Sermon given at Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 3 August 2014
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
by Rev. David D. M. King
It’s called liminality, from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.” Liminality is defined as “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the ‘threshold’ of or between two different existential planes.” Being on the threshold of or between two different existential planes. Being almost there, but not quite yet. Having already lost your previous identity, but not yet having a new identity. Like on the day of your wedding. You’re no longer really single—you’ve left that identity behind—but you are not yet married. Or that time between graduation and a first job. You’re no longer a student, but neither are you an independent, working adult. Or that time spent driving in the U-Haul between your old town and your new town. You’ve already left, but you’re not there yet. That is the state of liminality—a time of transition, loss of identity, excitement, expectation, fear, trepidation—liminal space.
And it is on that liminal plane that Jacob encounters God. After fleeing his homeland in secret, in fear for his life, having stolen not only his brother Esau’s birthright but also his father Isaac’s blessing, after spending 20 years working for his uncle Laban in Padam-aram, having married his cousins Leah and Rachel and sired eleven children, after fleeing from Laban, again in secret, to return to the land of Canaan, the land of his fathers, having acquiring numerous animals and slaves along the way, Jacob now must cross over. He must face the past he had fled. He must face his brother, whom he had cheated, who last they met had wanted to kill him. He must face his dishonor at running away from his family in the secrecy of night. He must face himself, the choices that he has made, the wrong steps he has taken, the person he was and person he has become.
But first he must cross the river. Jacob sends messengers, several of them in turn, each bearing gifts of animals for his brother, Esau. He separates all of his possessions into two groups, so that if Esau attacks one, the other will have a chance to escape. And he sends all of these across the river ahead of him. Last of all, he sends his wives, his concubines, and his children.
But Jacob himself stays behind. He remains there on the threshold, almost there, but not quite. Suspended between two realities, the past and the future. Just on the border of destiny.
“And a man came and wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.” It’s unclear just exactly who this man is. Jacob demands of him his name, but he refuses to give it, saying, “You must not ask my name!” Different translators and interpreters handle it differently. For some, it is God Himself who wrestles with Jacob. For some it is an angel or a divine being. The most literal translation of the Hebrew word is, “the gods.” And some later Christian thinkers have said that if Jacob wrestled a God-man, then it must have been Jesus.
However we interpret it, though, Jacob wrestles with this stranger all night. They are evenly matched, it seems, and since neither of them is willing to concede, they continue the struggle, on and on, with no clear winner.
On the one hand, this seems like a very strange story. After all, it seems to imply that God, the Almighty Sovereign of the Universe, appeared in bodily form to a man in ancient Canaan, and that the Almighty was not strong enough to overcome a simple human. And both of these ideas seem ridiculous to our faith. God is supposed to be the formless power beyond representation, beyond depiction, and would certainly not appear in bodily form to someone. And if God were to do so, wouldn’t God be able to defeat even the World Wrestling champion in a wrestling match, to say nothing for this pip-squeak shepherd? Maybe these sorts of things could happen, but they certainly couldn’t happen today.
And yet, on the other hand, this is a very familiar story. Because, who among us has not at some point in our lives struggled with God? Who among us has not spent time locked in combat with the lover of our souls? Who has not grappled with the questions of faith?
God, what am I doing? Do you have a plan for me? What is it? How do I know that you are real? How do I know that you actually care for someone like me? Why can’t I feel your presence now, when I’m in my greatest need? Why have you abandoned me? God, if you love me, if you love us, why do you let such horrible things happen? Why don’t you respond to the suffering of your people? Why did you let them die? What is left in this life for me? Why should I pray if I don’t ever seem to get what I pray for? God, where are you? Who are you? Who am I?
Sometimes we are told that good Christians shouldn’t ask these kinds of questions. You shouldn’t doubt God, God’s actions, or God’s motives. You shouldn’t put God to the test. All you need to do is have more faith. Questions cause the weak of faith to fall away. Just trust. Just believe. Hold on to your faith blindly, no matter what doubts or questions arise in your mind. That’s what a good Christian is supposed to do.
But this story begs us to challenge those beliefs. Look at how the story ends. Jacob has been struggling all night. Finally, as daylight approaches, the stranger, realizing that he can’t win, decides to cheat. He throws out Jacob’s hip. But even so, Jacob will not relent. He cries out defiantly, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And eventually the stranger is forced to concede, saying, “Jacob, you have struggled with God, and you have struggled with human beings, but you have prevailed. I am giving you a new name. You will no longer be known as Jacob, the supplanter. From now on you will be known as Struggles-with-God. You will be known as Israel.”
Israel, as you know, became the name for the whole of God’s faithful followers. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. And even in the church, we often call ourselves the New Israel.
And isn’t it interesting that the name we use for the faithful, the very model of our faith, is Israel: Struggles-with-God. We are reminded in this story that faith is not just about blindly following. No, faith is about struggling, struggling with the world, and even struggling with God. And we are promised that if we persevere, if we refuse to let go, then we will surely be granted a blessing.
This might mean a drastic change in the way we look at our faith. It means that the very core of the faith is in questioning, struggling, sparring with God. In the dark times of life, in the places of doubt, the times of change and upheaval, in those liminal spaces, we can wrestle with God. We can demand our answers, demand a blessing. We may not always get the answers that we expect. And we may, like Jacob, leave the encounter scarred, with a limp as a constant reminder of our bout with God. But we will not leave rebuked or scolded for our lack of faith. Struggle is at the heart of the faith, and rather than weakening us, as so many fear, it makes us stronger, more firm in our relationship with God. May we all be fortunate enough to be blessed with the insight, confidence, humility, and strength that comes only when we wrestle with God.