Sunday’s sermon: Knock-Down, Drag-Out Faith

wrestling with god

Texts used – Genesis 32:22-32; Acts 10:9-23

  • Okay, for the past few weeks we’ve been talking about how our faith needs to be uncomfortable sometimes, and we’ve been walking through a number of different Scriptural passages:
    • Stories
      • Jonah pouting over Nineveh
      • Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego in the fiery furnace
      • Peter walking on the water
    • Other types of passages → dealing with uncomfortable topics like difficult relationships and hope
      • Psalms
      • NT letters
    • So we’ve talked about the ways that faith can be uncomfortable, but we haven’t talked about why faith needs to be uncomfortable … yet. J
    • Essentially all traces back to something we will pray together soon: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” → dangerous prayer
      • In this short and seemingly-simple phrase, we are fully offering ourselves up to God – no strings attached, no escape clauses, no questions asked, no holds barred. “Your will, God, not mine. Your plan God, not mine. Your way, your path, your message … your everything, God, not mine.”
      • But what if we don’t like where God is leading us? What if we don’t like what God is doing or saying? What if we’d rather resist God’s call than follow it?
        • It’s questions like these that make us uncomfortable, and it’s because of questions like these that sometimes, God has to wrestle us out of our comfort zones instead of just asking politely.
  • Both Scriptures for today deal with wrestling
    • OT passage = obvious, physical wrestling – text: But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.[1]
    • But we find Peter wrestling in our New Testament passage, too. → not physical wrestling but mental, spiritual, emotional wrestling in his crazy dream of sheets full of animals descending from on high
      • Acts: Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”[2]  → Now, I think it’s probably tough for us to appreciate what a serious struggle this is for Peter. He’s a devout Jew who’s spent his entire life abiding by all 613 Jewish laws … including all the laws concerning dietary restrictions laid out in Leviticus 11.
        • E.g.s – forbidden to eat every animal with divided hooves but doesn’t chew cud (cows = okay, pigs = not okay)[3], all that walk on paws[4], and all creatures that swarm or move on their bellies[5]
      • And yet here in this vision, Peter sees all those unclean animals and more lowered down in a sheet before him and hears God saying, “Eat.” Peter vehemently replies, “Of course I’m not going to eat that, God! I’ve never broken the rules before, and I’m not about to start now.” But God again instructs Peter to eat, and this time, the command comes with a chastisement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
        • Response leaves Peter struggling against his history, his faith, everything he’s learned about how to live his life – leaves Peter wrestling with God in his head and in his heart → Peter: I know you’re saying this to me now, God, but what about everything I’ve been taught that you said before?
          • Sounds like some of the arguments going on throughout the denomination and larger church today, doesn’t it?
  • This struggle takes us back to questions we asked at the beginning: What if we don’t like where God is leading us? What if we don’t like what God is doing or saying? What if we’d rather resist than follow?  We find some aspect of God’s call uncomfortable, and so we resist. We resist the discomfort. We resist the change we feel is coming. We resist the path that God has laid out before our feet because it might be hard. It might be uncertain. And so when God asks us to go and do, instead, we wrestle.
    • Not alone in this discomfort, desire to resist → in fact, in pretty good company
      • Even Jesus wrestled with God in the face of discomfort. → Garden of Gethsemane in Matt: Then [Jesus] went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.” … A second time he went away and prayed, “My Father, if it’s not possible that this cup be taken away unless I drink it, then let it be what you want.”[6]
        • Did you catch those words? Did you hear that dangerous prayer? “Not what I want but what you want. … Father, your will be done.” There was a part of Jesus – a very human part – that didn’t want to suffer the excruciating pain he knew was coming, that didn’t want to die such an agonizing death. And yet even in the midst of wrestling with God, what was Jesus’ prayer? “Thy will be done.”
    • We see 2 things in this example
      • First, it’s okay to wrestle with God → Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that we’re never supposed to express frustration or confusion or doubt or anger – especially not anger! – over what God is doing. Questioning – wrestling with God – is wrong, unfaithful somehow. But Jesus shows us that it’s actually okay! Why? Because God is big enough to be able to take it, all of it – all our questions, our fears, our doubts and anxieties … all of it.
      • 2nd – God is always in control → in control in the Garden of Gethsemane, and clear in NT and OT texts, too
        • Gr. in Acts: “never consider unclean” = literally “you not unclean/unholy/profane” – could be translated as text does (“never consider unclean”), could also be “cannot make unclean” … SO Gr. “make,” not just “call” → God is making it clear that Peter doesn’t have the power or the authority to declare what is clean and what is unclean, what is holy and what is profane. That charge belongs to God and God alone.
        • In Gen., God tells Jacob “you struggled with God and with men and won.”[7] – Heb. “won” = more like “you are capable” → implies Jacob is less the victor than he is the endurerThere isn’t actually a winner here. God is commending Jacob for being capable of wrestling with God, for having the strength to persevere.
          • Important to note: God doesn’t abandon us once the match is over. → Scholar: The author does not report that Jacob let go of God or even that God left him. … In some sense, this means that God and Jacob remain bound to each other, facing this future. … An individual may hang on to God, claiming the promises, persisting in relationship.[8]
  • So not only is God not offended when we need to wrestle, but God may even encourage it. Sometimes we need to wrestle with God – really, uncomfortably wrestle! – because only through this wrestling is God finally able to persuade us – perhaps kicking and screaming – out of our comfort zones. If it looks like we’re not willing or able to take that first step outside, God will “help” us … like it or not. Remember, our comfort zones are small – no space, really, for change or growth. Only when we are outside these comfort zones can we be truly open to the great and beautiful things God has in store for us.
    • See this in Jacob’s life and legacy
      • Directly following blessing – returns to Esau, not in fear and trembling or in danger but in love → restores relationship with his brother
      • Sons become 12 tribes of Israel
      • Joseph → Jesus!
    • Also see this in Peter’s ministry
      • Vision of the animals in the sheet challenged Peter’s view of clean vs. unclean, expanded and enlightened Peter’s view on who was “worthy” of hearing the good news of the gospel
        • Ministry up to this point was strictly for the Jews
        • After this = Cornelius – Roman Centurion, Gentile → becomes a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ along with his whole family and his whole household (servants, etc.)
        • Internet Monk and college chaplain Michael Spencer’s description of Peter’s vision: It was an inexplicable encounter with the Holy Spirit totally outside the bounds of safe church teaching. It was an experience with God that got through to Peter and helped him form his Jesus-shaped life.[9]
    • See something like this at just about every General Assembly
      • Lots of serious struggling and wrestling → week basically dedicated to hashing out hot-button church issues, no matter what those might be
        • Clashing opinions
        • Arguments
        • Hurt feelings
      • But even in the midst of this contentious, uncomfortable wrestling, there is prayer. There is worship. There is fellowship among God’s children on both sides of the issues.
        • Scholar: When it comes to struggles in daily life, we can count on God’s mixing it up with us, challenging us, convicting us, evaluating us, judging us. … God honors the relationship both by engaging in the struggle in the first place and by persisting in that struggle through thick and thin. The most meticulous of preparations cannot guarantee a certain shape for the future. God may break into life and force a new direction for thought and action.[10]
    • Also see this wrestling – this tension between where we’re comfortable and where we’re called – in v. 4 of “The Summons”
      • Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? → Think of it this way: How much of our wrestling deals with who we think we are vs. who we think we should be for the world? God is trying to show us that we and all those we encounter in life are blessed and forgiven – precious children – but that’s not always how we feel … and so we wrestle.
      • Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? → This is Jacob’s question – Jacob’s struggle. He feared where God was sending him – back to the land of Esau, back to the brother he’d wronged. And though in reality God is bigger than all our fears, we are often afraid of where God is sending us … and so we wrestle.
      • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me? → This is Peter’s question – Peter’s struggle. Peter wasn’t sure God’s message was meant for Gentile ears, and so he was reluctant. But like Peter, God wants us to share our faith – share God’s very self, sight and touch and sound – with the world around us. But reshaping is hard. Before we can participate in that reshaping, we must be reshaped ourselves … and so we wrestle.
  • We don’t like wrestling with God because it means we know God wants us to change something. God wants us to take a chance – to go somewhere we’re afraid to go, to say something we’re afraid to say, to spend time with someone we’re afraid to get close to. But we don’t want to cause trouble. We don’t want to make waves – not in our own lives, not in the lives of those around us. At the same time, we are followers of Jesus, the Risen Christ – the ultimate boat-rocker, the one who brought revolutionary messages like “Love your enemy” and “Take up your cross” and “Father, forgive them.” Ultimately, the gospel wasn’t meant to be comfortable.
    • Bishop Gene Robinson’s question to the 220th GA (in Minneapolis in 2010): If you’re not in trouble for the gospel you’re preaching, is it really the gospel?
    • If growing in our faith doesn’t occasionally lead us to those uncomfortable times of wrestling with God, what does that say about our faith? Amen.

[1] Gen 32:24.

[2] Acts 10:12-15.

[3] Lev 11:26.

[4] Lev 11:27.

[5] Lev 11:41-42.

[6] Matt 26:39, 42.

[7] Gen 32:28.

[8] Fretheim, 568, 570.

[9] Michael Spencer. Mere Churchianity. (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2010), 127.

[10] Fretheim, 569-570.