The Genesis story, however, seems to be speaking to a number of the issues which we have been facing collectively and individually at St. Alban's. On the one hand, few would likely argue that we are not doing a good job of trying to love people into our Lord's kingdom. Through Angel Food, Community Meal, our support of the food pantry, our efforts with Winnie's Place, our support of Brighter Futures, our assistance to the Crisis Pregnancy Center, our faithful intercessory prayers, and countless other unmentioned ministries, we are working hard at becoming His hands in a world that wants little to do with His offer of salvation. So, when broken ribs, cancers, broken relationships, computer viruses, vandalism, undiagnosed diseases, blood clots, stitches, job losses or demotions, storm damage, care wrecks or other "bad things" happen in our lives, we cannot but feel a bit angry at God. "Father, I am doing all these things You ask of me. Why do You let these things happen to me." We might accept that He is punishing us in light of such events when we judge ourselves to be coming up short in His expectations; but when we think we are really doing what He has called us to do and He allows these things to happen, we tend to get really upset with God and question His love of and commitment to us. But Genesis reminds us of the story of Jesus' family. Sometimes, they are seemingly blessed by God and can have no wrong assault them. At other times, even they lose faith in God's ability to shepherd them through particular crises. And, at still other times, the world seems to conspire against them and God's will and even, for a short time, succeed
Yet for all the failures of faith, for all the assaults on God's sovereignty by His people and by His enemies, the family continues on its inexorable growth. What began as a simple man and his wife, Sarah and Abraham, has by this week turned into a family with grandchildren. Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, is the focus of our reading this week. And Jacob has been called to do something scary. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. He has spent years laboring under Laban to get the wife that he wanted. Now God has instructed him to go back home. How will Esau react? I know how I would have reacted had I felt my brother tricked me out of my birthright. And Jacob knows how he would have reacted. So, he takes the cowardly way out. He sends his wives and children across the river. If Esau attacks, at least Jacob can get away. Jacob knows that his wives and kids may pay the penalties for his misdoings. Once everyone has crossed, however, a man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Jacob contends with the man to the point that he does not release the man even when his own hip is knocked out of socket by a touch. Jacob informs the man that he will not let go until he is blessed. The man asks Jacob's name and gives him the name, Israel -- because Jacob has contended with God and man and has prevailed. Who was the man? And what does the wrestling match have to say to us?
A number of theologians have dealt with the question of the man. Was it really God? Was it an angel of the Lord? Was it simply a powerfully built human? I tend believe it was God, but not in the way that we might think. Hosea 12 provides the only Biblical commentary on the wrestling match, and we are told that it was God. However, the Bible is also explicit that we cannot see God face to face. Indeed, God tells Elijah that he may not look at Him. And Israel is so terrified of the reflective holiness in Moses' face that they ask him to wear a veil in their presence. And while it is not unusual for angels to be mistaken for humans initially (think the travelers who speak of Sarah's pregnancy or the visitors at Sodom and Gomorrah), they tend to reveal themselves as angels. And we are left with Jacob's own interpretation of the match. He names the location Peniel, because he saw God face to face and won. How could he wrestle God and win? So often, we in the Church tend to forget that both the Son and the Spirit were co-eternal with the Father. We are taught that the Son appeared in Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago and that the Spirit was sent that first Pentecost after Christ's Ascension. Yet Jesus, Himself, reminds us that all that was written in the Old Testament -- the Psalms, the histories, the law, and the prophets -- pointed to Him. Knowing that He was co-eternal with the Father, is it so unbelievable to believe that He appeared to Jacob and wrestled with Him? It would make a great deal of sense given that both Hosea and Jacob seem to think that He wrestled with God. Part of Jesus mission was to show us the Father. Jesus became fully human and walked the path of Calvary that you, me, and all those to whom we minister might be able, one glorious day, to see the Father face to face and not be destroyed! And, as fully human, it would make some sense as to why He did not thrash Jacob quickly.
But what does the story teach us today? Our relationship with God is such that He is not necessarily "put off" by our wrestling with Him. When we find ourselves in those nadirs of faith, when we find ourselves questioning whether He has a plan for us, it is ok for us to wrestle with. Arguing with Him is not some horrific sin. He is not so far off that He does not relate to us. In fact, Jesus reminds us always that He loves us as the perfect Father loves His children. He knows that we will sometimes chafe at the bit, we will sometimes not see the "big picture" that He sees, that we will misunderstand events in our lives precisely because we are myopic. Part of why Jacob wrestled was that he feared for his life. Jacob knew how he would have reacted were his and Esau's positions reversed. So, part of his wrestling with God is his efforts to determine whether God really wants him to do this. "God, are You sure You know what You are doing? This could end badly." And yet, God's promise to all of His sons and daughters in that they will be justified by Him in the end and that they will see Him face to face. Sometimes, life's events conspire to convince us that God is far away or that He really is not in control. Sometimes, the enemy uses these events to remind us that we are not worthy of such a beloved Father. Yet the Scriptures exist to remind us that He really is in charge and that His will prevails. No matter what occurs in the interim, His people will be invited to that great feast and filled. So, in the meantime, feel free to wrestle with Him. Just remember, He wins in the end! He would not be worthy of our worship were He not able to shepherd us through life's pitfalls and vicissitudes.