The scripture for this sermon is Genesis 32:22-32.
I have a lot of vices, too many to count, although my guess is that some of you would be glad to help me add them up. However, one vice not on my list is violence. I am not a violent person. I do not react violently, even when provoked. I have never been in any sort of physical fight with anyone as an adult. I was briefly part of a violent gang…but that was in the fifth grade. And, we named ourselves the Jets, after the gang in the Broadway musical, West Side Story. C’mon, how tough does that sound?
So, when my son Ben wanted to wrestle in high school, I was a duck out of water at the matches. I didn’t know how to cheer. “C’mon Ben, pull that skinny little kid’s arm back farther, farther, let’s hear it crack.” didn’t sound like the sort of encouragement that Pastor Karl should be yelling from the stands. Often, I would find my support for Ben wavering. “Oh, Ben, be careful with that boy’s head. We don’t want anyone to have a concussion. Ben loosen that choke hold, I don’t think he can breathe.” Forget about football, wrestling is pretty violent. Win or lose, most of the time both people in that ring leave marked by the experience.
So, if I spent all day, crossing my wives, girlfriends, children, slaves, and animals over a river, the last thing I would want to do is get in a fight. If someone jumped out of the darkness, I would either try to talk my way out of it or just hand over my wallet. Not Jacob. We don’t even know what the guy wanted. He could have just wanted to offer him a cold refreshment. Jacob didn’t wait to find out. He was rolling along the muddy banks of that river in combat the second he appeared. They wrestled all night long. Sweat, blood, grunts, pain, injury. They threw it down along the river Jabbok. Even when Jacob was injured by a powerful strike, he still held on.
By morning, Jacob realized that this guy is not a highway bandit, but God. Jacob had gone toe to toe with God and not lost. And the story is not told as if God at anytime could have won if he wanted. God is pleading it seems for Jacob to let go. Yet, Jacob won’t let go until he get’s a blessing from God, barak, in Hebrew, just like our President’s first name. Being non violent like I am, I wonder if that wasn’t what God came to give Jacob anyway.
Muslims, Christians and Jews all read this story as sacred scripture and we all understand a barak pretty much the same way. It is a transfer of power from God to us. It is God sharing God’s strength with us. It is God gifting us with a piece of God’s self. When we receive a blessing, we are enabled to leave and continue the struggle of living, emboldened and more confident. Jacob had his wits about him when he demanded that blessing.
We should all be demanding a blessing from God. Demanding something doesn’t sound polite, like the Christian thing to do. Probably, because if you are like me the demands we make on any given day are far from righteous. The last brownie at Messiah Night because I am the pastor. The great parking space at Krogers from the large Mercury with the driver I can barely see over the steering wheel because I was there first. Credit in Krogers for an expired coupon because the print is so small no one should be expected to have to read it.
There are righteous demands though that could fill our day. We can demand our neighbor treats us with the respect a child of God deserves, and they can demand the same from us. My love of my neighbor demands that I drive carefully, without texting or speeding, so as not to injure anyone. And we demand, not ask, not plead, not suggest, but demand that God blesses us in our encounter of worship so we can leave this space ready for the struggles of the week ahead. If we truly believed that God’s blessing makes us stronger, why wouldn’t we demand it? Demanding something is not bad, if those demands make us better witnesses of God’s love in this world.
Many of you know I was one of the people that worked to create HEART Food Pantry here in Reynoldsburg about five years ago. We planned the opening of HEART for two years and stocked our shelves with money we scavenged. We had no money or revenue source after that to continue. We mistakenly thought it would take some time for people to find us, so we could figure the money thing out later. Wrong. Clients poured in.
All of us were people of faith. We believe this stuff. We prayed and didn’t just ask for a blessing, but demanded one. We opened our doors in November and by December our shelves were growing bare. Reynoldsburg United Methodist decided right about then to give HEART their Christmas Eve offering. Like a zillion people go to their Christmas Eve services. We received thousands of dollars, in January from that Christmas offering and HEART has never looked back.
I don’t believe that the wrestling part of this story was necessary anymore than I believe violence is necessary in our lives. I think God was just coming alongside Jacob to give him a blessing, because that’s what God does. I think Jacob responded out of his brokenness and fought God instead of just standing still and letting God love him. Jacob was wounded by the fight just as all of us are wounded when we fight with God. And all of us fight with God at times. My guess is God hopes we won’t take the hard road and just stand still and let that barak land on us. Fight with God if you want, but rest assured it is going to leave a mark.
I don’t believe either that God’s blessing makes all our problems go away. Or that if we have received God’s blessing and we still have problems it is because we have done something wrong. Life is hard. Our bodies get diseases. Relationships can tear us up. Money make us do really crazy things. God’s blessing does not change these truths. Sometimes a barak just gives us enough courage to accept defeat with dignity and grace.
What I do believe with all my heart is that God’s blessing makes a difference for us. Something real happens when we encounter God and receive God. Our lives are changed, but it is the blessing not the limp that is the positive change for Jacob. For Jacob God’s blessing meant the confidence to get up the next day and begin the hard work of reconciling with his brother Esau. For you God’s blessing today might mean, the words to begin a hard conversation with someone you are having trouble loving, let alone liking. We should not just ask for a blessing or hope for a blessing. We should demand it like we should demand all things that we know are good for this world. Because what we all need is a more God in our lives, not less. Amen