Sunday, September 24, 2023

Phil Kniss: Wrestling for love

Struggling with God
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30; Mark 14:32-36

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

We all probably have an idea in our heads
of what it means to wrestle with God.

Wrestling with God comes in various forms.
It might be emotional or psychological wrestling.
We feel alone. We feel abandoned. We feel confused.
We feel angry or betrayed.
And these emotions get all tangled up between us and God.
Our anger may be aimed directly at God,
because God did not come through
in the way we hoped or expected.
God did not fix the injustice.
Did not heal the brokenness.
Did not pull off a miracle.
Or maybe, just didn’t intervene when things were out of sorts.
So our hurt and disappointment takes the form of anger,
and we find ourselves wrestling, emotionally, with God.

Or, our wrestling might be intellectual wrestling.
We might be struggling with finding a theology that is coherent,
and works for us, intellectually.
So we think harder. Read more. Debate more.
We interact with other thinkers and wrestlers.
It’s a wrestling of the intellect,
trying to come to peace with thinking about God,
in a way that works for us.

Or, our wrestling might be deeply spiritual.
St. John of the Cross, almost 500 years ago,
wrote about the “dark night of the soul.”
That’s a phrase often used to describe what it is like
when God seems to go silent, or absent,
or to abandon us,
or when the spiritual core of our being
seems more like a black hole,
a vacuum, utterly empty.
It describes the spiritual state of the poet of many of our psalms.
It is what Jesus likely experienced on the cross
when he cried out,
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I think it would fair to characterize Jacob’s
nighttime wrestling match,
in any one, or all three of these ways.
As Jacob was about to meet his estranged brother Esau,
his relationship with God was probably also on the ropes.

But I want to suggest there was something else going on,
that was way more profound,
that had much greater import,
than Jacob trying to work out his fraught relationship
with God and with Esau.

Before I jump into what I think it was,
I have to say something about the Narrative Lectionary.

Every year, we are given a selection of stories and readings
from the Hebrew scriptures to work through in the fall,
in narrative order,
from Genesis, through the Torah, the judges, the Kings,
the writings, and the prophets.
Not everything, just a sampling.
We get a different set of readings each year,
so over a 4-year period, we cover a lot of the Old Testament.
But we aren’t given any direction on how to read these stories,
how to tie them together,
or what overarching theme to give them.

It’s always up to us to look over the readings,
see what sticks out to us,
that might be a useful way to frame them.

And this year, I noticed something in nearly all these stories.
I noticed, how much God notices.
I saw a God who sees.
Hence, the graphic image we’re using this fall—
a deep space photo of the “Eye of God” Nebula,
or Helix Nebula.
And God seeing, is not just a casual seeing. It’s a deep looking.

When God created the universe,
and crowned creation with beings made in God’s image,
soon afterward these humans rebelled against God’s call,
and started going their own way.
From that time on, nearly all that happens in Hebrew scripture
is God looking deeply . . . with a longing gaze,
with love and affection,
noticing . . . what is happening with creation,
and especially with the humans God made,
and God sees, God notices, and God acts.
All in love.
There is an indisputable thread throughout the scriptures,
telling a story of the love of God for creation,
and the strong pull God has toward human beings.
God longs to be in a mutually loving relationship with us,
to restore what has been broken,
to recreate shalom,
to have deep communion.

I noticed how in most of these stories,
God was seeing something, and then acting on what God saw.
Always moving toward God’s beloved ones—
in response to their needs, their dilemmas,
in hope of reconciliation.

In Genesis 2, God saw the human was alone, and gave them a partner.
In Genesis 18, God saw Sarah and Abram were barren,
and gave them a child.
Later, we’ll hear stories where
God saw the misery of the enslaved Hebrews, and delivered them;
God found the people floundering in the wilderness,
and gave them Ten Words and a law that grounded them.
God saw the dysfunction of Saul’s dynasty,
and put David on the throne as Israel’s shepherd.
And many more.

And God saw . . . our theme for the next couple of months.

