Struggling Against God – July 20, 2008
Genesis 32:22-32, Acts 10:9-23, 34-35, 44-48
July 20, 2008
Any pro-Wrestling fans here? (Anybody want to admit it?) When I read this story from Genesis, it seems to me that this has to be one of the top pro-wrestling matches of all time! This is Jacob wrestling with God. I wonder what kinds of wrestling moves they were using. Was Jacob the only person in history that was ever flying-drop-kicked by God?
Well, it’s interesting to try to picture that one! (And maybe you don’t want to!) But I think this is an interesting story because of that struggle against God. And it’s interesting because of where this story occurs in Genesis. It takes place right around the time Jacob is working on being reconciled to his brother. Do you remember his story?
His brother’s name was Esau. And earlier in Genesis, Jacob was not so nice to him. In a case of “sibling rivalry” he took advantage of Esau when he was overcome with hunger one day. Jacob made him sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. Remember that? Then later, as their father was dying and his eyesight was failing, Jacob cheated Esau out of the family blessing – with the help of his mother! To me, Jacob has always seemed to be a kind of a “scoundrel.” But now he’s feeling bad about all that, and he wants to make up to his brother. So he’s on his way to meet him and one night along that journey he has this encounter where he struggles against God.
I have to wonder if this actually was a wrestling match. Some versions say “wrestle,” some say “struggled against.” But both of those could mean a verbal or a mental wrestling, couldn’t they? And I think that would be consistent with a strong personality like Jacob! Because I think Jacob had been struggling against God for years! And maybe in this case, it was Jacob striving against God for supremacy or for the way he was to deal with his brother. Either way, there’s a real struggle going on here.
If you think about it, we struggle against God, too. And that’s usually not a physical battle. But it can seem just as real! Can’t it? It could be a resistance we put up against doing what we know God wants us to do. It could be holding on to our own thoughts and our own understanding of they way we want to see things, rather than seeking God’s view, or surrendering to God’s will. It could be hanging onto old habits and vices that we know displease God, but we don’t want to give ‘em up. It could be holding grudges and harboring ill will towards someone and refusing to forgive, when we know we should. I think we struggle against God in many ways!
It’s a funny thing about Jacob. He was a scoundrel. And I sometimes wonder why God seemed to bless him and honor him, even with all his deceit and dishonesty. I’ve often wondered why. Why didn’t God straighten things out with Esau? Maybe it was a matter of God seeing a bigger picture. Yes, Jacob was a scoundrel, but God also knew what he would become. That doesn’t mean God condoned his underhanded actions. I’m sure he was grieved about that. But God had patience with Jacob. He was content to wait until the time that he would become the person God wanted him to be.
Doesn’t God do the same with us? Sometimes we have a bit of the “scoundrel” in us, too. Don’t we? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that we do things that separate us from God. We do things that grieve God. There are times he has to have patience with us, because, we’re still in the process of becoming the people he wants us to be – like Jacob. And I for one am glad for God’s patience! I hope you are, too! For we all struggle against God!
In our New Testament lesson Peter also struggles against God! God gave him this vision, and he spoke directly to him, and yet he resisted! This was a very disturbing vision for Peter – eating all these animals that weren’t kosher! And the Law – the law he followed all of his life – told him he must not eat such things. They were considered “unclean.” And there were good reasons for that. Some things were unsafe to eat! But now God was saying that all sorts of things that were forbidden in the kosher laws were not any more! But still Peter resisted – even though he heard this from God himself!
One of the great parts of this vision is that it’s the setup for the story of Cornelius. Being a Gentile, he too would have been considered “unclean.” He and all the Gentiles were to be avoided like non-kosher food! But now even people who were once considered unclean were to be considered clean. This story is the setup for this whole of the ministry to the Gentiles! And that was not easy for Peter, either. I’m sure there was a struggle within him about that, too! It was tough for him to see God’s big picture. And sometimes it’s tough for us, too. Sometimes our resistance rises within us. Sometimes we let our feelings get in the way of accepting things we know God would want us to accept.
