Sermon Text: Genesis 32: 22-31
Tara’s father lie dying in a bed at the hospice house and her world coming apart at the seams. Her father had been in very good health, he was in his late 80s, but then the cancer suddenly showed up in his body. She, her mother, the doctors, they tried everything to no avail. Nothing worked. The cancer spread quickly and he was fading fast. Soon he would be gone.
When I was visiting Tara pulled me into the hallway and started speaking with me in hushed tones. Tears were streaming down her face, she leaned against the wall as if she was ready to collapse. And she was collapsing. She was physically taxed, emotionally burnt out, and spiritually in crisis.
She again walked me through the entirety of her father’s illness. There was a long pause. Then the questions started. Questions that bubble up when you’re angry and upset because you’re standing in the hospice house and your loved one is at death’s door. Questions that search for grounding in the same way you flail your hands out for the railing when you slip walking down the stairs. This cancer could not be rationalized. It could not be understood.
Then she arrived at the words, words that I’ve heard repeated time and again by folks desperately searching for spiritual guidance in the midst of trauma. “I know we’re not supposed to question God, but why is this happening?” I shudder at that phrase. I know we’re not supposed to question God. Those well-meaning pious words have done so much damage to people of faith as they wade through the messiness of life.
Tara, because she was taught to never question God, could not see God’s presence in this horrible time. Her faith crumbled. God took the blame for the brokenness and the randomness of creation. She would not question, or even have a conversation with God about the death of her father and she let go. Never again would she darken the doors of the church after her father’s funeral.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me they were taught to never question God. Imagine their surprise at this story, where Jacob not only questions God, but physically wrestles with God. People question if we can question God and Jacob simply fights. That’s my brand of faithful piety.
After 20 years in Haran with his uncle Laban, Jacob is returning home. He’s collected two wives, a household of slaves, herds of animals, and eleven sons during his time away. Now they are all marching south, back home, and back to Esau. Yes, it’s been 20 years, a long time, a generation, but how did Esau feel about Jacob after all this time? Remember, the last time the two were in the same zip code Esau was issuing death threats.
Jacob’s advance team returns and gives him the grave news that they saw Esau with 400 men past the horizon. Now Jacob is afraid. Being the shrewd man that he is he splits all of his family and property into two groups and sends them ahead, as potential gifts for his brother. Then, alone, in the dark, he makes camp by the banks of the Jabbok River.
The last time Jacob was alone in the wilderness was during his escape from Esau 20 years ago. That one night, in Bethel, God came to Jacob in a dream. Now, on the eve of a reunion with his brother, Jacob will encounter God again. I imagine Jacob was already wrestling with his fears and anxiety as he sat in the dark, but all of a sudden God is there, and the two of them are flinging each other in the dirt, wrestling.
This scene always fascinates me. This is my favorite non-Jesus story in the Bible. For me, this story always casts Jacob as the model of steadfast faith.
One summer weekend, when I was a teenager, I went to my friend Tyler’s cabin at Indian Lake in Somerset County with a group of friends. Out on the lake Tyler took out the Jet Ski and attached an inner tube to the back. Then we played a game. It was King of the Hill, only a much smaller version. Two people would fight for dominance on the inner tube as Tyler whipped us around the lake on the Jet Ski. We held on for dear life, trying ever once and a while to knock the other person off, meanwhile fighting the waves and gravity because we knew that if we slipped off we were in for a wild skid across the water. We were white knuckling the hand holds of the inner tube with iron grips, not wanting to let go.
That’s what Jacob is doing here. All his life he has tucked tail and run from conflict when a scheme blew up in his face, but here he takes a stand and digs in. He and God will grapple through the night with no clear winner.
This is what it means to have faith with God. This is a faithful relationship, a hard grip of perseverance especially when we don’t comprehend the world around us. Faith is more than just a gift from God—it is a lifelong, mutual pursuit. God runs after us. We run after God. We may never have the answers we seek, but faith is the struggle to hang on, to become stronger and to grow. We survive not by giving up or by staying silent. Instead, we holdfast. We ask our questions and stake our demands. It may not be elegant, but it’s what we have.
Sometimes all we can do in life is hang on. We must be like the widow or the widower who cannot adequately explain their loss, but they take one day at a time, bearing their wounds, finding a way forward. Because life does leave its marks—marks from things we cannot defeat, like heartache and grief. We limp away, like Jacob, but we limp on.
In this story we have a model of faith. Yes, we know that Jacob is a scoundrel, he is not the epitome of moral perfection, but he grabs on to God and refuses to let go. He’s a rodeo cowboy on a bull. He will not release his grasp until God provides a blessing.
Here’s the interesting thing: Jacob risks death for this blessing. Jacob is so tenacious that he won’t give way to God, even as the sun rises. He knows full well that this is God. He also knows that mortals cannot look into the face of God and live. Up until this point the darkness has protected him, but in the daylight Jacob is a goner. So God relents, and changes his name to Israel—You have striven with God and with human, and have prevailed.
Can we do the same? Will we make a great effort to hold on to the gift of faith? To hold on to God? We cannot tame God and put God in a box. We must grip and squeeze like we’re fighting for leverage on top of a speeding inner tube.
Be like Jacob. Refuse to let go of God until God provides insight and a new blessing. Grab on until you are transformed. Just as God fights for us, we fight for God by learning through our questions and doubts and pain. Do not let go. Holdfast. For God will bless us to continue the journey, as we limp on into whatever the future holds. AMEN