What might it mean to wrestle with God? To me as a young Christian, the very thought would have seemed bizarre, even inappropriate. I grew up as part of a church where the leader was seen as having the power to interpret scripture, and expected everyone else in the congregation to live by his teaching from the pulpit. There was no room for wrestling with his interpretation, let alone with God.
And yet in the OT reading today we see Jacob, one of the three great Hebrew patriarchs, physically wrestling with God. And this story’s by no means unique. In different passages of the Bible we see Abraham arguing with God. We see Job in his agony challenging God’s idea of justice. We see Jonah calling God's judgement into question. We see the writers of many of the Psalms crying out in despair at a God who doesn’t seem to be living up to his promises. We see Jesus himself, in agony on the cross, echoing the words of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
Of course, in every case there is a point to the story. In each case the person crying out in anguish eventually sees and submits to God’s wisdom. But in each case their cries of anguish are an indispensable part of their journey to understanding. And there is no reticence on their part, no sense of impropriety in pouring out their questions, their arguments, their challenges. Neither is there any sense of disapproval on the part of the Bible authors who recorded their words and actions. And I can’t think of a single case in the Bible where God himself shows anger or contempt for honest questions and doubts. Even when people, to use that rather appealing modern phrase, really throw their toys out of the pram.
Jacob’s story is a case in point. Remember that the Hebrews have an age-old taboo regarding the face of God. From the earliest days, they’ve believed that seeing God face to face results in instant death. And yet in this very ancient story, Jacob not only meets God face to face but touches him. Not only touches him but fights him. Not only fights him but wins – at least until God kind of cheats by disabling him. Do you remember this from the reading earlier?
It says that Jacob is left alone, and a man (who we are given to understand is God in human form) wrestles with him all night. When God see that Jacob isn’t going give up, he dislocates his hip, but still Jacob won’t release his grip. “I’m not letting you go until you’ve blessed me,” he insists. God asks, “What’s your name?” Then he says, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you’ve struggled with God and humans and have overcome.” And lest we are in any doubt that this is God speaking, the story ends with Jacob saying in wonderment, “I’ve seen God face to face, and lived to tell the tale.”
So what can we learn from this? Do this story and the others like it give us permission to question, to challenge, to struggle with God?
We have to be careful in answering a question like this. God is God. He is holy, perfect in wisdom and righteousness. Our most basic duty as Christians is to submit humbly to his will. And yet many of us, at some point in our lives, will face situations in which we really cannot understand what he is doing. Some-times we can’t feel his hand on our lives even when we know as an abstract truth that he is there. Sometimes, even as we acknowledge his supreme wisdom, we can feel angry at what he has allowed to happen: the loss of a loved one, a large scale loss of life somewhere in the world, or the relentless grind of poverty and hunger and oppression in which the poor continue to suffer and the guilty never seem to get punished.
And then, I believe, God is pleased for us to be honest, to cry out to him, to ask him what on earth he was doing allowing such and such to happen. To admit that we don’t understand. To confess that we are angry. To plead with him time and time again to show us the love and power that we associate with his name.
This morning, the children in the 10.30 congregation are thinking about the lovely parable of the persistent neighbour: the pushy fellow who keeps hammering on a neighbour’s door in the middle of the night shouting, come on, open up, I need a favour. He goes on and on, ignoring the householder’s pleas to be allowed to go back to sleep. Until in the end, Jesus says, the disgruntled householder gets up and gives the pushy neighbour what he wants. Not for the sake of friendship, Jesus adds, but for the sake of peace and quiet.
Jesus tells this story with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, of course. The grumpy householder is meant to represent God. But Jesus isn’t saying that God is like a grumpy neighbour who gives us what we ask for just to shut us up. He’s making a more subtle point: If a grumpy human neighbour will get up in the middle of the night to help you just because you keep on nagging him, how much more will our loving father God respond to those who keep on and on talking to him.
Thus it’s not just in the OT that we see people being persistent in their dialogue with God. Jesus himself gives us permission to keep on and on asking for what we need. He never promises that God will give us exactly what we ask for. I’ve know so many people ask God for cars, exam passes, freedom from the consequences of their actions… God will not automatically grant our precise requests. But where Jesus does give us assurance is that if we carry on talking to God, if we carry on putting our case, if we ask God searching, honest questions and go on and on asking for the things we need, two things will reliably happen.
Firstly, he will give us what he knows in his wisdom that we need. Secondly, in the course of that open, honest dialogue with him, we will come to understand his purposes, We’ll see answers to prayer in ways and places we never expected. And above all, we will feel his hand, his peace, his blessing on our lives.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer….