Texts: Genesis 32:22-31 (Jacob wrestles with God); Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus walks on water)
Has maintaining your faith in God ever been a struggle for you? And has the struggle ever gotten so bad that it felt like a wrestling match that lasted through the night?
Sometimes it has felt that way to me. And so this morning I focus on the story we have just heard where Jacob wrestles all night long with a strange man whom Jacob later decides must have been God . . .
In my first three Sundays here in Borderlands, I concentrated on the assigned readings about Jesus from Matthew and those from the letter of St. Paul to the church in Rome. But this summer, the assigned Scripture readings also include passages from Genesis about Abraham and his wife Sarah, their children Ishmael and Isaac, and their grandsons, Esau and Jacob. These stories go back more than 3,000 years and tell of the founding of the nation of Israel.
Jacob is a key figure in the first book of our Bible, Genesis. But he is hardly an ideal role model for all of that. As the second-born of twin brothers, Jacob should have been subordinate to his older twin brother, Esau. And yet Genesis shows Jacob tricking Esau out of his birthright and later tricking his dying father, Isaac, into blessing him rather than the older brother. Jacob's mother then warns her beloved Jacob that Esau is out to kill him because of these tricks. So Jacob flees to an uncle's land where he marries two of his uncle's daughters and becomes rich during 20 years there.
But just before we enter the story today, Jacob is once again fleeing his home, this time from the land of his brothers-in-law. God has directed him to return to his father's land to reunite with his older brother Esau. Jacob heeds this command even though he is afraid. He worries that Esau might still bear a grudge against his trickery of 20 years before.
This is the background to Jacob's all-night wrestling match. Given this background, should we consider the struggle a dream or reality? For instance, why does the text identify the wrestler only as a man? And why does Jacob say afterward that in this struggle he has seen God face to face and survived? Finally, why does the wrestler give Jacob a new name, Israel, which means he who struggles with God?
It might seem easy to psychoanalyze this story. Jacob is terrified of his brother Esau. When Jacob does reunite with his older twin the next day he speaks of this fear and tells Esau that "seeing your face is like seeing the face of God." So I am left wondering if Jacob's night of wrestling was a dream born of his fear of his twin brother Esau in which he mistakes Esau's face for the fearsome face of God.
Genesis doesn't comment on any of this. And the Hebrew people -- who eventually call their nation by the name, Israel, given to Jacob by the wrestler -- accept the story just as it is written. So do Christians. As a faith-community that grew within Judaism, we include the Hebrew Bible as the largest part of our own Holy Scripture.
[By the way, the reunion of Jacob and Esau the next day turns out fine, perhaps because Jacob had sent extravagant gifts ahead to his older brother.]
Let us now briefly connect Jacob's story with our Gospel reading from Matthew.
In this latter story, Jesus sends his students out in a boat to cross to other side of the lake while he retreats to a mountain to pray. In the night, a storm impedes the progress of the boat. The disciples are terrified when Jesus appears to them walking on the water. Realizing that his ghostly appearance has frightened them, Jesus calms the disciples by saying "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
At this point Peter decides to test both the identity of Jesus and his own faith. He says "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water," to which Jesus simply replies, "Come." Peter then boldly walks out onto the lake, and at first he is alright. But when his focus moves from Jesus to the wind and waves, he starts to sink. He pleads with Jesus to save him, which Jesus does even as he chastises Peter by saying,"you of little faith."
So today we have two stories about fear and faith. God commands Jacob to return to the land of his father Isaac; and Jesus commands Peter to leave the boat. Jacob obeys God's command even though he is afraid of his brother; and Peter obeys Jesus' command even though he is afraid of the water. Both of them take a leap of faith and both of them soon succumb to their fears. Peter almost drowns while Jacob wrestles all night with a strange man. Finally, both of them receive God's help in their struggles between fear and faith. Jacob emerges from his dark night with a new name and a blessing, along with an enduring limp to remind him of the struggle. Peter is saved from drowning even as he is chastised by Jesus.
Jacob and Peter are both central figures in our tradition. Jacob is a key founder of the nation of Israel while Peter is a key founder of our Church. Both are caught between fear and a trusting faith. Both move forwards despite their fear. Both stumble because of their remaining fear. Both encounter God. And both move forward with God's help and blessing after these encounters.
These stories show us the shape of our own lives too, I think. We cannot live life without a large measure of trusting faith. We are forced to trust our bodies and minds, our families, and the world despite well-founded fears.
But we humans can never wholly sustain this trusting faith on our own. We all have fragile bodies. We all feel pain of many kinds. Our families and societies are often wracked with violence. And in the end, we are all sure to die.
With all that there is to fear, we could end up paralyzed like the disciples in the boat. Instead, we usually lurch forward. We make one fear-filled leap of faith after another. These leaps include our first steps as infants, our entry into schools, our first friendships, trips, jobs, marriages, children, and so on. But given all that there is to fear, where do we get the courage to take these leaps of faith?
Our two stories assert that God is there in the middle of our struggles between fear and faith. In their encounters with God, Jacob accepts a blessing and a new name and Peter accepts the support of Jesus. Now this God-given grace does not mean that everything turns out perfectly for either of them. Jacob's family troubles only get worse after his long night of struggle with God. Unfortunately, his sons prove to be even more vicious with each other than Jacob was with Esau. Peter, despite being the rock upon which Jesus founds our church, remains as prone to humiliating mistakes after Jesus saves him as he was before.
The same is true for us as well. With our hearts in our hands, we launch into the many ventures of our lives. But this does not mean that we avoid all pain. It does not mean that we are always free of sin. And it does not mean that in the end we won't die. None of us can avoid pain, sin or death. So our struggles between fear and faith continue; and in the midst of those struggles we again and again encounter the Grace of God.
Life is filled with struggles. And we all have our own limps and our own losses to prove this. But by reminding ourselves of our faith in prayer and worship, by practicing our faith in everyday acts, and by confronting our fears when we are able, we often receive the courage to soldier on. And in many a dark and stormy night, we experience again the assurance that, despite our pains and disappointments, we are in the arms of God as Father, Christ, and Spirit, the God who blesses us and names as His own.
Like Jacob/Israel, we are people who struggle with God. And because God is always there to help us in those struggles, we are sure that ultimately we will always be brought back home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.