Wrestling With God – Sermon for Reminiscere Sunday (March 16/17, 2014)

Wrestling With God

Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28

2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)

March 16th/17th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Many of you have no doubt heard of the actor Michael J. Fox.  Apart from his time on Family Ties, Fox is probably best known as Marty McFly from the Back to the Future Trilogy.  But what you might not know about Michael J. Fox is that his middle name doesn’t even start with a J.  It’s Andrew.  Apparently, when young Michael Andrew Fox tried to register his name with the Screen Actors’ Guild, he was told that the name Michael Fox was already taken, and had been for 30 years.  He would have to find a new name, so he inserted a J as his middle initial.  Why he chose J instead of A, I don’t know, but what I do know is that he is not the only celebrity who modified his or her name to avoid being confused with someone else.  Katy Perry was born Kate Hudson.  Michael Keaton’s real name is Michael Douglas.  David Bowie is actually Davie Jones.[1]  Each of these celebrities changed his or her name so that people would not confuse them with someone else.

There are name changes scattered throughout the pages of the Scriptures, too.  Although when God changes someone’s name, it is not simply to avoid confusion or mistaken identity.  It is an indication of something far more fundamental to the identity of the person being named.  Simon had his name changed to Peter, which means “rock.”  As an Apostle, Peter was part of the foundation of the Christian Church, one of the Prophets and Apostles upon whom the church is built, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone.[2]  Abram, whose name meant “Exalted Father,” had his name changed to Abraham, which means “Father of multitudes,” after God promised him descendants as numerous as the sand on the sea shore.  So it is with the account Jacob’s name change.  Jacob, whose birth name is connected to his ambitious grasping of Esau’s heel and his scheming after his brother’s birthright, has his name changed to Israel, which means “the one who struggles with God,” or as we heard a few moments ago, the one who wrestles with God.  There is tremendous significance in that name, even for us, for we are the New Israel.  We today are the ones who struggle with God.  We today are the ones who wrestle with God.

The historical narrative of God wrestling with Jacob is fascinating on many levels.  Luther compared the event to a Father teasing his son.  He wrote, “God plays with [Jacob] to discipline and strengthen his faith just as a godly parent takes from his son an apple with which the boy was delighted, not that [the boy] should flee from his father or turn away from him but that he should rather be incited to embrace his father all the more and beg him, saying: “My father, give back what you have taken away!” Then the father is delighted with this test, and the son, when he recovers the apple, loves his father more ardently on seeing that such love and child’s play gives pleasure to the father.”[3]  According to Luther, then, the example of Jacob demonstrates to us that “God at times is accustomed to play with His saints, and, as far as He Himself is concerned, with quite childish playing. But to us whom He tempts in this way it appears far different.”[4]

Saying that it appears “far different to us” it quite the understatement.  No toddler likes it when you hold the sippy cup or stuffed animal just out of reach.  It makes them feel helpless, and so it frustrates them.  They scream and cry and whine to get it back, because there’s really nothing else they can do.  They are helpless, and whether your 2 or 52, total helplessness is one of the worst feelings in the world.  And just like a small child doesn’t like feeling helpless at the hands of older and taller brothers and sisters, we Christians don’t like feeling helpless before God.  We want something, anything, to give us a bit of control.  We try to take credit for the strength of our own faith, we try to take credit for the genuineness of our repentance, we try to take credit for the intensity of our praise.  We’ll try anything not to feel helpless.

But we are helpless, so Luther draws a jarring parallel, comparing God assaulting Jacob in the middle of the night to God assaulting us his children with various trials and afflictions in our lives.  We are not used to hearing language like this in the Church today.  Language like this makes us uncomfortable.  We so often jump right to the assumption that just because something in our life is difficult, it must automatically be from the devil.  We scarcely give it a moment’s thought.  Our instinct is to blame God for our discomfort as if he is being negligent, as if the only way a God should act is by making us healthy, wealthy, and generally comfortable, prospering us in whatever life we choose for ourselves.  When things don’t go the way we think they should, we are tempted to turn our back on him, to issue an ultimatum that if he doesn’t immediately answer our prayers the way we want him to, that we will be done with him.  We don’t like to feel helpless because it’s frightening and humiliating.  We don’t like to feel helpless, so we try to incite a response from God through threats and manipulation.

But God’s wrestling with Jacob gives us another perspective.  Rather than growing weary or angry with God in the face of hardship or delayed response, conquer him.  Rather than giving up on him when times are rough, beat him at his own game, for nothing gives him more delight than to be conquered by his children.  Yes, there are times when we will feel helpless before God.  But that’s not a failure on God’s part, as if he is just arbitrarily toying with us like a capricious bully.  We feel helpless before God because we are helpless before God, dead in our trespasses and sins – and sometimes he needs to make that abundantly clear to us.  He doesn’t want us to give up and throw in the towel when we feel helpless.  He wants us to fight.  He wants us to wrestle with him, for we are his Israel.

