Fr. Bill Carroll – The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2022
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we hear the strange story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. And I’ve been fascinated by it for four decades now, ever since I heard my friend Matt chant it in Hebrew at his bar-mitzvah. I’m pretty sure I had a yarmulke on my head at the time.
This story forms part of a longer tale of family conflict. Jacob has stolen the birthright of his brother and journeyed into a distant land. And, while he is there, he has worked to acquire two wives, two concubines, many children, and large flocks of sheep. But now, he is being chased cross-country by his father-in-law, Laban, who is furious about the theft of his household gods. Finally, as he flees, Jacob is about to enter territory that is controlled by his brother, Esau. And so, he is afraid for his life. Jacob lingers behind as his family, and his entourage, cross the river. And there, he spends a long, long night alone, wrestling with God—or at least his angel. (He is called a man at first, but by the end of the story we realize that Jacob has been fighting with God.)
At one point, the angel strikes Jacob on the hip and pulls it out of socket—leaving Jacob with a limp. And yet, he refuses to let go. At the break of day, the angel begs Jacob to release him. But Jacob keeps on refusing to let go, unless the angel will bless him. And so, the angel blesses Jacob and gives him his new name, Israel. And it’s then that Jacob realizes that he has fought with God and won.
What a strange story it is! And, what’s most strange about it, is the following: Most of us, at least most of the time, don’t think of God as our enemy–certainly not one that we could prevail against in battle. When we consider our spiritual struggles, we think about something evil—maybe Satan or some kind of demonic power. Or maybe it’s a personal temptation or sin. Maybe we struggle with an addiction or some other self-destructive behavior. Maybe it is a painful memory or a broken relationship. Maybe it’s our pride or our anger or our feelings of worthlessness. But,. whatever it is, it’s not usually a struggle against God. In fact, on the contrary, God is the one who takes our side. God is good and merciful and kind. And, it’s true, God is ALL these things—and more.
But sometimes, we do stay up half the night wrestling with God. Sometimes, meeting God leaves us wounded—and wondering if our faith is worth it. There is a dark side to faith. God may be good and loving, but he isn’t always nice. And, like any other relationship, our relationship with God is filled with risk. When we get close enough to someone, they can wound us. God certainly challenges us and spurs us to what is often painful personal growth.
When we wrestle with God, though, we often wrestle with our false ideas of God, rather than the real thing. We project our insecurities and character flaws on to God. Maybe Jacob thought God was as dishonest and unreliable as he was. This is the one who was in competition with his brother. Maybe he thought God was like he was with his brother—a rival and a competitor. Maybe he didn’t see God as a Savior and a friend, when he was wrestling with him.
Sometimes, in our families and other close relationships, the people we depend on let us down. Face it, we are seldom as gracious and generous with one another as we might be. We are never so loving as God is with all of us. God is not like a human parent, who might either give or withhold a blessing. God is consistent with us. God is an infinite ocean of grace, who always gives more than we can receive.
But, there’s also a real way in which God can seem like our enemy. At least when we are lost in sin—or beaten down by life or by other people. We are, in fact, in love with our sins. And so, our journey into God involves a painful process of letting go. Indeed, we struggle to tear away from the things (and those parts of ourselves) that keep us in bondage.
God always has our best interests at heart. But we so identify with the things that are killing us that God appears to be our enemy. And so, writing in the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul says that we must die to sin, so that we may live toward God. Our path to wholeness and victory involves suffering and the Cross. And, in the end, we find ourselves stumbling as we try to follow Jesus with one foot still tethered to our sins.
But there is still another type of wound we suffer when we wrestle with God. And it’s more than just something negative. Our wounds can show us our way into God. They remind us that we are frail and dependent creatures—that we need God’s love (and we need human love) to live our lives. Jesus shows us how to love God’s way. He calls us to love each other with hearts of flesh—vulnerable hearts, hearts that can be wounded.
In the mystical tradition, we even speak of the wound of love. The presence and action of God can leave such a wound on our souls. St. John of the Cross (the great Spanish mystic), for example, speaks of the sweet cautery and delightful wound of the Holy Spirit. Like a hot iron applied to stop a bleeding wound, love burns and heals the soul—by bringing us into union with God. Love heals us that way. “The fire of love (John writes) is of infinite power,” and it can “transform into itself the soul that it touches. Yet God burns each soul according to its preparation: He will burn in one more, in another less. And God does this, insofar as he desires—and how and when he desires.”
John goes on to contrast the wound of love with the ordinary wounds caused by material fire:
The wound left by material fire is only curable by other medicines, whereas the wound effected by the cautery of love is incurable through medicine. For the very cautery that causes it, cures it, and by curing it, causes it all the more. As often as the cautery of love touches the wound of love, it causes a deeper wound of love in us, and thus the more it wounds, the more it cures and heals.
And so, we ought not to pity poor Jacob but to imitate him. He is like that persistent widow in the parable of Christ. He is willing to spend as long as it takes to get the answer that he needs from God. Like Jacob, we ought to keep on striving through the night—however dark or long. And we must never, ever, ever let God go. For, when we wrestle with God, we receive a blessing. And, yes, we are wounded by the Spirit—who sets us on fire with heavenly longing. And the more we are wounded by this Spirit, the more deeply we thirst for God.
In this thirst lies our salvation. For it is the result of the touch of our Savior—the sweet, living flame of love burning in us. And, as the Great Physician, Jesus only wounds us, in order to make us whole and free.