Pentecost 17 (NL2) John B. Valentine
Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30 September 24, 2023
Pastor Pam ... and Joan Kiekhaefer ... and the Eismanns and the Schroeders ... and Bethany and I ... we survived our trip to this year’s Synod Assembly!
We can’t say it was ‘dull’ .... no .......
• But we can say that it was a whole lot less ‘nerve-wracking’ than the Synod Assembly we went to a year ago up in Reno ...
• And we can say that it was a whole lot more collegial and congenial than the Synod Assembly we went to a year ago up in Reno ...
• And we can say that ... at the end of the day ... your pastors are still your pastors and that neither one of us got elected to serve as Bishop for the next six years.
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Now ... I don’t know ... it might just be me ... but I find it a little bit ironic that ... on this Sunday AFTER our Synod Assembly ...
Wherein I had been identified as one of the primary contestants in that so-called ‘race’ for bishop ...
That our text is this text from the Book of Genesis ... the thirty-second chapter.
You see ... this morning’s scripture lesson may not be about an election ...
But it is about something akin to:
• a competition ... or
• a contest ... or
• a ‘vying with one another’ ... as it were.
Not just vying with dear friends and trusted colleagues for a position as the leader of our Synod ... but rather vying with God.
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Anyhow ... before we dive in and take a closer at this morning’s scripture lesson ...consider this:
Have you ever heard the phrase “a sore loser”???
A sore loser is what?
• Someone who blames his or her teammates ... or maybe the referees ... for their loss.
• Someone who is overly-angered by losing a contest.
• Someone who laments their misfortune or bad luck.
It USED to be ... like a hundred years ago ... that no one liked “sore losers” ... but not so much so anymore!
Nowadays ... people actually seem to think there’s value in being a “sore loser”.
• Red Auerbach ... the winningest coach in NBA history once said “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
• Nike ... the purveyor of footwear to countless professional athletes ... recently ran an ad which avowed ... “You don’t win silver; you lose gold.”
• And race car driver Dale Earnhardt maybe summed up this whole attitude best when he stated “Second Place is the First Loser.”
You see ... we seem to have this perception nowadays that anything less than first-place is no place to be at all.
And ... if perchance you don’t believe me ... I’d simply ask you to look at the current political environment across our land ...
• Candidates that lose elections are no longer concede victory to their opponents ...
• No ... candidates that lose elections are almost expected to cry ‘Foul!” ... or “Not fair!” ... or worse.
To which I can only say that it’s a good thing that our biblical ancestor Jacob didn’t have that attitude when he suddenly found himself in that all-night wrestling match with the Lord.
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I mean ... look at this morning’s lesson!
We’ve got Jacob ...
• the grandson of Abraham and Sarah ...
• the younger of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah ...
• the cheater who’d stolen his brother’s birthright from him in a scheme he’d cooked up with his mom ...
Jacob is scheduled to meet up with his brother the next day.
And it seems as though that impending meeting was a stress-inducing event ... maybe because Jacob figures that Esau may finally pay him back for all the shenanigans he’d pulled over the years.
Anyhow ... the Bible says simply that “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
“And 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
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That’s a pretty spare narrative ....
But a couple three of the details of that story hint at just how significant ... and monumental .... it is.
So ... for instance ...
The text calls the unexpected opponent a “man” ...
But when this all-night brawl has ended ... Jacob declares that he has “seen God face to face.”
It would appear that ... whomever it was that Jacob was struggling against from sunset to sunrise ... Jacob’s own interpretation at the end of it is that he’d just gone to the mat with God.
Then again ... if this was in fact a wrestling match between a mortal and an immortal ... you’d think that the betting odds are pretty much in favor of the Almighty ... would you not?
But God somehow holds back enough omnipotence that Jacob can hold his own and then ... just as day breaks ... this mysterious adversary knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint and insists that Jacob let him go.
And finally ... I kind of chuckle at the fact that Jacob actually says ‘No’ to God.
God asks ... and Jacob says ‘No’ at least not until and unless he gets a blessing from his opponent.
And Jacob says that his name is “Jacob” ... which ... interestingly enough means “Cheater” or “He who takes what isn’t his”.
And the stranger says “From now on you have a new name ... ‘Israel’... the one who strives with God and has prevailed.”
Then Jacob ... in return ... asks this mysterious stranger to reveal himself and his name.
But the stranger will not give in ... but instead gives Jacob a blessing.
And ... as the sun comes up ... the stranger disappears ... and Jacob is left with what?
• A blessing ...
• And a new name ...
• And a sore hip.
Which ... I guess ... in a certain way ... makes Jacob a “sore loser” ... and maybe in another way a “sore winner” ... or maybe both!
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Now ... granted ... on a certain literal level ... this whole story is just weird and kind of strange.
I don’t imagine many of us can really imagine what it might actual be like to wrestle with God
But on a more metaphoric level ... does it not correlate with a whole lot of our own life experiences???
I mean ...
How many of us have ever endured a sleepless night the night before a big meeting that we really weren’t looking forward to??
Anybody with me on that one?
How many of us have endured a sleepless night struggling with our conscience ... or maybe trying to justify ourselves for some hurt that we inflicted?
Anybody with me on that one?
How many of us have suspected God was calling us to something we weren’t particularly keen on and found sleep elusive while we tried to rationalize the whole business away?
Anybody besides me there?
How many of us would say we know something about this whole idea of wrestling with God??
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Truth be told ... God and I had a whole lot of late-night ... or maybe ‘early morning’ wrestling matches like that over the past three months.
• Lord ... is it just my need for ego-strokes that would dare me to allow myself to be a candidate for bishop on last time?
• Lord ... do you really want me to go through that headache and heartache when we both know that ... at the end of the day ... I’ll never actually win?
• Lord ... you who knows all things ... don’t you know how dysfunctional this institution we call our ‘synod’ really is?
• Why me? Oh Lord ..... Why me?
And the only really comfort I found in those before dawn conversations with God was to remember something that happened during Vince Lombardi’s tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
You see ... there were a whole number of sportswriters who became aware that there was this one particular player who seemed the one who was most often the object of Lombardi’s anger ...
And there was a pastor at a church in Green Bay who had a Packers player who was a member of the congregation in which he served. ..
And ... one day ... the pastor asked the player if the sportswriters were right in there assessment about the coach’s relationship with that one particular player on whom the coach was so hard ...
And the player-parishioner replied ... “Absolutely ... He’s Coach Lombardi’s favorite.”
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You see ... the long and short of this text from Genesis is the we ... all of us ... are “sore winners”. Not “sore losers” ... but “sore winners”.
• “Sore” because God doesn’t quit wrestling with us ...
• “Sore” because wrestling with God means we may well get put ‘out-of-joint’ ...
• “Sore” because it’s not easy to have our hearts and minds and attitudes changed ...
• “Sore” because we often get pretty comfortable with those ruts in which we’re stuck.
But “winners” to be sure ...
• Because we are numbered among God’s favorites ...
• Because we’ve been given a blessing ...
• Because we’re been given a new name ... for we too are “The ones who strive with God”!
So welcome to the “Sore Winners Club”.