Who was Jacob wrestling with?
When Sabrina Groeschel came to lead worship in October, her sermon focussed on Jacob wrestling through the night with an unknown figure, who is unable to escape Jacob’s grip however hard he tries. Jacob demands a blessing before he will let go—and receives it, along with the new name of Israel (= ‘one who strives with God’), but at the same time his hip is put out of joint and he has to limp away from the encounter. It presents a vivid picture of how the human race can be in conflict with God as well as seeking comfort and assurance. Faith can be a struggle—with ourselves, with God, with the world we see around us. Where is a God of love in the hell on earth that is Syria?
But was another image that Sabrina shared with us that stayed in my mind—and I know that others were equally struck by it. She referred to a lecture given by the American theologian and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, author of “Learning to Walk in the Dark”. Taylor spoke of the elusive side of God and the times of darkness, struggle, absence and silence that we may experience with this God. She described the way in which we so often talk of God as light and of faith as walking in that light and of the sunny side of salvation. But Taylor herself lives out in the country on a remote farm and some nights she goes out onto the veranda and looks up at the moon.
Sometimes the moon is full on, like a headlight, and sometimes it’s just a thin sliver, and sometimes it’s invisible—hidden by clouds or by an eclipse. Taylor speaks of a lunar faith, where the light of God may wax and wane and our sense of the presence of God may ebb and flow. You see, we cannot turn God on like a tap. We cannot control the presence of God. And we may experience seasons when we wonder where God has gone. That is when fellowship and the faith community are so important as we allow the faith of others to hold us. The church is called to be a place where faith is sustained, when for some God is absent or is part of a struggle.
For Jacob the story does not end with the struggle in the dark. As he limps away, he gives a name to the place of this encounter: Peniel, meaning ‘face of God’, for he realises that in the stranger he has seen God. For us, it is Jesus who gives the mystery a face and a name – even in the garden, at night.
with thanks to Sabrina Groeschel for her sermon text.