It was lonely there along the banks of the Jabbok, but Jacob needed some time to himself. Half a lifetime ago he had fled his brother’s anger, and the next day he would confront him face to face. What would Esau do? Would this be Jacob’s last night alive? And even if Esau let him live, he still had to confront his father Isaac. What would he say to the old man whom he had deceived? Jacob needed to make sense out of his years he had been away, to get some perspective on things, to muster up courage to face his brother, and perhaps his death.
As he sat there in the darkness, alone with his thoughts, someone jumped him. Jacob couldn’t see who it was, but they wrestled all through the night. By dawn, it was obvious to the stranger that Jacob wasn’t going to give in; so with a mere touch he put Jacob’s hip out of joint.
Now, at that point Jacob might have done what his adversary asked and let him go. After all, if the mysterious person could cripple him with a touch, what else could he do to him if he put his mind to it? But there was something different about the one he wrestled. Jacob knew that the one in his grasp was no bandit but someone supernatural. So Jacob refused to release the shadowy figure until he gained something from him. “Give me a blessing,” Jacob demanded, “or I won’t let you go.”
Before the angel complied with his demand, he asked Jacob his name. To tell someone your name in Old Testament times was more than just casual information. In those days, people didn’t get their names because their parents liked the sound or because they wanted to honor a favorite relative. A name meant much more than it does today. A name revealed a person’s character. For instance, Jacob means the one who grasps. That’s how he came out of his mother’s womb, grasping the heel of his twin brother, and that summarized his character. To tell someone your name was to reveal your inner self. It wasn’t something you gave out freely. But Jacob knew that his adversary was no ordinary human being, so he told him his name. The angel said, “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,” which means, “the one who strives with God.”
In those days to change your name meant that something about your very nature was changed. No longer would Jacob be called the grasper. From then on, he would know God face to face, and knowing God, he would strive with God. What happened that night by the banks of the Jabbok set the tone for the rest of the Old Testament, the story of Israel’s relationship with God. Instead of going their separate ways, God and Israel would struggle with each other, and out of that struggle, Israel would be blessed.
Have you ever wrestled with God? The Tustins have. Years ago when Sam and Molly Tustin were in their late twenties, their five-year-old son died. Shortly afterwards, someone told them that now they had a guardian angel in heaven who watched over them and protected them. That was unfortunate. God doesn’t make five year old boys responsible for the health and safety of their families. When we die we enter into the eternal peace of God. But the thought comforted them, and they clung to it as they raised three other children and then began to revel in grandchildren. Little Sammy, their guardian angel, was protecting them.
But then, years later, their youngest daughter Tricia, aged 48, died in a car wreck as she was returning home from a business trip. She left a husband and two young teenagers. The Tustins were devastated by the disaster, but what made it worse was the feeling of betrayal. Their little son Sammy, who they thought was their guardian angel, hadn’t protected them from another tragedy, and they felt like God had let them down.
Now, Sam and Molly Tustin could have given up on God at that point, like Ted Turner did. Several years ago the television and sports magnate gave a speech in which he said that he stopped believing in God when he was a teenager after three tragedies hit him in quick succession. In just a few months’ time, his sister died, his parents divorced, and his father died. He asked that age-old question of why God let it happen. He couldn’t find a good answer, so he gave up on God. He let God go and didn’t want to be bothered.
But the Tustins didn’t do that. Like Jacob, they wrestled with God, not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, and they refused to let God go until they received a blessing. They cried out to God in their anger, they questioned “Why? Why?” over and over. Their struggle took longer than one night. It took months. But with the help of their pastor and their friends they got the blessing. The blessing for them was a deeper understanding of what God did for them on the cross. Sam and Molly began to understand that God didn’t spare his own son. Jesus was touched by suffering and death. They saw that God doesn’t promise to protect us from all harm, but to stand beside us in our pain so our grief won’t destroy us. The Tustins accepted that life in this world is riddled with pain and death and no one, not even Jesus, is exempt from suffering. The blessing they received was an assurance that God is more powerful than anything that can harm us, and that the resurrection is our guarantee that Christ raises us to new life. They still hurt from their loss. They still get angry. But they don’t blame God for what happened. They’re closer to God now. Their friendship with God is deeper. And they don’t hold little Sammy who died decades ago responsible for their well being.
