Grappling with the Divine

By Sharron R. Blezard, October 13, 2016

Lectionary Reflection for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

October 16, 2016

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. Genesis 32:28-29

The story of Jacob grappling with God is one of my favorites for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve done my own share of grappling (well, metaphorically and verbally) with God. We know that Jacob has been a feisty one since birth; after all, he followed Esau out of the womb clinging to his twin’s heel. He also tricked Esau out of his birthright and deceived his father into blessing him before Esau. In fact, his entire adult life seemed to follow a meandering path of wiliness, cunning, and faithfulness. God never deserts him, continuing to bless this beloved, imperfect grandson of Abraham.

lawrenceOP.ccNow, a few chapters later in Genesis, it appears that Jacob must finally face his brother’s long-nursed wrath. He is alone by the River Jabbok, having sent his family and possessions ahead of him. It is night, and in this darkest hour God appears—in the flesh. What an encounter! Jacob grapples with God all night long, refusing to give up until he receives a blessing. Jacob won’t give up, and neither will the Divine One who loves him. In the morning, he ends up with a dislocated hip, a new name, and a blessing.

Israel, formerly known as Jacob, insists on relationship with the Creator of the Cosmos. It’s not some timid, distance, or safe relationship either. Jacob is “all in” with God, and because God’s nature is to bless, provide for, and sustain, God is “all in” with Jacob. However, grappling with God is not a “safe” or “tame” happening. Jacob sustains an injury, but he prevails in his quest to know God and to receive divine blessing.

This is good news for us today. We belong to an incarnate God who came to us in flesh as Jesus, who loved us enough to suffer the ultimate indignity and cruel death to show us that nothing can defeat Divine love and grace. God is willing to grapple with us, to touch us and experience our pain, frustrations, joys, hope, stubbornness, and fear, and to hold us closely. Yes, we may still suffer consequences of our own poor decisions (or those of others) and fallout from our broken yet beautiful world. We may endure some bruises along the way, but in the midst of it all we find blessing, just as our ancestor Jacob did.

How do we grapple with God today? What 21st century Jabbok runs through our lives that we must ultimately cross over? What decisions loom large and menacing on life’s horizon? Are we willing to encounter God in our dark nights of the soul and hang on for dear life? Ultimately, are we able to submit to the blessing–named and claimed and never forsaken?

Dear friends, we sorely need to experience this relational God today. As simultaneously scalawags and saints, let us not be tricked out of our birthright as children of God by refusing to grapple with the Creator of the Cosmos. God is plenty big enough to handle whatever we struggles we bring to the dark places and bless us into the light of a new day. Then, wearing the identity of beloved child of God, we can limp onward to see and be Christ’s hands, feet, and heart for this world.

Looking to preach and/or teach on this week’s gospel lesson? Check out the lectionary reflection from  2013 here.

In Worship

Are anxiety levels and concerns running high in your context? Consider incorporating Psalm 121 in worship in a way that will set it apart. Read it antiphonally. Use a different version. Sing it to a metrical hymn tune. Create a video meditation.Give a copy of the psalm to worshipers as a business card sized pocket psalm to pray on throughout the coming week. Or, invite congregants to talk about how the psalm affects them or moves them.

With Youth

Are your youth familiar with their Bibles? One of the marks of discipleship is engaging in regular study and reflection. Consider teaching your youth the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. Here’s a good article that speaks specifically to using this practice with you. Consider using the Psalm as a way to begin. Realize that this is a countercultural approach in a world of short attention spans and multi-tasking. Consider using this exploration as a way to begin talking about other faith practices, including approaches to prayer.

With Children

Children can be persistent! Ask the children to think of a time when they have really wanted something. What did they do to try and get that something? Did they pester? Did they finally get what they wanted? The gospel story this week of the persistent widow should sound a familiar note with children. If the children are old enough, give them examples people who have been persistent and not given up. Show pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of Dorothy Day, or Jesse Owens and Eric Liddell. Share a brief snippet of their stories.

If the children are younger simply say that God wants us to be persistent–both in prayer and action. Share with them the African proverb “When you pray, move your feet.” Prayer is active: It is both conversation and action. Finish with a simple prayer that includes petitions the children want to pray.

(Photos: Michael Swan, LawrenceOP, lel4nd, Creative Commons. Thanks!)

About the Author

The Rev. Sharron Riessinger Blezard is an ELCA pastor currently rostered in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. She came to ordained ministry after teaching secondary and college English, working in non-profit management and public relations, and moonlighting as a freelance writer. See more posts by .

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