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Wrestling With God

The following sermon was preached by Emily Johnson, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 24, 2013.


Genesis 32.22-31

There is a common saying:
“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”

This saying can be found emblazoned on bumper stickers,
various t-shirts of sports teams
or perhaps even on the seat of the matching sweat pants of said teams.

While I think I understand
the motivational aspect behind the saying
I have never been able to get over the logical fallacy of the statement,

what doesn’t kill you does not make you stronger
but in fact weaker and an easier target for death,
ask any predator in the wild who is hunting for their dinner,
they will tell you that it’s much easier to snack on those
weakened by age, disease or encounter with other predators.

 And yet, as humans
we seem to find value in struggle
and even seek it out.

 There is a measure of persistence in us
that keeps us returning to things
that logic and common sense say we should stay away from.

 

Common sense should have told Jacob
that being alone in the dark
when he was expecting an attack
from a slighted older brother he had not seen in years
was a bad idea

 and yet alone and in the dark he remained
and was attacked by a stranger
and found himself in a wrestling match.  

In this he was persistent
and apparently good at wrestling
for his attacker found the need to play dirty
and put his hip out of joint.

 

If Jacob had had a strong sense of self-preservation
he would have relented at this point,
conceded defeat in exchange
for what remaining bodily health he possessed

 but he kept wrestling,
wearing down his opponent so much
that the one who had started the match
requested that it end

but Jacob would not stop
until he received a blessing from this stranger
and Jacob got what he asked for
a blessing and along with the blessing a new name.

But…this blessing and name come at a cost,
Jacob will limp for the rest of his life.

When I read this story
and thought of this community
that re-forms each year to struggle with God
the refrain that kept going through my head was this:
“We cannot wrestle with God and come out unscathed.
Struggling with God will damage us in some way”

 we wrestle with God in many ways,
the decision to come to seminary
with school work and relationships,
professors and staff have their own struggles
with God and this place as well

 and in the midst of it all
there are the dislocated hips,
the times where life seems to be playing dirty

 my class, we have had our fair share of dislocated hips haven’t we?  
lost jobs, miscarried pregnancies,
divorce, broken bones and hearts,
the death of a classmate,
painful internships and complicated candidacy.

 A strong sense of self-preservation would dictate
that we should have quit this wrestling match long ago
and yet here we are,
still holding on for dear life,
requesting that we be blessed and receive a new title
And not only do we hang on
but we designate these years
a holy time of encounter with God and God’s people
just as Jacob designates the site of his wrestling match holy
saying “For I have seen God face to face,
and yet my life is preserved.”

Sometimes I wonder about us…

The more skeptical of you
might stop me and point out
that in painting this picture of struggle and blessing
I have strayed into the dangerous waters of theodicy
by implying that God was the one
who directly caused the deep pain and suffering.

The ambiguity of the Hebrew narrative
helps me plead my case.
As those of you who just took Dr. Klein’s Pentateuch mid-term
know so well
the final version of the text clearly states that it is with a man that Jacob wrestles
but at the end Jacob interprets the figure as God.

God works through humans
even when we mess things up.

 The pain and suffering we experience
is not caused by God
but by the brokenness of people in a sinful and imperfect world

but God is one who works through us
to transform the pain and suffering that we inflict upon each other
so that though we start out wrestling a man in the dark
we end up wrestling with God.

So my classmates
you and I have kept wrestling
because though hurt
we have seen the face of God in our wrestling partners.

 In the people we met on CPE, MIC, on internship, in this community.
In those times we saw the face of God,
got to hold God by the hand in a hospital,
got to hear God speak words of blessing and affirmation.

 

Why would we stop wrestling
when wrestling means that we get to intimately encounter God?

And yes,
we will not come out of this wrestling match unscathed
but I think we have to limp
so that we do not become the unjust judge,
people of power who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.

In a perfect world
God would not choose to use suffering
as a pedagogical tool
but this is not a perfect world,

so God does what is foolish (point to the cross)
what seems to be a stumbling block to us,
God works through the suffering that is already there
to change the world

and the good news is that God is persistent in this task

God is persistent in calling us into relationship,
like a younger brother or sister on a long car ride
who keeps poking us until we lash back
and end up in a wrestling match.

God is persistent in always being where there is suffering
with those who are suffering
and God is persistent in blessing,

God’s persistence shows up in worship

we feel the persistence of God’s grace
in the slippery wet waters of baptism,

we hear God’s persistence in the word,
calling to us, poking at us,

we taste the persistence of God’s blessing
in the bread and wine of the table,
forgiving us seven times seventy

 

God pokes and pokes
and it is only when we finally respond to God’s persistence
and give in and wrestle with God
and ask for a blessing
that we realize we have been blessed by God all along.
And we are transformed.

So as the sun starts to rise
and I limp off to a new phase of my life and ministry
perhaps I should not be so worried
about the logic of the catchy sayings of athletes

for the logic of my life in God
appears to be even more flawed than theirs
but I’m not letting go any time soon.

 

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