When I was a child my Grandfather lived with us for a number of weeks and I really enjoyed spending time with him, having breakfast together where he would eat most of a white loaf of bread covered with what in Yorkshire was called ‘mucky fat’ (I never took to that delicacy!), listening to the stories of his childhood (the more gruesome the better!) and Saturday afternoon meant watching World of Sport especially the wrestling, as he sat on the edge of the sofa sucking furiously on his pipe and stamping is foot at every move. This was the early 1960s, decades before the high-end productions of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Live wrestling was filmed in front of a small audience at some town hall or other.
The wrestlers were more big than physically fit (think Big Daddy) and I’ve come to believe that professional wrestling is choreographed without being completely fake. It’s entertainment and yet it’s also a sport requiring strength, agility, and toughness.
By contrast, on a dark night along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob laid it all on the line. He wrestled with God. And he wrestled with himself. (Genesis 32;22-32)
This was not a fight for biological survival. Jacob was wrestling with life’s fundamental question. What am I really living for? Who or what will be the god of my life?
As a young man Jacob had swindled his older and perhaps dimmer, brother Esau out of his birthright. Twice.
Jacob fled his brother’s murderous rage and was working for his uncle, Laban, in another town. While he was tending Laban’s flocks, he married both the older man’s daughters and managed to swindle his uncle out of a good portion of his wealth.
Once again Jacob had to flee. This time he headed back in the direction of his old home and the brother he had cheated. The Jabbok River marked the beginning of Esau’s territory.
An advance team of Jacob’s hired hands had come back with the news that Esau was on his way to greet his brother. With 400 men in tow, it didn’t look good for Jacob!
In the person of what he assumed would be a vengeful and heavily armed brother, Jacob was coming face-to-face with himself. The mess he had made by being himself was about to serve as a mirror for his spiritual condition.
Jacob always pursued what Jacob wanted by depending upon Jacob’s wits. He was a self-centered, manipulative striver. To get what he desired, he had no qualms about lying and stealing.
Jacob did religious things. He prayed and erected altars and offered sacrifices. But God did not seem to be the god of his life. Jacob was the god of his own life.
And now, in the dark, at water’s edge, it all came crashing down. His way of living had led him to catastrophic disaster.
So Jacob wrestled. All night he grappled with a powerful stranger, refusing to submit to his more powerful opponent. As the hours wore on, he started to think that maybe he was getting the upper hand. The stranger, despite his superior strength, would have to submit to him.
With the sun’s first rays on the horizon, the stranger said, “Let me go.” And Jacob’s heart froze. He heard in those words this truth:
You’ve lived your whole life trying to make everything bend to your will and fulfill your desires. You’ve wanted to make all things and all people submit to you. You see now where this path leads. Catastrophe. Choose another way. A better way. Let go.
In response, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. Jacob became Israel. God became the God of his life.
If you read the rest of Jacob’s story, you’ll see that this transformation was not, in fact, instantaneous. Nor was it finally completed in Jacob’s lifetime. He still manipulated others, and played favourites among his own children.
It seems likely that Jacob wrestled with God, and with himself, repeatedly in the succeeding years. And in that thought I find some comfort.
God knows that I still wrestle with myself from time to time. And God will keep wrestling with me, as long as it takes.
What are you wrestling with at the moment in your life? What is God asking you to ‘let go’? I believe this passage has profound important for the Methodist Church at this moment, it did inspire Charles Wesley to write one of his shorter hymns (only 12 verses), “Come, O thou Traveller unknown,” – Singing the Faith 461. As a church we are the River Jabbok. The Covid-19 crisis has opened up the mistakes of the past and we are challenged into having to let go to cherished but now impractical models of church, but we seemingly can’t. We rush to reopen churches waving our risk assessment documents which tell us how, but not why. Do we need to do some more wrestling with God?
God bless and take care,Alan.
I feel this message is absolutely ‘bang on’ target. How much longer are we going to spend time and money keeping churches open, when we could gather together in 4 or 5 churches, pooling money and labour for the lords work. Continuing a greater online presence and drawing the young and the old on technical and practical methods of speaking the message. We have to have faith to step out with our God leading us, or what else is this all for? Please be brave for our Lord Jesus who was brave for us!
My comments about outdated models of church were not particularly aimed at closing churches but about churches who have lost sight of their mission in favour of maintaining a particular model of church. I can see that all the churches of the circuit have a particular mission but too often the mission is obscured by the need to ‘keep the church going’. Simply closing a struggling church will also mean that the opportunities for mission will also be lost.
Thank you Alan for reminding me of the story of Jacob and enabling me to see it in greater depth. It seems humankind likes to think it has ‘developed’ over the course of history .. and in this part of God’s vineyard in recent generations has done so very successfully in terms of economics (at least until a few months ago). However in terms of ‘sacred relationships’ with each other and God, we all to often can see others and ourselves playing the same manipulative games as our forbears. I agree with you when you say ‘We rush to reopen churches waving our risk assessment documents which tell us how, but not why. Do we need to do some more wrestling with God? ” I would encourage each and every church in the Circuit to think CAREFULLY about how to use the buildings to the Glory of God in new and different ways, rather than assuming the discussion should focus around fitness to preserve some traditions in “Worship’ that are precious to us… but may not be to future generations. It would seem in the short to medium term future ALL our buildings are potentially valuable community assets and could be places where people can relatively safely ‘Socially Distance” especially in the winter months? …alongside being places where people can meets God is Christ..
Bill may be right in asking the question about keeping open churches with falling numbers but how many will we lose along the way? I remember many years a go a minister in the Lincoln north Circuit who had oversight of a number of small village churches along the Lincoln Edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds who said he had the gained the reputation fo closing churches. Along the way the Circuit lost a lot of personnel as they had loyalty to their local church not that several villages away. Ask around and you will find that this is still the feeling among many. As a person who is now on his sixth, or is it seventh, Methodist Church as a member including the village where I was born which had two Methodist churches and now has none I have not a particular loyalty to any particular church which has enabled me to see the different ways that Methodism can exist but many who have never moved may not feel the way I do,or Bill does. Being in Germany at the moment, I know that this is a country where Methodism exists but spread out few and far between and appears to be very strong so we ought to try to break away from our current mould of circuit churches to that similar to the Baptists who have to exist on their own.
I agree, when a church closes many of the members of the church stop going to church because their church is not there any more. It is a sad reflection that too many members of the church do not understand the concept of the Methodist Connexion and we part of a much bigger body than just the local church.
As an Anglo Methodist, my title, Methodist Connexion is very important to me but no individual Church. Many happily worship via Zoom but many also lack the technology. Churches for the Community, socially spaced ut my particular interests would be Safe spaces where teenagers behind in maths, my love, could meet one session after school for help to catch up; the bereaved can share their pain together; the abused receive help both due to my volunteering with such groups and a counselling degree; space for soup and company for those on the streets as a Social gospel is also part of Methodism. we’re there to care so piety through prayer, bible learning, worship but shared socially. Lifts for those who cannot use FB, yotube, zoom so somewhere initially they can see a face not just something on a screen.