June 22, 2008
Girdwood Methodist Chapel
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Wrestling with Angels
“Knock, Knock” (bang on podium twice)
If you heard a knock like this on your front door, and someone announced:
“It’s the Angel of the Lord -- for you.”
How would you react? Joyful and excited? Terrified? Maybe a bit apprehensive?
I think if it happened to me, I would stop cold, look straight at the door, and whisper, “Okay, here it is. This might be the most important moment of my short, little life. What could the Angel of the Lord possibly want right now?”
I equate the Grim Reaper with the Angel of the Lord. I equate the Angel of the Lord with a Great Cosmic Avenger – sometimes coming to punish the Evil Ones, or sometimes just coming to save little, old me from whatever dire disaster I have gotten myself into this time.
In Scripture, we find the Angel or Angels coming to test us, or bring us important messages from God. The visitation of such an angel means challenge and struggle. At the very least, something very important. The images I conjure up of these angels are of brawny men with hairy arms – not Gerber babies with butterfly wings.
Today’s Scripture reading from Genesis focuses on the struggle between Jacob and such an Angel of God. Now the reading just refers to “A Man” who came to Jacob in the middle of the night. But all commentators agree that this “Man” was God. In fact, in my Bible the chapter is entitled, “Jacob Wrestles with God.” Later on, Jacob acknowledges that the Man was God himself.
Jacob, if you remember, was the younger twin brother of Esau. Both boys were the sons of Isaac and Rebecca, grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. Esau was the eldest of the twins by a minute or two and, as such, was the heir to his father’s blessing and the family fortune. When Isaac grew old and blind, Jacob conspired with his mother to trick his father into blessing him instead of his brother – a blessing which would involve a great financial inheritance. I can’t tell you the whole story this morning, but the trick was successful. Esau was mad, as you can imagine, and Jacob fled for his life. He went to work for his mother's brother in a far away land.
While he was working for Uncle Laban, Jacob was the subject of some trickery himself. After working for seven years for the hand of his cousin Rachel in marriage, Uncle Laban tricked him into marrying her sister Leah instead. Jacob worked seven more years for the hand of Rachel. Now he was married to both sisters, had accumulated a great deal of wealth himself, and was heading back home to confront his brother. Jacob assumed that Esau would meet him with an army and attempt to kill him.
So, with all this on his mind, Jacob sends his family and servants on ahead across the river. He is going to “sleep on it” and come up with a plan for meeting his brother, maybe in the morning. He’s got a lot to think about – and he can’t sleep.
How many of you have ever suffered from insomnia? For me, it can feel very much like wrestling with a burly angel, one determined to keep me awake until whatever issue is at hand is resolved.
I’ve wrestled with angels over theological doubts.
I’ve wrestled with angels over decisions to be made at various personal crossroads.
I’ve wrestled with angels during periods of deep grief, or even self-doubt or a seriously stricken conscience.
Most always these wrestling matches have taken place deep into the night. And most of the time, I have not been on pleasant terms with my Adversary.
In the morning, I am totally wrung out. But I have survived the struggle – and face another day.
I take this wrestling with God, or even an Angel of God, very personally. It is almost my prayer time. I’m not a very passive pray-er. In fact, my prayers often take the form of Great Cosmic Arguments. Me and God, toe to toe. God exhibits extreme patience with me, I have to admit. But I want answers. I want help. And, daggumit, I’m gonna hang on until some kind of understanding emerges.
I spent the week looking up what other preachers have said about this wrestling with God – and they all agree that the wrestling, the struggle, is good – even if we get maimed a bit in the process and limp around with a bad hip as a result. Life is not won without struggle.
If we want to be blessed by God, we must lay hold of God for dear life, said another – even if it hurts. Pain causes some of us to lose our grip, but those who receive the blessing, hold tight to God throughout the turmoil – never letting go.
One preacher noted that before Jacob received God’s blessing, he had to acknowledge who he really was. At daybreak, just before the struggle would come to a close, the Angel asked Jacob to quit, let him go. But Jacob said, “No, not until you bless me.” The Angel replied with a question, “What is your name?”
Now why would the angel ask such a question? Had he wrestled with Jacob all night long without knowing who he was? The angel knew who Jacob was – but he wanted to know if Jacob knew.
We spend a lifetime trying to figure out who we are. During our youth, people laugh and say things like, “she is trying to find herself.” As we get older, we try to act like we’ve actually found that Self; but no one, including us, really knows who we are – or who we can become, except God.
The last time Jacob asked for a blessing, his father Isaac, old and blind, asked who he was. Masquerading as someone he was not, Jacob lied. “I am Esau,” he said.
This time, the Angel of God asked, “What is your name?” and Jacob came clean and said, “I am Jacob.” If we seek God’s blessing, we too have to be honest about who we are – difficult as that sometimes can be.
But honesty brings its own reward.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the angel said. “Your name will be Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” The blessing comes in the struggle and we will overcome.
Jacob realizes that after struggling with the Man, that he had actually been wrestling with God. “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been spared,” he marvels. And, his life was spared again in the morning.
When the sun comes up, Jacob sees Esau, his brother, on the horizon -- with four hundred men. He prepares a gift of many animals for his brother and goes out to meet him, bowing down seven times. Expecting an attack, instead Jacob receives a tearful embrace from his brother and is welcomed home with great fanfare. In answer to his all-night – even life-long -- struggle, Jacob is blessed, resumes his place in his family, and in thanks builds an altar to the God of Israel.
After reflecting on the story of Jacob, each of us may take a moment to reflect on our own personal narratives. When have we endured our own “dark night of the soul”, a night of loneliness and desolation and wrestling with God? At what point did it seem hopeless, too complicated, too horrifying for any resolution? And what brought us out of the night and into the morning?
I am reminded of Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump. The lieutenant had lost both legs in Vietnam and was working with Forrest on a shrimp boat. Do you remember the hurricane scene – the one where Lieutenant Dan is up on the mast of the boat being whipping around in the storm? Forrest says, “Lieutenant Dan was mad.” Dan rails at God in the wind. Somehow, all the shrimp boats were lost that day except this one – and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company was born.
When the wind calms, Dan thanks Forrest for saving his life in 'Nam and swings his legless body over the side of the boat. Next we see him laughing and swimming on his back toward shore.
Forrest says, “He didn’t say it, but somehow I think Lieutenant Dan made his peace with God that day.”
And that’s what Jacob did, and what we have to do, too. That’s all I have to say about that.