Wrestling with God

Sunday 17th October 2010
Year C, The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Genesis 32:22-31

Let us remind ourselves of the story of Jacob. He was the twin son of Isaac, Abraham's son, along with Esau. He bought Esau’s inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup and, as his father lay dying, he tricked him into confirming his inheritance by pretending to be his elder, hairy, brother. He then fled to Abraham's family home in Ur and was in turn tricked by his father-in-law into sleeping with the wrong sister before being given them both as wives. His father-in-law Laban, then did a number of shady deals over Jacob's wages, so he retaliated by rigging the flock breeding in his own favour. Meanwhile, he fathered the men who would lead the twelve tribes of Israel by a variety of sexual encounters with wives and house maids until he thought that Laban would take no more; at which point, under God's instruction, he upped sticks and left with his wives, children, flocks and camels. In a final act of ingratitude his wife, Laban's daughter Rachel, stole Laban's household gods and when he caught up with the fleeing family she sat on the package containing the gods claiming that she was at that time enduring her menstrual period so he could not search the place where she sat. Laban and Jacob patched up a peace deal and then Jacob went on to confront his brother whose inheritance he had taken, fearing the worst.

He planned to spend the night before his encounter with Esau alone but he was accosted by God who insisted on wrestling with him until the morning. Jacob gave more than he got and in the end God had to cheat by wrenching Jacob's hip before concluding the encounter by blessing Jacob at his request and re-naming him Israel: "because," God said, "you have struggled both with God and man and have overcome".

To modern ears this is a very strange story: Jacob, who lives something of a rackety life, is rewarded by God; and even God plays dirty in the wrestling match. This isn't the kind of straightforward morality that we're used to; but the trouble with what we are used to is that everything becomes too predictable, based on a set of tables. And, indeed, in the Middle Ages that is precisely how morality was seen. Starting in the British Isles, probably in Ireland but soon after taken up in the whole of the Latin church, priests began to devise manuals of fixed penances, following confession, for sins. This led, in turn, to the idea of life as a balance sheet of good and bad deeds determining your place in the after-life and, even later, this led to the ability to advance the place of people in the after life by saying dedicated masses for them and buying indulgences. Late Medieval Europe was a veritable salvation engine whose wheels never stopped turning winching people up from purgatory into heaven. but, ironically, after this whole superstructure was overthrown at the Reformation, Protestants became as eager  as Catholics to tabulate morality; but, in this case, the outcome was much more grim. For while Catholics went on working for the, admittedly reformed, salvation engine, Protestants were disempowered: if they committed certain sins, they were done for; it was finished; which took them back to the beginning of Western Christianity's great moral blunder when Saint Augustine of Hippo, the most influential theologian in the Western Christian church in its first millennium, developed the idea of original sin, saying that we were all born in a state of fatal, mortal sin, sexually transmitted from Adam which, incidentally, produced the devastating collateral damage of vilifying sexual relationships.

This history of sin has produced some exceedingly strange and tragic consequences: first, Western Christianity largely views itself and is therefore largely viewed by those outside it as a moralist code with an inordinate, paradoxical sexual obsession whereby in seeking to denounce sex it can hardly think about anything else. Secondly, and connected with this, we have come dangerously close to rubbishing the physical creation which our God made for us and in which he made us; and, thirdly, we have almost abandoned the idea, still held by the Greek Orthodox Church which is, remember, only in schism with Rome but not regarded by it as in any way heretical, the idea that we exist to approach the divine on earth to be united with the divine in heaven.

Now without that idea of approaching the divine, the story of Jacob made Israel would make no sense. From the morality perspective it's a complete mess; but approached from our core purpose of aspiring to the divine it makes all the sense in the world. Sexy, dusty, grumpy, sweaty Jacob fights with God all night and we are told that God broke the rules but I would be very surprised if Jacob didn't break them too; and, in the morning, God rewards Jacob with a blessing and confirms the fatherhood of his Chosen people not just because Jacob has confronted God, which is what it's all about, but has also confronted humanity; and overcome.

So what does that tell us, apart from warning us off giving vent to judgment on others on the basis of conventional, tabulated morality? First, it tells us that we really must confront God from our sexy, dirty, grumpy standpoint because that's the standpoint we've got; that's who we are; that's how we were made; that's how we're meant to be; but, secondly, we must confront the rest of humanity in our struggle to make sense of our world and our God. If we needed any reminder, the story of Jacob tells us that God isn't a collection of doctrines and hymns, that God doesn't work along regular, well ordered lines, that we can't out-guess or out-fight God; but that, to an extent which we are tempted to deny, the encounter with God is, paradoxically, on our terms.

So this week, as we learn where the axe will fall in the Comprehensive Spending Review, we must be careful of glib responses and be prepared to look carefully at what the Government proposes and what the opposition opposes; and we must be careful to judge the proper Christian response to what is proposed; and, in doing so we will need to look at ourselves and look at what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a creature of the creator; and, if we come to the conclusion that our only course of action is struggle, then we must struggle, whether that struggle is an earthly campaign to protect the poor or whether it is a struggle with ourselves and God to generate a proper level of anger and then to achieve a proper level of acceptance.