Wrestling with God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 7A, Sunday, August 3, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17.1-6, 16; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In each of our lessons this morning, we see someone wrestling with God. Jacob is wrestling with God over God’s promises to his ancestors and him. The psalmist is wrestling with God over some apparent injustice that afflicts him. Paul is wrestling with God over the fate of his people, the Jews. Jesus is wrestling with the loss of his cousin and co-worker, John the Baptist. And of course, many of you are wrestling with serious problems and issues in your life. What are we to make of all this wrestling? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Two weeks ago we saw in our OT lesson that God came to Jacob and reaffirmed God’s promises to him even as Jacob was fleeing for his life. Despite Jacob’s scheming, conniving, and deceitful behavior toward his father and brother, behavior that led Esau to resolve to kill Jacob, God assured Jacob that his promises to him were still valid and in effect, incredible as that sounded. Now in today’s lesson, Jacob is returning home after an extended stay in his grandfather, Abraham’s, home country and he has to face Esau. We can imagine what was going on in Jacob’s mind. Did Esau still want to kill him? Would he harm Jacob’s family? Or would Jacob really inherit this land that God had promised his family so that through them God would bless the entire world? Jacob no doubt felt more than a wee bit of anxiety over all this.

To protect his family from possible destruction, Jacob sent them on ahead of him and it was only when he was alone that the divine attacker struck and Jacob wrestled with him all night. What are we to make of this? Clearly God did not attack Jacob with the intent to kill him. Otherwise Jacob would not have wrestled for very long, let alone prevailed! Neither did God apparently attack Jacob to punish him because at the end of the night God blessed Jacob, but only after he persevered and this is where we need to pay attention.

While we might not like the idea of wrestling or struggling with God over vexing issues or events in our life, this is something God apparently demands of us because Scripture is consistent in telling us that God tests us (Exodus 16.4, 20.20; Psalm 26.2, 88.1-18, 139.23; Jeremiah 17.10; 1 Corinthians 3.13; James 1.12; Revelation 3.10, etc.). Obviously God does not test us because he does not know what is in our hearts. God apparently tests us, in part, so that we will know what is in our hearts and to help form our character (cf. Romans 5.1-5). Only after we have “passed” the test will we know what we are made of and what our faith is made of. God also apparently tests us because he knows that we are inherently not trustworthy and that we test him constantly. More often than not, we are only willing to trust God and his promises when things are going swimmingly well for us. But when bad things happen to us, we are quick to accuse God of causing those bad things to happen. This is because we tend to look at God as one who dispenses rewards for us when we behave ourselves and punishes us when we do not. But this is not always the case and perhaps rarely is. The fact is that God is always gracious and trustworthy and only when we are tested and persevere can we really know this.

This need for testing is not unlike when we deal with someone in sales. The sales person makes all kinds of promises about his product but until we buy it and try it on a consistent basis, we will never know for sure if the product and the person selling it are trustworthy and true. Notice this is exactly what happened to Jacob in our story today. God had consistently affirmed the promises he made to Jacob’s ancestors and to him. But apparently Jacob didn’t fully believe that. Instead of turning to God for a blessing, Jacob relied on his own devices to get what he wanted and it had cost him dearly in terms of his relationships. Now he was returning home to the promised land and to an uncertain future. He would need more than his own resources to survive, let alone prosper. And so it is probably no coincidence that it was exactly at this moment God wrestled with him. In not giving up or running away, Jacob learned to receive his blessings from the only source of all real blessings: God.

And we see the practical results of God’s wrestling with Jacob when he finally confronted his brother Esau. Before this, Jacob (the deceiver) had schemed to steal Esau’s birthright and blessing from him. Now when the newly-named Israel (one who struggles with God) met his brother again, he wanted to bestow a blessing on Esau (Genesis 33.10-11)! In struggling with God and learning to trust God’s promises and active involvement in his life, Jacob/Israel was equipped by God to be the blessing for others that God called him to be. Just so with us when we persevere in our struggles with God.

In Paul’s case, we see the apostle wrestling with God as he agonized over the fate of God’s people Israel. Paul had genuine concern for their eternal well-being, even offering himself up to God on behalf of his wayward and stubborn people who refused to recognize Jesus as their true Messiah and Lord. He feared that his people would be cut off permanently from Christ and was troubled that God would allow this to happen to the very people God called to be a blessing to the world. And so Paul did the only thing he had in his power to do. He prayed fervently for his people even as he preached Christ to them. We can empathize with Paul because we too are often confronted with huge and seemingly unsolvable problems. Just look at what is going on in the Middle East today with all the horrific images of innocent victims on both sides and the seemingly intractable problem of violence begetting more violence. How can God let this go on, we cry out? How can this vicious cycle be broken? It is precisely then that we too must turn to God in fervent prayer on behalf of all people there and we will do that only if we really trust in God’s power to deliver and heal his sin-sick and hurting world and its people.

Turning now to our gospel lesson, we see Jesus wrestling with both God and humans. Jesus found himself in a lonely place because he had just learned that Herod had murdered his cousin, John the Baptist, and surely Jesus understood that his own life was also now in mortal danger. And like so many of us when we hear of a loved one’s death, Jesus wanted to withdraw to a solitary place to reflect, remember, grieve, and pray. But the crowds did not give our Lord any time or peace to do so because they flocked to him. And what did he do? Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick! It seems that when we wrestle with God in our grief and heartache, that sometimes the thing for us to do is to get out of ourselves and our problems and embody the love of God to others so that we can find it ourselves.

But Jesus was not done wrestling yet because now his disciples confronted him with a new problem. What to do with all those hungry people? Notice that Jesus invited them to share in the solution by offering up their meager resources to him. And what did he do with them? He used what the disciples brought him, five loaves and two fishes, to feed over 5000 people! The lesson is unmistakable. When we bring what we have to Jesus, even our fear and brokenness, he will bless us abundantly and then work with us and use our resources to bless others, and in that gracious act we will find his comfort and peace (cf. John 16.33).

And of course we notice the eucharistic overtones in this story. Jesus took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to the disciples just the way he did at the Last Supper. Apparently Matthew wants us to understand how critical it is for us to come to the Lord’s Table in faith on a regular basis to find Christ’s nourishment and sustenance to help us in our own wrestlings with God and others. We cannot be a blessing to others if we are not blessed ourselves first.

And lest we think that this was the extent of our Lord’s wrestling with God and humans, we must finally turn our attention to the cross because it is there that we see Jesus engaged in the ultimate wrestling match. See him as he wrestles with his awful vocation in Gethsemane and asks the Father to take the cup of suffering he must endure for the sake of the whole world as he bears God’s condemnation of our sin in his body so that we can be healed and reconciled to God. See him as he hangs naked and bloodied on the cross, his hands and feet pierced with nails, and hear the terrible cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as the awful wrath of God fully descends on him. If we claim to love our Lord, we cannot remain unmoved by these images or think that God does not care about us or is uninvolved in our lives.

And as we stand at the foot of the cross and think the night cannot get any darker, that our Savior really is dead and the kingdom is not coming after all, especially in our own lives, we witness the empty tomb with its foretaste of new creation, and we realize that in our Lord’s struggles and resurrection we have received God’s ultimate blessing and are witnessing the final unfolding of God’s promises to heal and redeem us and his broken world, agonizingly slow and uncertain as those promises seem at times. Like Jacob at the river, we realize we are utterly undeserving of this blessing, but that by the grace of God it is ours nevertheless through faith. Like the recipients of the loaves and fishes, we realize that in our struggles with God, when we bring to him what we have, broken and insufficient as that might be, and trust God with what we give him, we will be astonished at God’s generosity and faithfulness toward us.

So what are you wrestling with God about? As you know, our church family is wrestling with many serious and troubling things right now: cancer and other serious illnesses, family problems and difficulties, and how best to bring the love of Christ to bear on those who are hurting or in pain to name just a few. Whatever it is you are wrestling with God, consider what our lessons teach us today. While our wrestling with God is hard and exhausting, fear not. Although we are armed with nothing more than prayer and a tenacious faith that refuses to let go even in the darkest valley, we are promised that if we persevere we will prevail, not necessarily as the world sees it but as God sees it and that is all that matters. We will prevail because of God’s great love for us and because God is always faithful to his promises to us. We know this because we believe that God has reconciled us to himself in the very struggles of our Lord Jesus Christ. And because we know this, we know we have Good News, even in our most arduous and challenging struggles, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.