A sermon shared at Suttons Bay Congregational Church, October 16, 2022
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
I have reached an age where I have concluded that there are some things I probably will not accomplish in life. Aspiring toward them has become futile. I have given up trying.
For example, I now realize that it is unlikely that I will win the Nobel Peace Prize. On reflection, I guess I shouldn’t have paid that professional speechwriter to prepare those acceptance remarks. Or paid that carpenter to build a cabinet to display my Nobel Peace Prize medal.
And, in retrospect, I probably didn’t need to have that cabinet built so large that it could also hold my Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy awards. My Pulitzer Prize. My Super Bowl trophy. My heavyweight boxing championship belt. And the photographs of me winning my Olympic event. Whatever that might be.
I must now admit that it’s not looking good for my career as a brain surgeon. A fighter pilot. A secret agent. A race car driver. A Supreme Court Justice. A fitness instructor on a Caribbean island. Or a runway model. Especially, a runway model.
Of course, I’m not alone in realizing that some of my dreams will never come true. As my wife and keeper, Lisa bears the heavy burden of trying to modify some of my sketchiest behaviors. The futility of those attempts could serve as fodder for a twelve-part Netflix series. And that’s just Season One.
We might think that the famous story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the mysterious stranger is similarly a story about futility. Biblical scholars have long debated the precise identity of Jacob’s adversary. Was he an angel? God himself? God-made-human? In a sense, it doesn’t matter.
After all, whatever the answer to that question, Jacob’s effort was clearly doomed. In the end, he couldn’t win. And if his struggle was vain and his loss was a foregone conclusion, then we might ask ourselves: What’s the point of this story? And we might further ask: What does the mysterious stranger mean when he says that Jacob prevailed when it seems pretty clear that he didn’t?
One possible interpretation of the story goes like this:
Jacob’s persistence in the fight tells us something important about how to live a life of faith. Despite the insurmountable odds, Jacob kept on wrestling and God delighted in his doggedness. Jacob did not “prevail” in the sense that he made his opponent submit—to the contrary, the mysterious stranger put an end to things by dislocating Jacob’s hip. But Jacob did “prevail” in the sense that he never gave up.
On this reading, the moral of the story is that we should go forth and grapple likewise. We should wrestle through our relationship with God relentlessly and unceasingly. I know that it’s possible to offer this interpretation of the passage because I did so myself in a sermon shared at the First United Methodist Church in Chelsea, Michigan, in August of 2010.
If that interpretation is right, then this story has some ideas in common with a famous essay written by the philosopher Albert Camus about the story of Sisyphus. As you’ll recall, Sisyphus was a figure from Greek mythology. A king of Corinth, Sisyphus had lots of tricks up his sleeve and, as a result of his deviousness, managed on multiple occasions to elude death.
Those clever maneuvers angered Zeus, the Chief Executive Officer of the Greek gods, who sentenced Sisyphus to a dreadful punishment. Zeus declared that, for all eternity, Sisyphus would have to wrestle a giant boulder to the top of a mountain. But, just as the rock was about to clear the crest, it would become too heavy for Sisyphus and would roll all the way back down.
Sisyphus would have to start over again. And the terrible cycle would go on and on forever and ever—push the boulder up the mountain, watch helplessly as it tumbles to the bottom. It is from this myth that we get the phrase “Sisyphean task,” by which we mean any labor that is very difficult and utterly futile.
It’s a pretty depressing story, but Camus offers us an intriguing take on the myth. He acknowledges that Sisyphus is trapped in an awful situation. But Camus argues that Sisyphus can triumph over his condition by recognizing it, understanding its absurdity, and persisting in his task in a spirit of courage and defiance. “There is no fate,” Camus writes, “that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Even, perhaps especially, in the midst of failure and futility, Sisyphus has the ability to put the nobility of his character on display.
Camus concludes: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
We might understand this story from the book of Genesis as having a similar structure and as holding a similar lesson. Jacob finds himself in an absurd situation: wrestling with the most powerful force in the universe. He knows that all of his effort must finally come to nothing. But the circumstances present Jacob with an opportunity to show who he is and what he’s made of. His actions testify to his fortitude and his determination.
Maybe we must imagine Jacob happy, too.
Now, I don’t think that’s a bad instruction to take from this passage and, if it speaks to you, then go with it. We find that same message in lots of biblical texts. It aligns well with ideas expressed in other religions, like Buddhism, and in the works of many western philosophers, especially the Greek and Roman Stoics. And, as I say, in a sermon shared over a decade ago I suggested that this was what the story of Jacob’s wrestling match was getting at.
But here’s the thing: I’ve come to believe that this may not be the best interpretation of the passage or, for that matter, even a correct one. That’s a marginally more tolerable way of saying that I’ve come to believe that I may have been wrong. Seriously wrong.
