Tag Archives: Struggle

Jacob Wrestles God – September 27, 2015 (NL Week 3)

Sunday’s Reading:
Genesis 32:22-30

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

There’s no way of knowing for sure, but whenever I have read the story of Jacob’s midnight wrestling match, I imagine that Jacob was wide awake before his mysterious opponent ever made the scene. Restlessness is a common reaction to anxiety, after all, and if anyone had good reason to be anxious as night fell in that wilderness place, it was Jacob. At the sun’s rising, he was faced with the prospect of a reunion with his twin brother, Esau, after over twenty years, and their previous time together hadn’t exactly ended well – not that their relationship had ever been terribly good in the first place. Maybe I should back up.

As I mentioned, Jacob and Esau were twins, the sons of Isaac – the child of laughter we read about last week – and his wife, Rebekah. Scripture records that the two of them were at odds from the beginning, even duking it out with one another in their mother’s womb before they were born. On the day of their birth, Esau was born first, but Jacob was close behind, holding onto Esau’s heel as he was brought into the world. As the first-born son, Esau was entitled to certain privileges – a bigger share of his father’s wealth as an inheritance (his “birthright”) and a blessing from his father that would establish him as the head of the family. Jacob, however, wasn’t satisfied with his “second-born” status. As Isaac’s death approached, Jacob convinced a hungry Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, then conspired with his mother to trick Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him. When Esau learned that he had been deprived of that precious blessing, he made clear that he had every intention of killing his younger brother as soon as he possibly could. Ever the opportunist, Jacob heard about his brother’s threat and got out while the getting was good.

That’s the situation as we return to Jacob’s restless night on the banks of the River Jabbok. Already on edge at the high possibility that his brother would soon exact the revenge he’d been seeking for two decades, Jacob suddenly finds himself in a fight for his life. Scripture doesn’t give us a ton of detail about the mysterious stranger who grapples with Jacob in the dead of night, describing him only as “a man”, but there are some clues which suggest that this figure is something more. The fact that this encounter took place at night, and that Jacob’s sparring partner feared being seen in the morning light, are pretty convincing evidence that this was some kind of supernatural being. Perhaps more important was the figure’s refusal to reveal his identity to Jacob. But the most significant clue is what the stranger says upon learning Jacob’s name: You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28, NRSV)

Jacob had spent much of his life striving with humans – his brother, for one, but also his Uncle Laban, who had made his life difficult for most of the twenty years he’d been away from home. There isn’t much evidence that Jacob had needed to struggle with God. Indeed, Jacob’s life appears to have been exceedingly blessed by God, a fact that is sort of surprising when you consider his tendency to be deceptive and manipulative toward his family at pretty much every turn. It seems pretty clear, then, that Jacob’s striving with God took place that night as he fought to stay alive against his mysterious adversary.

The story is told of a young man who was studying to become a young rabbi. When in his studies he came across this passage of Scripture, he went to his own teacher and asked, “Is the story of Jacob wrestling with God by the River Jabbok true?” His teacher put his hands on the young man’s shoulder and replied, “Of course it’s true. It happens to me all the time!” (The Rev. Brian Stoffregen, Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 9/26/2015) I think there’s something to that. The reason this story continues to be so compelling is that it seems to represent our experience. Life with God is an incredibly rich experience. It can bring times of unbelievable blessing and joy. The knowledge of God’s power and presence in our lives can be an immense comfort and source of strength. There are those times, however, that it feels like just hanging on with everything we have. When we’re confronted with anxiety and fear and suffering and pain, the reality is that we’re often left with nothing to do but grab hold of the one who has promised to be our God and to regard us as his people. Like Jacob, we will likely not come away from those experiences unscathed; indeed, for the rest of his days Israel carried with him the constant reminder of his midnight encounter with God. In the same way, wrestling with God may leave us with what the late Brennan Manning called “the victorious limp”, the sign of a life lived in relationship with the God who comes to us in our darkest nights, holds onto us until the dawn breaks, and then releases us with a blessing and our own new name: holy, righteous, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed (Lost and Found, “How Can You”, Lost and Found Comes Alive!).

