Of the four texts we heard today, two of them are among my favorites – the story from Genesis and Psalm 121. These are among my favorite biblical passages because they speak directly to my personal faith and faith journey.
As a Lutheran pastor there are certain theologies that I am expected to teach and uphold, like we are saved by grace through faith; and, Jesus is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine after they have been consecrated; and, we cannot by our own reason, or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to Him; and, the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth; and, through the Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins, and at the last day, will raise us and all the dead, and will give to us, and to all believers in Christ, everlasting life.
“This is most certainly true.”
If you did not recognize those last words, they are Martin Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed.
But Dr. Luther was a human being like the rest of us, a fallible sinner with limited understanding and influenced by the circumstances of his own time and place in history. So, though some Lutheran theologians might disagree with me, I do not believe Dr. Luther had all the answers, nor do I believe all the answers he provided were the “right” answers.
I am a Lutheran pastor because I believe strongly in Dr. Luther’s founding principles, but I also believe strongly in Paul’s message to the Philippians: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The reason Jacob’s wrestling match is one of my favorite Bible stories is because in working out my own salvation I too have wrestled with God.
Now as a student in seminary, we were often warned against sharing too much of ourselves in our sermons. We were taught, as Paul instructed Timothy in today’s epistle reading: that “scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone...may be proficient and equipped for every good work.” This is to say that scripture is not a useful spotlight for illuminating the life of preachers.
While I believe whole heartedly that sermons should be rooted in scripture and should always point the hearers, and the preacher, towards God and God’s grace, I also believe that one of the ways we pass on our faith, and support each other through times of trial and doubt, is by sharing our own faith, our struggles and our journeys. We are not very good at this as Lutherans.
So, today I’d like to preach by example, and share with you my version of the wrestling Jacob story. I know I’ve told this story before in different settings, but I don’t know if I’ve shared it in a sermon setting.
You may not know that I have two seminary degrees. My first is a Master of Arts in Religion from Lancaster Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ, or Reformed Seminary. My first year as a student at Lancaster included a three-week summer class on the book of Job. At that point in my faith journey, I had a fundamental, “curse God and die” theology. I grew up Lutheran, but my friends in high school and college were mostly from more conservative denominations. As a result, I came to believe God was always right, unquestionable, and unchallengeable. I believed everything that happened in life happened for a reason, and to question one’s faith, or doubt God’s reasoning, was a sign of a weak, immature faith. And, along with Job, I believed the good are blessed, and the bad are punished.
Are you familiar with these beliefs? This many not be New England theology, but it’s very consistent with much of rural Lancaster County.
Now, in the book of Job, Job wants to take God to court for allowing him to suffer unjustly. At the end of each week, we had to write a position paper from the standpoint of the judge. Having read and studied that week’s chapters, we were to pronounce our judgment. It says at the very beginning of the book that God knows Job to be blameless, upright, a man who feared God and turned away from evil. That means he lived according to the letter, and spirit, of God’s law. And yet, God allows Job to suffer.
Well, at the end of the first week, I had no choice. I had to side for Job. The problem was, this meant I had to side against God. And, to make matters worse, I had to put my judgment down on paper, and turn it in for someone else to read. There would be no denying my actions.The night I typed that paper, I had my own Jacob-like nightmare. I was at a funeral. It was my funeral. I had cursed God and died. I was more than a little afraid to turn in that paper the next morning. I was prepared for lightening to strike.
When asked about our papers, I shared my nightmare with the class. One of my classmates said to the professor, “Aren’t you sorry you’ve caused her such fear and trembling?”
The professor responded, rather mater-of-factly, “No, she has to work this out with God on her own.”
Some in the class thought this to be callous, but he was right. God and I needed to wrestle. And, we did.
It was a very long three weeks. I had several more sleepless nights, but I did not die. Instead much to my surprise, I, like Jacob, was blessed.
Jacob received a new name as his blessing. I received a new faith. What once was fragile, and based on fear, was now stronger and rooted in truth, even if it meant telling God I thought he was wrong. By the end of those three weeks, I realized how weak and small I had made God.
That class was 29 years ago. God and I have been wrestling ever since. And, with each round, my faith grows, as I learn more about myself and God. Above all, I have learned that God is bigger than our doubts, our anger, our past, our insecurities, our silly notions, and our weak faith.
Of course, God can handle our fears, and wrong theology, and pummeling fists, and threats, and questions, and even our despair. God is, after all, God.
And this is why Psalm 121 means so much to me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
I know in those moments when I am pinned to the ground by life, or grief, or frustration in the slowness of God’s plan for my life, I can lift my eyes and know that, in the midst of the struggle, God’s got my back. And while he doesn’t promise I will escape unscathed (I have my fair share of battle scars), he does promise to preserve me from all evil. He will keep my life under his protective wings, watching my comings and goings for all eternity. And knowing this truth is enough to sustain me through each doubt, trial, sin, demon and other opponents, divine and human, with whom I wrestle.
As a pastor, I don’t see it as my job to tell parishioners what to believe, although I can tell you what we as Lutherans say we believe. I see it as my calling to encourage, and to be there as support as you, the people of God, work out your own salvation. I’m to give you the permission to wrestle with, to question, to be honest, even in fear and anger, with God; to assure you that God is big enough to handle whatever you throw at him, and that he will never leave you, nor forsake you.
And perhaps, most important of all, it’s my responsibility to remind you God blesses those who dare to engage, head-on, the verb that is faith. So, read again the story of Jacob, then take your faith by the horns, wrestle it to the ground and don’t let it up until you have received a dose of its blessing. And, please, come share with me the story of your wrestling match. Amen.