Alas, the more often and more closely I’ve read this passage, the more firmly convinced I’ve become that this story probably isn’t about Jacob’s unceasing perseverance. So, if by some remarkable coincidence you were in that Methodist church in Chelsea, Michigan in August of 2010 and heard me give that sermon, see me afterward. I’ll give you an apology and a refund.
Now, here’s why I’ve changed my mind. This story can be about Jacob’s unceasing perseverance only if his perseverance was, indeed, unceasing. We can celebrate Jacob’s refusal to stop and to give up only if he, in fact, never stopped and never gave up. In other words, this interpretation works only if the battle went on constantly throughout the night and Jacob never backed off or quit until his hip went one direction and the rest of his body went another.
Now, the text might support that interpretation of the story. After all, the passage says that Jacob grappled with the mysterious stranger “until daybreak.” And if we take that language literally—which for many years I did—then it does indeed sound like Jacob fought for hours and hours and hours without so much as a break for Gatorade until the stranger finally injured him so badly he couldn’t continue. That’s one way to understand the passage but, as I say, it’s not the only way and I’m no longer sure that it’s the right way.
The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn’t account for the fact that the Bible presents Jacob as a real, historical, actual human being—not as a creature of myth. In other passages, Jacob gets tired, worried, frustrated—all the things that real, historical, actual human beings get. The interpretation therefore doesn’t account for the fact that there are physical limitations on how long we real, historical, actual human beings can wrestle with each other. And that’s putting aside the limitations that exist on how long we can grapple with God or one of God’s angels.
Think about it. The duration of an Olympic wrestling match is five minutes. A round in a professional men’s boxing match lasts three minutes. At the karate school where I help train black belt candidates we often have them spar in rounds that go for just one minute. It may not sound like much, but, trust me, sixty seconds is a very long time when someone is punching you in the stomach and kicking you in the head. Bear in mind that I’m talking here about super-fit high-level athletes and we don’t expect any of them to fight for eight uninterrupted minutes, let alone eight uninterrupted hours.
Sometimes a light suddenly goes on in my head; more often, it’s like the slow clockwise twist of a dimmer switch. So, after I’d read this story for about the one-hundredth time it finally occurred to me that Jacob couldn’t possibly have engaged in this wrestling contest without ever stopping. True, the story says he grappled with the mysterious stranger until daybreak; but it doesn’t say that Jacob did so unceasingly. I just read that idea into it. Maybe you did, too.
The more I’ve reflected on it, the clearer it has become to me that Jacob must from time to time have paused in his struggle. Rested. Caught his breath. Stopped fighting. Laid there like the proverbial sack of potatoes. Wondered what he’d gotten himself into. Tried to figure out some new angle, trick, or tactic. Even given up for a bit—until something inside him said, “try again.”
I have some sympathy with Jacob. For many years, my grappling partner at the karate school where I trained was an ex-Marine who outweighed me by thirty or forty pounds, easy. Halfway through our exercises I’d find myself wondering what I’d gotten myself into—and remembering that there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine.
The heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once sagely observed that everyone’s got a plan until they get hit. Jacob may have had a strategy when the wrestling started. But it can’t have taken long before he realized that it wasn’t working. And it certainly wouldn’t have taken him all night to recognize that nothing was ever going to work.
To think otherwise would require us to believe that Jacob had superhuman strength and endurance. But no biblical evidence for that proposition exists. To the contrary, Genesis suggests that Jacob was all-too-human, and probably smaller and less formidable than his brother Esau, who was a hunter and a denizen of the fields and forests.
But if celebrating the power of Jacob’s unceasing effort is not the point of the story, then what is? What’s the life lesson we should take from this passage? What does it all signify? And what does the mysterious stranger mean when he says that Jacob has “prevailed?”
I think the answer has something to do with persistence—but not the persistence of Jacob. I think has to do with the persistence of God. Because, do you know where God went when Jacob weakened? Do you know where God went when Jacob faltered? Do you know where God went when Jacob couldn’t do it anymore? Do you know where God went when Jacob gave up?
God went …. nowhere. Nowhere. God stayed right there with Jacob. Right there with Jacob’s twitching muscles. Right there with Jacob’s pounding heart. Right there with Jacob’s burning lungs. Right there with Jacob’s shattered will. Right there with Jacob’s broken spirit.
You might recall that, four chapters earlier in Genesis, Jacob had another encounter with God that was somewhat similar. Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and Esau was consoling himself by plotting to kill Jacob—as brothers with grudges tend to do in the Hebrew Bible. Isaac, Jacob’s father, sent Jacob away so he could stay safe and find a wife. Along the way, the sun set and Jacob had to sleep on the ground with a stone for his pillow.
During that uneasy night, Jacob had a beautiful dream in which the Lord came to him and said: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Let’s hear that again: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” When Jacob awakened, he declared that this obscure plot of land in the middle of nowhere was “the house of God and the gate of heaven.” “Surely,” Jacob announced, “the Lord is in this place and I did not even know it.”
