Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21

What do you think – was Jacob creative or was he unethical? I think it was probably a little of both. He stole his brother’s birthright and his blessing through trickery. Uncle Laban forced him to marry Leah before allowing him to have Rachel – the trickster was tricked. And between the stories we read last Sunday and today tell of another trick. Before leaving Paddan-Aram with his family, Jacob used his knowledge of genetics to create a large herd of multi-colored sheep, leaving a smaller herd for his Uncle Laban.
As Jacob prepared to meet his brother, who had wanted to kill him for his deceptions over the birthright and blessing, Jacob was afraid. When he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 armed men, Jacob was terrified, and made plans to protect his family. So, he sent a significant gift – a bribe – to Esau, and sent his family across the river. Jacob remained alone on the river bank.
I wonder what was going through his mind. Was he remembering only that he had stolen from Esau, and Esau wanted to retaliate by killing him? Was he trying to think up another way to trick Esau? Was he hoping for the courage to encounter his brother and apologize? Or was he praying, hoping for some word from God that everything was going to be all right? Did he worry that God did not remember him and the promises God made to him?
Did Jacob spend the night wrestling with God in his mind and only feel like he had wrestled with God? Did he sleep poorly, wrestling with his bedding all night? Or was the man he wrestled with God in human form? In which case, the wrestling was real; and it was an answer to his prayer.
I rather believe this last was what was going on. Sometimes, God’s answer is hard to detect. Sometimes, it’s clearly yes or no. Often, it’s not yet. But in this case, it sure seems like God was saying to Jacob, “I am with you wherever you go. My promises still hold true. Go and face your brother and know that everything will be all right.”
Jacob got a new name out of this wrestling: Israel, which means – wrestles with God. In Hebrew, El is the generic name for God, and Isra means wrestles. Combined, then, Isra-el means wrestles with God. How appropriate a name for a man, and then a nation, since for over 3,000 years, the descendants of Jacob have been wrestling with God in countless ways.

I just read a little book that shares a phenomenal story. In Heaven is for Real, [2010, Thomas Nelson] Pastor Todd Burpo writes about his son Colton’s experience with Jesus in heaven. Some people say the book is hogwash; others find great comfort in it. I think it is true, though told by a pastor with a particular theology, which shapes the way in which Colton’s experience is told. So, for me some of it rings true and some of it, not so true. The part I want to share rings very true, for all of us.
The story tells about Todd, who had one serious medical problem after another for a couple of years. He began to feel abandoned by God, and undeserving of such treatment. He was a pastor, after all, and asked God, “Is this how you treat your pastors?!!”
Todd was still recovering from the latest problem when his four-year-old son Colton became very ill.  While Colton was undergoing surgery for a burst appendix, his mother, Sonja, was in the waiting room making anxious phone calls asking for prayers. And Todd was hiding in a closet railing at God for taking his son from him.
During the surgery, while Todd was yelling at God, Colton later said he was sitting on Jesus’ knees. Jesus said Colton had to go back into his body, because his daddy was asking for him. Colton’s story of his experience in heaven brought about Todd’s public confession of his attitude toward his illnesses. He had been blaming God for the problems, and not thanking God for the healing that had also happened.
Todd had clearly spent several months wrestling with God, and finally had an answer, which came through the story told by his son. Jesus said to Todd, “Yes, I am with you. Yes, I care about you and what you have been going through. Yes, I will heal your son.”

You and I as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation wrestle with God a lot. We do not readily submit to what God wants for us. We have to wrestle with God, wanting our own way, assuming we know better than God does what is good for us.
We wrestle with what is just. What should be cut – and what should be raised – when we seek to balance the national budget?
We wrestle with having to share what we have with others. How much do we need in our own pockets before we give anything to God? If we share a tithe – 10% -- will we have enough left for ourselves?
We wrestle with changes in worship music.
We wrestle with who is welcome in our churches.
We wrestle with what God is calling us to do. How do we find time to worship each week, serve on a committee, and still do everything else we need to do – whether everything else is housework, schoolwork, gainfully-employed work, or doctor visits?
We wrestle with Jesus’ command to go and tell others about God’s love for all people. Somehow, even if we hear the Holy Spirit urging us to speak, the words fail to leave our lips.
We wrestle with those challenging times in our lives, when we wonder if God is really present; when we wonder if God even knows or cares about us; when we wonder why God doesn’t heal our hurting bodies.
When we are wrestling with some issue, we should not turn away from God; we should not fear to yell out our fears and our struggles; we should not hesitate to insist that God should hear us and help us.
The answer to our wrestling lies in the remembered promises to Jacob and his family. God never forgot about Jacob, no matter what he did, ethical or unethical. The Bible does not hide the faults of our ancestors in the faith, even as it reminds us to do better.
The answer to our wrestling is also found in the Gospel text for today. When we are in need, God provides for us, with over the top abundance. God does know how we feel, never abandons us, and reaches out to us through others – just as we reach out with God’s love to those in need.
The answer to our wrestling was heard by Pastor Todd Burpo. In response to his wrestling, Todd heard the incredible tale of his son sitting on Jesus’ knees, sending the Holy Spirit to be present with his father.
What are you wrestling with this week? Rest assured that God is aware of your need and present with you, no matter what.
Please pray with me. God of us all, we are not perfect, far from it, yet you love us and care about us. We ask for your patience, and your presence, as we wrestle with the issues and concerns of daily life. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen