July 15, 2018
Back when I was younger, I worked a summer or two as a lifeguard. Parents would sometimes come in and drop off their kids for me and the other teenagers to watch after. Those who did stay around the pool would spend the day either visiting with friends or napping or getting lost in a book.
They pretty much left it up to the youngest “adults” at the pool to be their kid’s keeper for the day. I guess it’s good that they trusted us that much.
And I guess they knew that being a certified lifeguard, which was all this particular pool would hire, meant we’d been trained on how to rescue and revive their kids if it ever became necessary.
I remember my own training. I wasn’t very confident in myself. I didn’t feel like I was a particularly good swimmer on my own, so having to swim for two made me really nervous.
We’d been working on resuscitation techniques, and I was getting that stuff down. But knowing that I would have to do a couple of water rescues during training gave me lots of anxiety.
So, when the time came and our instructor started pairing off “drowners” with their rescuers, I watched as each of the smallest victims were one-by-one assigned to comparable and more capable life guard trainees.
But me? I got Mitchell.
Mitchell was probably one of the most affable and fun people in our class. He was one of the younger in our group, but was by far the tallest and broadest. He was just a big, fun guy.
And I had to rescue him from the deep end of the pool!
I liked Mitchell. Everyone liked Mitchell. He was fun. That’s why I couldn’t understand why in the world he kicked and stiffened up and fought against me while I was trying to “rescue” him.
It wasn’t until after we finally got out of the pool, gasping and nearly throwing up that I realized he wasn’t really fighting my efforts to save his life, he just didn’t completely trust my abilities, so he tried to help me help him.
That “help” nearly took us both under. Thank God there were enough others there to save us both if it ever came to it… and it nearly did.
Just so you’re aware that I’m aware of my own hypocrisy, I confess here and now that I had issues with my own rescuer when it came my turn to be the drowning victim.
The inclination to “fight” our rescuers is apparently the natural thing to do. For some reason, It’s hard to completely trust the person who is trying to get you to dry land.
I remember once when I was about 12 years old, I went on a camping trip with about 10 other guys my age. We were all newspaper carriers… we were delivery boys for the Richmond Register, and our route supervisor took all of us camping at the lake one weekend.
We got to our spot, pitched our tents and ran straight to the lake for a swim.
No one told me about the drop-off. I’m splashing around with all the other guys, when all of the sudden the bottom disappeared… and I panicked. I started flailing, trying to find something or someone to help me feel something other than water under my feet.
Jeff Curry was that someone.
He saw my distress and got to me as quickly as he could. He still had some ground under him, so he reached out his hand for me to grab onto. I didn’t have time to ask him if he’d mind saving my life. I didn’t have the luxury of asking him if he was even capable. I just reached toward him, pulled him out into the deeper water with me, and pushed him under so I could stand on his shoulders… or head… or whatever would keep my own head above water.
Talk about selfish!! Good God! I was the picture of selfish in that moment. I pushed my own friend under water so I could stay above it and breathe.
Poor Jeff. He was one of my best friends. We’d known each other since first grade. He and I, along with Danny Alexander were known among our friends as the Three Musketeers, because where you saw one, you always saw the others.
Jeff had every reason to never speak to me again after that. But after he got out from under my panicked feet, under water mind you, and pulled me back toward the shore, he just sort of gave me a really puzzled look. I thanked him for being there and asked him not to tell our supervisor about it because I had to lie about my swimming skills to be able to come on this trip. He didn’t tell and we remained best friends for a good while after that.
I’ve thought about it a few times since then. I panicked and nearly killed my rescuer.
We tend to do that, don’t we?
Some of you here are nurses, and others of you work in the medical field. You’ve seen or had patients who make your work to make them better, maybe even save their lives, very difficult. They likely know that you’re looking out for their best interests, but their impulse is to resist.
Today, we read the story of the night that Jacob, the Jewish patriarch, had a fight with a man believed to be God.
I’m not talking about an argument fight… I’m talking about a knock-down-drag-out fight that left one of them walking away with injuries.
Now, to me, this story is really, really out there.
There are a lot parts of this thing that require a whole lot of what I call “faith license.” It takes a whole lot of faith to take it as we read it.
Not every bible scholar believes this was actually a fight between Jacob and God. Many believe, if anything, Jacob may have been duking it out with an angel… not that that makes it any more believable.
Regardless, here we are, Jacob and someone are wrestling to settle an argument.
Now, let me say about this, I’ve never known anyone to ever get into a fight unless they have an idea they can win… they intend to win.
So, getting into a fight with God and thinking you could ever, ever come out on top is just not thinking things through.
And if I can whoop God’s butt on anything, well let’s just say, that’s not the kind of God I’d want to be trusting my life, eternity and everything else to.
