Sermon from August 10, 2014. Based on Genesis 32:22-31. Come see us for our 140th Anniversary Celebration next Sunday! Join us at church at 11:00 with lunch to follow in in order to celebrate 140 years of Christian Witness in San Saba County!
Origin Stories and Jacob at the Jabbok
I watched Guardians of the Galaxy last week. It’s one of those comic book movies, and it got me thinking about how comic book movies are kind of all the rage these days. When it comes to big summer movies its pretty much superheroes and sequels. They’ll make a superhero movie, and then the sequel, and the third one, and when the story line is all played out, what they’ll do is they’ll go back to the origin of the superhero, and write a new origin story. An origin story is a key device in these kind of movies, because the origin story tells us who the character is. So if you’ll take Batman for example, you’ll remember watching Batman movies and the tv show when you were a kid, and those campy elements like big comic book things like “ZAP!” and “BAM!” and “POW!” and “KABLOOIE!” would show up on the screen. But a few years ago they made a new origin story for Batman, and they moved to realism, and made Batman into a gritty, hard knocks streetwise hero fighting an international criminal conglomerate with little more than unlimited funds and a passion for justice.
Now origin stories are important for Christians too, or any community or individual. The story we tell for ourselves and the way we tell our story tells us who we are. We’re shaped by our stories, even as we’re shaping our stories. One of the big ways that we talk about this is in terms of giving “testimony.” We tell our stories. One of the problems that challenges the Christian community these days is that we’ve fallen into the habit of only telling one origin story for ourselves. We are all familiar with the story of Paul’s life, who was an enemy of Christ, and then converted and became a passionate convert for the Gospel, fired up about telling everyone about Jesus. It’s one of the most powerful origin stories in our Bible. The problem is that it’s so powerful, many of us think that it’s the only way a Christian can tell their story. We try to shoehorn our story to fit Paul’s outline, trying to show a dramatic conversion moment, or all the ways we were evil before we converted, and are better after. But that doesn’t always work? What about those of us who were raised as Christians, who have been following Christ our whole lives? We may never have experienced a dramatic conversion. Or someone who had always had a sense of moral good, but experienced God more distantly, or maybe through another faith. They were never an enemy of the Gospel, persecuting the faithful as Paul did.
What we don’t realize, is that there are so many stories beyond Paul’s, that can give us models for how we can tell our story and shape our lives. And I got excited when I saw that Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok, because it is just that kind of origin story, and in a way I feel like it’s my story.
The story of Jacob is the origin story for the community of Israel. This story of Jacob is the origin story for the community that calls itself Israel. This is the origin story of the name Israel; it’s the first time the word Israel shows up in the Bible. And when you look at later writings, Psalms, prophets, etc., you can see that Jacob, more often than the other patriarchs, is used as shorthand for the whole community of Israel. In the Psalms you’ll read sometimes, “The God of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” But often you’ll just hear, “the God of Jacob.” or, “Listen up O Jacob, Listen up, O Israel.” When it comes to whom Israel is, this is that defining moment, that origin story for the people who would call themselves Israel.
Now as Christians, we consider ourselves heirs to the community of Israel, and heirs to the promises given to that community. If we didn’t, reading the Old Testament would just be a waste of time for us. And like any good origin story, this story tells us what it means to be a part of the people of Israel, the people of God’s promises. What it tells us is that a life of faith is a life of wrestling with God. We see this over and over again in the Bible, as all of the great characters wrestle with God. Abraham haggles, David cajoles and flatters, the prophets take old traditions and reinvent them to bring a word of God’s justice to the people of their time. Jesus and Paul also inverted and reinterpreted tradition, in service of their vision of a new Covenant and a new Kingdom, full of grace and peace and offered to all. In other words, wrestling with God is a fundamental part of what it is to be God’s people.
And wrestling with God is how I characterize my journey of faith. Like Jacob, I was raised in the home of people of faith, and like Jacob I wandered. And like Jacob, the earliest inklings of my own spirituality happened in darkness. When I was little I would stay awake at night and wonder, what might be out there? What might happen to us when we die? I spent my childhood trying to distract myself from my worries and my wondering. In church, I learned all the stories of Jesus, and the great heroes of the Bible, and I went to vacation Bible school every year, where we’d learn about the exodus, or the journeys of Paul. I loved church, all my friends were there. But as I got older I started dealing with harder questions. If God is good, why do bad things happen? What is the relationship between science and religion, what do stories like Adam and Eve mean if men really don’t have fewer ribs than women do?
My inability to answer these questions led me to doubt the existence of God. And for most of my adolescence, I wrestled with what it means to believe in God, and whether or not I could. I remember wishing that I could have the faith that my parents had, or that I had as a child. Not knowing where else to turn, I remember praying to God about my unbelief. I remember thinking if you’re praying about whether or not God exists, maybe you do believe.
Slowly, and with much anguish, I came to realize that I couldn’t let go. It seemed that faith had a hold on my more than I had a hold on my faith. I would look up into the tops of the trees and wonder if there was anyone out there, and then I would consider the incredible complexity and majesty of the trees themselves and the miracle of life, and wonder how their beauty could not be created. I thought of my community, that had supported and loved me all my life, had challenged me to grow, had taught me how to care deeply about the people around me, and the people far from me, people who had much greater worries than mine. And I thought that all that could come from somewhere.
I was stuck in that sense that I couldn’t let go of faith, or faith couldn’t let go of me, when we started going to a new church, and I met Pastor Ken. We didn’t have any youth or a youth group, so Ken offered to meet me on Wednesday morning at the Starbucks near my house. I told him about where I was spiritually, and he walked me through the many ways that others have struggled with the same things I did. He introduced me to theology and the theologians who had written about my questions and struggled with the same things I struggled with. Over my senior year, Ken taught me how to be a better wrestler, at least when it comes to spiritual matters.
When I went to college, I was no longer struggling as much with whether or not I believe in God. But I was struggling with what I should do about it. And once again I found a community that helped me grow. Through working with the youth at the Episcopal church in town, I began to see all the ways that my church youth group had cared for and shaped me, and helped me grow. And as I thought through my experiences, I realized how much power the church has, to change the way we live in this world, to make it a better place, a more righteous place. I came to believe in the power of the church to be a force for the reign of God, where through God the crooked would be made straight, the oppressed would me made strong, and our sin and iniquity would be taken away from us.
When I tell people my story of faith, I say that it has been characterized by wrestling with God. I still struggle with what it means to be a person of faith in a broken world. And on some days, I struggle with whether or not I can believe in God. On days like yesterday, when I learned that a 7-yr old shot an 8-yr old in the face in Houston last week. I wonder where God is in the world. But then I remember the words of James Muilenburg, a professor of Old Testament, who would say, “before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again” And I try. I realize the foolishness of faith as Paul would say it, but I hang on anyways.
Because here’s the thing about this origin story of Israel. When Jacob is wrestling with God, and he has been wounded, he refuses to let go. He says I will not let go until you bless me. And in my life, it has always been through the choice to keep wrestling that I have been blessed. I have been blessed through my faith, and I have been blessed through my doubt. God has walked with me in the darkest parts of my life, because I have refused to let go. And God has surrounded me with a community who will carry the promises for me when I can’t lift them, when I can’t find the strength to wrestle another day. The world is a tough place, and struggle is inevitable. But we are God’s people. And while being God’s people means wrestling with God, as Abraham and Jacob and David and Peter and all the saints before us show, if you can hang on, you may come out with a limp, but you will be blessed. This is my story. It too is not the only origin story in the Bible, for the Bible is a collection of many stories. What is your story of faith? And how does telling it shape your faith, and your witness, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ?