israel, and then leaves him to limp home to a reunion with Esau.
This struggle occurs at an important transition in Jacob’s life.
Transitions. I’d like to say I have learned and am handling it better this time around. But not really.
Transitions are hard on everyone. It is one of the greatest challenges in life. In the late 1960’s, there were two psychiatrists (Holmes and Rahe) who conducted a study to try to quantify stressors in life and how they affect our health and well-being. They studied over 5,000 people and came up with a scale that has proven true in the decades that followed: a scale for which things are the most stressful for nearly every human being no matter who they are or where they come from. Here are some of the top ones: death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, death of a close family member. This list goes on. (Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, 1967)
Some of the things in the top ten, marriage and retirement for example, are GOOD things! Good changes! And yet because of the weight of the change, they have an enormous effect on us. Today’s sermon title could just as easily been, “God, don’t make me do it!!!”
Jacob is in a wrestling match! Many artists have tried to depict this scene, and many of them don’t do it justice. It looks gentle, or even beautiful. (You will see some of those depictions during our final hymn.) But think about wrestling, when you are basically fighting for survival. Frederick Buechner, in a book called The Son of Laughter paints what I consider a more realistic picture, “Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river….I got my elbow into the pit of his throat and forced him off. I threw him over onto his back. My breath came in gasps. Quick as a serpent he twisted loose, and I was caught between his thighs. The grip was so tight I could not move. He had both hands pressed to my cheek. He was pushing my face into the mud, grunting with the effort. Then he got me on my belly with his knee in the small of my back. He was tugging my head up toward him. He was breaking my neck…….
“Each time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow. There were moments when we lay exhausted in each other's arms…There were moments when I seemed to be prevailing. It was as if he was letting me prevail. Then he was at me with new fury. But he did not prevail. For hours it went on that way. Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.” (Fredrick Buechner, The Son of Laughter: Harper One, August 19, 1994)
This sounds more like it! This was a muddy, dirty, gasping struggle. And it lasted all night!
This ancient passage of Scripture tells us it is absolutely okay to wrestle with God. Sometimes, God even starts it! Our God is not all about blind submission and obedience nor is our God one who is meek and forgiving and gentle, but is a God who struggles with us down in the mud of our lives. This wrestling was is up close and personal. Face-to-face, hand-to-hand. Even when it hurts. God invites us to that kind of intimacy.
But here’s the deal: when we are invited to wrestle with God, God is not going to just let us win. We are going to be changed by it. We may even walk away with a limp. Jacob became a man permanently marked. But this limp, this scar became a sign of his victory. He even got his name changed. Where before his name Jacob gave him away as a “trickster/heel grabber”, now his name meant “struggled with God and prevailed”. Sometimes in times of change, we resist and we wrestle and we try to claw our way out of God’s grasp. We do not want God to move us into a new situation and a new life. We are scared and we resist, but God is determined to do it, for reasons yet unknown to us. God will not zap us into submission. God lets us fight back, even if it is a losing battle.
Have you ever had a child stand in front of you wailing and crying, flinging their arms, saying they hate you and meanwhile you let them do it while you hug them tight? (It always happens in a crowded store, doesn’t it?) That’s the image I get of God in this scene. It also made me think of another image that always makes me laugh. There is a movie with several actresses who make me laugh, it’s called Bridesmaids. It is very crude at times, but has a lot of great moments. In one of those moments, the main character Annie is beaten down. She is hiding out at her mom’s house. She is a 35-year-old woman; she has lost her job, her apartment, her car, her best friend. It appears she has lost everything. And she is wallowing.
A friend shows up and isn’t having any of it. She says (and I have modified the language), “Annie, I don’t think you really want help. I think you wanna have a little pity party.” She starts pushing her, shoving her, slapping her and says, “I’m life, Annie! Am I bothering you? Huh? What are you gonna do about it? I’m life and I’m gonna bite you in the butt! Come on Annie. Ok, your life is lousy but FIGHT for your lousy life!” (Bridesmaids, 2011)
I love that! What kind of God would you rather have: one that consoles you all the time or one who struggles with you in your worst moments, in the darkest parts of the night? We get ourselves into the trap of thinking that God’s whole job is to “make it stop” to make the chaos or arguing or bitterness or money troubles stop. Just fix it, and help me feel better!! But God does not let us get away with being frozen by grief, anger, fear or self-pity. God will wrestle with us if that’s what’s needed to get us up and living again. God did not punish Jacob for fighting back, rather Jacob was rewarded with a new name, a new chapter in his life! This kind of honest, raw, intimate engagement with God becomes the cornerstone not only of Jacob, but of the people of Israel---a whole new people who live under this new name.
Where are the places and what are the times that you have wrestled and struggled (and maybe come out with a limp), but have been able to say afterwards, “God was somehow in it”? When have you been confronted with God, holding up a mirror to you; showing you your worst self, but also challenging you to be your best, to turn around? God could have pinned Jacob down and made him submit. God could easily pin us down and MAKE us do what is right and what is needed. But our God does not work that way. With what issues do we struggle in our day to day lives? Do we allow God into that struggle? Do we engage God honestly about it, even if it emotionally or physically leaves us gasping and exhausted?
And finally, do we hold on until the blessing? Jacob reminded God in his prayer before this wrestling match that God was the one who told Jacob to go home. God was the one who promised good to him. Are we bold and brave enough to claim God’s promises?
God blesses Jacob, gives him a reminder of the blessing in his limp, promises to be with Jacob all the way and at the end of the way. God comes to contend with a human being; God doesn’t overwhelm, doesn’t defeat him. God, this amazing old story suggests, does something unimaginable: becomes vulnerable, self-limits in order to teach the human being about God’s availability, accessibility, about God’s intimate involvement in human life—a vulnerable God who will risk pain, suffering, and defeat, in order to express love; a God who will do just that in an eloquently final way when One we know as Christ, Emmanuel—God with us—is wounded, crucified, and dies for us.
As Presbyterians, we do not resist an honest struggle, whether with God or with each other. That is our heritage. We are called to stay in the ring and insist on a blessing. We are called to move forward with our new names, our best selves, and renewed lives.
Preached by Rev. Rich Hinkle
Scotch Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2021