The Contender

Sep 22nd  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Genesis 32:22-30

A little review is in order.  We’ve met Abraham and Sarah.  They were told that they would become the parents of a great nation, even though both of them were approaching their expiration date.  When three strangers showed up at their tent and told them that Sarah would soon be pregnant - somewhere in her nineties - Sarah laughed.  The child of her laughter was Isaac.


Isaac is a rather pathetic figures in scripture.  He really is little more than a “bridge” character - filling in the space between Abraham and Isaac’s own children.  When Abraham dies, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who buries his father in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased and in which Sarah had been buried. 


Isaac married Rebekah, whose name means “to captivate.”  Evidently, she swept old Isaac right off his feet.  They had a set of twin boys - Esau and Jacob.  Esau was more favored by his father.  Jacob was more favored by his mother. 


Isaac’s eyesight had pretty well dissolved and it was time to pass on the birthright to the eldest of his sons.  That was Esau.  But Rebekah helped Jacob deceive his father into giving him the birthright and then, pardon the expression, all hell broke loose. 


So, now, we’re up to Jacob.  Of Jacob, Presbyterian minister and writer, Frederick Buchner says:


Twice he cheated his lame-brained brother Esau out of what was coming to him.  At least one he took advantage of his old father Isaac’s blindness and played him for a sucker.  He out-did his double-crossing father-in-law, Laban, by conning him out of most of his livestock, and later on, when Laban was looking the other way, by sneaking off with not only both the man’s daughters but just about everything else that wasn’t nailed down, including his household gods.  He wanted the moon, and if he’d ever managed to bilk Heaven out of that, he would have been back the next morning for the stars to go with it.1


That was Jacob: unsavory, unprincipled, unscrupulous. 


When we find him in our story for the morning, Jacob is alone.  He has sent his family, his slaves, and his possessions to the other side of the River Jabbok.  He stands in the darkness of the night.  He knows that the next morning, his brother Esau will be where Jacob now stands and, based on the past, that reunion will not be a happy or tranquil one.  Jacob stands in fear of what tomorrow will bring.


And then, we are told in Scripture, that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  We are told nothing about the man.  There were old Canaanite myths and stories of river monsters that would rise from the waters and attack human beings.  One commentator suggests that Jacob was wrestling with himself - his guilt, his hubris, his self-importance. The great seduction is to always come up with that one meaning that will unlock everything that is ambiguous.


But whoever Jacob was wrestling had his hands full.  Jacob went toe-to-toe, Mano-a-Mano.  It was a classic draw - a divided card among the officials, had any bothered to show up. 


The dawn was beginning to turn the night sky bright when the stranger went for the decision.  The stranger hit Jacob in the hip - a below-the-belt shot - unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, fifteen yards penalty.  “It’s nearly morning,” the stranger says, “let me go.”  “Not until you give me your blessing and tell me your name,” says Jacob. 


“You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Jacob pushes on, “Tell me your name.”  To know someone’s name is to have control over them.  To know someone’s name is to have the power to make them do what you want them to do.  “Why is that you ask my name?” The stranger has no intention of playing one of the old trickster’s games.  But the stranger gives Jacob his blessing and is gone.


Who was that man?  We don’t know and the story does not flat-out tell us.  But, for Jacob’s money, most of which was ill-gotten, that stranger was God.  Jacob called the place “Peniel” - which means “face”/pene of God/“el.”  And when the sun had fully risen in the skies, we are left with the image of a battered and bruised Jacob limping off to meet his brother.  That limp was with Jacob the rest of his life - the evidence of his contest at the Jabbok.


Now, this is the part of the sermon where I am supposed to tell you what that means.  I am supposed to impart some sage wisdom and insight that brings all the pieces together and packages it in a way that you can take it with you.


But, though it goes against my training, I’m not going to do that this morning.  The notion that such a remarkable story can have only one meaning is, to me, ridiculous. 


When I was a little boy, I had a set of Childcraft books.  Google it.  In one of them, there was a unit of Aesop’s Fables.  You read the one page story and at the bottom of the page, there was the word, in italics, Moral.  And then some pithy little saying was offered to make sense of the story you had just read.


These biblical stories are not little tales that have a moral at the end of them.  “And here’s what the story means…”  And yet we preachers, in our exalted arrogance, deign to tell you exactly what such a narrative means. 


So, I’m not doing that this morning, which doesn’t mean I won’t do it on another morning.


But, let me give you something to consider, because it has been something I have wrestled with while thinking about this story. 


Too often, we think of God as unapproachable, remote, withdrawn.  God is up there somewhere and beyond our grasp.  God exists on a different plain from the rest of the creation.  Right?  Ever thought of God that way?


But, in this very unique and important story, God is not like that at all.  God is down in the dirt.  God lays hands on human beings and grapples with them.  God is less like the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo and more like one of the characters from the WWE. 


And that suggests that God is not unwilling to go a few rounds with any of us.  God is willing to take on our questions, our doubts, our suspicions.  God is perfectly happy to mix it up with any of us about anything, anytime, anywhere.  God is more than willing - and often engages us - and even more often initiates - a little brew-ha-ha with us.


And the story also suggests that God is not put-off by whoever and whatever we are.  Jacob was one of the most conniving finaglers you’ll likely find.  He was a cheater, a liar, a deceiver.  He stole from his father-in-law and robbed his own father. 


Still, God took him on.  God laid hands on Jacob and wrestled him all night long.  And, when God realized that Jacob nearly had the best of God, God popped him one in the hip in order to avoid being beaten by Jacob. 


So, if you are carrying around the misguided notion that, for whatever reason, God is going to be put off, or appalled, or scandalized by your doubts and hesitations and questions, think again.  If you harbor some notion that because of something you once did, or something you left undone, that you will somehow repulse or disgust or rebuff God, you’ve got another thing coming.  If someone has told you the lie that you are an offense to God because of who you are and who you love - guess again. 


God does not reject us.  God does not abandon us.  God does not turn the divine back on us.  Not…ever. 


God can handle whatever you bring to God.  God will take you on with all your imperfections.  God will go toe-to-toe with any of us and all of us.  God’s invitation is simply, “bring it on.”


But, fair warning: if you choose to go one-on-one with God, you will not be the same.  I’m not saying that you’ll walk with a limp for the rest of your life.  But no one is the same having contended with God.  Everyone who takes on God becomes a new creation.  We are dramatically different after the experience than we were before.  Wherever it happens becomes Peniel.  It becomes the place, the situation, the moment, when we see God’s face - experience God’s overpowering presence - and live to tell the tale.


And that’s what we’re supposed to do.  There is one rule about God’s fight club.  Tell everybody about God’s fight club.  Never be afraid to tell your story of contending with God.


In the classic movie, On the Waterfront, a confrontational conversation takes place between two brothers, Charley and Terry Malloy, played by Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando.  Steiger, as Charley Malloy says, “Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.”


Brando, playing Terry Malloy replies, “It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain't your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night’!  My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.”


Charley says , “Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.”


And then, in one of the most famous quotes from the movies, Terry Malloy says, “You don't understand, I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody...instead of a bum...which is what I am.”


The truth is none of us are bums.  Not by a long shot. 

God sees us all as contenders and God isn’t scared of any of us.

Let’s get ready to rumble!  For now and evermore.  Amen.


1) Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, pp. 56-57.