The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Genesis 32: 22-31
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
August 6, 2017
Would you pray with me? Wrestling God, as we wrestle with your Word this morning, I pray that the humble words of my mouth and the inspired reflections of all of our collective hearts may be good to your sight… our Rock, our Wrestler, and our Redeemer. Amen.
DING DING DING And now Plymouth Congregational Church and the many communities, authors, redactors and editors of the Book of Genesis present in association with the financial sponsorship of your ongoing pledging support and sanctioned by the Society of Biblical Literature and the United Church of Christ and supervised by the night skies of ancient times and the three judges marking the scoring for today’s contest: Biblical hermeneutics, form criticism, and ancient literature, and the referee and time keeper for this event is the moon and the sun. And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the main event of this morning! Let’s get ready to rumble with God!!!
In the far corner, wearing the long robe and his brother Esau’s cloak of hair is the undisputed champion of crafty, sly, and creative human infighting. From the ancient land of the nomads comes this many time world sheep hearing champion. In previous fights he has come out on top through the use of manipulation and sneaky moves. Weighing 150 pounds. Ladies and Gentleman… the undisputed human champion of the world, please welcome the son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of Abraham himself … Jacob (Yacob)!! [Congregation cheers]
In the other corner and really all corners…clothed in light and mystery… nobody has ever seen the face and lived to tell about it… creator of the planets, the earth, all living beings, undefeated, eternal, and all powerful… from the land of Heaven and the stars, the undisputed immortal, invisible champion of the universe and the cosmos and the space beyond imagination…the one… the only…please welcome… Elohim (The Name) God. [Congregation cheers]
Now, we want a good, clean fight today… and we wish the best of luck to both contestants. Let’s get ready to rumble with God.
And with that, the rumble, the ambush, the wresting or the greatest boxing match of all time and history began (and I don’t mean the famous fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, but the fight on a riverbank between God and Jacob from our lectionary today). This is the story of the greatest wrestling match or boxing contest of all time—one that continues within many of us to this very day. Let us hear the story of this epic fight/ wrestling match/ boxing contest again:
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children (ufdah), and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. [Whenever you see a river crossing in the Bible it is an important literary trope (big neon sign) meaning narrative change… something brand new is on the other side of the river.]
23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. [So Jacob intentionally makes himself vulnerable. As the leader of his tribe, he has many companions to protect him and belongings to defend himself with, but he purposefully enters the night alone, on the side of the river, cut off from all that is safe. Students of theology learn that good church community and relationship with God comes from places of vulnerability/ authenticity NOT safety. Author Belden Lane calls this the solace of fierce landscapes where you are on the edge and forced to wrestle with God and with yourself. Likewise, Church and community is only real and meaningful when true and full venerability are present. So… Jacob makes himself utterly vulnerable…at risk].
24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. [I think Genesis 32: 24 is the ultimate example of Biblical understatement. This leaves several key questions—1. Who threw the first punch? Who is the aggressor or initiator? Many scholars like to call this passage, “Ambush by God,” but I think that Jacob threw the first punch. When we fight with God, friends, sometimes it feels like God throws the first punch in the ring and other times… we pick a fight with God, don’t we?
25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] GOD FIGHTER for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.”
29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” [The reason that Jacob wants to know the adversaries’ name is because a name was thought to provide power over the individual. Knowing a name of a God could invoke its power. Jacob, ever crafty tries to obtain the name of God.]
But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” [This is important because in the Ancient Near Eastern tradition of these early Hebrew texts, it was thought that you could not see the face of God and survive to tell the story.] 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
God wrestlings on the rivers’ edge of change never leave us unscathed. Rather, we can come away from these boxing matches with the divine quite wounded but also deepened in faith, renamed, recreated, and blessed. Religion is no easy or safe sport.
Now, that is what I call a boxing match of Biblical proportions—literally! Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali have nothing on God and Jacob.
This boxing match in our lectionary today raises no fewer than four essential theological revelations for us all to remember in our current time of many different river crossings:
So… Plymouth… friends… look at God, feel God’s wrestling tension with you (this religion thing is a tactile, contact sport)! It is not meant to be passive or calm. See God’s face shining with love and desire… and say, even in the hard times, the complex times, the times when you feel ambushed by politics, by spousal conflict, by relationships at work gone wrong, when your kids aren’t doing well, when your parents are ailing or dying… grab hold of God and cry out… “What is your name? What should I call myself now? What is my name, God, now that I am no longer a teacher or a professor or a daughter or a son or whatever other title or identity is passed? Say to God, “I will not let go unless you bless me on the bank of this river I KNOW I need to cross” I will not let go unless you bless me. I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go…
This account of Jacob wresting with God on the riverbank is one of the most studied portions of the Hebrew Bible and someone with the name Jake coming from Jacob, although my legal name is really just Jake (thanks mom), this means a lot to me today on this one year anniversary of my ordination and installation as your associate minister, on my final Sunday leading worship with Jieun, as Hal leaves on Sabbatical, and as I start a new NGLI young minister program this week that will last for the next ten years.
I have spent the last year wrestling with God around this new name I have been given “The Reverend” (reverendus)—a title that carries with it so much responsibility to you and to history meaning “a person to be revered/ and or feared.” That idea alone is a lot to own.
A year ago today, you changed my name from Jake to The Reverend Jake Joseph. It was a river crossing, but it is a title I struggle with because how many people with this name that I now carry abused, injured, killed, or supervised/ passively observed the destruction of my LGBTQ ancestors, of women, of minorities, throughout the past 2,000 years? How many? The answer is countless. How many people with this name injured the planet, subjugated nations, killed or are killing gay people to this day in the name of Christ? I told a close friend early after my ordination that when people called me reverend… it was like being called the crypt keeper.
Wrestling with God, I have found a way to claim this new name and to use the power and position it affords to flip the expectations and understanding of the meaning and the burden of “The Reverend” on its head. I have found my calling to be redefining, reclaiming, and renaming what The Reverend can mean for authenticity, vulnerability and God Wrestling. Plymouth, this reverend doesn’t have all of the answers, but I believe we are called to all wrestle with the names we are given, to not run from a fight with God, to make Christianity the contact sport with the Divine power in our lives once again… and for all of us to collectively wrestle…not run… but wrestle with Christianity in all of its messiness.
Yes, as we stand with a light foothold on the shore of a new river, let us open-up to vulnerability, call God to a good wrestling match, and cry out: “I will not let go unless you bless me, God.”
Plymouth, Fort Collins, Christians—LETS GET READY TO RUMBLE!!! Otherwise, why bother…
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.