Proper 13 (2008) Year A RCL Principal
Wrestling with Angels
When I was younger – in my early Teens, I think, there was never anything on TV on Saturday’s apart from Grandstand or ‘Dickie Davies’ world of Sport.’ As someone who didn’t appreciate spectator sports, this used to leave me frustrated and annoyed! There was one thing that grabbed my attention, though, (and considering it was 25 years ago now, it must really have grabbed my attention!) and that was the Saturday Afternoon ITV wrestling! This was in the days of ‘Big Daddy’ and ‘Giant Haystacks’ – it mainly involved huge men grunting a lot, running around a ring and jumping on each other!
But it was the sense of theatre, the make-believe aspect of it that really caught my attention. I was naïve enough to think that they might really be fighting – my illusions have since been shattered! But apart from that aspect of the make believe there was a sense of unreality about it – it seemed to be a game, not real, something that didn’t really hurt, despite the moans and groans on the TV. Of course, I now know that none of it was real, and the US wrestlers have taken the whole theatrical aspect of wresting to extremes with ‘WWF’ and ‘WCW’ (ask my nephew if you want to know what that stands for). But wrestling, at least any wrestling outside of the Olympics, has connotations of falsehood, unreality about it.
So I wonder how it felt to Jacob! There by the brook of Jabbok he settles down to rest and is wrestled by ‘a stranger’ who fights with him all night. Perhaps it seemed like a dream, it is certainly a strange picture. Jacob is waiting upon God, seeking reassurance and guidance before meeting his brother Esau after many years estrangement. Remember – Jacob had tricked Esau out of his inheritance, he had taken the blessing meant for the eldest son, and had gone ‘on the run’ as it were, fearful of his brother’s vengeance. Jacob had been tricked in return, though, and found himself with two wives: having been promised one sister, his first wedding was to the other, and he had to wait to marry the woman he had hoped for.
But Jacob had overcome his difficulties, he had turned his back on treachery, and deceit and had sought to do as God commanded. In the course of this he had become a successful man, he had built up large flocks, and owned land. As time had past, however, this had not been enough, and he felt the need to be reconciled to his brother. So he set off back to the family lands to meet Esau and to ask his forgiveness. In the earlier part of this chapter we see his fear about his brother’s reaction, we see him sending gifts ahead of himself in order to express his penitence, we see him worrying that he literally might not make it out of an encounter alive – after all, the last time they had met Esau was ready to kill his brother there and then.
So Jacob goes away to pray, to wait upon God, to seek God’s help.
And what happens.
A stranger comes along and wrestles with him!
But Jacob doesn’t roll over without a fight, he struggles back, even when the stranger cheats and dislocates Jacob’s hip. He holds on to the stranger and will not let go of him until he tells Jacob his name.
Of course, to those of us who know the story, we can say ‘yes, Jacob was wrestling with God’ – or more accurately with an Angel, because in the Old Testament Angels are the solid manifestation of God, not separate beings but, in some way, mini-incarnations of God. Yes, Jacob wrestled with an Angel, and was willing to keep struggling, even when things became difficult, when things became painful
And in return, he was blessed. He had seen God face to face, in some way at least, and had prevailed. He had wrestled with an Angel.
And it seems obvious that this offers some parallels to the nature of prayer in the Christian life.
To go back to the TV wrestling – there’s a fair amount of prayer that comes from the big daddy school of prayer – lots of grunting and groaning, and awful lot of noise, great theatre, wonderfully entertaining – but where is the substance??? It’s easy in ministry to make our prayer wordy and impressive, and look back after a service and say ‘actually did I really say anything there????’.
There is a place for formal prayers, for liturgy, for prayers that are led for us – but not as a replacement for our own prayer.
Real prayer, to be honest, is hard work. If we take prayer seriously, our Bible story tells us, then it’s going to be like wrestling with God.
Prayer is not about saying the right words, or about being in Church. Prayer is learning to wait on God, to listen, to be willing to be quiet – to be open to God working.
And that can be difficult, because when we are praying, and I mean really praying, we may well encounter God. We may find ourselves struggling in prayer. We could be struggling over finding God’s will, we could be struggling over having to leave something behind, we could be struggling with God because we have things that are blocking our relationship with Him and God wants to move us on in our faith.
There are as many reasons why prayer can be a struggle as there are people in this world – we may all have our reasons – but ultimately the question comes back…
Do we want to meet God? Are we willing to take the risk of finding out more of who God is?
Because, like Jacob, if we do meet God – we will be changed. We may suffer, because in the face of God’s holiness, God’s power and even God’s love we can feel battered and bruised, emotionally if not physically. But we will be changed – and ultimately we will be blessed – because we will encounter God and we will prevail.
And we will see the generosity of a God who is actually willing to come and meet us, who wrestles with us not because he is difficult, awkward or obstinate, but because by wrestling with us he allows us to see him more and more, and he can touch us with his grace and generosity because he is close to us.
And if you wish to see a little of God’s generosity then I will finish by pointing you towards our Gospel reading for today – as Jesus is confronted with a hungry crowd and has only five loaves and two fish with which to feed them. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, breaks it and feeds all five thousand men (plus women and children who aren’t included in the headcount, apparently), then there are also twelve baskets of leftovers at the end.
That’s the kind of God we approach in prayer, abundant, loving, caring, willing to cater for our needs. But that’s the God also who we wrestle with, who as he reveals himself to us strips away the things that prevent us from being close to him, sometimes painfully. This God is willing to meet us in our prayers – but are we willing to face the consequences??
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish far more all than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)