I have read that it takes 10 years to learn most crafts. That’s about right in the case of preaching. There may be some child prodigies out there--gifted souls, for whom it comes more easily, but most preachers have to put in their time and practice, practice, practice.
When I was new to ministry, and I had a preaching assignment, I asked our church secretary to read my draft. Bless her soul, she was happy to do that. Faye, her name is Faye, had a keen sense of what works. By the time she became my go-to-source for sermon editing, she had been the church secretary for 15 years. The head pastor wrote all his sermon-drafts long-hand on yellow legal pads. She transcribed them. That meant she had read a lot of sermons— a lot of GOOD sermons, actually. Our head pastor was an able preacher.
Faye was always gentle with me. That was the other reason she was my go-to person, for editing. So for example, one time she handed back a sermon and said: This is great, Gay Lee,,but you’ve put what should be your ending paragraph at the beginning of your sermon.” She was right. I had given away the punch line in the very first paragraph.
Another time, she handed back my sermon with, “You certainly learned a lot in seminary. Thank you, Professor Einstein.” Her way of saying my head was too much in the clouds.
One time, Faye handed back my draft, and she said, “Good as usual Gay Lee, but how come you use the word wrestle so much in your sermons?”
Wrestle. I DID use that word a lot back then. The reason I used it so much? I myself had just come through four years of seminary, Hello. I may have graduated, but I was still in wrestling mode. I still am, to a degree. Aren’t we all?
Back when I was raising kids, I was at the community swimming pool one summer’s day. My girls were not old enough to drive themselves to the pool, but they were old enough to know how to comport themselves in the water. So, free time for me. I was lounging in a lawn chair, a Bible on my knees, reading, thinking. Until a friend sat down in the lawn chair next to mine. I wish I could recreate his accent, for you. Anyway, think slow, Texas drawl. John said, “My family is attending a new church. But it’s got some strange ideas. I think we are going to have to go somewhere else. You know what the preacher said last Sunday? He said that Jesus is God,” Stretching out God so that it almost sounded like two syllables.
John was not new to the faith. How could he have gone to church his whole life-long and not picked up on the trinity—you know, God the three in one—God, Christ and the Holy Spirit?
We understand John’s difficulty, though, don’t we? The trinity IS difficult to wrap our brains around. Some days I get it. Some days, I don’t. Some days I think, “Does it really matter?“ Tell me you don’t have trouble understanding the trinity, too.
I suspect, John was just at the beginning of HIS wrestling with this particular church doctrine; for sure he and his family would have been hard pressed to find a church that doesn’t subscribe to Trinitarian doctrine.
We wrestle with scripture, too. John 3:16 is a lovely passage. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who is in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” That was part of last week’s scripture reading, as a matter of fact. But how about the line that comes just a few verses later? It goes like this: “Those who believe in him [Jesus] are not condemned, but those who do not believe in him are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Non-believers are condemned? Is the author of John saying that everyone who does not believe in Jesus is going that-a-way? Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics? How about their children? Do they go that-a-way, too?
So we wrestle—with doctrine, with scripture. Finally, we wrestle with God. In fact, I would say, that my wrestling with God is what sent me to seminary. I lost both parents fairly early in life. Although I couldn’t have articulated it then, I needed some time away from daily routines, to figure out how God fit in with those tragedies.
I suspect that a lot of people who fill the pews on a Sunday morning, are wrestling with the question, “Why did God allow this tragedy in my life—this tragedy in the nation, or this tragedy in the world? Death, illness, destruction, wars-- they are like over-full suitcases we drag around with us, as we go about our lives.
It’s God’s will. That’s the platitude a parishioner offered to the famous preacher William Sloane Coffin. Rev. Coffin’s teenage son’s car spun out of control on an icy bridge. Alex’s car plunged into the water and he drowned. As that parishioner entered William Sloane Coffin’s home the day after the tragedy--a casserole in hand, she shook her head and uttered those words to the Coffin family, “It’s God’s will.” Rev. Coffin chased after her into his kitchen and set her straight. As he said later in a sermon, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it is NOT the will of God that Alex die; …when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Either an all-powerful God willed Alex’s death, or at least could have done something to stop it and didn’t (which is basically the same thing), or God’s heart was the first to break. These two concepts of God are at opposite poles. God is all powerful or God is all loving. You can’t affirm one AND the other.
There IS a third option, though.
And, sorry, in order to share this with you, I am going to become Professor Einstein, but just for a moment, Faye forgive me!
Dorothee Solle was a famous German theologian born in 1929, that is, before WWII. I am currently reading one of her books. In the book, Solle explores where God was or wasn’t(!) during the Holocaust.
She says that It IS possible for us to affirm that God is all powerful and God is all love, IF we are also willing to affirm that God is unknowable. That’s the conclusion the author draws in the book of Job.
Remember, God says to Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
But theologian Dorothe Soelle says that if we affirm that God is unknowable, as a way to reconcile God’s power with God’s love, then God must remain merely a concept, an idea. How do you pray to a concept? How do you talk with an idea? We are meant for relationship with God.
And that is exactly the point of our story for today. Jacob is all alone in the desert. He is about to have a show down with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified. “If ever there was a time I needed you God, it’s now!” Jacob prays.
Scripture reads that a “man” comes to Jacob. He quickly realizes that this man is actually God in human form.
Jacob wrestles with God as WE wrestle with God—He wrestles with him at night, which is appropriate—that’s when we most wrestle with God, lying in bed, our minds in overdrive with worry and despair.
During Jacob’s wrestling match, his hip is wrenched out-of-its socket. Still Jacob wrestles on. He’s hoping to wrestle until daybreak so he can see God’s face. Here I should just remind you that it is written in scripture that the one who sees God’s face will die. Jacob is willing to risk even death. He wants to know God THAT much. Unfortunately for Jacob, but also fortunately, God disappears just as the sun splits the darkness. So just a glimpse of God’s face. But it is enough. AND God gives Jacob both a blessing and a new name--the new name is Israel—in Hebrew it means Struggles with God.
Subsequently, Jacob, aka Israel, becomes the progenitor of a new nation—a nation of Israelites—a whole people who wrestles with God. We are part of that lineage, through Jesus Christ, who is God, still and always, part of the trinity, whatever that word means to you.
So it is that like Jacob, we hang in there with God, and don’t let go. Yes, we may be wounded—a loved one dies, a flood devastates the town, your home. We have this promise, though. If we don’t give up in our efforts to understand God better, in the end we will steal a glance of God—and there WILL be a blessing--a closer relationship with our maker.
At the end of today’s story we imagine Jacob limping toward the meeting with his brother—limping yet nevertheless strong and proud. Jacob has prevailed in his wrestling match with God. We have faith that in the end of our wrestling with God, so will we. Amen