Sermon for the baptism of Freya, preached by Emily Kempson
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
This is a strange story. We are told that Jacob was alone, and yet someone was with him. At dusk beside the riverbank, he thought that he was wrestling a man, but at daybreak he proclaims: ‘I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.’ Some think it was God’s messenger, an angel, whom Jacob wrestled, restrained, and pressured for a blessing; others say it was God Godself who gave Jacob his new name, Israel, which means ‘the one who strives with God’.
But for many Christians, there is something stranger about this story. Jacob fought with God and it directly lead to him being BLESSED. He didn’t fall down in subservient worship when he saw God face to face – he restrained God, made demands, and lived to tell the tale. Is this really the same Bible that says ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ and that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? And what about Obedience? Doesn’t Jesus pray to God in Gethsemane –
Not my will but thine be done?
Oceans of ink and gales of preaching have insisted that an essential component of faith is obedience. But Jacob is not obedient. Jacob prevails upon God, not vice versa, and comes out with a blessing and a new name that, against all expectations, actually commemorates his violent recalcitrance.
All of this raises a pointed question: Can wrestling with God have anything to do with obeying God? And what place do either of these have in a life of faith?
Here, we have a great deal to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. In Judaism, from the Old Testament to the present day, there is a strong theme of wrestling with God, and a sense that this is an important part of being Jewish. With characteristic humour, a friend of mine has bragged about her son the Rabbi, saying that now the family has ‘an inside man’ with God. She probably remembers that Moses prevailed upon YHWH to set aside his wrath and not destroy the Israelites when they worshipped a golden calf. And that Abraham bargained with God to spare a sinful city for the sake of the few good city-dwellers. The Passover Seder is not a perfunctory repetition of obedient piety – the prayers are punctured by questions demanding WHY do we do this bit of liturgy or that. Often the Jewish struggle has been deadly serious, such as after the Holocaust when, for instance, Victor Frankl ‘s time in Auschwitz led him to write Man’s Search for Meaning. Or, on a lighter vein, when Tevya, the patriarch from Fiddler on the Roof, is at a particularly low point; he quips to God “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, couldn’t You choose somebody else?”
All of this — the poking fun, the curious questions, the raging doubts and criticisms, the demands for better treatment. None of this necessarily conflicts with being God’s chosen people. After all, their collective name, the people of Israel, means ‘the one who strives with God.’
And if it’s part of Jewish tradition, it is part of the Christian tradition as well, even though we often over look it. Remember that at first Jesus refused to turn water into wine. He only acquiesced when Mary, his Jewish mother, kept after him and prevailed. Likewise, Jesus was hesitant to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter, but after she directly contradicts his reasons, he proclaims that her faith is great and grants her request.
So, in some way, resistance, struggle, and wrestling, doubting, questioning, and demanding, are all part of a life of faith – it’s part of our relationship with God.
But we can understand that this is the case without understanding why this is the case. Why is wrestling with God part of a life of Faith? Is it really helpful, or just something God puts up with, like parents putting up with their toddler throwing a tantrum? Because, if I’m honest with myself, sometimes I do act like the spiritual equivalent of a two-year old who has just discovered the word ‘no’ and the question ‘why.’ You know the stage, when children start refusing to do things just because they can and nothing an adult says can stand without a deluge of questions and contradictions. It may seem like the point of the terrible-twos is to turn parents into martyrs or tyrants, but child psychology says it is actually an incredibly valuable stage.
You see, the toddler who says ‘no’ to everything has just discovered her will, that is, that she has a will of her own. She can tell its her own because even when it is weak, when it only has one word – ‘no’ – she can still directly contradict her parents. Likewise, the toddler who always asks ‘why’ and won’t just take ‘no’ for an answer, he has discovered that his will can actively seek things, even when no one is offering answers or other options. With only a single word, ‘why’ he can willfully seek after something he barely has an inkling of, even when others are indifferent to his desire.
The terrible-twos and the incessant ‘no’s’ and ‘why’s’ are necessary for growing a child’s will, for making it strong and searching. And it turns out that a strong will is necessary for any positive form of obedience. Like a fledgling bird obsessively flapping its wings before it is old enough to fly – the apparently pointless flapping is actually strengthening the wings so that it can fly later on. Without a strong and searching will, children may be obedient, but in a dangerous sense. If they do what they’re told only because they are not strong enough to resist, then they are vulnerable to every negative influence in the world.
Think of the danger if a child obeyed every stranger’s instructions without question. Such danger is just as real for adults with weak wills, even those who wish to obey only God. To keep from falling prey to whatever negative influence just walked into the room, an adult must have a will capable of resisting, wrestling, inquiring, and demanding —one that can resist evil and search after God.
A strong and searching will, a striving will, is indispensible for obedience to be a positive thing for faith. Otherwise, obedience is just weakness giving way to a stronger power.
Ultimately, a person’s will becomes aligned with God’s will, if it is strong and searches for God’s goodness. It grows beyond both arbitrary self-assertion and susceptibility to influence. As Paul says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Only the strongest will can freely give itself in love, as Christ did, and receive the love of others. That is the sort of obedience that God calls us to – not blind faith or obsequious spirit-broken servitude.
We are born with weak wills and though we are not innocent we are already in relationship with God. Today we will baptise Freya and declare that she has been grafted onto the family tree of Israel – those who strive with God – and so has openly entered the life of faith.
Christian faith demands, searches, and seeks for the holiness of God – for God’s Love, goodness, healing, and truth. Christ said ‘Ask, and it shall be given unto you’ ‘Knock, and the door shall be opened’ Faith builds the strength to struggle and fight for holiness, even if it feels like God isn’t cooperating. After all, Jacob refused to let God go, even when told to. Christ said ‘Blessed are those who hunger and search for righteousness; They shall see God.’ Because Jacob demanded a blessing, he became able to see it was God with whom he wrestled. His life was preserved and transformed into the life of Israel, God’s chosen people. May we all receive the same blessing and the same life.