Like Jacob, our grappling with God sometimes takes place in times of crisis, times when simple bumper sticker religion that served us well enough just won’t stand up under the pressure of events. Other times our wrestling is more intellectual. Things we learn about the world make us grapple with old assumptions about God and the Bible. I remember when I was studying geology and evolution in high school and college. I wrestled to understand where God fit in. Some people believe that science explains all there is to know about the universe and dismiss the Bible as misguided. Others believe that Genesis tells us everything we need to know about how the world was formed and dismiss science as misguided. I believed the scriptures, but I also believed that God gave us minds to unlock the secrets of the universe. So I wrestled until I realized that science and scriptures answer two different questions – science tells us how the world was made and the Bible tells us why the world was made and who made it. I realized that a day in God’s time might be a hundred million years in human time. I realized that scripture is right in saying God formed human beings out of dust. And science is right in saying that the formation took millions of years and evolved through many different stages. That makes me stand in even greater awe of God that God could have such a long-term vision that would culminate in the likes of you and me, that those hundreds of millions of years it took to form humanity are just an instant in the time of God. The blessing from that intellectual struggle was even more amazement at how great God is.
Or maybe your wrestling with God hasn’t come in a time of crisis, or when you’ve been confronted with views that call your belief into question. Maybe your wrestling came as suddenly and as unexpectedly as it came to Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok. Driving down the road or lying in bed wide awake at one in the morning, you’ve wrestled with the question of what does your life mean, why are you here, and what are you supposed to be doing. Those are deep questions of the soul, and the easy thing to do is to release them, to let them go before they cripple you. Or you can grapple with them, struggle and question and open yourself to change until you receive a blessing.
It’s hard to wrestle with God because we expect peace and comfort from God. We come to church looking for God to accept us, to make it easier to live in a world that has too much stress already. And God is a deep well of comfort and compassion. But in our desire for consolation, it’s tempting to try to put God in our back pocket, to make God our pal who protects us from hard questions and soul-wrenching struggles. I wonder if Jacob didn’t feel that way. He’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted. Life was his oyster. But God reminded Jacob that the Almighty is an awesome being, who had it in God’s power to cripple Jacob with a touch.
The author Annie Dillard once observed in dismay how glibly the people in her church came to worship. She was struck by their frivolity and their nonchalance, more concerned about what was going to happen to them at dinner after church than about what they would encounter in worship. Don’t they know, she wrote, who it is they’re confronting? Instead of straw hats, the women should be wearing crash helmets. They should be ready to come face to face with one who’s more powerful that TNT, who can blow them all to smithereens if God chooses.
We love to marvel at God’s beauty in nature. We see God in the delicacy of the rose, the splendor of the sunset, the sweetness of the robin’s song. But nature also has the power to humble us. We see God in the flowers and in the birds and in the sweet gentle rain, but we also see God in the fierce, untamable storm. No wonder Jacob was awestruck as morning dawned there by the Jabbok. “I have seen God face to face,” he said in amazement, “and yet my life has been preserved.”
There are times when the power of God grabs us and wrestles with us and we feel like we’re locked in the grappling embrace of almighty power. We can avoid those struggles and choose to remain untouched, unscathed, unchanged by an encounter with the Lord. Or we can wrestle with God until we’re blessed, until God’s awesome power changes us into someone different, better, new. Jacob wrestled with God and didn’t give up until he received a new name, Israel, the one who strives with God. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. There may be a blessing in it for you.
7-12-20 — God’s Responsibility and Ours — Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 9:6-18 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch
“How’s your mother?” I asked.