Think about it, anyone who picks a fight with God has to be delusional enough to think they are stronger, smarter, wittier and have more staying power than GOD!
And if you believe God is all-knowing and knows things before they even happen, you can’t pull a surprise a move or a sucker punch.
It’s just dumb to pick a fight with God and think you’re going to win.
Another thing about picking a fight with God, doing such a thing makes God your adversary, your opponent… not your ally.
And it also goes without saying that if you’re fighting against God, it’s because you think God is wrong about something.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was purportedly asked if God was on his side. “Sir,” Lincoln said, “my concern is not whether God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Now let’s just pause here for just a moment. Saying God is always right is a huge general statement. God may always be right, but our take or interpretation of who God is, what God does, what God says and how God feels about particular people and particular things isn’t as concrete and sure as that.
I’ve had people tell me that God doesn’t love me, and they’ve used the scripture to prove it. And they think they’re right about it. But I read the same scripture, and I think they’re wrong.
This whole story about Jacob fighting with God has left me with so many questions. If Jacob was fighting with the almighty, all-knowing God, why did God have to ask his name? Since this man/angel/God had to end the fight at daybreak, was he a vampire?
The story says that whoever it was not able to defeat Jacob… does that give anyone else in here pause about God’s abilities?
There are simply a lot of questions… a lot of holes in this story. There are questions that I’ve not been able to find satisfactory answers to.
I look at what I do know, and I remember that Jacob had a lot of internal struggles going on. Before this time, he hadn’t been completely honest with his parents and brother and family. He had deep seated family hostilities. He was a determined man that some would consider to be ruthless. He was a con artist, a liar, a manipulator. His name meant “deceive,” and more literally it means “grabber.”
By the time we catch up with him here, in his wrestling match with whoever it was, he was feeling the weight of that dishonesty, and he was on his way back to try and make amends with his brother, a brother who had vowed to kill him, and he wasn’t sure this brother was ready to bury the hatchet.
But here is what we DO know about this moment, and the man Jacob…
Our scripture today says that the man wrestling with Jacob did not kill him.
Growing up as a church kid, I was sorta left with the impression that that was God’s preferred way of dealing with things… killing us off and feeding us to hell if we had questions or doubts.
But Jacob didn’t die. As a matter of fact, when it was all said and done, although he came away with a limp he’d never get over, Jacob also came away with a new name… Israel.
At the end of the fight and the end of the night, God renamed Jacob. His old life and all the things that weighed on him still belonged to him, but now he was a new man with a new name. He was Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God.”
I’ve had my own issues with God. I’ve had moments when I questioned everything about this existence, God’s existence, these words and stories, my purpose, God’s purpose.
I’ve wrestled with my faith in God. I’ve cussed at God and pretty much dared God to interrupt me when things were going well.
Just like Jacob, although more in the psyche world or spiritual world, I’ve had my own rounds with God. I’ve challenged God. I’ve even made the decision more than once… or twice… to walk away from God.
Then there are the opposite times when I’m feeling romantic with God and feel I should be closer, more intimate. But sometimes getting close to God increases the risk of disappointment. In her book Accidental Saints, pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells of the time she was asked by a sincere young seminarian, “Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?” Nadia replied, “What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.”
That’s honest. Half the time, I want to be as close to God as I can get. Then in the blink of an eye I wish God would leave me alone. Getting close to God means I might have to love someone I don’t even like, or invest in someone or something that takes away from my personal life. It might mean letting go of an idea or dream that’s dear to me.
The story of Jacob’s fight with the man, or the angel, or God, or whoever it was, leaves us with practical questions. I hope we don’t get bogged down in them, because it also leaves us with a powerful lesson.
You can’t do hand-to-hand combat with someone from a distance.
Nadia, (if you’ve noticed, I reference her a lot, she’s a wonderful resource for inspiration and for living life)… Nadia says that despite all her failings, God may have gotten something beautiful done through her when:
* She is confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that she cannot hate her enemies,
* She is unable to judge the sin of someone else because her own sins are too much in the way,
* She has to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite her desire to be left alone,
* She is forgiven by someone even though she doesn’t deserve it and her forgiver does it because they, too, is trapped by the gospel.
* Like us here at BUCC, when traumatic events happen in the world and she cannot make sense of them, she has a community that gathers with her every week to mourn and pray with her, and
* When she ends up changed by loving someone she’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends her way to teach her about God’s love.
You can’t have those beautiful experiences or learn those incredible lessons without a tussle or two, sometimes with someone else, often with yourself, and maybe even with God.
So, maybe it’s time to look up and say, “OK, God. Bring it on.”
GENESIS 32: 22-31 CEB
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there.30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.