While you’re thinking about that, I want you to see the image we’re given of this man Cornelius. The Bible’s description of him could have been less complimentary. Luke could have described Cornelius as simply being “a Roman Soldier,” “a Gentile.” And because of that, readers might have seen him as being “unsavory.” But that’s not the impression we get, though, is it? Luke wanted us to see that this soldier was a very devout man, a man who worshipped God – he and his whole family. The picture we get of him and his household is very positive! And it wouldn’t seem right for them to be left outside of the faith, would it?!
So, Peter’s struggle is real. And it took three times for God to get through to him. And when he did, Peter realized that God was telling him something very important about this new ministry. It truly was “a great joy to all people,” like the Christmas angel said. And the Gentiles, the “outsiders,” those who he might not have considered to be worthy, were to be part of the faith. And finally Peter accepted that. And he went to Cornelius. God prevailed in this struggle, too! Both Peter and Jacob accepted God’s control. And I would ask, do we?
Before you answer that question, I’d like you to consider another group of people in the Bible who were found to be struggling against God. I’m thinking about the religious leaders. There are a lot of places in scripture that we could point to that would show their struggle. But the one I want you to think about is in Acts chapter 5. That’s the place where the Apostles were arrested for preaching and teaching about Jesus. And we read that story back on June 15th. These leaders were mad! Because they had previously forbidden the Apostles from doing so – back in chapter 4. And remember, the religious leaders also functioned as the civil authority. So telling them to stop preaching about Jesus was like issuing a restraining order! But in both chapters, Peter told them “Sorry! We must obey God, not you!”
So the those priests were mad! It says “they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” But then look what happened next! It says, “But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel… stood up… and said to the council, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. [And there were others.] So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them.” And then this. “In that case” he said, “you may even be found to be fighting against God!” (Acts 5:33-39)
Peter had a lot of the same struggles they had. The difference is that, even though Peter felt those same Jewish traditional sensibilities, even though he felt the same pull to follow the rules he had followed all his life, even though he felt compelled to uphold traditions and “keep things the way they always were,” still in the end he chose to obey God! And I ask you, do we? Do we obey when we are confronted with things we would rather not be confronted with? Do we chose to obey when we find ourselves struggling against God?
That’s a tough question! I think it’s a tougher question to answer than we’d like to admit! And I challenge you today to ask yourself that question. Where have you been struggling against God? Where in your life have you been resisting his direction? What are those attitudes, those grudges, those prejudices, those things that you know God wants you to give up, but you’re unable to, or you’re unwilling to admit they are there?
When I ask that, I want you to be specific. Sometimes there’s a temptation to “generalize” our sins. Sometimes we say, “Lord, forgive us for all the things we’ve done wrong, Amen.” And I think God wants to ask us, “What things? Tell me. Which ones are you fighting me on?” Think about it. If you’d done something wrong against a friend, and you go to him and just say, “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done.” I’m betting that won’t do it. You have to say, “I’m sorry that I did this or that thing.” You have to be specific! Why should it be any different in our relationship with God?
So even though we do have a general prayer of confession, let that just be a reminder of the specific struggles you may be having with God. And then deal with those things! Be intentional about seeking to obey. Be aware of specific places you’re struggling against God. And choose not to be like those religious leaders who let their egos get in the way of seeing the truth. Be like Jacob and Peter. And know that, for them, struggle was not easy – Jacob limped for the rest of his life! But though it was not easy, they chose nonetheless to know that God is in control. They chose to see things his way. They saw that his was the greater power – and it wasn’t even close! May we see that too.
Eternal God, we know you are powerful, and we know you are sovereign. Yet still we resist. Still we don’t admit we even have struggles with you. Help us to see ourselves as you see us. Give us the strength we need from you, to chose to follow, even when it’s hard, even when it goes against our own will. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.