Today, we rejoice at the baptism of two beloved children of God. In this sacrament – this mysterious means of grace – Alex and Aiden will be washed clean and welcomed into the family of faith. In the years to come, they will experience the peaks and valleys of life in this world with the knowledge that they have been claimed by God and called to join with all the faithful in serving and striving with God, come what may. As we witness the promise of God made real this day in water and word, may we be strengthened to face the days ahead with the knowledge that we are God’s, and that God will walk with us into the future that has been prepared for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Book of Hebrews: Week 2 – August 16, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Hebrews 2:10-18

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

At one time or another, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.”  (Christopher Bullock, 1716) With apologies to the famous thinkers who have repeated this axiom – or something like it –  throughout the centuries, including such bright lights as Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Defoe, I’d like to suggest that there is at least one other aspect of human experience that is universal, and it is a prominent theme in today’s reading from Hebrews. As I’ve said before, it’s not one that we like to talk about, but it is one that we can’t avoid. Suffering, broadly understood, is an inescapable reality for us; it surrounds us like the air we breathe, and permeates our existence in so many ways that we are incapable of comprehending it in its entirety. This recognition – that suffering is part of the human condition – has been around for a long time, longer even than the letter to the Hebrews. We find it recorded, for example, in the Old Testament book of Job, which precedes Hebrews by some seven to eight hundred years, and echoed by philosophical giants like Schroeder from Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” comic series: …people are born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7, NET)

Though suffering is universal to the human experience, it is difficult for us to comprehend what it would mean for God to suffer. The Church’s hymnody is full of reflections that suppose that God is distant from the reality of human suffering Hear, for example, the words of this classic hymn:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise!

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
(Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise – Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #834)

When we think about God like that, the first words in today’s reading sound strange to our ears: It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10, NRSV) For most of human history, it has seemed far from fitting to imagine divine beings suffering anything, and much less so to think that they might be made more perfect through suffering. Yet this is precisely the argument made by the author of Hebrews. The same Jesus who was described in chapter one as the “heir of all things”, the one through whom the voice of God speaks, the one who radiates God’s glory and reveals God’s being and character, is now described as sharing our flesh, our blood, our life, and our death, and more, that as the pioneer of our salvation, he is made perfect through his participation in the life of this suffering world!

That seems like a nice thought in the abstract, but what does it really mean for us as we live life in this broken world, surrounded by the inescapable reality of sin, suffering, and death? Well, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it: it means everything! It means that the one whose name we bear, the one who has called us into relationship is intimately aware of what it means to be human. Indeed, the Gospels describe Jesus in ways that relate directly to our own experience. He knew hunger and thirst. He knew the difficulty of being homeless and poor. He knew anger and sadness and grief and loss. He knew joy and pain, friendship and abandonment, love and hatred, confidence and fear. For this reason he is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters, because our fleeting and fallen existence is not beneath him, but part of his own eternal existence (Hebrews 2:11b, NRSV) When we call upon God in Christ, then, we invoke the most excellent name of Jesus with the knowledge that he has shared in our lot completely, and that he came to help [us], the descendants of Abraham in times of trial and testing. In the words of Biblical scholar and preacher Thomas Long, Jesus’ experience of being human enables him to be our hero, our liberator, and our priest.* The Word became flesh to blaze a trail through the muck and mire of the world to God’s own heart, and by his victory over sin, death, and the devil, fans the flame of hope in our hearts when we face those same realities day in and day out. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail to freedom, not from somewhere else, but from within this world of groaning and pain, still ensnared by the fear of death. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail between earth and heaven, stand before God as one of us, and bring our hopes and dreams and fears directly to the one we call Father.

This is a great mystery, brothers and sisters – a mystery that defines our relationship with God and the way that we approach each new day. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that the trials and tests that we face are not unconquerable, because we have been filled with the same Holy Spirit that strengthened Christ on his earthly journey. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that our cries for help will be heard from heaven – even if the answer to those cries is not always readily apparent to us. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that suffering and death do not have the final word, because Christ’s victory means that their days are numbered.

The saying is still sure: …people are born to trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7, NRSV) But this saying is also sure: In Christ, God was born to suffer alongside us, so that we might know God’s presence with and among us in suffering. In all our trials, may we stand firm in the knowledge of God’s love for us, God’s solidarity with us, and God’s gracious will for us and the whole world.

* Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Interpretation, John Knox Press (Louisville, KY: 1997), 39-45.

