My advent prayer from St Benedict’s prayer book. We begin again when The Word of God becomes flesh through the Virgin Mary. Come Lord Jesus.
“Wrestling to Reconcile”
Wrestling to Reconcile: A Sermon
Wrestling with my dad was its own kind of covenant. Like many things with kids, it only lasted as a phase, but for a few months, our favorite thing to do was to wrestle dad sometime after dinner in the living room by the fireplace. Now that I’m older, I realize ‘after dinner’ meant he was already accepting a tremendous handicap (pause for laughter). But there we went, two kids eager to get into our dad’s space and prove our strength. And we would wrestle, no pretense, and often earning bumped heads, scuffed knees. You learned to tell the difference between someone just having fun, and someone with a chip on their shoulder, someone pushing the limits and someone seeking injury. And then we grew a little stronger, got bigger, and moved on to other ways of wrestling.
It was a commonplace in my childhood learning about God to never question God’s will, to obey right away without hesitation, because “God’s ways are not our ways.” Go along to get along, God’s way or the highway. So, naturally, I read the story of Jacob with rebellious curiosity. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we hear a story worn smooth by familiarity, but one that is an absolute turning point in the story of people of God, one where God shows Godself uniquely, and one that challenges us in profound ways. I also want to share the ways this story has shaped my own life. The struggle with God is something that shapes each of us in profound ways, and hearing again the story of this wrestling match by the river in the darkness of night reminds us of how we live as people of God, and what we are here on earth to do.
Jacob’s story is the last in a cycle of Patriarch stories in Genesis: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Like his Father before him, he has been chosen by God, even though he is the younger son. And whether he knew it or not when he cheated his older brother Esau out of his natural birthright and paternal blessing, God’s choice of him would most closely resemble the experience of exile. Remember, Esau himself had traded his birthright for a bowl of soup, then Jacob made his skin to feel harry to trick his blind father Isaac into blessing him as if he was Esau. And then he runs, flees his family because he has grabbed onto something he can’t hold onto, his brother’s identity and birthright.
Maybe you know the feeling of growing up in a place you feel like you don’t belong. I grew up all over the country, so just as I was feeling at home somewhere, it was time to move again. My trust and tolerance wore thin. But for me, church was that constant thing in my life that stabilized; at least for a while. The trouble with a “God’s way or the highway” life is that you spend most of the time on the highway, and as life gets more complicated, there comes that moment when you feel like you’ve walked over a point of no return. Belonging to my church community as I got older put me in an impossible position: I was fundamentally unable to stick to God’s ways, but also shown no way of coming back home without being crushed by dread and fear; some people call this legalism. Even though I was present in the pew, I was on the run.
Running has its own set of blessings. In a world where gods were rooted to a set boundary of lands and families, what kind of surprise do you think it was to find God appearing to Jacob in a dream? God is traveling with Jacob, even after his theft and trickery. God appears to make a promise: from the top of the ladder in Jacob’s dream he cries, “I will be with you until I bring you to this land and make your descendants great.” “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it,” says Jacob, and responds to God’s promise with a plea for security. Descendants are not on his mind, but basic survival goods, enough to get him back to his father’s house, in peace. Even on the run, Jacob feels the sting of broken relationships.
The moment I felt like I could actually take a breath in peace before God came in a college dorm room at a conference put on by the L’abri ministry. I had just come out of a session called, “Jesus and the power of Questions,” which was about how Jesus used questions to open people up to encountering a truth outside their understanding. The instructor not only lectured with clarity and grace, but answered each audience question like it was the most important thing said that day. I felt given permission to question God like I never had before. So I went back to my room, and after a couple of deep breaths, began to lay out all my questions, complaints, criticisms, anger, and injury I could muster; and after I ran out of things to say, which wasn’t long, I waited…and nothing happened – no smiting, no answer – just the sound of breathing easier knowing I could do that before God and be ok.
But Jacob is more than ok under God’s care: he thrives in the face of adversity, being cheated, marrying, getting children, breeding livestock. And as things are growing tense in his new town, God reveals to Jacob it is time to return to his father’s lands. Which also means confronting that very person he has deeply hurt: Esau. Were it not for the promise of blessing that accompanies this command, I don’t think Jacob would have done it; and even in doing it, he places his wives and slaves and animals out in front of him. And it is at this point of crisis, where God’s direction and his deep-seated fear meet, that a man appears to Jacob, looking to wrestle.
Has God ever picked a fight with you? We seldom like to think of God as confrontational; mostly we think of him as removed from our everyday lives in any significant way – just look at all the books written about finding meaning in everyday life, finding purpose – which assume that God isn’t already at work. Often our experience of God is one of absence, or the opposite, loving presence, and we feel batted back and forth between them. But combat? Others of you are desperately wishing to have a God who would come down and wrestle; you hear Jacob’s reaction of, “I’ve seen God face to face and lived”, and think, “a permanent limp would be more tolerable than this agony of constant doubt.Where is the God I can wrestle with?” Maybe you’ve stood alongside someone who wrestles with God, a fried or spouse, and from the outside look and see the change it brings; and whether in fear or joy, you are secretly glad its not happening to you. Maybe some you know, deep inside, that God is asking you to wrestle with him, and so you keep moving back and forth, doing everything you can to avoid that moment alone, avoid the dark and the night; keep busy enough and God won’t bother me, you think.
