Oct 26, 2008
Scripture: Gen 32: 1-32
Sermon Title: "Wrestling with God"
(Enters dressed as a Pilgrim, limping)
Look at those stars. So magnificent: thousands and thousands of them. What is it that Psalms 8 says? "When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"
It’s times like this I’m in awe of what God has created and I also can’t help but to wonder if these are the same stars that Jacob was under.
Where these the same stars that Jacob saw while he slept on a stone and discovered he was at the Gate of Heaven? Are the same stars under which Jacob wrestled God and was given a new name?
I’ve been thinking about Jacob a lot lately. It’s hard not too think while on a ship headed for a new land. Jacob, who had to do a lot of traveling to set things right with his family and with God.
Jacob, who would forever be changed by the experience, and all the families of the world who would be blessed by him and his family tree.
I look up at the stars and I wonder: God, are we doing the right thing? Did you really call us to leave our homes to worship you in a new way? Will you be with us just as you promised to be with Jacob?
Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Henry Ames, one of the 101 people who are traveling to the New World. We’ve been on this boat for 41 days.
Last night there was a large storm, rocking our ship back and forth something fierce, cracking a main beam. I was scared that all of us would be tossed into the ocean. Then the winds stopped and the waves ceased. It was as if Jesus Christ himself had summoned the sea to be still.
We were able to fix the beam, but not before I got cracked in the hip and got this limp you see now.
I pray it’s only temporary. I’m going to need to be able to walk once we get to the New World.
In fact, there’s a lot I’ve been praying about. I pray the captain knows where he is going. I pray the New World is as full of promise as they say. I pray that God has not forgotten about us.
Rev. Robinson tells us to continue trusting in the Lord, that God will see us through. I pray that he is right. I pray this wasn’t a colossal mistake.
Originally I come from England, as did my parents and my parents’ parents. Things have not been so good for the last 60 years. Whenever a new King or Queen takes the throne the country shifts its belief system.
The Church of England has mass corruption. For example: do you know we’re required by law to attend Sunday worship or we get fined?
Worship has become a show of expensive artifacts and rituals with leaders telling us what to believe.
Over the years a group of us began meeting in secret to study Scripture and to share and discuss God and Jesus Christ. We had to be careful: if found we could be fined or thrown in jail.
There’s been a move to purify the church, to bring the focus back to Christ. Jesus, we believe, should be the head of his church, not the pope, not the priest, not the Queen or King.
We value simplicity in worship, using plain language so everyone could understand. We believe in scriptural authority and democracy in church leadership.
We have gathered for years to hear and share the good news that God has made a covenant with his people and the gift of this covenant is grace, grace made known in Jesus Christ.
After years of wanting to worship God in peace and free from fear, we moved to Amsterdam in 1608, and then to Leyden, Holland.
For 11 years we stayed there, as strangers in a strange land, gathered by the Lord, lead by the Spirit, living as holy a life as we can. But we began to fear that if we stayed much longer we would be influenced by the culture and loose sight of who God was calling us to be.
We began to feel that God was calling us for something more. But we weren’t too sure what it was. As providence would have it, we heard of this opportunity. The Virginia Company was in urgent need of people to help settle the New World.
This sounded perfect: in the New World we could worship God in isolation and peace. Christ, not the King or Queen or Pope would be the head of our church.
So we prayed and prayed, we wrestled with the reality of moving across the world. And after some long wrestling matches with God, we knew that this was what we were supposed to do.
So we made our preparations and boarded the boat, the Mayflower as the call it, and we are now journeying to the New World, were we can be an example of the Old World.
A pilgrimage, Rev. Robinson calls it. Just like Abraham. Just like the Israelites. Except instead of traveling by foot, we are traveling in a wooden boat, across an unknown ocean.
This journey has made me really appreciate the stories in the Bible, especially the stories of our ancestors and the journeys they partook in and the changes they made.
I’ve always loved Jacob’s story. Jacob has fled to his uncle’s town to avoid the wrath of Esau, his brother. During the next 20 years he works really hard, has many children and acquires a lot of wealth.
But he is not happy there and one day God says to Jacob "It’s time to come home, back to Canaan. I will be with you."
So Jacob takes his family, all he has and travels the 500 miles back to Canaan. Esau finds out about this and takes an army of men to meet his brother.
Obviously, this frightens Jacob, so he divides every one into two camps, he sends his brother a peace offering. And he prays.
He reminds God of his promises. He admits his unworthiness, he asks for help and he prays for the sake of family. He then sends everyone away.
Jacob is left alone, in the wilderness, isolated.
