Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2022
Genesis 32:22-31

For a boy growing up in Texas, playing football seems to be a standard rite of passage. I count myself as one of those who suited up in pads, put on the helmet, sweated through the sweltering Texas heat, and bashed my head in against other young boys. And I really do mean bashed my head in – I may not look like it now, but I played center on the football team. Right there, on the offensive line, “in the trenches” as they say.

Every play was a wrestling match. I got knocked around, pushed, and dog piled on every single play. The whole point of my position was to hit somebody. You heard the litany of injuries I got in my sermon last week. Contusions, concussions, sprained ankles, and broken bones.

Playing on the offensive line is a strangely intimate experience – you are so close to your teammates, you are constantly touching and wrestling with your opponents. You smell their sweat, you hear them breathe. And at the end of a play, you have to untangle yourself from three or four other bodies. Every play was a wrestling match. But staring into the eyes of the kid across the line from me, even though we wanted to knock each other senseless, we also felt this strange empathy for each other. It’s like we wanted to say, “can you really believe we’re doing this to each other?” What a strange, strange experience that was. 

As that night along the river Jabbok was a strange, strange experience between Jacob and God. Maybe that’s why I connect so much with this story. I see Jacob and God as a center and a nose guard, grappling with each other to get control of the line of scrimmage. I see their exhaustion, wrestling all night until daybreak; as I remember sucking wind at the end of the fourth quarter after a long game.

Now remember that Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second born of Isaac. Being a trickster, Jacob had ripped off his brother Esau to get the rights of the firstborn son. Jacob had also managed to alienate himself from his whole extended family. On top of that, he’s not exactly what we would call the paragon of modern virtue – he has two wives and he’s friendly with their two maids. And then he wrestles with God.

Jacob is alone on the shores of the river Jabbok when a strange man jumps him and fights with him until daybreak. This could be God, it could be an angel of God, but I don’t think that matters.What matters, I think, is how intimate Jacob is with the divine. This has to be one of the most intimate descriptions of a relationship between God and a person in the whole bible. Again, think of an offensive and defensive line – they feel each others’ sweat, they are breathing each others’ breath, their limbs are all mixed together. And that’s the relationship between Jacob and God. Jacob, the one who strives with God.

Now that’s interesting to me, because even though Jacob strives against God, Jacob and God are on the same side. Think about that – Jacob and God are not enemies. God has actually promised good things for Jacob, blessings and land and honor. God is not out to get Jacob. I looked across at that other poor kid playing football, the one I was bashing my head against, and we felt sympathy for each other. We would help each other up after a play. Grappling with someone doesn’t make them your enemy. 

This lesson would be a great gift for the world today. Because we’ve been led to believe that every opponent is our mortal enemy who has to be overcome, annihilated. I know you see it as clearly as I do. Political debates aren’t about working together, about making things better; no, they’ve become opportunities to get in zingers, sound bites, to try to make your opponent look bad. We’ve gotten to this place where we can’t be in the same room with our opponents; and if we are, we think we have to conquer them. We have to move closer.

This is what happened that night on the river Jabbok, and it’s what happened in Jesus Christ. To defeat sin, Jesus wrestled with the power of sin. To overcome death, Jesus embraced death and died. Jesus moved closer to his opponents. God didn’t stay aloof in the heavens, far removed from our lives; God moved closer to us; and wrestled with all that we wrestle with.

We have to move closer to our opponents. That’s the great hope that we Christians can give to the world. We can disagree, vehemently, and yet still eat and drink together at this holy table. We can wrestle with each other. I know it’s painful and weird and awkward, but in this time of acrimony and division, our Christian duty is to move closer, not further away. 

And when we do move closer, things start changing. After wrestling with God, Jacob is given a new name, he becomes a new person. Jesus Christ wrestles death itself, and is raised to new life. Through the power of the Spirit, his followers form this thing called the church. And goodness, when you read the New Testament, you’ll see that they didn’t agree on anything. They wrestled with each other on just about every topic you can imagine. But through it all, they moved closer to each. And because of that, they changed. And then the church changed the world. This is the power of transformation. This is the purpose of the good news of Jesus Christ. To change the world for the better.

So when we move closer to someone else, when we wrestle with one of our opponents, we don’t do it to get them to change their mind. We do it so that together we can change the world for Jesus. And yes, that might mean that you have to change your minds. It might mean that we come away different, limping like Jacob after wrestling with God. To the world, this comes across as weakness, as being a flip-flopper, as not staying true to your convictions. But repentance, change, and transformation is the whole point of the Christian life. If we go through this life, and never change, that’s not a badge of honor. That’s an indictment against us, a symbol that we have never truly grappled with God.

So all I can say is this – when something bothers you, move closer to it. When you have a disagreement with another person, engage them in love, not as enemies, but as friendly opponents. And inevitably, when you have a problem with God, move closer. Question, ask, wrestle, ruminate. Yes, you will be changed in the process. Thank God for that, that you might actually walk away different, holier, a better follower of Jesus. 

Of course, I gave up playing football years ago. The last time I really played was for the Virginia Seminary flag football team. And the big game, the crowning achievement of my football career, was our final game against the Episcopal seminary in New York. A grudge match. But even after we beat them, and yes, yours truly scored the opening touchdown, we all knew that we were in this thing together. For now they are my colleagues. The competition, the blocking, the running, the hitting, actually served to bond us, to unite us. Even when God comes upon you in the middle of the night, and you are fighting for your life; when you are struggling with doubts and fear; even when it seems that God is never one your side; remember that God is not against you, God is your friend. God is moving closer to you, not because you are God’s opponent, but because you are God’s beloved.

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