Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
July 30, 2017
I’ve had exactly one dream about God in my life. It happened eleven years ago at the end of a summer I spent working as a chaplain in a hospital. Those summers are designed to give seminary students practice building pastoral care skills but also to offer a space in which the high and lofty theologizing that floats up to the rafters of classrooms and libraries might find a space on the ground to be further worked out.
For me, one whose life had, until that point, been largely sheltered from the kind of chaos, trauma, and inexplicable suffering that hospitals are full of, it was a difficult summer. Notions I carried about God’s goodness proved too flimsy to withstand the wall of unceasing wails coming out of the emergency department. My underdeveloped theology of suffering gasped for breath alongside dying patients. And perhaps most painfully, the comfort and intimacy I’d once sensed in my relationship with God disappeared, trickling away like grains of sand through an hourglass, leaving a hollowness that echoed only with the sounds of ambulance sirens and the incessant beeping of the pager that summoned me to crisis after crisis.
It wasn’t the first crisis of faith I’d experienced, but it was the first one I’d experienced while carrying a badge that identified me as a spiritual care provider. And so there was also a distasteful layer of fraud spread across the struggle of my psyche.
In moments of spiritual crisis, it is a gift to have good spiritual caregivers, and I was fortunate to have a wise supervisor skilled in companioning those grappling with faith. When I confided in him that the God I’d known had gone suddenly absent, he suggested that, perhaps it was not that a capricious God had abandoned me to the whims of the world, but simply that my understanding of God was being challenged, reshaped, broadened to accommodate all that I was experiencing. “If you can not conjure an experience of God’s presence simply by asking for it,” he explained, “and if the suffering you see is not remedied merely by casting your eyes heavenward and praying earnestly, perhaps you need to re-conceive of God. Think of God as something other than a heavenly vending machine.”
That bit about the vending machine stung a bit—I liked to think my language and conception of God more sophisticated than that. But in the end, I had to concede that he had a point. He sent me home to scour the scriptures and Christian writings in search of images of God that might prove sturdier than the one that was crumbling before my eyes.
That night I awoke with a start in the pitch black, in a cold sweat, this one, clear thought ringing in my ears: “I am Jacob. All summer long, I have been wrestling with God, and now I am walking away wounded.” That’s when I began walking with Jacob. If you are looking for stories of God deep and roomy enough to hold complexities and questions and the awkward and gangly unfolding of new understanding, you could do worse than this one about Jacob and his wrestling match.
Years later, I would read these words of Barbara Brown Taylor and find them resonant: “[Most of us think it] is God’s job to make [the chaos] stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again. Isn’t that how you know when God is present? When the danger has been avoided? When your heart stops pounding and you can breathe normally again? You know that God is there when you are not afraid anymore and you can feel your strength coming back like blood rushing into a numb limb.”
She continues: “It is an appealing idea, but unfortunately the Bible will not back it up. In that richly troubling book, much of God’s best work takes place in total chaos, with people scared half out of their wits: Elijah, trembling under his broom tree, pleading with God to take his life; Mary, listening to an angel’s ambitious plans for plunging her into scandal; Paul, lying flat on his belly on the Damascus Road with all his lights put out. Perhaps because we know how these stories turn out, we overlook the wrestling—the stark terror of being jumped on by an unknown assailant, the collapse of the known world, the reduction of everything one has been and done to this scorched moment of fighting for one’s life.”
This unnamed character that comes to Jacob in the night, pounces on him, refuses to give a name, and is anxious to disappear with the morning dawn reminds many scholars of ancient myths about nocturnal demons who drew their power from the darkness. In the words of Frederick Buechner: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife….Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification.”
Granted Jacob’s story has been jagged-edged, lacking in edification, all along. Last week we left him on the run, fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath after Jacob, living fully into his name, caught Esau by the heel in order to get a leg up on him. Twenty years have passed since then—Jacob has spent them living with his uncle Laban, something of a scoundrel himself, who makes it his business to give Jacob a taste of his own medicine. But now that Jacob is well into middle age, father to a dozen, and exceedingly rich, he decides it is finally time to return home, and he sets his face toward Gilead.
There is one major obstacle, and that is Esau. Twenty years is a long time, but perhaps not so long to nurse a grudge if that blessing turned out to be as powerful as promised. The shrewdness that Jacob wears as a second skin leads him to divide up his households, animals, and possessions and send ahead gifts and greetings to Esau, in hopes of placating his brother.
Jacob, then, spends this anxious eve alone. And just at the point where consciousness disappears into slumber, he finds himself being attacked. This is no phantom, no dream, which forces him onto his feet and into a struggle. No, these blows are real, as is the pain they cause. The darkness prevents him from seeing his attacker’s face, and yet it seems that Jacob is winning. And it is just as he forces his opponent into a stronghold, just as the sun rises just enough over the horizon that he might catch a glimpse of the other’s face, that Jacob feels a sharp pain in his hip and doubles over.