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 4 – Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 27

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

In last week’s installment in our series on the Psalms, we encountered language that is all too often absent from our individual and corporate prayer and worship: the language of lament. The psalmist addresses God from the depths of his soul, and in so doing gives us words to proclaim our own longing for deliverance and help in the midst of hardship and struggle. This is a necessary part of the life of faith, and it is possible because of our trust in God – however weak it might be at any given moment – because we know that the relationship we share with God is strong enough to bear the fullness of our pain and groaning when suffering visits us.

Today, we sharpen our focus on that language of trust as we explore yet another type of psalm. In Psalm 27, we are given a glimpse into the mind of the psalmist as he declares his confidence in the God who has called him into relationship and promised to uphold him in the midst of struggle. These well-loved words have given strength to countless people of faith through the centuries:

The LORD is my light and my salvation
     whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
     of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –
     my adversaries and foes –
          they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
     my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
     yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the LORD,
     that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD
     all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
     and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
     he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
     above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
     sacrifices with shouts of joy;
          I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
(Psalm 27:1-6, NRSV)

It’s curious that the lectionary calls us to stop at verse 6, because the rest of this psalm illustrates a profound truth about what it means to trust in God. Here’s the rest of the psalm:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
     be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
     Your face, LORD, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
     Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
     Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
          O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
     the LORD will take me up.
Teach me your way, O LORD,
     and lead me on a level path
          because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
     for false witnesses have risen against me,
          and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD
     in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
     be strong, and let your heart take courage;
          wait for the LORD!
(Psalm 27:7-14, NRSV)

The psalm of trust does not occur in a vacuum. It is not an expression of trust that comes from a place of ease, but one that has been tested by the experience of hardship. The psalmist moves from his declaration of trust in God to calling out once again for help. In the end, he seems to be wavering, until he remembers the steadfast love of the Lord and finds the words to renew his commitment to God and God’s rescue. This is so important, because it shows us that lament and trust and praise are all part and parcel of the life of faith. We move between them as we journey through life in relationship with God, with one another, and with the broken and beautiful world in which we live.

To declare our trust in God is not to put on blinders and forget the experiences of brokenness that surround us, but to acknowledge them, to lift them to our creator and redeemer, and to stand in defiance of those enemies that would be too strong for us to overcome on our own.

To declare our trust in God is to recall the times in which God’s strength became our own, the times that we came through our struggles because we knew that Christ was with us in the midst of them, the times that the Spirit empowered us to move forward in faith, hope, and love toward the future that God was preparing for us.

To declare our trust in God is to bring our whole selves to God with the confidence that God will hear us and answer in accordance with God’s good and gracious will, a will that has been revealed throughout the generations of faithful people who have gone before us.

Brothers and sisters, today we declare that the Lord is our light and our salvation, and we refuse to give in to fear. Instead, we lift our voices, praying that the God who has promised to accompany us all our days will continue to make his presence known to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Lord, dear friends. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord! Amen.

Reflection for “The Longest Night” – Sunday, December 21, 2014

On Sunday, December 21, the Falls City Area Ministerial Association hosted “A Service of Lament for the Holy Season”, sometimes called a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service. Pastor Andrew preached the homily at the service; the text of his reflection is posted below.

Scripture for the Longest Night:
Old Testament Reading – Psalm 142
New Testament Reading – 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If you look back at the call to worship that began this evening’s service, you’ll see that the words of that lament are excerpted from Psalm 88, one of the so-called psalms of lament. With your indulgence, I’d like to read that psalm in its entirety, because on this longest night it expresses a depth of sorrow that is really unparalleled by any other passage of Scripture:

Lord, God of my salvation,
by day I cry out,
even at night, before you—
let my prayer reach you!
Turn your ear to my outcry
because my whole being is filled with distress;
my life is at the very brink of hell.
I am considered as one of those plummeting into the pit.
I am like those who are beyond help,
drifting among the dead,
lying in the grave, like dead bodies—
those you don’t remember anymore,
those who are cut off from your power.
You placed me down in the deepest pit,
in places dark and deep.
Your anger smothers me;
you subdue me with it, wave after wave.
You’ve made my friends distant.
You’ve made me disgusting to them.
I can’t escape. I’m trapped!
My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering.
I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—
I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up and give you thanks?
Is your faithful love proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the land of darkness,
your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, Lord!
My prayer meets you first thing in the morning!
Why do you reject my very being, Lord?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Since I was young I’ve been afflicted, I’ve been dying.
I’ve endured your terrors. I’m lifeless.
Your fiery anger has overwhelmed me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
They surround me all day long like water;
they engulf me completely.
You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant.
My only friend is darkness.
(Psalm 88, Common English Bible)