I knew that Donald’s mother had recently been widowed and was in declining health. His answer wasn’t what I expected.
“I’ve been witnessing to her about Christ and after all these years I think she’s finally starting to get it. She’s asking me now about salvation and thinking more and more about what lies ahead. I’m trying really hard to bring her to Christ. What more can I do?”
Donald was concerned about his mother’s relationship with God and where she would spend eternity. What would you have answered his question? Your answer would depend on how much responsibility you think Donald has for his mother’s relationship with God, how much responsibility she has, and what role God plays in it all. Behind that would lie your answer to even bigger questions: Do we have a choice about what happens to us? Are we predestined to heaven or hell?
And your answer to those questions will shape your answer to other questions about the purpose of your life and the future of the world. Does it matter how you live your life? How much freedom do you have? Is there hope that there will ever be peace and justice in the world? Why should you even care? In fact, does your life matter in the grand scheme of things or is it just a drop in the bucket?
All those questions are raised by the story of Jacob and Esau. God had promised their grandfather Abraham he would be the father of a great nation, and by him all the nations of the world would be blessed. God’s plan was to use the descendants of Abraham to bring the entire human race back to God. The relationship had been severed by the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and ever since the power of sin had kept human beings from loving God and living the lives God intended for them.
Abraham had a son, Isaac, but Isaac and his wife Rebekah couldn’t conceive a child. They had been married 20 years. It looked as if Abraham would have no more descendants. It looked like God’s plan was stymied. But Isaac prayed to God, and Rebekah conceived twins.
The twins struggled with each other from the time they were in the womb. As is so often the case, it was the woman, Rebekah, who bore the pain of the struggling males. She cried out to God and asked why she had to endure the terrible pain of her pregnancy. God replied that her pain foreshadowed the struggle that would ensue between the descendants of her sons, a struggle that continues to this day between the descendants of Jacob (whose name was later changed to Israel) and their neighbors in the Middle East. When the time came for the twins to be born, Esau was the first, but Jacob was right behind him, grabbing onto his heel. In fact, the name Jacob means “He takes by the heel.”
It was important which twin was born first because in those days the firstborn son received the inheritance of the family. So Esau was in line to receive God’s promise to his grandfather Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. Jacob resented that from the start, and to make the sibling rivalry even worse, the parents played favorites. Isaac the father preferred Esau and Rebekah the mother favored Jacob.
After the twins were grown, Jacob, still resentful and scheming, took advantage of his brother’s weakness and extorted him out of his birthright. One day Esau came in from hunting in the fields and he was famished. He asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew he was cooking. Just try to imagine what kind of resentment there must have been between those brothers that Jacob wouldn’t just give Esau some of his food for the asking. Jacob took advantage of his brother’s weakness. He said he would give him some stew if Esau gave him his birthright. Esau was one of those rash people who don’t think beyond the moment. He reasoned that his birthright wouldn’t do him any good if he starved to death. So Esau gave up his place in God’s great plan for humanity in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew.
Where was God in all that? God had promised Abraham that God would use his family to bring the world back to God. Did God know how dysfunctional that family would be? God’s plan rested with this set of twins, one of whom cared so little about his birthright that he sold it for a mess of pottage, while the other got the blessing by deceit and trickery. Did God’s plan depend on those people? Or did it matter what they did? Was God going to fulfill God’s plan no matter what they did? Those are the same questions behind Donald’s query about his mother. They’re the same questions you and I ask: If God has a plan for the world, for my life, what is God’s responsibility for it? What is my responsibility?
