Sunday 10th July 2016, Trinity 7, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
I have quoted to you before a passage from Fr Richard Rohr that really caught my attention. The task of the first half of life, he says, is to fight the devil and – sometimes win. But the proper work of the second half of life, of mature spirituality, is to fight God and lose.
Well, we’ve heard the classic bible story of fighting God – Jacob wrestling God at Peniel. It’s a bit ambiguous who wins: at first Jacob’s winning, but God unfairly puts his hip out of joint to disable him and get power; the story finishes by saying Jacob wrestled God and people and ‘prevailed’ – though the ‘prevailed’ has more the character of ‘survived’, as Jacob says, ‘I’ve seen God and still live’.
This is a story that speaks deeply of spirit and soul, as well as the sheer bodiliness of the wrestling. Jacob, anxious about a coming worldly encounter, with his estranged brother, lays aside all his good and people, slowly sending them off in companies to meet Esau. He finally sends away even his family, until he is left alone and with nothing. And under the stars with no defence and no refuge, he wrestles with a man whom he recognises as God.
And the man exploits his position to put Jacob’s hip out of joint. But still Jacob clings on. And clings on not for victory, but for a blessing. Some of the other battles of life solidify our sense of self, build our confidence. But the battle with God is the only one that brings blessing, grace – and then only when we lose.
This morning, in an excellent sermon, Kate made a similar point. Talking about the good samaritan, she said that we are called to identify ourselves with the man left to die beside the road, defeated and in need. And in the Samaritan he discovers that it is his enemy who blesses him. And the Samaritan resembles Jesus, extending grace to us, but not as a familiar buddy, but like the one we have despised, but who ministers to us.
I think similarly, the man Jacob wrestles who turns out to be God sounds like the incarnate one, Jesus, also. Charles Wesley in a poem on this story, asks him that question:
thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold:
Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.
I think probably the difference between fighting the devil and fighting God, is that fighting the devil is about our outer battles, our strivings, our challenges; in this sense the devil is shorthand for the problems that present themselves from without. But fighting God is always a battle within.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at in the second reading. The people he’s speaking with want to talk about an external problem, lack of washing that defiles, ritual purity. But Jesus says that it’s not what comes from outside that defiles, but what comes from within. Until we go to work on ourselves we will not really be clean. Or rather, until God goes to work on us, strips away our pride and ego, defeats and so blesses us, we will not really know grace.
This is not simply about resisting this or that temptation. Despite Jesus’s list of theft, murder, adultery and so on, simply resisting temptation in this moment is still about fighting the devil, and it’s good to win. I think Jesus is talking about the move from defining the fundamental struggle as one outside, to owning and embracing the change we need to undergo.
What does this fighting with God and losing look like and feel like? I readily admit to having only the haziest idea of this. We kind of think we know what fighting the outer battles looks like: achieving our goals, defending our point of view, pursuing the job we want, struggling for justice, arguing for proper care for a relative who can’t speak for themselves, and so on.
But fighting God and losing? I don’t think I can do justice to what it means. These examples are paltry, but it is when we are forced to say:
- I don’t want this and there’s nothing I can do about it
- I’ve prided myself on achieving this, and I have totally failed
- I’ve battled this compulsion along, but admit I’m an addict
- I so much want to control this situation and am deeply sad that I can’t.
These sound so tame when I say them, unless you hear that they have to be about the very deepest things that touch us. Remember it’s when we have no defences, are alone, and lack any resources, where qualifications and possession and status are irrelevant, that we battle God and lose.
I said earlier that the quintessential bible story of battling God and losing is Jacob. But actually, I think it’s Jesus in Gethsemane, ‘take this cup from me’, prayed through tears and fear. And yet, Jesus losing to God, is the springboard of resurrection and life and salvation and grace and new creation.
Obviously nothing in my life has been as acute as that, but nonetheless, I can truly see that the things I have faced in life that I really would rather not have faced have ultimately been a blessing, have begun in a faltering way to bring joy and break down my judgementalism or pride. I am who I am not despite the defeats of life, but because of them. I would not change the past because that would be to diminish myself and God.
I love the verse at the end of the reading, ‘The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.’ Jacob’s injury, his wound is a sign of his blessing, just as the nail holes in the risen Jesus are a sign of his blessing, his glory. But it’s not just the limping that’s significant; it’s the rising sun also. It signifies the new day, the life, the resurrection, the grace, the blessing of God.
I know it’s hard in the evening, but I want you to hold the image of that rising sun in your imagination for a moment. Over what defeat in your life is the sun rising, is the new day dawning? How can you give thanks to God for struggle that you lost?