Does any of that sound familiar to you? The questioning? The longing? The feelings of being distressed, subdued, drowned, afflicted, engulfed, or distant from others? Some of it does to me. Perhaps some of these feelings resonate with you this evening. It’s sort of incredible to read about emotion this raw in Scripture, isn’t it? So many of our friends and neighbors get nervous when they start hearing this kind of talk. By and large, they’re good Christian folk who want us to make the turn from grief to hope because they’re afraid that faith can’t stand in the face of this sort of despair. They’re unable to fathom sorrow so deep that it can’t abide the thought of praise, yet here it is in our holy book. In Psalm 88 there is no acknowledgment of God’s goodness, there are no feeble attempts to paper over the pain. There is only this stark truth: sometimes we truly feel that darkness is our only companion.

On this longest night, perhaps it is all that you can do to sit with your grief and name the pain that has defied your attempts to comprehend it. Psalm 88 ends where it does because sometimes we just can’t make that turn quite yet. If that’s the case, then I pray that you find some small measure of comfort in the fact that you are not alone in dwelling with that grief, that you are gathered with others who understand what it means to be in pain, even though it can never be exactly like yours.

At the same time, I pray that you hear anew this word from John’s Gospel. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t need to acknowledge its truth. You’re not obligated to lay your grief aside because of it. Just listen to it again:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:5, CEB)

You might feel like you’re trapped in the shadows, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

You might wonder if you have any friends besides the darkness, but the light shines into that darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

You might wonder if the night will ever end, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

The light may not be strong. You may not even be able to see it at the moment. But the light is there, this light that sometimes flickers and falters but is never mastered by the murk and muck and mire of this world. The light is Christ, the one who came in weakness and vulnerability to drink the overflowing cup of human sorrow and pain and loss. That light is Christ, who himself suffered death and from the cross wailed that he, too, felt that he had been abandoned by God. That light is Christ, who rose again to break the grip of sin and death and hell and who bore our humanity in all of its brokenness and loss to the heart of God.

Dear friends, on this longest night, may these words take root in your own hearts: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. May the Spirit of God rekindle your hope, renew your faith, and strengthen you in love, and may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding guard your hearts and minds as you continue your journey toward healing and wholeness. Amen.

Joseph in Prison – Sunday, September 21 (NL Week 3)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:11-12
Preaching Text: Genesis 39:1-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Twenty years ago, actor Tom Hanks gave voice to a character named Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie that bore his name. The film was critically acclaimed from the beginning, and is memorable for many reasons, but what has stuck with many of those who have seen it more than anything else is one quote that seems to sums up Forrest’s life: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get…” That quote has stuck with so many because it seem to ring true. Life has a way of taking unexpected twists and turns – sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.

Today we hear a portion of the story of Joseph, a figure who perhaps more than any other might have found himself nodding along in agreement if he’d ever had occasion to hear these words. Joseph’s story is one of dramatic swings of emotion. He begins the story as the favorite son of his father Jacob in the land of Canaan, and ends the story with a poignant burial alongside his father in their homeland. In between is a tale of jealousy and deceit, of power and powerlessness, of alienation and reconciliation. Joseph experiences all the highs and lows that life has to offer him, and through those abrupt changes in circumstance, we see a reflection of human life in all its messiness. Perhaps you identify with Joseph because you are familiar with being part of a family in strife. Perhaps you have found yourself bearing the consequences of false accusations. Perhaps you have risen from meager circumstances to make a name for yourself. Perhaps at one time you enjoyed some measure of status and had it taken away from you. Most all of us can find our story in Joseph’s story, and all of us can learn something about what life lived in relationship with God looks like in a world filled with promise and scarred by sin.