So today,
God saw Jacob in the dark of the night.
God saw Jacob wrestling with his own demons,
of deception, of manipulation,
of estrangement from his twin brother.
God saw . . . and went toward Jacob.

Which brings us to this deeper way of reading this story.
This is not just a human being trying to work out
their own tangled relationship with God, and with a brother.
This is God fighting for connection and communion
with the human beings made in God’s image.

This is not a one-sided wrestling match—
which is the way we usually think about wrestling with God.
We usually think this is something completely internal with us.
We wrestle with our thoughts and feelings and intents toward God.
While God is the passive party,
just waiting for us to get things worked out within us.

But no, that is definitely not the struggle we have described for us
in Genesis 32.
This wrestling match is most definitely two-sided.
The writer even makes that point clear, when it says,
in the New International Readers’ Version,
“A man wrestled with him until morning.
The man saw that he couldn’t win.
So he touched the inside of Jacob’s hip.
[And] Jacob’s hip was twisted.”

Now, to be clear, we aren’t told the identity of “the man.”
Was it actually a man? a dream? an angel? was it God?
What we are told, it how Jacob saw the situation.
Jacob was the only one who could have told the story.

And in the story “the man” tells Jacob,
“You have wrestled with God and with people.
And you have won.”
And Jacob says, in response,
“I saw God face to face. But I’m still alive!”

So this story is framed as a wrestling match
between a human and God.
And it was a draw. A tie.
Actually, the God-figure admitted defeat.
“You have won,” he said.

So what do we make of this struggle with God?
Which one of the two wrestlers had more at stake?
had more invested in the fight?
Jacob’s life and safety was at risk.
He was about to face down his wealthy and heavily-armed
brother Esau, whom he had offended.
Jacob’s purpose in life was on the line,
because God had told him earlier of God’s plan
to bless many people through him.

But what did God have at stake?
God was wrestling to connect
with the beings created in God’s own image.
God was striving for communion
with God’s own beloved children.
God was wrestling for a love connection with the human race.
Wrestling for love.
God had taken a great risk.
God created humans that were deeply interwined with Godself,
then gave them free will,
the freedom to reject it all.
But that was the cost of love.
This wrestling match had God’s whole project on the line.

Jacob’s life path was moving quickly toward disconnection.
God saw.
So God approached in the night,
to fight for the connection God longed for.
God challenged Jacob.
And Jacob prevailed.

In a way.
In another way, God won.
God reconnected with Jacob.
God gave Jacob a blessing.
And God gave Jacob a permanent mark—
a twisted hip joint—
a reminder for life,
that God’s future and Jacob’s future were deeply intertwined.
So God’s end was achieved.
The communion was reestablished.
And Jacob’s end was achieved.
This struggle gave him the strength
to encounter his brother Esau, and be reconciled.

There is good news in this story for us, too.
We may find ourselves wrestling with God.
And for prolonged periods of time.
This story reminds us the struggle is not one-sided.
God is wrestling for connection with us as well.
God has to wrestle, because of love.
Without love, God could just manipulate us,
and force the connection.
But instead, God wrestles.
God struggles to connect.
Because of love.
And for love.

Maybe you will find that encouraging,
in your own dark nights of the soul,
when you are wrestling internally.
Imagine God in the ring,
facing off with you,
longing to put you in a hold of love
that you will not find a way to break free of.
And that wrestling hold—
which at first you might struggle against,
you eventually lean into and accept.
And the hold is transformed into embrace.

Imagine a God who chooses to wrestle for love.

And now, let’s join together in words of confession . . .

one Loving God,
We confess we often fail to appreciate your persistent pursuit
of an intimate relationship with us, your beloved creation.
all Forgive us our self-centeredness.
one Wrestling God,
help us lean in to your hold of love.
Help us strengthen our own grip.
all Keep holding on to us, as we strive to hold on to you.
[silent reflection]
one God forgives us, loves us, and leaves us with a blessing.
We are marked for life.

—Phil Kniss, September 24, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

No comments:

Post a Comment