In all this, we must listen again to Jacob’s wrestling. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him…
I come to church to wrestle. I wrestle with a God who is more willing to forgive me than I am myself, whose property is always to have mercy. Before I went to seminary, I was a part of a small church not much bigger than this one. On one of my last sundays, the sermon was on John 21, where Jesus meets his disciples who have gone back to fishing after the Resurrection. The pastor gave everyone in church a beach in a cup: shells, sand, charcoal, and a small net. It reminds me that Christ is always on that beach waiting to bless me, to ask me again, “Do you love me?”, to remind me that the beach I wrestle with God on is like Jacob’s beach, but just further down that shoreline, the shore of Galilee, with a God whose name I know: Jesus Christ. That God who was a mystery to Jacob is unveiled in Jesus Christ, who has come down to be forever taken hold of by all human beings. When you come come forward to the rail, you take ahold of Jesus in a way that follows after the way Jacob held onto the mystery man. Here, in this church in the presence of God, you wrestle with the God-man, Jesus Christ, a wrestling that reconciles you to yourself, you to others, and to God.
Even though Jacob has become rich and prosperous, he is still afraid and running from the sin of his youth, even to the point of creating a human shield out of all those blessings. But God finds him when he is alone and vulnerable, and wrestles him into a point where all he can do is grab, grab and hold on as he has been doing his whole life. Then God changes his name, and renews the covenant in doing so, so that Jacob is transformed to someone who can confront the wrong he has done, who wants to be reconciled; even though he stole the blessing from his brother, maybe what he wanted all along was God’s blessing, and no theft, no worldly riches compare to that.
You and Jacob worship the same God, and you are joined into Jacob’s story. So, I wonder what you are running from? What kind of blessing do you want? Are you willing to be honest, to honestly wrestle before God, with God, to be struck and transformed at the same time? To see the face of God in the one you have wronged, and to finally at long last, be at peace? You’ll only find out if you strive with God.
I wrote this sermon earlier this year for a day like the one I had yesterday – panic, struggle for motivation, tiredness in searching for a job – and need to share it with everyone today. I preached this to my preaching class, a group of wonderful friends who are all either moving into new jobs, or maybe still searching. For me, I’m wondering at this moment what ‘the other side of the boat’ might be, and for the call to throw my net into it.
John 21: “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were gathered. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he had stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish…
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
Can I make a confession? I looked at my denomination’s official jobs posting site the other day, and when I saw about seven jobs, only two of which were full time, I had a thought: “what am I doing trying to be a priest? If those are my prospects, then I really need to find something else to do.” Even after three of the best, hardest, most stretching years of my life, most mornings I wake up feeling like I’m not going to find anything at the end, and I still day-dream about my job as a barista with regular pay checks and hours of work. I remember listening to last years Commencement address by Sam Wells, and his four little words: But Even If Not. Now looking at that job listing, it feels like “And Very likely Not.” Do you ever feel like this, even now as nearly graduating divinity students? We’ve all followed the call of discipleship, counted the cost, and maybe have found our way into deeper callings to serve and minister. But for some that isn’t the case, and at times that will not be the case. Our visions will change, plans be unmade, and we will be blown around till we can’t tell the difference between divine guidance and self-delusions. And for that moment when the voice of the Lord isn’t there, when faith gives way to despair, and hope seems lost, I want you to remember this sermon. I want you to step inside Peter’s story, at this moment just read in the Gospel.
I want you to go fishing.
The past thee years have been interesting for Peter. We like that word, “Interesting”, because it’s what we say when some guy gets into the boat and says, “Go out a bit further” after Peter has caught nothing, when suddenly the nets are breaking with all the wriggling slimy flapping sliver fish, and Peter nearly drops the net in his haste to back away from Jesus. “Get away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” he cries. But Jesus replies, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” Now that is interesting enough for Peter to leave everything and follow Jesus. And Peter follows Jesus, exuberantly and blunderingly, maybe too much so for some of us; the first guy that says Jesus is the Messiah, the first guy to stop him from going to the cross; the first to say, “NOT IT” when Jesus shares of his upcoming betrayal, and the first guy to run into the empty tomb. Always the rolling stone that gathers no moss. Well, maybe that’s not quite fair. What is it about Jesus, this man who Peter knows he is completely not fit to be around, but yet is so magnetic, so disarming, clear and honest, so present, so good, that he’s worth leaving everything behind to follow, and to keep following for three years? Remember, that’s three years of confusing teaching, learning new skills (like, how to heal people and cast out demons), constant travel, and no where to lay your head. Through that moment when almost everyone leaves, except Peter, when he looks around and says, “Where else are we going to go Lord? Only you have the words of life.” And maybe even that was said grudgingly. After three years Peter can tell that the pressure is building, and what Jesus is preaching is finally getting to people, and that the levy of God’s righteous judgment will break forth water to sweep the Romans away and cleanse his oppressed people. Peter is there with his sword waiting for the moment. It must have been so frustrating to hear the master you follow, just after you’ve sworn never to betray him, have him tell you that you’ll be the one denying him three times before morning. But there, in the garden, Peter, first praying, then napping, then suddenly awoken by shouts of soldiers, snaps to attention thinking, “Ok, this is it!” Only, there’s Jesus boldly identifying himself to those who would capture and kill him. Enough is enough, and Peter goes in for a head chopping blow on someone, but the guy ducks and only loses an ear. And Jesus, as he’s being bound, says, “Put away the sword. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” One final rebuke to his most faithful disciple. The confusion must have stung like hell, burned hotter than the heat of that charcoal fire Peter warms himself near after continuing to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house, with all those other people now suddenly taking an interest in this former fishermen. “Aren’t you his disciple?”
