Saturday, August 2, 2014

Wrestling in the Dark (August 3 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 18, August 3 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Gen 32.22-31; Ps 17.1-7,16; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.13-21

Wrestling in the dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a wonderful preacher and one of my favourite authors.  Her most recent book is called Learning to Walk in the Dark and it is about the spirituality of darkness.  Now that might be a new concept to some of us.  We’re used to thinking of God as light, as the light that overcomes the darkness, the light in whom there is no darkness.  And I don’t know about you but I kind of like God as light.  God as light brings enlightenment, God as light brings us comfort, God as light helps us to not be afraid of the terrors of the night.

But, as Taylor says, if you pay close attention to the Bible, you soon start to notice that God does some of God’s best work in the dark.  When God wants to make a covenant with Abraham, he instructs Abraham to a lay a series of sacrificed animals on the ground.  Then God comes in the dark of the night as a smoking firepot which sets the animals ablaze.  The Passover and the Exodus from Egypt happen at night.  When God gives the law to Moses, Moses is called up into the dense dark cloud that rests on Mount Sinai.  Moses stays forty days and forty nights and there, inside that dark cloud he sees God face to face.  When Jesus hangs on the cross, Matthew tells us that a great darkness covered the whole land from noon to three o’clock.

Jacob, whose story we’ve been hearing in our Old Testament readings for the past month, Jacob encounters God twice.  Both encounters are at night.  The first encounter we heard about several weeks ago, when Jacob has the vision of a ladder that reaches up to heaven.  The second meeting is the one we just heard about in today’s Old Testament reading.  God comes to Jacob in the dark, and he attacks him.  Maybe that’s why we like God as light so much – the God who comes to us in the dark seems dangerous and unpredictable.

Jacob is, it must be said, a pretty unappealing character.  He is a con man, a lying, deceiving trickster who cheats people to get what he wants and then runs away when things get too hot.  Why God has chosen and blessed Jacob is not readily apparent.  First, Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright.  Then, he tricks his father Isaac in order to get the blessing which is due to Esau.  Esau, understandably, is furious.  He hates Jacob and he resolves to kill him.  When Jacob finds out, he runs away, far away, to Haran, the city of his mother’s family.

Once in Haran, he spends 20 years trading tricks with his uncle Laban, who is a pretty good trickster himself.  They battle over Laban’s daughters, and over years of service and wages, and finally over sheep and goats, but in the end, Jacob prevails.  When he starts to fear Laban’s anger, he sneaks out in the middle of the night and runs away once more, this time with Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel as his wives and with a huge flock that came originally from Laban’s sheep.

He gets away from Laban, but Jacob still has a problem.  His brother Esau, the one who vowed to kill him, is waiting for him on the other side of the river, and reports say that he has 400 armed men.  Jacob is afraid.  So once more, he pulls out his bag of tricks.

The first thing he does is pray to God for help.  Worth a try don’t you think?  Then Jacob gets more strategic, separating his people and his herds of animals into two companies and sending them off in different directions, thinking that if Esau finds one company and destroys it, at least the other will survive.  Then, he sends his servants on ahead with a large gift of animals for Esau, thinking that he might be able to appease him that way.  And finally, he sends his wives and children on ahead of him.

And with that Jacob is alone, and his bag of tricks is empty, and he is vulnerable and afraid and it is night and it is dark.

And in the darkness, Jacob is attacked, and he wrestles with a man, a man whom Jacob soon realizes is God.  The man cannot prevail against Jacob.  Jacob clings to him and will not let him go.  The man hits Jacob and injures him, dislocating his hip.  But still Jacob will not let him go, and Jacob demands God’s blessing and finally God relents and not only blesses him but gives him a new name:  Israel.

Have you ever wrestled with God in the dark?

I have a friend who very recently found out that her partner was seriously ill, and he was taken to hospital for tests and treatment.  And when that happened she prayed to God and she asked God to heal her partner.  In fact, she was pretty blunt about.  She told God of her faithfulness, and how she had always tried to do follow God and do the right thing, and how now it was time for God to do the right thing and she pretty much demanded that God should heal her partner.  But the next day the doctors spoke to her and told her about the test results, and told her that her partner was dying.  And that night, she grabbed hold of God again, and she wrestled again, and she came to accept that her partner would die, but she wouldn’t let God go and she told him that he had to make sure that her partner didn’t suffer and that he had no pain.  And in the end, she got that blessing.  She spent the next few days by her partner’s side, and though it was hard, she and the hospital staff made sure that he was well looked after and that there was no pain or suffering as he passed.  It was, as these things go, a good death.

God came to my friend in the dark and they wrestled.

Have you ever wrestled with God in the dark?

It’s not something that most of us would ask for, it’s not an experience that we would ever seek out on our own.

But for some people, wrestling with God in the dark can be deeply transformative.

Jacob not only received a permanent limp and a new name, but he was a changed man.  For the first time, rather than try his tricks or run away, he stood his ground and faced his opponent.  He wrestled, and for those of you who have ever tried wrestling, you’ll know that there is a strange sort of intimacy in a wrestling match.

When dawn breaks, Jacob crosses the river, moves back in front of his wives and children, and faces Esau.  He embraces him and the two are reconciled.  And Jacob, now Israel, goes on to be the father of a new nation.  Whatever it was that happened in the dark somehow transformed Jacob and reshaped his character.

As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in her book, this idea of a God who meets us in the dark to challenge us and transform us is a bit unsettling.  It’s a long way from the God of the philosophers that many of us are more comfortable with, the God who sits off at a distance and goes by names such as the “Supreme Being” and the “Unmoved Mover”.  It seems that the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, has the potential to become much more intimately and unpredictably involved in our lives.

I once had a professor in seminary who told us that the best way to assess someone’s spiritual health is not to ask them questions about what they believe or don’t believe but rather to ask the question, “Is your relationship with God passive or dynamic?”

I think he was on to something.  Perhaps it’s a question each one of us should be asking ourselves.

And so, we’ll ask it this way during our open space this morning:  Have you ever wrestled with God?


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