Toorak Uniting Church

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Holding on to God

Genesis 32: 22 – 31   Ephesians 6: 10 – 13
Rev. Alasdair Pratt
10:15am, 4 June 2006

John Bell, the Scottish hymn-writer, once asked ‘What is God’s favourite sport?’ He made various suggestions, but I fear he didn’t include Aussie Rules Football! He did ponder the possibility of golf, an apparently easy-looking game, until you consider how far away the hole is, how small it is and how hard it can be to get there. He wondered if it is tennis, because in that game there is a lot of talk about love. He even thought about cricket, but quickly dismissed the idea. (I fear quite a lot of Scots do!) He said that while the length of Test Matches has hints of eternity, he can’t believe heaven will be so boring! He did not suggest the good idea ventured by a young person in my last church, namely fishing. No, what he came up with was wrestling. He had in mind the passages of scripture we heard today – Jacob wrestling through the night, and Paul speaking of the hostile challenges facing the early church. He might, of course, have added Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and tormented in Gethsemane.

The story of Jacob wrestling with an unknown assailant has touched the imagination not only of preachers, but poets, artists, sculptors and psychologists. It is, symbolically, one of the most powerful stories in the Bible because it speaks not just of one individual – Jacob, and not just of the people of Israel who bore Jacob’s new name. The power lies in the fact that it represents the struggle of ordinary people down the ages who themselves have wrestled – with their identity, their past, their sense of isolation, their quest for renewal, their search for God.

It is for these reasons that I approach this theme today. I do not seek to be gloomy or morbid, nor do I want to suggest that the Christian life is only about pain and sorrow. The story is, in fact, enormously encouraging and I will try to show why. At the same time, pastoral experience has made me very aware that in matters of faith almost everyone, at some point in their lives, has felt that they were struggling with enormous issues. Life, with its’ uncertainties, disasters and personal suffering makes everyone – at some time - question the goodness and power of God. Some struggle with their faith, and even if we don’t it is surely important to be aware that others do. Many folk today struggle with whether it is worth staying in the church. Whatever the issue may be, many of us find help in the story of Jacob.

We know the story well. Jacob had deceived his elderly, blind father, cheated his brother, lived life on the run and outwitted his equally devious father-in-law. In the end, however, he got tired of running, needed reconciliation with his brother and, like the Prodigal son in Jesus’ most famous parable, had to face his past by going home.

Even then he acted in character. Bad conscience or not he was still a businessman. As he prepared to make reparation, he calculated what of his possessions he could save and how he could protect his personal and family interests (as I suspect most of us would). In some ways he was filled more with regret than contrition. In the event, before he faced his brother he had – totally unexpectedly and without any preparation – to reckon with God. Out of that encounter he emerged physically lamed but spiritually renewed.
Can you wonder I find the story so fascinating?

The reason, of course, why it has such an appeal is that it sets out in a very dramatic way, the consequences that come to every human soul that has tried too long to evade the truth. We have a vivid picture of a man who could not get away from the effects of an old wrong. He’d tried to live as though it was unimportant, but always it was there. For many people today the past casts long shadows. A lot of energy can go into preserving secrets, keeping skeletons in cupboards. In an ideal world – and I know the world is not ideal – church might be a place where people can begin the process of healing if they can encounter God there.

We are told Jacob wrestled all night. However we understand the opponent – God, conscience, ordinary assailant – for Jacob it was a turning point. He could no longer run from himself, his relationships or God. Yet, he held his own. One of the strange features of the story is that, for a time, Jacob actually appeared to be winning. It is a very daring image to suggest that someone could hold his or her own with God. Here, neither combatant is seen a s strong enough to win, yet each was strong enough not to lose. That takes some thinking about.

During the deadlock he was asked his name. In those days names had a meaning which conveyed the character of the one who bore it. In Hebrew the name Jacob apparently meant ‘cheat’ or ‘heel’. (Hard to imagine parents giving a name with such negative associations). In other words, Jacob was asked to identify his own nature. Then, he was given a new name. ‘Israel’ has a variety of possible meanings, but one of them is ‘he struggles with God’.

Surely it is significant that the Jewish/Christian tradition has the element of struggle built in to its very foundation. Ours is not a faith that peddles easy answers, though too many have tried. As, centuries later, Paul recognised, we sometimes face challenges of monumental proportions which can be full of contradictions. We see the effects in some of the atrocities perpetrated by groups and individuals; we are numbed by the scale of some natural disasters. More immediately, many individuals – maybe some here today – are restless, even struggling because they feel captive to forces that are nameless or memories they can’t control; people who are bearing – for far too long – burdens, sorrows or fears that test them to their limits; people who desperately need assurance they have not been abandoned. The Christian message offers that assurance, but while we are struggling to believe it we may well need someone to hold us.

The encouragement in this story is:


a)

That God holds us. God is with us in our darkest hour even when unrecognisable, nameless and we feel we are fighting the unknown.

b)

Secondly, in this story, as at Calvary, God shares human pain and weakness and, for a time at least, appears (like us) not to be able to overcome the darkness.

c)

Holding on to God is the beginning of healing. Jacob could have been broken, yet he hung on and would not let go. On the one hand, he wanted to overcome his opponent, break free and be himself again. On the other hand, he had to hold on because he was grappling with the source of his new life. As he wrestled with something both beyond and within himself, he emerged with a new sense of self. He wrestled with the mystery that is within each of us. He discovered in himself a new power and a new weakness, but at least this weakness was honest. He faced his own vulnerability. In doing so he also encountered vulnerability in the God who engages with us. It was the fundamental moment of his life. God did not let go of Jacob and Jacob held on to God.

d)

He walked away limping – but in the very wounding lay his transformation. Jacob was not defeated by God, for God does not seek our defeat, but our wholeness. Jacob was renewed by the encounter. That was God’s blessing.

Then Jacob went and faced his brother.

© Rev. Alasdair Pratt, 2006


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