Sermon presented at Seekers worship
27 December, 1998
by Dan Phillips
Listen as I tell the story of Jacob and his wrestling. It happened like this: Jacob was going home to see his parents, and he hadn’t been there in at least 14 years. He had left under a cloud, and he had reason to believe his older brother, Esau, was mad at him. Then, as he journeyed home, sending gifts to Esau as he approached, he sends the rest of his family ahead, and spends one night alone. At some point during the night, he begins wrestling with an unidentified person. As daylight approaches, his opponent, realizing that he can’t win against Jacob, injures Jacob, gives him a limp. Then, the stranger says, "Let me go, for morning is coming." Jacob says, "Not until you bless me." And the stranger blesses Jacob by changing his name to Israel, which means ‘he struggles with God’. Then, after the stranger has left, Jacob names the place "Face of God", saying that he had seen God’s face, and survived.
Now this story has several interesting features, but today I want to use the image of Wrestling as one of the Christian life, or spiritual journey, if you prefer. I have some personal connections with wrestling. My father, who is a Baptist minister, used to watch professional wrestling on TV every Saturday night. It was as much a ritual of his life as his preaching on Sunday morning. And my son Daniel, who we have prayed for here at Seekers recently, was on the West Potomac wrestling team for some time. Also, since a professional wrestler recently became the governor of Michigan, it seems a timely subject.
For wrestling is to me a good image of the evil versus good struggle that is the spiritual life. That is everyday life for humans. We struggle daily to provide for our physical selves without losing our righteous selves, to maintain our comforts without losing touch with the Comforter. And it is not easy. I have humorously said that "I am vertically challenged" and that "I am gravity challenged", referring to the fact that I am short and round. I have seen all the studies that say tall people, and thin people, do better in the business world and in life. (In fact, I expect to see a study someday that says that short, fat, Tennessee-born children of ministers who have the first name Daniel are the losers of the world.) But the truth is that I, like most of you, have more things to struggle with than I like to admit. I don’t even like to think about all the things I need to think about, much less do all that I should do.
So I come back to Jacob. I picture it this way: Jacob was at a low ebb in his life. His life and family and fortune were in danger. He was alone. It was night. And God attacked him, began to wrestle with him with no warning. Now I know, as do you, that the scripture does not record all the details I am adding, but it is my story, and I will tell it my way here. And so Jacob struggles, wrestles for all he is worth. And then, when God did not win as quickly as he expected to, he lames Jacob. But Jacob endures, and gets God’s blessing. And Jacob does recognize what a momentous night it had been.
But what kind of blessing does Jacob get: a name change. Sure, maybe if you can choose the name you want, as Sterling did, it’s a good thing. But Jacob (whose name means ‘deceiver’) got no choice. Now, God told him, his name would be Israel, meaning "he wrestles with God." I personally don’t generally consider this a good thing. Jacob seems happy to have just gotten out alive.
During this Christmas season, I feel that I have been wrestling with God, and losing. I feel that God attacks me when I am at my lowest, and doesn’t fight fair. And unlike Jacob, I don’t think I have prevailed. In fact, I feel the fight is still going on, and I don’t know if I can hold on, as Jacob did. The issues of right and wrong, good and evil, Jesus and faith, salvation and redemption swirl around me as I remember all the bad that I have done, and the failures that I have been a part of. I have not been the kind of father, husband, friend, worker, spiritual person that I wanted to be.
I never planned my life to be what it has been. It has been some time since I felt any sort of control over much of it. I work, I come home, I go to church, and I talk to my sons (on the phone now, instead of in person). I have not helped the world, reformed churches, saved the multitudes, or made a fortune. And I’m not happy with God either. How could he let all this happen to me? Where has he been while my life flowed away without meaning? Why haven’t I gotten his blessing? And why does he keep waking me up with all these questions? When I see him face-to-face, as Jacob did, I want to ask him these questions. And another thing, I don’t want ‘just enough’, I want a whole lot more. Why hasn’t God given it to me? I feel lost, and ugly, and very alone, here in the middle of this midnight wrestling match. And all I have left is the wrestling, the struggling.
So I return to this image, and look for something worthwhile in what I most assuredly have more than "just enough" of. What is good about wrestling? Well, it is personal, it is intimate even. It is not something that you can do at a distance. If you are going to wrestle with God, then you must first find God, or let him find you. And, when you are wrestling, you are engaged; you are there.
It is also a struggle that involves the entire body. You cannot be a good wrestler with just your hands, or feet, or arms. It takes everything that you are. And you must include your mind and experience in the mix. A wrestling match will test you will also, how much you want to win.
It is also a sport of passion. Anyone who has ever watched wrestling at any level will know that it involves the most elementary of human emotions. The wrestlers at the professional level have always strived to present an image that invoked passion. The villains of professional wrestling are now, and have always been, icons of who in our culture is most despised, also with the spiritual life. If you think you can be dispassionate and righteous, I say you are lying. If you think that the spiritual life is rising above the world, then I suggest it is getting down-and-dirty with the world, getting down to where we all live, and showing God there.
If you don’t think that churches support this separation of God from the reality of our life, go home and read Matthew chapter 2 again. You will notice that the verses skipped in the lectionary are those that refer to the slaughter of the innocents. Why must we have our Christmas story so dressed-up? After all, he came to die. Or even if you don’t believe he came for that, he did die, and gruesomely. And his death is why we even remember who he was.
And what about the shepherds? After the angels, and their one grand night, didn’t they go back to the sheep? And what about the Magi? Traveling in a time when there were no Marriott Inns, no Hiltons. It was difficult. And Jesus’ arrival did not change that part. We are still here in the wrestling match of life.
As I have considered this subject, I have realized what I like about Seekers: we are a wrestling church group. Where most churches have long since ceased to grapple with the theological issues, preferring to let the minister tell them what is acceptable, we continue to struggle with each part of the gospel message. On Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings we enter the ring again to see if God will bless us once more, if we can change our names and our natures a little more.
Christmas is over, let’s wrestle.