Faith is not easy; but it is worth it. Our lesson this morning finds the great patriarch Jacob with his family. He sends them across the shallow ford of a river, spending the night alone. At least, at first he is alone, but he ends up wrestling an unnamed man all night long. The man figures out that Jacob is a fierce competitor, so injures his hip. Even with that, Jacob persists, telling the man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”
We are never told the identity of the man, but by virtue of everything else that happens in the story, we learn that he was some kind of angel or manifestation of God. He tells Jacob that his name is now “Israel”, which means “God-wrestler.” And Jacob names the place “Peniel”, which means “face of God.” Whatever it was that happened in the encounter, Jacob saw it as something holy, worth remembering and preserving, devoting the whole episode to God and his relationship with God.
Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.
We have spent the last two months taking a closer look at worship: what we do, why we do what we do, why we do it in the order we do…In short, worship is meant to flow seamlessly from beginning to end. It begins when we gather – when we meet up in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the pews, as the music plays.
Somewhere along the way, we move from gathering to preparing: we praise, we confess and come clean, we are reminded of the absurd gift of undeserved grace, and share that peace with each other.
We encounter the Word of God: read in Scripture, sung in anthem, interpreted in sermon, made visible in baptism and communion, present in the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. From there, everything we do is our response to this meeting with the living Christ: we pray, remember what we believe in creeds, recommit our resources and ourselves to the work and desires of God.
And from there, we are sent. The hour or so of worship draws to a close so that the service begins. We go out to serve God in Christ, reaching out to a broken world in need of healing. And then, one week later, the people gather, and the drama begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
What this overview fails to account for is the fact that faith isn’t always easy. As the popular phrase puts it, one of the goals of faith is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In other words, this whole act of worship is one that is meant to take on both our brokenness and our complacency. Worship should be where we find both healing and prodding.
At least, that’s the hope. That’s my hope. If we spend the whole time agreeing with each other, then all we have done is luxuriate in self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-justification. On the other hand, if we only remind ourselves of how imperfect, how far off the mark we are, then we end up denying the God-crafted beauty that lies within each of us. Worship, instead, ought to be a balance between these two extremes: meeting us and embracing us as we are, but not content to leave us there, and so nudging, pushing, pulling us into other and better and more faithful ways of being.
Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.
Each of us has our own encounters with the challenges of faith. Whether it’s the personal pain of broken relationships or undeserved hurts, or the desperate cries of “why me” in the hospital or by the bedside, or the glimpses of agony at a culture, a society, a world so full of injustice and wrongdoing and cruelty…if we take faith with any level of seriousness, we know it’s not a “happily ever after” fairy tale. It is, instead, a reality complicated by both joy and heartbreak, sometimes in the very same moment.
A few years ago, my friend Jim was driving his father to his sister’s rehearsal dinner. His father required the assistance of a cane to get around, and had been in poor health; but none of that was on their mind as they made their way to the celebration. Suddenly, Jim’s dad was having extreme discomfort. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. Jim pulled the car over and called 911, but it was too late. The next day, as the family gathered for the wedding, Jim took his father’s cane and walked his sister down the aisle.
I can only imagine the swirl of emotions at that moment: rejoicing at this celebration, but grieving the devastating and sudden loss; overcome with the agony of physical absence, but comforted by the symbolic presence of what is unseen.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think God visited this suffering on Jim and his family. I don’t, for a moment, pretend to understand why the world works the way it does, but I know that God’s desires good and wholeness and peace. And when the world is troubled by evil and brokenness and wrongdoing, God’s heart is the first to break. God does not cause suffering; but if the cross at the center of our faith means anything, it’s that God is at work anyway, shaping that moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice.
In their moment of pain, Jim and his family grabbed a firm hold of God, refusing to let go, no matter how much they were hurting. Their faith had taught them that God had joy in store for them ultimately. I am sure it didn’t feel like it at the moment; but they knew to hold tight for that blessing.
Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.
There is a larger story that surrounds our morning lesson, one that helps to frame it in surprising ways. Jacob’s encounter with the wrestler comes as he prepares to face his twin brother Esau for the first time in ages. If we remember, Jacob had twice betrayed Esau, getting both his inheritance and his blessing. The night of his wrestling is the night before he is to meet Esau face to face. He is understandably terrified. He knows he has wronged his brother, and he fully expects revenge. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with the divine, if not with his own conscience and history.
The next day, as Jacob limps his way across the expanse toward this unknown fate, he sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, Jacob went first, bowing down to the ground as a sign of his contrition. What Esau does next is the gift: he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, and kisses him. The brothers embrace and weep. In an amazing twist, all is forgiven. Esau is overjoyed to meet Jacob’s family, this incredible collection of nieces and nephews. He rejects Jacob’s attempts to give him cattle, saying that God has already blessed him greatly. After this tender reunion, the two brothers go their separate ways, now reconciled through Esau’s gracious mercy.
In a sense, Jacob had to come to terms with himself before he could come to terms with his brother. The night-long wrestling was, in many ways, a manifestation of Jacob’s wrestling with who he once was and what he had done. Expecting to meet Esau the next day, there is no doubt that all that had transpired between them had come flooding back in overwhelming anxiety, fear, loathing, humiliation, embarrassment. It’s no wonder he slept little, if any, and came away in pain. Even so, through it all, he demonstrated fierce tenacity to his faith, holding on for dear life. Not only would he have to come clean to Esau; he would have to do so with God as well.
Friends, there is a gift of faith in the struggle with faith. It would be one thing to face reality and come away hopeless, with the sense that God has given up on the world, that humanity is doomed, that the planet will cure us as the virus we behave like. That kind of pessimism, as honest and realistic as it might feel, is actually the cop out, the easy route. Because if we are really doomed, what’s the point in being faithful? Why bother with any of it? Why waste an hour on Sunday morning? In fact, why eat well, exercise, befriend, volunteer, be kind?
The harder path, the faithful path, is the path of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, it is real honesty, the soul-searching for the wrongs we have done, even if we have to wrestle them through the night. It sends us to our knees, begging for forgiveness when we have wronged another.
And like Esau, it recognizes that past wrongs pale in comparison to the blessings God has given. It forgives – not because doing so is an easy way to forget the past, but because it is the hard work of coming to terms with what has been. And, in so doing, we find amazing freedom!
Faith is not always easy. But it is always worth it. There will be times when we emerge smarting, limping; but the promise is that we will come away singing, rejoicing, worshiping, praising.