People have been wrestling with those questions for thousands of years. In fact, the different answers to those questions help explain why there are so many different kinds of churches. One answer has been that everything depends on God and there is nothing human beings can do to alter God’s plan. That has been the emphasis of our spiritual heritage known as Calvinism. Historically we Presbyterians have emphasized the complete sovereignty of God. We have affirmed there is nothing outside of God’s control. A strict traditional Calvinist would answer Donald by saying, “If God intends your mother to be saved, don’t worry. God will see that it happens.” That view is a source of great comfort, especially in times of trouble. Knowing God has a plan for us, and nothing is stronger than God, we find hope and strength to endure pain, suffering, and death. The downside of this view becomes apparent when we try to explain why some people don’t accept God’s love and do evil. If nothing is outside God’s plan, then that must mean God intends some people to be bad and has them consigned to hell from the time they’re born. And most of us are uncomfortable with that. How could a God of love and grace choose some people to be saved and others to be damned?
Some have solved that problem by concluding that God saves everyone, regardless of their relationship with God. That is the view most often associated with Unitarian-Universalists. If God truly is all-loving and all-powerful, God will ultimately overcome our resistance and save us in spite of ourselves. In the end all people will be joined to God no matter how bad they are or how much they despise God because that’s the way a God of love acts. The problem with that universalist view is that it doesn’t give us any freedom to accept or reject God’s love. God draws us into a relationship with God whether we want it or not. And that makes us pretty insignificant. If it doesn’t matter what we do with our lives, then why bother? And we know that some people don’t want anything to do with God. You remember what Huckleberry Finn said when Miss Watson told him that if he were a good boy he would go to the good place. “Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going,” Huck said, “so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.”
Whereas we Calvinists have historically emphasized God’s responsibility in carrying out God’s plans, others, like Roman Catholics, have put greater emphasis on the human side of the equation. Some of you who were raised Roman Catholic remember going to confession and receiving the prescribed penance for the forgiveness of your sins. The good thing about that way of understanding our relationship with God is that it affirms our responsibility. It clearly makes a difference what we do. The popularized and simplified version of this is Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” The problem is that God also helps those who are helpless. In fact, God helps scoundrels. Jacob was no paragon of virtue, but God blessed him in spite of his cunning and trickery.
A variation of this view is the one you hear if you spend any time watching television evangelists. This is the view that God is just waiting to save us if we’ll only let Jesus in our hearts. This perspective affirms that what happens to us is up to God, but first we have to walk down the aisle at the altar call. The implication is that God is powerless to do anything for us until we take the first step and give God permission. And it leaves you with that worry, “Have I really trusted enough? Have I truly opened my heart to God? Did I know what I was doing when I said I gave my life to Christ, or was I just fooling myself?”
All of those answers to the question of who is responsible for our relationship with God give partial answers. None of them is completely adequate. One thing that’s helpful about the story of Jacob and Esau is the way it illustrates the complex and intertwined relationship between God’s actions and ours. God did have a plan for Abraham’s descendants, and God saw that it was carried out in spite of the turmoil in his family. At the same time it mattered what people did. Human beings aren’t puppets with no freedom and no responsibility.
Jesus is the culmination of that promise God made to Abraham. Jesus is the descendant of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob through whom God has blessed the whole world. He is proof that nothing can divert God from the loving purposes God has for God’s people. God is working out God’s purpose to bring the whole creation back to God, and nothing, not even the power of sin and death, can stop it. The resurrection is a foretaste of what is to come, when God restores the entire creation to the way it’s meant to be.
At the same time Jesus shows us how much each one of us matters to God. We matter enough that he would die for us. When he calls us to follow him, he gives each one of us an important part in his work in the world. The work he gives us isn’t to convince people that if they would only obey God then God would love them. Our task is to show the world that God does love us, each one unconditionally. That lets us speak to those who don’t believe as our equals, all imperfect sinners before God, none deserving God’s grace. We can freely share what we know, that God loves us and has a purpose for us, but we don’t have to feel burdened to make converts of those who don’t believe. We show God’s love as we help those in need, care for the poor and hungry, treat all people with honor and dignity and respect.