We wrestle with God by means of relentless faith, through trust never gives up.  Such is the faith of the Canaanite woman.  What appears at first glance to be harsh and utter rejection at the hands of Jesus takes on new meaning when we realize that God wants to be conquered by the faith of his people – that’s why he named them Israel, the people who wrestle with God.  Jesus rejects the woman’s cries for mercy, telling her that he came for the lost sheep of Israel.  But she will not give up – she knows Jesus is the only one who can help her.  Jesus again tells her that he will not take the blessings promised to Israel by generations of prophets and haphazardly throw them to the dogs.  But she will not give up – she does what Israel is supposed to.  She wrestles with God.  “Yes, Lord,” she cries, “but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.”  She wrestled with God.  She beat him at his own game, and nothing could make him happier.

We are called to be Israel today, called to struggle with and wrestle with God, called to cling to him and not let him go until he blesses us, just as Jacob held on that night so long ago.  It’s not that he is conquered in such a way that He is subjected to us.  Rather, whatever opposes us is conquered by turning to him in prayer, and by hearing his voice in the Words of Scripture.  What a great comfort that God exercises us in such a way, that he exhorts us to fight and shows that such fighting is a most pleasing sacrifice to Him.  He wants to be conquered by us.[5]

You, O Christians, are the Israel of God.  He has claimed you as his own through the water of baptism.  Doubt it not.  He has marked you with his own name.  It was for you that Jesus came into the world.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”[6]  You are saved.  Your eternal salvation was accomplished by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in your place.  That that gift is now yours because you are baptized. Believe it! God himself has made the promise; call upon him to remember it.  Today is Reminiscere Sunday. Reminiscere is Latin for the command, “Remember!”  As you are reminded by the cover of the bulletin, join with the Psalmist as he cries, “Remember, O Lord, your mercy and steadfast love, for they have been of old.”[7]  God has made promises to you in his Word and in your baptism.  Hold him to those promises.  When you feel like he has forgotten them, wrestle with God, not to bend him to your own will, but to hold him accountable to the promises that he made.  He delights to be conquered in this way.  Call upon him to remember; don’t let go until he does.

You belong to our Lord; you are his child.  But just as regular eating and exercise are how an earthly child grows into a healthy adult, so also our Lord feeds and exercises the gift of the new creation in us, that it might grow strong and healthy.  So be fed and nourished by God’s Word, through the promises he makes to us there.  Be fed and nourished at God’s altar, here at his feast.  Here you get not merely the scraps that fall from the master’s table – you have a seat at the table itself.  Here you receive pardon and peace in the body and blood of Jesus.  Here you get the food to sustain you on the days of this pilgrimage.

Then, having been fed, rejoice in his exercise.  Like an athlete who relishes being challenged physically, who knows that pushing the body and its muscles to their limit will ultimately strengthen them, rejoice when God wrestles with you, for there you learn to trust in him.  There are you strengthened.  “Consider it pure joy . . . when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”[8]  “Rejoice in hardship, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[9]

When life is challenging, when you feel reasons to doubt God’s love for you, when you wonder if God is listening to your prayers, remember your name, O Israel.  Wrestle with God.  Continually to cry out to him in prayer.  If Satan tries to convince you that you are too sinful or unworthy to pray, remember that as a Canaanite, the woman in today’s reading was an outsider.  She had no authority to call upon the God of Israel, yet he heard her and helped her.  You, as the baptized child of God, are not an outsider.  You have been encouraged, even commanded to pray, and have the promise that God will hear and answer.[10]  If God seems to ignore your prayer, as Jesus seemed to ignore the woman, cling to him in faith like Jacob.  Do not let him go until he listens, for he has promised that he will hear and answer the prayers of his children.  When God seems to reject you as Christ rejected the Canaanite woman, capture him with his own words, for he himself is the one who said “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”[11]  Take him captive in his own promises.  Cling to his Word in the face of every obstacle, for he delights in being conquered by his children.

You are Israel, therefore wrestle with your God.  Do not lose heart; do not give up.  Through patience and humility, be fervent and unrelenting in prayer.  Our Lord has promised to hear.  When your emotions would drive you to despair, hold fast to the Word of God and the shield of faith.  The promise is already yours; hold him to it.  For our God does not wrestle with you because He wants to overcome you, but so that you may prevail over him and thus receive your reward.[12]

[2] Ephesians 2:20

[3]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:25). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[4]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:25). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[5]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:29). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[6] John 3:17

[7] Psalm 25:6

[8] James 1:2-3

[9] Romans 5:3-5

[10] Psalm 50:15

[11] John 6:37

[12] Walther, God Grant It p. 261-2


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