Joe Neville

Genesis 32:22-32



So Much God


The action in this story takes place at night, down by the river, but it is important to recount what has happened before it takes place.

Jacob is on his way home and he is preparing to meet his brother Esau, whom he had alienated by cheating him out of his birthright. He had won his battle with his brother by fraud and deception. He is guilty and scared because he knows he stole his brother's blessing. Jacob has sent his family on ahead of him and remains behind on the north side of the river, alone. If ever a person needed to have, literally, a dark night wrestling with his own soul, this was the night!

This is how it happened. A stranger leaps out of the darkness and hurls himself at Jacob. They fall to the ground together and wrestle with each other within an inch of their lives, neither one being willing to let go or concede victory to the other. The fight goes on in silence, throughout the night. As dawn nears, the victim appears to have a chance at winning, the stranger seems to be worn down and wearied.

The stranger cries out to be set free before the sun rises. In that moment, all is suddenly and completely reversed. The attacker simply touches Jacob's thigh, and in a moment Jacob is lying there, crippled, helpless and defeated. It's as if the entire fight was a charade, a mock of power, and a set up. If this fight had been sponsored by Don King in a ring in Las Vegas, there would have been an outcry from the Pay Per View customers, "That fight was fixed! Give us our money back!"

It's a story that goes right to our solar plexus, and not only because it's a physical fight in the darkness between two strangers who won't back down. This story goes to our core because we recognize ourselves in the struggle. Much of our living is a struggle with unnamed but powerful forces; we choose daily between good and evil, enlightenment and darkness, freedom and commitment, faith and doubt…the list is endless and exhausting. We wrestle with all kinds of choices every day. We also wrestle with choices we have already made, things we have done or left undone, and people we have hurt or who have hurt us. Some of us have discovered as we move through life that we have been struggling with unnamed, unidentified forces throughout our life, and they can, and do, keep us awake and fighting nobly, until dawn.

In everyone's life, there are times of blessing and living in the daylight, surrounded by friends and family, day to day successes, achievements and tasks. And there are also those times when we find ourselves going down into the valley, or down the banks of the river, or into the depths of the ocean. Within the past few months, I have talked with more members than feels comfortable, who have lost a loved one or are coping with a serious illness or are confused about the shifts and unexpected changes in life.  In each conversation, I was so aware of the descent into the valley of the shadows of struggle and discovery each person was involved in.  We all have lonely, profound, magnificent and difficult struggles to work out in our souls!

Perhaps this is why we hang on every moment, every twist, and every big body slam in this story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger, the angel, and his soul.  It's our life too, isn’t it?  I want to know how it works out.  I want to know who wins!  I want to know how to turn, sidestep, spring, move, how to wrestle with the angel, because I want to know how to distinguish between hope and despair, transformation and alteration, blessings and curses.

The story suggests that those who would know God will surely struggle and possibly even duke it out.  This is true for the individual and it is also true for those who would live in community.  In our story, Jacob becomes Israel.  In Jacob, God was willing to place the hope for the new community.

As it is with individuals, so it goes with nations and people.  We struggle with the forces of good and evil every day, as with the tragedy of wars and its inevitable outcome of human loss. We struggle to make sense and even understand the exhausted, twisted craziness of some rebels in South Russia, who attacked the police there, and close to 100 people died.  We shake our heads and cry over the waste of human life and love.  We struggle, wrestle with the devastation and aftermath of a Katrina and a Rita and then stagger as we see the devastation wrought by corrupt politicians and reluctantly observe the harsh side of New Orleans where more than one quarter of the city’s’ 450,000 people have lived in hopeless poverty.  We continually fight to make some sense of this world which perpetually raises questions we cannot answer, and so frequently breaks our hearts.

We could drop out.  Refuse to go down to the river and engage with the mystic forces we might discover there.  We could steadfastly insist on living our own life and controlling our own destiny.  Stop getting the newspaper, cancel our cable TV, and watch only harmless family sit coms.  Take a good long vacation far away from everything and every one.

But that is not the lesson contained in the story. The story suggests that to struggle with hope within our own life and the life which we are all in together is not only important, it is necessary if there is to be transformation, change and new life.

I recall working with a young seminarian at the Center for Career Development and Ministry.  We discussed some of his hopes for the future–not only his own dreams, but also the hope he felt for the Church and its witness in the world.  I was then, and remain, curious about how people find their way to seminary and how they encountered any struggles or wrestled with angels along the way, so I asked, how did you decide upon parish ministry?

He told me that he came to seminary out of curiosity.  He wanted to know more about theology and the Bible, and philosophy was interesting too.  But, he said, he had decided upon parish ministry because of an experience he had in a hospital in Atlanta. One summer he worked with people living, and some dying, with AIDS.

"There was so much God in those rooms," he said.  "I could feel the power and the love of God.  I saw and felt the faith of those who were facing such terrible pain and even death.  It was amazing to me to be a witness to such love and such believing.  I wanted to know and be held in my life by this love."

So much God…Perhaps this is what Jacob came to know just before dawn.  There is so much God…so much power, so much hope, so much love.

That fight was fixed from the beginning.  Jacob was bound to lose from the very start.  Although he wrestled valiantly and thought he was going to win, suddenly in the light of a new morning, God exerts the sheer power we know as God.  Perhaps God comes in this way, at last, after we have exhausted every bit of our human strength and will power, to remind us that God is who comes after we have tried every other way and found it wanting.  So much God!

It's dawn now and Jacob can see the face of the other wrestler.  I am sure he expected to see the face of violence, of cruelty, of death itself.  But it's another face altogether.  It is the face of love, of forgiveness, of acceptance.  As one of our hymns says: "O Love that Will Not Let Me Go," the hymn reminds us, "I rest my weary soul in you."

The blessing bestowed on Jacob, and on us all, is that God's love will eventually win.  If we base our lives and our struggles on our own strength, power, authority and will, we will surely lose our blessing.  Do we have the courage to wrestle with the fear, pain, guilt and alienation of life -- all those things that bring us to our knees and make us want to cry out, "Enough!" - - "I will not go; I cannot go unless YOU bless me!"  Perhaps it is at this moment that it dawns on us -- We see God's face.  We know the "Magnificent Defeat" as Frederick Buechner calls it.  We recognize our own defeat when we finally let go of ourselves as the source and strength of our own lives, and come face to face with God, who is the source of all our acceptance, hope and love.

The story ends with Jacob rising up -- he is changed--and limping home to meet his brother.  They embrace.

Are you prepared to wrestle, to wrestle with life, to wrestle a blessing with God?  Are you one who knows struggle and has recognized defeat?   Are you one who has gone to the mat with the angel of doubt and despair?  Are you one who has relied on your own steam and power throughout life, and have hesitatingly approached the threshold of saying, “Enough!”?  "I will not go; I cannot go unless YOU bless me!", and accept the power of love and reconciliation?  This is what the friends of Jesus of Nazareth, knew, in his own body, in his ministry: the power of the struggle with the angel of God.

Are you a holy wrestler?

Welcome, welcome, for there is so much God from whom to ask a blessing and accept that magnificent defeat.