“I am not.” Because I can’t follow him, not where he is going now.
“But you are also one of his disciples, aren’t you?” They ask again.
“I am not.” Even when I said he was the Messiah, I still didn’t understand what he was saying. Maybe I never understood him at all.
“Wait, didn’t I see you in the garden tonight?”
“It was not me.” Because being his disciple was just a game, it wasn’t the real Peter. The real Peter is back on a boat fishing, the one who was right all along in thinking Jesus should have never stepped into my boat. I’m not a disciple, I’m a sinful man. And he departed from me, here, now, just like I told him to.
A rooster crows. It is dawn.
Two days later, Mary Magdalene comes at dawn waking Peter saying, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Maybe, despite running to the empty tomb, seeing the linen, and later that day seeing the Resurrected One himself, hearing his greeting of Peace, and receiving the Holy Spirit in the breath of Jesus, despite all that, maybe the sin that Peter can’t forgive is his own. Denying Jesus was just the greatest sin in a long trail of things that over and over confirmed that at he was always right about himself. Being a disciple of this Jesus doesn’t make sense, not for a guy like Peter. So, what else is there to do?
Guys, I’m goin’ fishin’.
He’s got this. He knows this. His hands still remember the tug of nets and the gathering of lines; eyes still accustomed to detecting the undulations of water on calm seas that betray the presence of something underneath, even by moonlight. But there is nothing, after a night of trolling the deep, nothing. Again doubt and futility – am I not even a fisherman any more? Not a disciple, not a fisherman, well, then what? Only the long night of wasted labor.
A voice speaks at dawn. “Children, do you have any fish?”
They answered him, “No.” But we do have plenty of salt for you to keep pouring on our wounds.
“You should try the other side of the boat. All the fish are right there.”
Bizarre. Something about discipleship must have been still stuck deep within them, because only a disciple could welcome and obey the bizarre requests of the man on the shore. And as they obey the odd, bizarre, out of place request, something familiar, experienced, and longed for falls into place. “I know this feeling. I’ve been here before. In this moment of bizarre obedience, someone shows up…”
“It is the Lord!”
Aft first, those four little words strike like a hammer, hot against the deep confusion still in Peter’s heart. “I’m a fisherman,” he thinks. “Disciples don’t deny their masters, because it means denying that they are disciples. I did that, I denied my master. I can’t be a disciple any more.” But in the action of Peter’s bizarre obedience he hears the words differently. “Even in my sinful denial, hiding myself away, ‘gone fishin’, he found me. He called me. I told him to get away once, and he would not. I denied him, and he died, but he is still here calling me.”
“It is the Lord.”
“When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment and threw himself into the sea.” No longer does Peter say, “Depart from me, for I’m a sinner. Now he throws himself into the sea, just to be on shore as quickly as possible. Now, NOW, nothing is more important, everything depends on this. It is the Lord, go to him now. NOT your denial, your betrayal, your doubt, your misguidedness, your failures, your sinfulness, not even your quitting discipleship can stop you from swimming to that shore, because none of that stands between you and the Risen Savior. It is the Lord!
What does Peter expect? A dressing down, another rebuke? “Why did you deny me, Peter? You really were the greatest disappointment of my earthly career, you know. For all your bravado, you were always so weak.” No. Instead, Peter is greeted with the increasingly familiar gestures of the Jesus he knew, followed, and loved: abundance of fish, overflowing containers, a meal together, gifts of bread. “Come and eat breakfast” is the invitation, once again, to recognize Jesus, to know the Lord.
Throw yourself in, into the unyielding sea, clothes and all, all yourself, head to toe. Throw yourself in because you want Him, you want Jesus more than anything. All your desire is for him, your preference for him, the longing of your heart, for him. I don’t know, I don’t know how else to say it, that in spite of all you have done or will do, confession and denial, sinner and disciple, you love Jesus. So throw yourself in. It is the Lord!
An alley in Prague