Sunday 20th October 8:00am service
Genesis Chapter 32 v 22 – 31
Luke chapter 18 v 1 – 8
Maggie Cogan -Reader
Some of the best moments of my childhood that I can remember are sitting with my father on a Saturday afternoon and watching the wrestling on ITV and two of my favourite wrestlers were Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Watching them and others go through the pain of grappling with each other, was on occasions, quite traumatic
It is one that I have come back to time and time again in my life because it seems to me to have a great deal to say about personal struggle and what happens to us as individuals when we face trauma and difficulties in life.
Many of us today will have been through deep traumas in life. Perhaps some of us are going through them at the moment. Pain and trauma are pain and trauma. It is a dark place to be in- and sometimes we just need to be able to sit in the darkness and survive the darkness.
The story of Jacob is a strange one. Jacob is wrestling with a man – but we aren’t ever told who this man is. We are just left with the assumption that he is either God or a messenger from God: certainly that was Jacob’s analysis of the situation.
And there is a sort of in-built mystery to this story because it all takes place in the darkness, at night. And because it was dark, we don’t know anything about the appearance of the man. At no point is there any description of him. And we are not given any description about the fight either: in fact, it appears that they were fighting together for a great many hours but all we are told, in verse 24, is a very simple statement: “And a man wrestled with him until daybreak”. The ultimate minimalist description of an incredibly intense and intimate encounter…
The whole event is shrouded in mystery but there are some really important observations about how we wrestle with trauma in our own lives.
And that, I think reflects something of the nature of trauma itself. Because when we experience trauma and go through periods of deep suffering, we are often confronted by emotional enemies we can’t really see.
But this story of Jacob’s wrestling tells us, that even in the darkness of suffering, even in the shadowy nature of emotional pain, God is still there with us.
If Jacob’s analysis was right – and this man was God himself - then we know that God is with each one of us in the darkness of our emotional struggle. And as we wrestle so God wrestles too, as we hurt, so God hurts with us too. Our struggle is his struggle and his struggle is our struggle, we are united with God in the wrestling match
When we are experiencing deep trauma we can feel so very alone: no-one can understand the depths of our emotions, no-one truly understands how we feel, and no matter how much we try to explain to others, words are always inadequate. We talk to others, and others talk to us and there is some degree of comfort, of course. But we are still often left with a deep emptiness inside that no amount of human words can speak into.
Trauma is a lonely business.
But the conversations in this story remind us that, in the midst of our struggles, we can talk with God and he will talk with us. We are not alone in our suffering; God is there with us, and we can communicate with him at any time through prayer.
Interestingly, of course, Jacob doesn’t always get the answer he is looking for. In fact, when he asks the man his name, the man completely avoids the question and doesn’t come close to giving the answer Jacob is looking for. And so it is with us when we pray during times of suffering: we can ask questions of God and often we don’t get the answer we are looking for or, indeed, any answer at all it seems…
The important thing is the dialogue; that the communication continues - because all the while the talking continues, the relationship remains intact. When we stop talking to God and when we stop listening for his voice, it is then that the relationship crumbles and we truly are left alone in the darkness.
So we keep talking, we listening for God, no matter how breathless we are, no matter how tiring the wrestling has become
Firstly, this story reminds us that God is with us in our experience of the mystery of suffering.
Secondly, even though we may feel alone and completely misunderstood, we can still cry out to God and he hears us and if we listen carefully, we may even discern the voice of God speaking to us.
Thirdly, this story tells us that through the bitterest experiences in life, God transforms us and gives us real hope for the future.
As we reach the conclusion of this story, in verse 28, Jacob is given a new name. We read: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” He started out in this story with the name ‘Jacob’. And he ends up in this story with the name ‘Israel’.
For all of us who have experienced major traumas in our lives, we can testify to the fact that we are not the same person now as we were before. All of us have been transformed and changed through our sufferings. But the promise of God to us through this story is that, if we turn to God in the midst of our sufferings, we can be transformed for the better.
Jacob wrestled with God. He questioned God. He showed passion and anger and even ferocity towards God as he wrestled. But he kept talking to him and kept his face turned towards God and in that act he was transformed for the better.
So we realise from this passage that God is with us in our experience of the mystery of suffering; that even though we might feel alone, God hears us in our pain and even speaks to us and that we can know the transformative power of God at work in our lives if we keep our face turned towards him in our struggles. There is hope, even in the darkest moments of our lives.
But there’s just one more really important point in this story, from verse 31: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip”. Jacob becomes Israel. He receives God’s blessing and he is a transformed character because of the struggle. But he walks away with a limp.
Jacob had been hurt by the struggle and he would carry a limp with him for the rest of his life as a result of the trauma he had been through. Quite literally, his trauma had been a crippling encounter and so is trauma for many of us too.
But Jacob or Israel as he now is, walks with a limp almost as a sign of victory, not defeat: he has wrestled with God and he has received a blessing and his limp is a permanent reminder to him and to others of the battle he has been through.
But even though Jacob wears his pain in a most visible way, he doesn’t let it define who he is. He is not defined by his limp – he is defined by his new name: Israel. There is a temptation for us, when we have been through a deep trauma, to allow it to define us and shape the rest of our life unalterably. But our limp does not define us – it merely refines us.
So wherever we may be in the struggle - whether we are still wrestling in the darkness, whether we are currently asking the questions of God, or whether we have walked away from the struggle now but carrying a limp as a result - the promise that comes to us is that each one of us may know afresh the transforming and healing love of the God who protects and leads each one of us into a new future.