Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
2nd of August, 2020
I am writing this reflection on the day when the Victorian government announced that more than 723 Victorians had tested positive for Covid19, the highest daily count since the virus began. There are 9998 cumulative cases in Victoria. One hundred and five Victorians have died. It is hard to know what to say in the face of this. I cannot offer promises that things will get better, that all the sick will survive, that a vaccine will rapidly be found, that this pandemic will soon be over. Like so many Christians throughout history we are living through a time of danger and death.
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes of his questioning when he lived through the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, in which 80,000 people died. Moltmann says that his question wasn’t ‘why has God let this happen?’ Instead it was: ‘my God, where are you? Where is God? Is he far away from us, an absentee God in his own heaven? Or is he a sufferer among the sufferers? Does he share in our suffering? Do our sufferings cut him to the heart too?’ And of course in Jesus we know that the answer to these questions is ‘yes’. This is why the Apostle Paul is able to write to the church in Rome that affirmation that I have repeated again and again through this lockdown: ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (Romans 8:38-39) When we suffer, the God who loves us suffers with us. We are never alone.
But today I want to take some time away from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (although I still think Paul is wonderful and I hope that over the past month I have convinced you, too) and look at one of my favourites of all the biblical stories. Jacob is one of the biblical characters with whom I most empathise, so much so that today’s story was a reading when I was ordained. To give some context, here are edited highlights from the life of Jacob, son of Isaac.
Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren, until Isaac prayed for her and God granted his prayer. Rebekah conceived not one baby, but two, and the twins struggled in her womb until she wanted to die. When the two children were born, the younger came out gripping his brother’s heel, so they called him Jacob, which means ‘He takes by the heel’ or ‘He supplants’. Jacob was a trickster and a troublemaker from his conception.
Isaac favoured his elder son, Esau, and Rebekah favoured her younger son, Jacob. Jacob, through his own and his mother’s trickery, received both Esau’s birthright and his blessing. Esau planned to kill his brother as soon as their father Isaac was dead, so Rebekah sent Jacob to her brother, Laban, someone as devious as Jacob himself. When Jacob fell in love with his cousin Rachel and agreed to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry her Laban arranged instead for his elder daughter, Leah, to sleep with Jacob on the wedding night. Jacob had to stay with Laban for another seven years in order to finally marry Rachel as well.
After Rachel bore her first son, Joseph, Jacob left Laban and headed for home with wives and sons and sheep and goats and camels and slaves. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him announcing his return and they came back to tell him: ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Jacob was terrified; he divided everyone and everything with him into two companies so that if Esau destroyed one company the other would escape. This is where today’s reading starts, with Jacob, the supplanter, the trickster, terrified at the thought of seeing his elder brother. He is alone, having sent his family across the stream, and a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. In some ways the man is Esau. Jacob is spending the sort of night we all spend at some time, lying awake wrestling with our own sin and failure and wrongness. Jacob is about to face the brother he tricked out of his father’s blessing, the brother who wanted to kill him, and he is awake and wrestling with a faceless enemy in the dark. But the man is not only Esau.
We never learn the man’s name. When Jacob asks, the man refuses to tell him. But the man renames Jacob: ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Jacob names the place Peniel, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ ‘Israel’ means ‘The one who strives with God’ or ‘God strives’. ‘Peniel’ means ‘the face of God’. The names tell us that the one with whom Jacob wrestles is God. This is why Jacob is one of my role models in the faith. He wrestles with God – and God lets him. This isn’t a story of unquestioning faith and obedience. This isn’t a story of someone ‘letting go and letting God’. This is a story of struggle and conflict between God and humanity, and the appropriateness of that fight.
After a night of wrestling, in which neither prevails, the man tells Jacob to let him go for day is breaking. Jacob refuses to let go until he is blessed, and eventually he gets his blessing. Jacob comes to a draw with God. What does that mean? What does it mean about God that a human being can wrestle God to a standstill? What does it mean about Jacob that he manages to hold on and win a blessing from God? This is Jacob the supplanter, the trickster, the troublemaker. And now he is given the name Israel: Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. Israel is us, the people of faith. Among the themes of the letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome was the reassurance that they, Gentiles like us, had been grafted into Israel. So we Christians believe that we, too, have become part of Israel’s story. We, too, are the people, the troublemakers, who strive with God.
Jacob may hold his own with God and win a blessing, but he doesn’t emerge from the encounter unscathed. When the wrestler sees that he is not prevailing against Jacob, he strikes him on the hip socket and Jacob’s hip is put out of joint. The story ends with the words: ‘The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.’ The newly named Israel is marked by his encounter with God, an encounter that has led not to healing but to crippling. Jacob will limp for the rest of his life, wounded by his struggle with God. The people of Israel are those who struggle with God; we are also those who are wounded by God. Israel is crippled and blessed. We see here the same paradox of victory and defeat, strength and weakness, which we see in the cross. Jacob is our ancestor: what does it mean to be the heirs of this crippled and blessed man? What does it mean to be those who struggle with God? Perhaps most importantly, what does this story tell us about God, friend and enemy, the one who injures and the one who blesses?
Jurgen Moltmann writes that in ‘the passionately loving Christ, the persecuted Christ, the lonely Christ, the tortured Christ, the Christ who suffers under God’s silence’ (p. 36) we see not only our Brother and Friend, but the God who suffers with us. The idea that the God who created the entire cosmos could also be the God who passionately loves us and suffers with us is an inheritance from the Jewish story. The people of Israel, the people who named themselves as the ones who struggle with God, knew that God was intimately present in their lives. Like them, we approach God as the one with whom we intimately struggle. We discover that we are crippled by our own encounter with God, marked for life. We discover that we are also the ones blessed by God, the ones given a new name that reflects that we have seen God face to face. The message of the whole Hebrew Scriptures and of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is that God is not an isolated All-Powerful, Eternal, and Infinite Being, an absentee in his own heaven. The God we worship is the one who lives intimately with us, as close to us as the man who wrestled with Jacob.
I do not have much comfort to offer you in the time of Covid19, but I do have that. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 31.
My goodness, Avril. Wounded and blessed – you’ve got it in one. I’ve just read your sermon, and experienced the racing heart and prickly eyes: it’s my story. You don’t lose your wife at age 39 without being scarred, and although I’ve rebuilt my faith and been richly blessed in many ways since (including with a second marriage that has filled 30 of the last 34 years) the scar remains. At a more dispassionate, theological level, The Basis of Union talks about the “risen crucified one” – risen, yes, but with the marks of the crucifixion for ever there.
Max, I’m so glad this spoke to you. I live with depression, which most of the time is managed but sometimes completely takes over my life, and the idea of wrestling with God and being both wounded and blessed has been central to me making sense of that. I am so glad that the Bible gives us language for talking about it. Thank you so much for commenting.