My response to Donald when he asked what more he should be doing to convince his mother of Christ’s love was this: “Donald, God is merciful and God is just. Do your best to let your mother know just how important Christ is to you, but remember it’s between her and God what she does with it.” St. Ignatius said it another way: “Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.” It’s God’s responsibility – and ours.
 A helpful outline of the doctrine of predestination, along with its strengths and pitfalls, is found in chapter 7 of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition¸ by Shirley C. Guthrie (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1994.
The prophets of Israel addressed a nation that God had chosen for a purpose unlike that of any other nation – they were to let the whole world know that the Lord is God. America is not God’s chosen nation the way Israel was. America is not the new Israel. The new Israel is the church of Jesus Christ that crosses every national border. The church is the body God has chosen to carry on ancient Israel’s mission of proclaiming that God is Lord of the universe. But America is blessed, and blessings bring responsibilities.
And there are certain things the prophets told Israel that apply to every nation. Those are basic realities that are essential to a nation’s survival. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that, but those of us who serve Christ and who love our country have an obligation to keep reminding our fellow citizens of that reality.
The prophets of the Old Testament remind us of those basic principles that give strength to any nation, and they warn us of the consequences when we ignore those truths. At the heart of what sustains a nation is its concern for the poor, the outcast and the dispossessed. Throughout the Old Testament there is a pervading concern for those who do not share in the prosperity of the nation. When farmers harvested their crops, they were not to pick every last piece of food but leave some of the harvest in the fields for the poor to glean. Every seven years the debts of all the poor were to be forgiven. Jesus affirmed that truth – by healing those for whom everyone else had given up hope, by feeding the hungry, by spending time with those whom others avoided. Jesus showed the power that sustains the universe, the power of self-giving love, when he gave his life for the world on the cross.
God has a special concern for those in need. The nature of God’s love is to reach out and to serve, to give freely and to care for others. Since human beings are made in the image of God, we find our deepest satisfaction when we serve others as Christ serves. Anyone who gives of his or her resources knows how much fuller and richer life is when you’re generous than when you keep everything you have to yourself. Vibrant, healthy churches are those that understand they exist not for their own success but for the sake of the world. Churches don’t get their own houses in order before we reach out to the world. The reason we exist is to reach out, and we find our internal strength by getting outside of ourselves. Someone once said that mission is to the church as flame is to fire. It can’t exist without it. And just as there is something basic about the created order that causes individuals and churches to find their greatest joy in serving others, there is something basic about the way creation is ordered that compels a nation to care for the poor and the dispossessed.
In his book The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britaain, asks why the great religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism – have survived for millennia while the great empires have passed away. He says it’s because the great religions have at their heart a concern for the poor, the needy and the outcast. It’s that concern for the dispossessed and the powerless that aligns them with the center of gravity of the universe.
Amos showed Israel that it was ignoring that basic truth. We often think of prophets as people who predict the future. But the prophets of the Old Testament were more concerned about the present. They told the truth about what they saw going on around them and pointed out the logical consequences of what they observed.
In order to make his point about what he observed, Amos used the image of a plumb line. If you’ve ever been to a construction site, you’ve seen construction workers standing behind little boxes on tripods, squinting behind them and lining them up to make sure the lines of the new building are straight. Workers who are putting up new walls measure angles, meticulously squaring up the new walls to make sure they’re plumb. You don’t have to be an engineer to understand how important it is that every wall is straight and at the proper angle. If the walls are just a few degrees off plumb, if they’re not perfectly perpendicular to the ground, the structural integrity of the building is compromised. Usually it’s something that you can’t see with the naked eye. Do you remember the earthquake that shook the east coast nine years ago? The Washington Monument was closed for almost three years while it was made secure after the quake. From the outside it looked as straight as ever, but the engineers knew that unless it was repaired, it wouldn’t stand.
