Sunday, October 20, 2019
Wrestling with God
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy Texas 77450
October 20, 2019
I lift up my eyes to the hills; * from where is my help to come?
This first verse of psalm 121 asks a question that we all should ask ourselves. The Psalmist provides the answer in verse 2 of this well known psalm. My help comes from the Lord, * the maker of heaven and earth.
The question may be, how, when, and where do we encounter the Lord. Often our encounters with the Lord are unexpected, unanticipated and really quite surprising. That is true of our lesson from Genesis today as we encounter Jacob, one of the patriarchs of Israel.
Jacob up to this point is a bit of an odd figure as a biblical hero. He cons his brother out of his birthright and then runs away to his uncle Laban. They both deceive each other over a period of years but in the end he has four wives, 12 children and a large herd of livestock. Just prior to this his has left his uncle, stealing the household gods in the process and is returning for a reckoning with his brother Esau.
Now Jacob’s name means sneak and that is what he has been most of his life. One other big difference between Jacob and the other patriarchs like Moses, David and Abraham is they were always talking with God or getting signs and visions. Jacob has had a very secular life; we have no evidence of his being religious at all. In fact, they took Laban’s household gods with them when they left, so he is no monotheist. The only encounter with the holy that we have seen in his life before this is when he has fled his brother after stealing Esau’s birthright and falls asleep and has his famous dream. He remarks surely this is a holy place, makes a little monument and then goes on his way no different than before the dream.
Yet on this night he is alone, just as he was when he had his only other encounter with God where he had the vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder. I suspect he is really frightened of the meeting with Esau. He has sent a large gift ahead to Esau hoping to appease him. Then he has sent his entire family, everything he has across the river and is left on the far side totally alone. We don’t catch this in the English translation, but the Hebrew makes this very clear and even repeats it to make the point. Yet he is not alone. For he finds himself in God’s presence.
This is a unique encounter with God, different from anything else anywhere in the Bible either Old or New Testament. Jacob has a very physical encounter with God. Maybe God knew that was the only way to get his attention! They contend in the dark until the dawn begins to break. Remember that the Jews believed that anyone who saw God would die, so when the darkness begins to lift the contest must end. There is the exchange where Jacob asks the name of the man and for his blessing. God renames Jacob and says that from now on he will be called Israel. That name means one who has contended/wrestled with God. Naming in that culture was very important. Names had power and naming something gave one power over that. There are many cultures today who believe the name picked for a child will determine what that child will be like when they grow up. I was told on Tuesday at the bible study that this is still a strongly held belief in Africa. So he is transformed from Jacob the sneak, to Israel who has struggled with God. Now he is ready to live into the destiny that is before him.
Now he does not come out of this unscathed. He will walk with a limp for the rest of his life as a reminder of that night. By the way this is why Kosher dietary laws forbid eating meat from the thigh or hip. Following God, encountering God is not without challenge and even risk. You hear this theme throughout the Torah in particular. God’s name is not to be spoken. God’s face is only to be seen by a select few. I remind you that is one of the reasons this encounter happens at night and must end at daybreak.
Rebecca Young remarked in her article on this passage that the blessing Jacob received that night is to realize that he has never been alone. This story is in Genesis, it is early in the history of Israel. They are not yet a nation, but Jacob, now Israel is the next step in the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that they will be a great nation. Part of the message and the people of Israel will have many times to remember it is that even when they forget that God is with them, God is still with them.
We hear an affirmation of this promise in Psalm 121 and please excuse me if I take a few moments here to do some Sunday school teaching on the Psalms. We read them every week, but we rarely study them, yet for the Jewish world, it was and is their hymnal. Psalms are truly
meant to be sung not said. We do not know what the tunes were or what they would have sounded like, but the Anglican tradition has a long history of various ways to sing psalms and I’m hopeful in the coming months that at the 10:30 service we might explore some of that with the help of Jason and the choir. Each verse has two parts broken by the asterisk. The second half amplifies or focuses the first half. That is why we read most psalms is responsively by half verse.
This psalm explains what Jacob/Israel has gained through his struggle with God. Even though he will walk with a limp the rest of his life, he knows in the core of his being that God is with him at all times. This psalm is used often at funerals as a source of comfort in the promise of God watching over us day and night, watching over our coming out and our going in.
It is critical to also realize that this story teaches us that Jacob/Israel cannot be reconciled with his brother Esau until he is first reconciled with God. When we speak of sin in the Episcopal Church, we talk about it being a broken relationship with God, creation or another person. This story teaches us that if we have broken relationships with others, maybe we might first look at our relationship with God. Mending that relationship with God may just make mending a relationship with another that much easier.
As someone who walked away from church for a good number of years, who doubted and questioned, I am grateful for what I hear in Psalm 121 and what I read in the Jacob saga. There is a powerful message about the power of God’s presence, the persistence of God and that God will reach out and touch us in a way that we will notice. Now we can choose to make God’s job a little easier by being open to those messages or we can wait until the crisis when God really takes command and wrestles with us. It is up to us and the way to be open to God is through prayer and paying attention.
The bottom line in these passages is that God is always there for us. It is from God that our help will come. It is easy to forget this and rely on ourselves and our efforts like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. The Jewish scriptures teach us this message time and time again and I pray that as we read these passages remember this essential fact.
I lift up my eyes to the hills; * from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, * the maker of heaven and earth.