September 22, 2019

“Struggle With God”

Genesis 32:22-30

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

September 22, 2019


Names are powerful.  In the three stories we’ve read from the book of Genesis this month, names carry significant meaning.  In ancient cultures names were not just a way to call a person, but they also conveyed the essence of their identity.  Sometimes names were prophetic in that they anticipated the kind of person the baby would become.    


It is similar to the ways some Hawaiian families name their children.  When a child is born, a kupuna, a grandparent or relative who is highly respected is asked to choose a name.  The kupuna ponders, taking into consideration the family, the circumstances in which the child was born, and perhaps even some hopes and dreams for the child and family, then offers a name.  It is an honor to be given a name by a kupuna.  In the creation story God gave the first human the responsibility of naming all the animals, which put humanity in close relationship with them.  This naming of the animals by the human showed that we were all created to live in relationship with all of creation. 


Last week we read that Isaac was named because of the laughter associated with his birth.  Sarah’s laughter of disbelief and cynicism when she was told she would give birth to a son turned into joyful laughter when Isaac was born.  His name was a reminder that God works in ways beyond our imagining, bringing joy when we least expect it.  


In the subsequent chapters of Genesis, Sarah’s son Isaac grew up and got married to Rebekah.  Like Sarah, Rebekah had difficulty getting pregnant.  Rebekah wasn’t as old as Sarah when she became pregnant, but the twins she conceived were an answer to prayer.  This answer was not without its difficulties.


The Biblical storytellers knew that Jacob, one of the twins, was trouble from the beginning of his life.  When his mother was carrying the two boys in her womb, they were already fighting.  Rebekah thought twice about this long yearned-for request.  “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’  She went to inquire of the LORD” (Genesis 25:22).  


The LORD answered, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).  This separation and struggle between Rebekah’s two sons had begun in the womb.  Esau was the first to be born, but Jacob followed quickly, grasping his brother’s heel as if he had tried to get past his brother.  The name Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” which is a Hebrew idiom for “he deceives.” 


Jacob lived up to the meaning of his name, “Deceiver.”  It didn’t help that the parents had chosen sides—Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob.  The twins’ lives were defined by sibling rivalry.  When Esau was vulnerable, Jacob got him to hand over the birthright belonging to the eldest son (Genesis 25:27-34).  Then when Isaac was half-blind and dying, Jacob tricked his father into blessing him rather than Esau (Genesis 27).  


Naturally, Esau was angry with his brother and threatened to kill him.  So Rebekah told Jacob to run away to her brother Laban, and to stay with him until Esau cooled off.  Jacob went to live and work for Laban, and he eventually married his uncle’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel.  The relationship between Laban and Joseph was fraught with dishonesty and trickery—on both sides.  Even so, Jacob helped Laban get rich with livestock.  When he decided to return to his homeland, Jacob tricked his uncle into giving him a large portion of the best animals in his flocks.  (You can read this story in Genesis 30 and 31.)


On the journey home Jacob decided that it was time to try to patch things up with Esau.  He would be passing through his brother’s region.  Jacob was always thinking ahead, trying to arrange circumstances to his benefit.  He sent messengers ahead to let his brother know he was coming by.  He wanted to know whether his brother was still mad enough to kill him.  The messengers returned, saying that Esau was coming accompanied by an army of 400 men. Clearly, Esau still held a grudge. 


Jacob devised a plan to placate his brother.  He divided his family and property into two groups.  If one group was attacked, the other could escape.  


Then Jacob prayed. “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant.  I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.  Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.  But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted’” (Genesis 32:9-12).  In Jacob’s prayer, he is turning toward Yahweh, crying out to God for help. He sounds humble and repentant.  Is he turning away from his life of deception?


Jacob continued his attempt to orchestrate reconciliation with his brother by sending a gift to him ahead of their meeting.  What would be an appropriate gift for someone from whom you stole your father’s blessing?  Apparently, it was 200 female goats, 20 male goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 female camels with their young; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 female and 10 male donkeys.  This gift must have been an impressive sight to behold.


Jacob thought to himself, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me” (Genesis 32:20b).  He had it all figured out.  With such a generous gift, how could Esau not forgive his brother?  Maybe, just maybe he could return home.


Our Scripture reading begins with Jacob sending his family and the last of his possessions over the stream.  He spent that last night alone with his own thoughts to prepare for his reunion with his brother.