Before today’s reading picks up, we meet Joseph and his family in Canaan. Joseph, as I’ve mentioned before, was admittedly his father’s favorite son, and he had the clothes to prove it: a richly woven and intricate robe that was the envy of all his brothers. If his brothers thought taking a backseat to Joseph was bad enough in general, Joseph tended to make matters worse through his unfortunate habit of rubbing it in their faces, including when he shared a pair of dreams that predicted Joseph would rule over his entire family. From his brothers’ perspective, Joseph had to go, and an encounter with him in a pasture with no witnesses gave them the chance to act. Reuben, the oldest of Jacob’s sons, was able to persuade his brothers not to kill Joseph outright, but not to keep him around. Joseph was sold off to the first slave traders who came across the brothers, and he ended up in Egypt. He soon became the favored servant of his new master, Potiphar, and held that post until Potiphar’s wife failed to get what she wanted out of him and had him thrown into prison on trumped up charges. Joseph was freed from prison again – only after being forgotten for years, I should add – when he proved himself an able interpreter of dreams that had tormented the Pharoah, Egypt’s most powerful leader. As a reward for his prowess, Joseph became the second-in-command in Egypt, responsible for navigating the people through a seven-year-long famine. Eventually, the famine reaches Canaan, where Joseph’s family still lives, and the tables are turned on the brothers who schemed to have Joseph killed. He keeps them at his mercy until he can no longer hide his true identity, then forgives them for their cruelty to him.

Joseph’s story is both remarkable and familiar. It is remarkable because it is so raw and real, so fraught with human emotion. It is familiar because we can identify with Joseph – not so much because of the details of this story, but because of its shape, its recognition of life’s unpredictability. One can’t help but come away from this story with the overwhelming conviction that – if nothing else – life is complicated, and that the life of faith has its own ups and downs. From the very beginning, Joseph enjoys favor: his father’s, Potiphar’s, the Pharaoh’s, and (most importantly) God’s. Despite that favored status, Joseph also experiences incredible hardship: slavery, false accusation, imprisonment, and the awful responsibility of stewarding an entire region of the world through famine. At every turn, Joseph is met with the consequences of human sin, whether it is his own, his brother’s, Potiphar’s wife’s, the butler who forgets about him and leaves him to rot in jail for years, even – at the story’s seemingly triumphant conclusion – the greed of the Pharaoh and his administration that leads to widespread slavery in Egypt. At the same time, the conviction that undergirds this entire story is not that life is nothing more than a crap shoot, but that God is able to work in the midst of challenge and hardship and struggle to bring good. Let me make that point perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that God orchestrates hardship and struggle in order to bring about God. I am suggesting that when we are faced with hardship and struggle, God is still capable of bringing about good; that, as Joseph puts it to his brothers when he reveals his identity to them in Egypt, “…you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” (Genesis 50:20, New English Translation)

If anything, that’s the main point of Joseph’s story, and perhaps the most important thing we can take away from it as we reflect on our own lives. We who have been called and claimed by God in Christ are given no guarantees about life being easy or free from challenges. God isn’t in the business of making guarantees, after all. But as we’ve seen the last two weeks, we worship a God who makes promise after promise, and who has been shown to be faithful to those promises time and time again. God took a second chance on creation and continues to sustain this creation moment by moment, upholding that amazing promise never to bring destruction to the whole world again, even if we haven’t done such a great job of tilling and keeping this planet and its creatures. God chose an old man named Abraham, promised him descendants and a land to call his own, and billions of people around the world now claim Abraham as their father in the faith. God worked in the life of a young man named Joseph to bring him through trial and tribulation and put him in a position to save entire nations from famine.

Brothers and sisters, in the end, maybe Forrest Gump wasn’t exactly right after all. We might not always know what’s coming our way, but we do know the one who holds us, loves us, and keeps us always in God’s care. We worship a God of promise whose word is trustworthy and true. God’s desire for our lives, our communities, our world, is that hope, healing, and wholeness might be extended to all creation. As God’s people in Christ Jesus, let us pray that we might be inspired by the story of Joseph to keep our eyes open to those people and places and times in which goodness has taken root and sprouted, even in the soil of despair. Let us pray that God’s Spirit might move to bring reconciliation where relationships have been broken. Let us pray that God would use us to be messengers of life and love and hope in a world that so desperately needs them. Above all, may we continue to place our trust in God, who has claimed us and promised to be present with us always, come what may. Thanks be to God. Amen.