Last week I started my sermon with a common phrase- “Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees”…
The next day I went up to the mountains to camp and hike and breathe a bit. On Monday I was near the end of a long hike- feeling a bit tired and hungry- when I came up a hill and around a bend and caught a view that took my breath away..
It seemed I could see for miles- it was so beautiful. Rock outcroppings, mountain peaks and valleys as far as I could see- blue sky, chirping birds, scampering chipmunks..
When suddenly I realized - the reason I could see so clearly- the reason the breathtaking beauty of the mountains and valleys and rocks was so apparent- was because this was a part of a former forest fire burn area. As I looked closer I could still see the charred sticks poking through the new growth.
I noticed in that moment that sometimes- it takes a fire to allow us to gain a new perspective. Sometimes it takes struggle and pain in order for the soil to be healed and nurtured- and ultimately for new growth to burst through.
Todays text is a story of struggle and blessing.
Today we continue the epic tales of Genesis- we pick back up with Jacob- whom we last met a couple weeks ago, when I preached about his dream of the ladder to God. Jacob had been on the run after stealing his brothers blessing- and had stopped to rest when he dreamt of God - who blessed him and kept him safe.
Many years have passed since that fateful night- and through those years Jacob has retained his ‘trickster’ nature that he had from the start. After Jacob ran away to the house of his mother’s brother Laban- he found a way to gain not one wife- but two- Leah and Rachel, plus two servant wives- Bilhah, and Zilpah. He tricked his way to obtaining most of his uncles possessions- flocks of sheep and goats, camels, donkeys, and slaves. Jacob’s uncle Laban is beginning to realize that this man living in his household has tricked him into giving away all he had- and Jacob realizes it’s time to get away before his Uncle’s anger gets out of hand.
So Jacob and his wives gather up all of their belongings- animals and slaves- and they hit the road to head back to the home he had left many years before - back to the land of his father- Isaac- and his brother- Esau- the one whom he had wronged so many years ago.
In Genesis 32 Jacob sends scouts ahead to scope out his brother’s anger— it has been years and he wonders if he still wants to kill him for what he did.
Jacob hears that in fact his brother Esau is coming to meet him- and he’s bringing 400 men with him..
So- naturally Jacob is scared. He plots to split all of his possessions and people into two camps- so that if one gets taken out the other will be spared.
He sends an offering for forgiveness along to his brother in the form of flocks of animals - his servants are instructed to bring the animals to his brother.
And Jacob prays. Prays to God - and reminds God of the blessing God had given him- names his own shortcomings - and asks for mercy from his brother.
He sends all of his people and animals across the Jabbok river and he finds a place to rest for the night.
Dawn is near when we come to the heart of todays text- I bet you thought I’d never get there!
Please listen with me to the words of Genesis 32 24- 31:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
In a moment when Jacob is alone and afraid and vulnerable -
at daybreak- the perfect point for an epic conflict and transforming event- God comes in the midst of struggle and is revealed to Jacob.
And Jacob wrestles- engages and challenges— It’s an image that shakes our typical notions of God- who is often primarily protector and nurturer or guide - one to be submitted to and followed—
It is hard to imagine this scene of locking horns and struggling with God..
But this is exactly what happens. Jacob steps up to the mat. For those of us who have experienced something of the world of wrestling- I imagine Jacob and God with those fancy wrestling shoes- head gear in place- mouth guard and singlet. Stepping into the circle and ready to fight for the pin.
They wrestle and struggle for what seems like hours- when God realizes Jacob won’t back down- so he grabs his thigh and injures him- marks him for life. And tells Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses to step back until the man will give him what he has always wanted most- another blessing.
The man asks Jacob his name and when he replies- “Jacob” - The man replies— “no longer.”
You will no longer be called Jacob- the trickster— but you will now be Israel- the father of a new nation- for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.
And the stranger gives Jacob the blessing he asked for. In this moment Jacob gains clarity and realizes this is no ordinary assailant- but this is God wrestling and challenging and transforming and marking. In this Jacob is changed.
Jacob experiences struggle and blessing.
Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the self centered youth he once was. He will eventually become the patriarch, one who faces his struggles, seeks reconciliation over violence with his enemies, and who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself.
In the midst of struggle- God gives Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.
Jacob walks away from the struggle limping- and blessed. He has new perspective and understanding because he has seen the face of God.
Too often we have this fairytale notion that all should be smooth sailing and ‘perfect’. Be it in our personal lives or our community, or our church. Obey God and all will be well. Keep moving along, don’t rock the boat- and you will find your treasure.
But even in fairytales, it is the struggle that builds the character. It is conflict that gives a plot it’s climax.
From Lion King to Bambi, from Cinderella to Frozen- it is the conflict - the death of a parent (why do they always kill off the parents?), the trauma of a disaster or the threat of our ‘dark side’ that not only makes the story interesting—
The struggle invites new life, imagination, and creativity. Conflict brings people closer to one another in the end and makes both the individuals and the whole stronger.
The story of Jacob wrestling with God reminds us that struggle makes us stronger.
That blessing comes not only in moments of beauty- but in moments of pain.
Struggle allows us to name our shortcomings- to face our demons- to grow stronger and wiser- and to come closer to the face of God.
Jacob walks away limping. Just as the charred tree trunks poke through the new growth in the forest- we are marked by our conflict. Marked- but not broken. Limping- but still walking.
As I stood in that forest outcropping last monday I remembered that - Naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature- in fact they are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. They return nutrients to the soil. They allow sunlight to reach the forest floor- which enables new seedlings and life to flourish.
While a forest fire can be heartbreaking and painful- they also shape our view- provide new insight and create room for growth.
They allow space for both struggle and blessing.
In the life of our church we are certainly in a place of struggle. None of us hoped to have struggle- none of us would chose to be in the midst of a forest fire.
None of us are excited about stepping onto the mat with God.
And yet- we all know- from our deepest experiences- from the wisdom of our ancestors-
that our struggles make us stronger.
Our struggles create room for blessing.
So- As we move forward—
May we walk through these next weeks and months with grace.
May we reach out in love. May we name our pain and sadness, and our name for healing.
May we stay on the mat as we at times lock horns with God and with each other.
And may we be transformed as we seek reconciliation, and healing, and blessing.