Breathless, the stranger under his power begs “let me go…it is almost daylight.” Jacob, is weakened, but still intrigued. Who is this man whose identity seems so elusive? Jacob grits his teeth through his pain in his hip and gasps, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
But what comes out of the stranger’s mouth does not sound like the typical blessing. “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel. For you have struggled with God and humans and have prevailed.” At that moment, the stranger turns so that the sun casts light on his face, and Jacob catches a glimpse of his profile. And in that instant, Jacob’s mind is flooded with a memory—an image of a ladder, and light and golden brightness and angels ascending and descending.
But as quickly as the thought comes, Jacob pushes it away. Surely it cannot be that the one who stood beside him as he gazed at that ladder, that one who made promises of land and offspring, is now the one who still struggles under Jacob’s firm, if weakened, grasp. But what was that he had said? Something about having struggled with God and prevailed?
Jacob double-checks himself—he wants to be sure. He looks into the face of the stranger and demands, “Tell me your name.” “Why do you ask my name?” the stranger asks, and then disappears. But Jacob is sure of it this time. That voice—it was indeed the voice that spoke to him as he watched those angels ascending and descending. The voice that had proclaimed “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.”
Jacob falls to the ground in disbelief. What to make of this God-man who willingly subjected himself to Jacob’s power? He can still feel the hands that seized him, the fingers that pressed into his skin as they struggled. He can still hear the breathlessness, and he can still sense the desperation. This God-man was no stoic, dispassionate figure. He had struggled fiercely, as one who is hungry for something from the other. As if the very contact of human touch had only whet his appetite for more. As though relationship—even the relationship of a struggle—was worth the risk of vulnerability. As though strength and power meant nothing if not accompanied by freely given love.
And so it is that some hear this story and think that Jacob’s opponent is strangely reminiscent of another God-man they know, one whose hands seized the sick and lame, whose fingers pressed into the skin of the children he gathered to him. They think of the way that Jesus struggled under a cross, of the way that Jesus made himself vulnerable to human power simply to be close to us.
That was the mercy in the moment of my midnight awakening those many years ago: the realization that even a relationship of struggle is a kind of relationship. That a wild and mysterious God who cannot be captured or pinned down can love in perfect freedom. That my inability simply to hang up my chaplain badge and walk away from it all was less about my own fear and weakness and more about the power of a God who refused to let go.
Jacob knows a mercy, too. In order to get the blessing he demands, Jacob must offer up his name. He speaks it aloud, just the one word, “Jacob.” But the name that means heel-grabber brings with it the host of Jacob’s tricks. Intended or not, it is a confession: there with the stranger seemingly under his power, Jacob names the cunning and calculating, the usurping and defrauding that has defined his life and his identity. Jacob, perhaps for the first time in his life, tells the truth about who he is. But the stranger refuses to leave him there. He gives Jacob a new name, a second truth, one broader and more hopeful than Jacob had right to imagine. And so Jacob the trickster becomes Israel the God-wrestler. And Jacob the individual becomes Israel the whole people of God.
Some say this is an origin story, meant to offer the etiology of the place Peniel, or an explanation for why the Israelites ate around the thigh muscle of their meat. But the primary origin in this story is that of the people of God. Jacob is alone no more but bears within his name and his lineage a whole company of those God has promised to be with. The people who will come to be called Israel are born not of shrewdness or of grasping but by the gracious word of God who is ever reminding them that their primary identity is bound up in Him.
There is also, of course, the matter of the wounding. The limp that will mark Jacob the rest of his days and prove so significant to his descendents that they change their dietary habits on account of it, the crooked hip that makes you wonder who prevailed in the battle after all. One preacher has titled this episode, “The Magnificent Defeat.” Another, “The Crippling Victory.” It is paradox, any way you look at it: the defeat that is tinged with glory, the victory that comes with a lingering wound.
The shape of the story is cruciform. It is the dying and rising, the wisdom that is foolishness and the weakness that is true power. It is a blaze of morning light scorching the heavy darkness to reveal a world in which everything has changed. It is the surprising feat that trumps every trick that has ever come before it. It is the undeniable new creation that still bears the scars of the old. It is ours, if we choose it: the painful and glorious surrender of the self to the grip of a Love that will not let go.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine.
 Frederick Buechner, “The Magnificent Defeat,” in The Magnificent Defeat.
 Insight from David Lose, “Tell Me Your Name,” at Working Preacher, July 24, 2001, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1597. Accessed July 29, 2017.
 Frederick Buechner.
 Walter Brueggemann, in Genesis, A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.