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For Such A Time As This – Struggle

Date: 16/10/2022/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

For Such A Time As This – Struggle
Rev Miak Siew
16 October 2022

Today’s lectionary passage is a familiar one from Genesis 32 – where Jacob wrestled until daybreak.

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

I want to invite you, just for a moment, to imagine you are Jacob that very night, all alone, after sending everyone – your family, your servants, everything you had – away. And in this solitude, the night before meeting your brother again after twenty years.

Your brother whom you tricked – out of his birthright for a bowl of soup. Your brother from whom you stole your father’s blessing by pretending to be him. You were named Jacob – “heel grabber” in Hebrew – because when you were born, you were said to have held on to Esau’s heel. Jacob, “Heel grabber,” trickster, supplanter. From the day you were born, you were known by your relationship with your brother.

You ran away for twenty years because you stole his blessing, and he was going to kill you. And you just heard from the messengers you sent to inform him of your return, that he was coming to meet you with 400 men.

<m> What is on your mind right now? What are you feeling?

If I am Jacob, I would be thinking “maybe tonight is the last night I am alive.”

It is in this frame of mind that Jacob wrestled.

The text is ambiguous here about who Jacob was wrestling with. Was it a man? An angel? God? All of the above? None of the above?

I think there is a reason why the text is ambiguous – because it is meant to have multiple meanings and layers.

I think Jacob was not only wrestling with God, or an angel or another person – Jacob was wrestling with himself. After all, which other person was there with him?

This wrestling is an internal struggle – and this is a very important experience for Jacob.

Jacob’s very name defined who he was. Heel grabber, trickster, supplanter. From his birth, it seemed he wanted to take his brother’s position. He didn’t want to be number 2.

In the darkness, all alone, Jacob comes to the realisation after all these years of striving, after all these years of building up material things, after all these years of building up status, nothing matters.

All those years of striving, scheming, cheating, building up one’s wealth and status – what did it all amount to on this night? So what if Jacob had the birthright of his brother? So what if Jacob had the blessing instead of Esau? None of these mattered anymore.

I wonder if you have had such an experience before – when you realised, like how Ecclesiastes begins, all is in vain:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?

And so Jacob struggled all night – not willing to let go, and Jacob emerges from this struggle with a new name – Israel – “one who strives with God.” No longer is he a prisoner of the past, of how he was defined through his name – Jacob is now transformed through his struggle with himself and with God.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” says:

“The essence of struggle is neither endurance nor denial. The essence of struggle is the decision to become new rather than simply to become older. It is the opportunity to grow either smaller or larger in the process.”

Last week, I quoted Richard Rohr and his critical point that Christians often use the phrase “deepening my relationship with Jesus” which has little accountability how that works, and allows us to define it in whatever way we choose.

Today I want to offer a concrete way of deepening our relationship with God by looking at Jacob’s struggle that night. We, too, should strive with God. And by that I mean struggle with ourselves – so we choose to become new, rather than older – and choosing to grow.

When Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And the answer (or rather question) was, “What is your name?” And Jacob answered, “Jacob.”

I don’t think God was just asking Jacob what is your name. I think God was asking – do you know who you are? Do you know what you have done?

And Jacob’s reply – isn’t just Jacob’s my name, but also – “heel grabber,” “trickster,” “cheater,” “liar.” Jacob didn’t just reply with his name, but also confessed the things he had done that defined who he was. Jacob’s reply was a confession.

Confession requires us to look honesty at ourselves. God already knows everything – at the end of the day, confession is about us admitting to ourselves where we went wrong, what we have done wrong.

It requires that we put aside everything else, just like how Jacob sent everyone and everything away. It is sending away all our distractions, and all our ways and means to distract ourselves from having a hard look at ourselves.

You may, like Jacob, been avoiding this all your life. Like Jacob, you may have been running away. And when you realise you can’t run away from yourself, you may start distracting yourself by striving, working hard to make money, accumulating material things, seeking status, thinking that all these things help.

But in your solitude, when you are all alone, when you take a long honest look at yourself, that is when you are wrestling with yourself. When you wrestle with yourself, you are wrestling with God.

It may be scary. It may be unsettling.

You may be afraid of what you might find out about yourself. You might be afraid what will God do. Will God judge you, and deem you unworthy?

<M> Have you avoided taking a long honest look at yourself – what you have done in your life – good and bad? Why do you think you have been avoiding it?

I have spent quite a bit of my life avoiding this wrestling. I remember long ago, my cell group leader telling me maybe I should see a therapist. I didn’t listen for a long time.

But now, almost 2 decades later, I see what my cell group leader saw. And I have been struggling, striving with myself, being awfully honest to myself.

Through this I have come to realise that it is not me that is not going to let go, but God not letting me go. God will not let me go until I get the blessing. And what is that blessing? That I emerge from this struggle transformed.

This struggle is not a test.

In our lives, we constantly get tested. PSLE, O levels, A levels, Prelims, exams – these are all familiar to us. And we are also quite clear about the consequences when we fail such tests.

God isn’t testing us. Because if we are being tested, what happens when we fail? If God loves us unconditionally, if God shows us grace, what are we being tested for?

This struggle isn’t about whether we are worthy of God’s love. This struggle is about our growth.

That’s the blessing.

And this knowledge that God isn’t testing me, isn’t judging me, is the safety line that allows me to dive deep into wrestling, struggling and striving with myself – even the parts of myself I am ashamed of, even the parts of myself that I cannot accept.

I have found that instead of judgement, I found a profound sense of freedom – one that I find echoed in Psalm 51 –

  You desire truth in the inward being;[a] 
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right[b] spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing[c] spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

**The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

I used to think “what an easy get-out-of-jail card to play” when I read Psalm 51. Now I read it differently. This isn’t about erasing what we have done wrong, like using liquid paper (I think folks now use correction tape) to blot out our mistakes.

That’s cheap grace –

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The effects and harms we have done on others remain – and we will have to make amends to those we have harmed – just like Jacob’s act of making amends and atonement towards his brother Esau.

And the blessing was this – God gave Jacob a new name. Israel – “one who strives with God.”

We have not recorded this worship song yet –

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast
Lonely or afraid

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness
Overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks My face”

We will emerge from this struggle transformed, knowing we are beloved, no matter what other people say. We will emerge from this struggle being able to discern what is important, and what is not. We will emerge from this struggle aware about where and what we have done wrong, and like Jacob, willing to atone and make amends for the past.

So many characters in the Bible are shown with their warts and all, even the “heroes” and the ancestors of faith. They are presented to us to show us how human they were – and even after their encounters with God, continued to make mistakes.

We continue to struggle because we often go astray. We often worship other idols – money, power, material things, status, fame, pleasure, comfort. And sometimes we exploit, abuse and hurt each other, knowingly and unknowingly.

Yet God will not let us go. God continues to patiently run after us, reach out to us, seek after us, forgive us, again and again and again.

Will you struggle, strive with God, knowing you will never lose God’s love for you – and realising God only desires for you to return back to the path of discipleship, the path of justice, love, righteousness.

And can we see that God isn’t wrestling with us, but embracing us, and God will not let go.

“Free In Your Presence,” one of the worship songs we sang just now, is one written by FCC folks here. And it is based on Jacob’s struggle that night. I hope that as we sing it once again, it has another layer of meaning for you.

If I could rewrite Your story of love for me
I would not forget those moments of doubts
If I could rewrite Your story of love for me
I would not erase those times of struggle

Those moments of doubting myself
And blaming You for all my brokenness
Those moments I wrestled myself
And You for the answers, for a little hope

Then I will remember
When You became real to me
When You would not turn away
When You would not turn away

I will remember

I am an anchor of love
I am a beacon of hope for You

When You touched me on my side
When my eyes were opened to You
And so I saw that I was born free
When You touched me on my side
When my eyes were opened to You
And so I saw that I was born free

Then I will remember
When You became real to me
When You would not turn away
When You would not turn away

I will remember

I am an anchor of love
I am a beacon of hope for You