August 6, 2017

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 32:22-31


On May 7 this year, my wife and I celebrated our first ever wedding anniversary. One year is probably nothing if compared to the length of marriages that most people have in this congregation. But one year is enough to make us realize that a married life is nothing like the happily ever after life that Disney princes and princesses enjoy at the end of their movies.

In our marriage, there are arguments, disagreements, even disappointments. We hurt each other more often than what we hope we would.

But I believe that our love for one another actually grows out of these struggles. From these arguments and disagreements and even disappointments, we both learn more about each other; learn to forgive and learn to see what the other sees. We learn to value our love for each other more than our own opinion. No married life is picture perfect. It’s never easy, but I believe that, just like a pearl is built from oyster ‘tears’, love often grows through pain.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we deliberately look for arguments with those whom we love. What I’m suggesting is that we learn to expand our horizon and see arguments or disagreements not as a sign that a relationship is breaking down, but a sign that a relationship is alive and growing. Arguments, disagreements, and disappointments are parts and parcels of a genuine relationship, any genuine relationship.

If that’s the case in our relationship with our loved ones, why do we often expect something different in our relationship with God? If our relationship with God is real, then it’s normal for us to have an argument with God, to disagree with God, even to be disappointed by God.

There are many examples in the Bible about people arguing with God, disagreeing with God, even disappointed by God. When God told Abraham about His plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomora, Abraham argued with God, trying to change His mind.[1] When it was Moses who heard God’s plan to destroy the people of Israel, he pleaded with God to change His mind and be merciful to His people. The book of Job was all about a righteous man, Job, who was angry with the injustices done to him and tried to ‘sue’ God in an imaginary court. Even Jesus himself struggled with God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane.[2]

These people in the Bible struggled with God’s will; some even argued with Him. Yet they were not punished because they dared to challenge and question God. In the case of Job, God even defended Job’s right to challenge Him.

Our Bible reading today from the book of Genesis is another example of the moment when God encouraged a person to struggle against Him. The man who wrestled with Jacob was a mysterious man; his identity was unclear. He came in the dark of the night, thus further obscuring his true identity.

The whole encounter itself was like a dream. It happened when Jacob was all alone in the middle of the night. But it was not a dream. The struggle was real and Jacob was wrestling with a real man.

Some had suggested that the man was an angel of God. But the encounter tells us that the man was more than an angel. Jacob asked the man for his name, just like Moses asked God for His name when he encountered Him for the very first time.[3] But the man refused to give his name to Jacob.

Indeed, Jacob knew that he was not wrestling with an angel or a mere mortal; he was wrestling with YHWH himself, the God of his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. He knew that this was the same God who met him twenty years ago when he was all alone in the dark after he ran away from his home.

This partly explains why Jacob sent his family and all of his belongings ahead of him. He must have wanted to be left alone so that he could meet the God who promised to him, twenty years ago, that He would be with him no matter what.[4] Jacob was about to face the situation that he ran away from twenty years ago, i.e. facing his twin older brother, Esau, who tried to murder him. He knew that, just like twenty years ago, he wouldn’t be able to face the challenge without God by his side.

But this time, God did not visit Jacob spectacularly. This time, Jacob didn’t see a stairway connecting heaven and earth and angels going up and down on it. This time, God came to Jacob in a more threatening way. This time, God came as a man, in the middle of the night, who, just like Esau, tried to kill Jacob. But Jacob refused to surrender and the two wrestled all night long.

This story is indeed an extraordinary story. It is a rather unusual story even for Old Testament’s standard. It challenges our common perception about how God relates to us humans. Here, God was not seen as a distant being who made His decision up in heaven and gave His final order to human beings down here on earth. In this passage, God was not far; God was near, so near that His skin touched Jacob’s skin; His breath met Jacob’s breath; He bruised Jacob just like Jacob bruised Him. In this instance, God was a person who got involved in a close physical encounter with another person.

Jacob knew that he was no match to the mysterious man, but he did not give in. But at the end of the fight, God was not offended by Jacob’s stubbornness.

Jacob himself was surprised by this. He said to himself that he had met God face to face, yet he was let alive. The Hebrews believed that no one could see the face of God directly and live. Even Moses himself could only see God’s back, but not His face.[5] Jacob, on the other hand, saw God’s face all night long when he wrestled with Him, yet he was still alive.

More surprisingly, God was ‘pleased’ that Jacob did not give in and He gave His blessing precisely because Jacob did not surrender and continued to fight. Jacob would not have received the blessing if he had chosen not to fight.

Friends, we often hear that God demands obedience, even total submission to His will. But the passage today gives us a different perspective. Here, God wants us to be active participants in our encounters with Him. Here, God wants us to challenge even to question Him.

This is another proof that the Hebrews never saw their relationship with God as a static relationship devoid of the intricacies, the ups and downs that define any relationship. For the Hebrews, their relationship with God was alive and dynamic. And just like any other normal relationship, their relationship with God was filled with arguments, disagreements, and sometimes disappointments. Yet these are all signs that their relationship was real, just like the God whom they worshipped was real.

Friends, God provides a safe space for His people to express our feelings and thoughts to him. The best relationship is the relationship where people can be open to and honest with one another. A relationship where people don’t feel safe to express themselves openly is not a nurturing relationship, but a relationship that limits one’s growth and potential.

In our relationship with God, we too can be afraid to express ourselves. And our fear can be born out of fear for punishment or a taboo or tradition or other things. But today, we are reminded that God wants us to be honest to Him about everything.

And God’s love for us is strong enough to withstand even the strongest expression of emotion that we show to Him. After all, in the words of the Apostle Paul, God’s love for us is strong enough that He died for us on the cross when we were still sinners.[6]

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Genesis 18:16-33

[2] Exodus 32:9-14

[3] Exodus 3:13-14

[4] Genesis 28:10-22

[5] Exodus 33:18-23

[6] Romans 5:8