It’s not just buildings that need to be plumb to keep standing. God used the image of a plumb line to show Israel how it measured up to God’s expectations. A plumb line is what builders used in ancient times to square up walls. It was simply a string with a pointed weight on the end of it. When the builder held the string against the wall that was being built, the weight caused the string to make a straight line perpendicular to the earth’s center of gravity. Whether the wall was built on an incline or on level ground, the plumb line told the builder whether or not it was square. If the wall was not square to the ground, the builder would have to tear it down and start over.
The image God showed Amos was an image of the Lord holding a plumb line against a wall. God was measuring the nation to see if they were plumb to God’s expectations of them. The message Amos conveyed to them was that they were not. Unless they straightened up, God would tear them down and start over, like a builder tearing down a defective wall.
Amos’ message was not one that the people of Israel wanted to hear. In fact, they thought he sounded like a nut. Everything looked just fine. Some were calling that time Israel’s golden years. The time was 760 BCE. Israel had been separated from its southern neighbor Judah for almost 200 years. The nation was at peace. All the economic indicators were strong. Commerce was brisk. Wealth was increasing. Businesses prospered. Art and culture flourished. King Jeroboam II and his court lived in palaces renowned for their ivory walls and furnishings.
But a wall can be out of alignment and the naked eye won’t notice it. That’s why builders use plumb lines and measuring instruments to detect flaws in a structure. And Israel was not as strong and secure as it looked. The king, his advisors, all those who enjoyed the benefits of Israel’s strong economy did not see what else was going on in their land. Children were going hungry. The elderly were ignored and left to fend for themselves. Israel was out of plumb.
Amaziah, one of the religious leaders of Israel who was a personal advisor to the king, told Amos to go away and be critical some place else. He was talking to the chosen people, Israel. Everything was going fine. They didn’t need his words of gloom and doom.
It turned out that Amos was right. Within 50 years the northern kingdom of Israel was gone. The Assyrian Empire conquered them, and they disappeared from the face of the earth. The fact that they were God’s chosen people didn’t save them. They were off plumb, and as surely as an unstable wall will crumble, Israel fell.
What makes our nation great has been the attention we’ve paid to those who are in need. Our industrial might has given us resources to share. Our armed forces have protected our freedom and come to the aid of others. But what makes a nation truly great is its willingness to help those who are struggling, to make sure people are treated as equal in the eyes of God, to ensure that justice is available to everyone, regardless of income. Our greatest leaders are the ones who have reminded us who we are and what true greatness is. Abraham Lincoln inspired us to greatness by appealing to what he called our better angels and reminding us of the basic tenet of the Declaration of Independence, that all are created equal. Martin Luther King Jr. was basically a conservative leader, calling our nation back to the principles on which we were founded, the biblical vision of justice for all. His message was grounded not in some radical notion, but in the word of the prophets and the principles of the Constitution.
It’s a continual struggle. Amos pointed out the discrepancy of the rich of Israel living in ivory palaces while the poor languished in the streets. We don’t have those kinds of discrepecensies in our country, but economists tell us that the gap between the haves and the have nots keeps getting bigger. The populist revolt that we’ve seen in both of our major political parties is a sign that something isn’t plumb, things aren’t aligned as they should be.
The greatest contribution we as Christians can make to this country we love is to keep reminding it what truly makes a nation strong. What makes us strong is not how loudly we profess our faith. It’s not how fervently our leaders stumble over themselves to show they are religious.
What makes a nation strong is how it lives out the belief its people profess in their places of worship, how that translates into the way we care for each other, stand up for each other, give generously to each other. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all have something to offer. True patriots are those who love their country enough to keep reminding it what makes for true greatness.
On this Independence Day weekend, we remember what God has given us. Our goal isn’t to make America a so-called Christian country, where we have some kind of privilege because of the faith we profess. History shows that every time the church has tried to be in control of the civil authorities, things have gone badly. But what we are is salt and light, a reminder of what makes a people strong, a sign of God’s love and compassion as we live and work among people of every faith and people of none. Jesus said it over and over – our strength isn’t in what we get but in what we give. That’s what makes a great nation, a holy nation.