In that story, Jacob did not expect to find God in the middle of nowhere. But God was there. And in our story for today, Jacob did not expect to find God in the midst of his stopping, his quitting, his giving up the fight. But God was there, too. Every single time.
God loved Jacob just as he was—tough, scrappy, trying to get a solid grip on the powerful and elusive stranger. But, even more importantly, God loved Jacob just as he wasn’t. He loved Jacob when he wasn’t strong. When he wasn’t tireless. When he wasn’t indominable. When he wasn’t anything more than a frail and finite human being—as are we all.
At the center of our faith stands the belief in a God of compassion. But a truly compassionate God doesn’t just love us when we’re striving and working hard and trying our best. A truly compassionate God loves us even when we’ve run out of steam and strategies and strength. That sort of God loves us when we are down and out and when we don’t see a way to get back up and back in. That sort of God loves not just the bigness of our hearts but also the bigness of the holes that rip open inside of them.
An old adage holds that nobody loves a quitter. Well, welcome my friends to the church of the God who does. The church of the God who loves the downcast and the dispirited. The church of the God who loves those who can’t go on. The church of the God who wraps the despairing in his everlasting grasp. The church of the God who in those moments of failing and futility, and in an ultimate act of grace, holds us close, and presses his face next to ours, and whispers to us in that still small voice: “My beloved child. I am with you. And in my arms you have prevailed.”
A couple of months ago I told you about my friend Scott, the philosopher. As I mentioned, he’s written a book called Nasty, Brutish, and Short about the thoughtful conversations he’s had with his sons Hank and Rex and his wife Julie. Some of those conversations are about God, and Scott and I have had those sorts of conversations, too.
Scott’s not sure that God exists, but, if He does, then Scott has lots of questions for Him. Many of those questions relate to the problem of why a good and compassionate Supreme Being would allow so much evil and suffering in the world. Those questions have challenged people of faith for thousands of years and we call the efforts to answer them the work of “theodicy.”
You do not need to go inside a philosophy department or a divinity school to find people struggling with theodicy. You can find them in emergency rooms. In pediatric cancer centers and hospital burn units. In homeless shelters. In courtrooms and prisons. In food pantries. In psychiatric wards. In recovery meetings. In the sketchy parts of town—and the fancy parts as well. In this sanctuary, perhaps today, perhaps every single Sunday.
In my experience, parents who have lost a young child can end up spending a lot of time doing theodicy, sometimes moving away from their faith in God. I told Scott that I can understand how that happens. But I also told him that, in my theology, God understands, too. How could a truly compassionate God—a truly compassionate God—do otherwise? Scott’s still a skeptic. But he also says that that’s his kind of God.
So, maybe I imagine Jacob happy, but maybe not. Maybe I imagine him wrestling to the point of exhaustion, to the point of collapse, to the point of surrender, to the point of tears. And maybe I imagine God sobbing right along with him. Just as I suspect God does with the parent who is holding the hand of their dying child, staying beside them all night long until the morning comes. Just as God stayed with Jacob.
Today marks the first Sunday on which I’m sharing a sermon with you in my new capacity as your Lay Minister for Worship. From the moment that Robin broached the idea of this role with me, I’ve been mentally compiling an inventory of all the things that someone in such a position should be—and that I am not. Preaching the week after being installed in the role seems like a recipe for ensuring that all of you will experience immediate buyer’s remorse.
I feel daily reminded of an observation by the late New York Times columnist David Carr, who wrote: “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time too soon.”
But on this day I take some comfort in the story of Jacob, especially as I understand it now. I know that I have some wrestling ahead. I know that God loves me just as I am. I’m confident that He can polish up whatever shabby gifts I have and can put them to His good use. God enjoys a challenge, and I’ve given Him a whopper.
And I also know that God loves me just as I’m not. He loves me in all my absences and inadequacies and failures. In all my weakness and my wastefulness. In all my questioning and my quitting. In all those times when I seem to out-Prodigal the Prodigal Son.
I know that He loves you in exactly this same way. He loves you even when you’re out of courage and out of commitment, out of fight and out of faith. Even when you quit. Even when you wander away. Even when you are in the spiritual, psychological, or physical middle of nowhere.
Of all the good news that our faith brings us, surely this is some of the best of it. Knowing that the sacred has its own special geography. Knowing that all of the ground we walk is holy ground—because God walks it with us. Knowing that God is always in the places we are, even when we did not at first see it.
Knowing that our moments of despair and surrender have a divinity of their own—because although we may quit, God does not. Knowing that He holds on to us, just as he held on to Jacob. Knowing that He will not let go, not ever.
Knowing that over loneliness
even over death
this, this, this
is how we prevail.
Praise the Lord that it is so.
And the people said: Amen.