Genesis 32:22-32, Philippians 4:4-7
October 13, 2013
Do you ever struggle with God? Do you ever get mad at God? A lot of people think in the back of their minds that’s a bad thing! “Ooooh, you cant get mad at God.” “You have to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, etc, etc…” And that’s true. But let me ask you this. Do you love your children? Do you ever get mad at them? Do you ever tell them that? Does that mean that you don’t love them with all your heart? (Do you see how that works?) It’s the same with God.
But somehow we think, “You cant get mad at God. He might go away from you.” or “You can’t doubt God, or he might cease to exist.” Of course, neither of those things are true, are they? God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” are beyond what we can ever imagine. “His kingdom and power are as firm as the heavens.” The psalmist told us that thousands of years ago, and so does everything we know about God. But, in times of doubt, we’re not so sure, are we?
Some people feel, in a more Old Testament sense, that you cant get mad at God “because he might get angry! He might smite you in some way.” And I’m not talking about “fire from the sky.” What I’m talking about is the fact that too many people still think that the bad things that happen in this life are either 1) tests from God to make us strong, or 2) punishments from God because hes angry with us. If that’s your theology – and I dont recommend it – you’d better not get angry with God or you’re in for a lot of bad stuff!
Well, you’ve heard me enough by now to know how I feel about that sort of thing. Bad things are not always tests or punishments. Notice, I’m not saying they aren’t… sometimes. I’m just saying they aren’t… always! We simply can’t pin God down like that! That’s why I’m so uncomfortable when I hear somebody say, “I believe everything happens for a reason.” That sounds like someone is saying that God always works that way. If something bad happens, it’s always for a reason. Well, not always! And the scripture that I quote so often here is Romans 8:28. “We know that in everything, God works for good for those who love him and who are called according to his purposes.” That means that God can work through all things, but it doesn’t mean God causes all things. (That’s not what we Presbyterians mean when we use our coveted word predestination!)
So having said that, I ask you again. “Do you ever struggle with God?” “Do you ever get mad at God?” “Do you ever tell him youre mad?” “Do you ever pour your heart out to him, whatever that may be?” And I’ll say this again, that’s what God wants! He wants us to share life with him, intimately! He doesn’t want us to keep him at arms length, venerating him and worshipping him, but having no closeness with him. I know you’ve heard me say this before, that I think God would rather have an argument with us than to be ignored. God would invite the struggle. And as I’ve also said before, you can take your struggles to God because “God can take it!”
Well, here is the greatest example of that. Here is Jacob, and he’s not only arguing with one of God’s holy messengers, he gets into a wrestling match with him! And it lasts all night! And until this angel makes some kind of illegal “body slam” move, and uses his power to dislocate Jacob’s hip, Jacob is winning! But even then, Jacob holds on. Even in pain, he doesn’t let the man/angel go until he receives his blessing!
I was thinking this week that I often get into a New Testament “groove” in preaching. Obviously, much of our Christian doctrine and inspiration are found there. But lately I’ve decided to take us back to the beginning, back to the Old Testament. And I hope you’ve enjoyed that. Because there is great beauty in our Old Testament roots. There are some wonderfully colorful characters to be found there, and some great stories!
Well, Jacob is one of the most colorful! He’s the one who was born clutching the foot of his slightly older brother, Esau. And he struggled with him throughout their lives together. He’s the one who talked Esau into trading his birthright for a bowl of soup. He’s the one who cheated Esau out of the family blessing at the time of their father Isaac’s death! He’s also the one who dealt with his father-in-law Laban in a “not-so-kosher” way, causing a rift between the two of them. And even though they parted on better terms in the previous chapter, still they did not trust each other!
By the way, that’s the place we find what we call the “Mizpah benediction.” Do you remember that? “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from the other.” We used to say that in Sunday School when I was a kid. It’s a lovely sounding verse we often used as a closing! But, it was not so wonderful in its original context! It was originally a statement born of the mistrust between Jacob and Laban!
Well, as I said, those two parted. And now, after years of estrangement, Jacob was actually on the way to meet his bother Esau, in order to try and patch things up with him. And frankly Jacob was scared that he might get what he deserved! Well, along the way, while he was by himself for the night, Jacob meets this man.
Now a lot has been said about this encounter. Some have said this was simply a man sent from God, others have said it was an angel – one of Gods messengers. That’s what the word “angel” means. It comes from the Greek word, “angelus,” meaning literally” messenger.” So, a man or an angel? Which was it?
Well, my Bible has page headings. And at the top of this page it says, “Jacob wrestles with an angel.” So that’s always been my understanding. This was an angel! And remember here, that the understanding of angels in our world is different than that which we find in the scriptures. And I suppose we should start thinking about that because angels will figure prominently in the Christmas stories which are right around the corner now!
In thinking about angels, the world around us often takes on the Hollywood, the Hallmark, or even the Hummel understanding. The world sees angels as tall, thin, white, women in robes with wings. And they also believe that angels are people who have died and then received those wings. Well, neither of those things are true in the Bible. In the Bible, angels are a separate order of created spiritual beings. And they are fearsome beings! Whenever an angel appeared, the first thing they usually said was “Be not afraid.” And I believe that wasn’t because they were ghostly scary figures, but because they were beings of great power!
In a story we’ll read when we get to Advent, the Angel Gabriel came to Zechariah, the soon-to-be father of John the Baptist. (Sorry ladies, but the only angels named in the Bible were men!) And the angel told Zechariah he was going to have a son. And when Zechariah questioned him he said indignantly,” I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God!” And he struck Zechariah dumb! He was unable to speak until the baby was born. Apparently, you don’t want to tick-off an angel!
Well here, Jacob “takes one on!” And again, in taking on this messenger from God, I think we find ourselves very close to the idea that Jacob is wrestling that is he’s struggling with God! And I think that’s great! And the angel, when pressed, does two things. First he gives Jacob what he wants. He blesses him. But then he does something we talked about a few weeks ago. He gives him a new name! This is a momentous and traumatic experience in Jacob’s life. It’s significant enough to warrant a change of his name. From then on he would be called “Israel!” That means “one who struggles with God.”
Isn’t that a great story? And isn’t it a wonderful account of someone who, yes, is a bit of a scoundrel, but is also one who is real and present with God? I believe in my heart of hearts that’s what God wants. That’s the kind of relationship we were created for, as we said a month or so ago.
So, do you seek that relationship with God? Do you strive for that kind of intimacy? It’s not easy! So many, many things vie for our attention every day of our lives, and if we’re going to draw closer to God it takes work. It takes discipline. It takes prayer and listening and meditation and study. Are you willing to do that? Or are you going to go home thinking you’ve heard a nice sermon, you have a little more inspiration for the week, and that’s it?
That’s what I want you to be thinking about. That’s what I’d like you to consider trying to achieve. Take some time each day and talk to God. But don’t just pray in a formal and a “formulaic” way. Pour your heart out to him! Tell him your joys, your sorrows, and your beefs! Struggle with him if you need to. I think you’ll find that’s what he’s wanted all along!
Eternal God, help us to be people who pour our hearts out to you. Help us to know that close connection with you and to share ourselves with you, even if we are angry or upset or doubtful. Help us to know the touch of your spirit within our hearts, and the joy of your kingdom in our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.