Kind of like how I feel right now, on this wooden boat, in the middle of this unknown sea.
A stranger comes and wrestles with Jacob. They wrestle for a long time, until the break of day. Both were strong, both held their grip.
When the stranger sees that Jacob will not let go, he strikes him on the hip, putting it out of joint. But Jacob held on. "Let me go," the man said.
"No" said, Jacob, "not until you bless me."
The stranger says "You are no longer to be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed."
The wresting match stops, although we’re never told of who lets go of who. As the stars fade away and the sun rises, Jacob walks way with a new name, and a permanent limp.
Jacob had wrestled with God. And this became the defining moment of his life.
For many years I myself wrestled with this scripture. It seems to make no sense.
What does it mean? What good can come out of this story? Who is this Jacob? Who is this strange God? Why a wrestling match ? Why a new name? Why the limp?
Yes, Jacob receives God’s blessing, but what good is it to head towards the promised land if you have to limp the whole way?
I’ve wondered about that for years. Rev. Robinson tried to explain it to me time and time again, but it seemed to make no sense.
Until this trip. This whole experience has seemed to be a wrestling match between us and God, one that has given me my own limp, literally and figuratively.
I’ve been a faithful citizen, a faithful church goer. A loving husband and father. But things didn’t feel right. The government seemed...off. Church didn’t seem as church was supposed to be.
I began to have these thoughts. A still, small voice, if you will. At first I ignored it, but the voice grew louder and louder till I had no choice but to listen to it.
I came to understand that voice to be God’s. And I heard God telling me that there is another way, a truer way. God was calling me to return to the original way: his Son.
Not the Pope, not the king, not the stylized rituals.
When I finally began to listen, it seemed as if God was calling us to Amsterdam, where we could worship in greater freedom. That trip was difficult enough, as it meant taking my wife and children and leaving behind my hometown, my parents, my land.
And then we went to Leyden. For eleven years we built a new community, worshiped closer and closer to what we felt God was calling us to be.
But there was still that voice. That same voice that spoke to Abraham. The same voice that spoke to Jacob. The voice of the God who would come and wrestle with Jacob.
This has not been an easy decision to make or an easy journey. Should we have stayed in Leyden, should we go back to England, should I have placed my family on the boat?
This has not been an easy struggle. Especially after the storm last night and my accident. I feel as if I am struggling with God right now, holding on, asking if religious freedom is what I really want and need? Is the ability to worship God freely really that important?
Do I put all of my trust in God, my family’s care in God? What if God’s wrong? What if I misheard? What if that wasn’t really God’s voice I heard but my own?
What if, what if what if?
What God has asked of me, of my family, of our congregation feels like repeated blows against my hip.
These blows have caused us to trustingly gather onto this boat and set sail for a land we know nothing about.
And as of last night, I have indeed been left with a limp.
Interestingly enough, our experience has also left us with a new name. Before this journey some of us were called Catholics, others Anglicans.
But now people are calling us by new names. Some call us Separatists. Others named us Puritans. Some say we are congregationalists. (That’s a rather long word to wrap one’s mouth around.)
But there is another name we have been given that I personally like: Pilgrims. That’s what we are. Pilgrims has the sound of movement, it speaks of the journey we are on, and the journeys that lay ahead.
Yes, I have learned that like Jacob, when God calls you, and challenges you to a wrestling match, there is no way you can’t help but to be changed.
That change will open you up to a new world of possibilities you never thought existed, but the change will also ask that you give something up. For Jacob that meant the ability to walk regular.
For others it may mean moving to a new location, taking a different job, selling their land.
For others it becomes more abstract. Letting go of their anger. Giving up their right to judge others and forgiving the ones who hurt them. Not hanging out with friends who can cause them harm. Letting go of the need to always be right, to always be in control.
When you wrestle with God you’re bound to loose something, but it’s usually that which has held you back all along. And what God gives you?, what God can lead you too? Well that can be fantastic!
We are on this boat, between two destinations. If we go back we will return to oppression and religious persecution, if we continue ahead we’ll arrive in a land of religious freedom ripe with mysteries unknown.
But we will not be alone, will we? God is with us, just as God always has been. Just as God has been with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah.
Just as God was with Jacob on that long, lonely night when they met, and a new name was revealed.
Well, it looks as if the day is breaking. The stars are fading. The sun is rising. This, I know, is the same sun that rose upon Jacob that day. And so it rises upon us. And we too, are forever changed.
May God be with you as he has been with us, may the Spirit guide you to safe shores and may Christ continue to be the loving head of the church.
Amen and amen.