But he was not alone.  A man wrestled with him all night.  They struggled and struggled against each other.  Jacob was strong, but the man took advantage and wrenched his hip so that he would finally give up.  Even with the injury, Jacob would not let his adversary go.  “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26).  It is was a cry for help, a cry of faith.  Jacob had clearly been defeated, and begged for the blessing of his conqueror.


“What is your name?” the opponent asked.


“Jacob.”  Heel grabber.  Deceiver.  I’ve been living this name all my life.  I deceived my father into giving me his blessing when it belonged to my brother.  I deceived my father-in-law by arranging an unfair deal to get the best animals from his flock.  I’m Jacob, and I’ve been on the run all my life because I’ve been grabbing at others’ heels.


“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (v. 28).


According to the note in the New International Version Bible, Israel means “one who struggles with God.”  Jacob is no longer the one who deceives.  He is now the one who struggles with God.  The new name that God gives him indicates a different, new relationship with God.  He would no longer be striving to get blessings he didn’t deserve.  He would not need to live lies or trick people.  His identity would not come from deception, but from his wrestling with God.  


I love this story for several reasons.  The first is that Jacob is kind of a slimy, manipulative and distasteful character, yet he becomes Israel and the father of the twelve tribes of the people of God.  When I learned these stories in Sunday School as a child, I often wondered why Jacob was such an important person in the Bible when he tricked his father and his brother.  We wouldn’t condone such behavior.  But Jacob’s story tells me that the ancestors of our faith were flawed, sinful people, but God remained in covenant with them and continued to try to lead and guide them.


It gives me hope because like Jacob, I’m always trying to arrange my life for my comfort and benefit, trying to “help” God, thinking that I know what is best for my life and for this church.  And yet God continues to work in and through me, blessing me beyond what I deserve.  The gospel story that began in the Hebrew Scriptures is about how the flawed people of God, even to today, receive God’s blessings and redemption in spite of our sin and rebellion against God.


A second reason why I love this story is because it tells us that not only is it okay to struggle with God, but that God expects it.  God named the people who would be known as God’s people “Israel”—those who struggle with God.  Yahweh knew that his people would constantly wrestle with him.  And acknowledging this by giving them the name “Israel” seems to make struggling a natural, expected part of the relationship with God.


Maybe you grew up thinking that the so-called pillars of the church, the “spiritual giants” you admired never wavered in their faith, and that was an impossible standard to achieve.  My guess is that if you ever sat down and talked to these Christians—folks like Sarah and Henry Sato, even people here today that you think are strong in their faith, you learned that they too had their seasons of doubt and struggle.  There were times in their lives when they questioned God.  Being a part of the legacy of the people called Israel, such struggle is to be expected. I’ve found that when I have had the courage to express my doubts and work through questions, my faith ends up becoming stronger. 


We sometimes think of God as too holy to approach, so righteous that we can’t engage with God.  God is so divine, so “up there” that to question is sinful, to doubt is being faithless.  But this story tells us that God wants to get up close and wrestle with us.  God was the one who initiated this all-night wrestling match with Jacob.  God reaches out to us when we are feeling vulnerable and invites us to struggle with God. 


The great thing about Jacob was that he would not let go of his opponent until he received a blessing.  He stayed in the struggle until he got something out of it.  Like Jacob, we need to persist because it is in the struggle that we find that our relationship with God is one worth fighting for, one that we will cling to until we receive a blessing from God. And while the wrestling match may leave us with a limp, that limp will always remind us that God cares enough about us to engage with us.  God loves us enough to struggle with us as we express our doubts and questions.


The story of Jacob challenges us to become a community of faith that lives up to the name Israel.  Do we struggle with God?  Some of the comments in our Appreciative Inquiry interviews that stick in my memory indicated that people liked being part of our church because there was an acceptance wherever people were on their journey of faith, that we have a non-threatening approach to Christian faith, and that people are not judged and not beaten over the head with theology and beliefs.  


I hope this means that we are a church in which people can ask all kinds of questions and not feel judged.  I hope that you will feel free to ask questions and express doubts and allow others to do so.  It may feel uncomfortable to ask questions or to have others express their doubts to you.  But Jacob’s story tells me that God invites the struggle.  God wants us to wrestle.  And God wants us to hold on until we receive a blessing.  God isn’t threatened by our doubts and questions.  Neither should we be threatened.  Let’s be a community of faith that struggles with God.