Wrestling with God - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Jacob and the Angel, Jacob Epstein, 1940-41, alabaster, ©The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

At long last our museums and art galleries are starting to re-open again!  One of the things I have always loved about living in central London, is having such amazing art collections within easy reach - indeed, many of them are within walking distance of where I am standing now.  It means that I have the privilege of being able to visit and re-visit certain works of art that speak to me particularly powerfully.  And one of them is a sculpture in Tate Britain that depicts the incident described in our Old Testament reading this morning in which, at the river Jabbok, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger throughout the night. 

The sculpture is by Jacob Epstein and it is entitled 'Jacob and the Angel'.  In case you haven't seen it, it is a colossal work, depicting two imposing figures, of very stylised and almost primitive simplicity, locked in a close embrace.  But it is surprisingly hard to discern what kind of embrace it is: is it an embrace of love, in which the angel is supporting the limp figure of Jacob, holding him upright?  Or is the angel crushing the life out of him?  Jacob's eyes are closed - but in agony or ecstasy?  It is that very ambiguity that I find so fascinating and intriguing about the sculpture, which is one of the reasons why I return to it often.

But if Epstein's sculpture is perplexing, stranger still is the Biblical story that inspired it.  Let me remind you of its contours.  Jacob is on his way to an encounter with his brother Esau, but discovers that Esau is bringing with him a large contingent of men, so he is in fear of his life.  This prompts Jacob to send a gift for Esau ahead of him, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation, but he is still full of apprehension.  It is at this point that Jacob reaches the Jabbok stream.  His wives and servants and children all cross safely, and Jacob is left alone. 

We are then told, without any further explanation, that 'a man wrestled with him until daybreak.'  We are not told who this man was, where he has come from, nor why he and Jacob ended up competing in this physical test of strength.  In the event, Jacob holds his own, until the unknown stranger knocks his hip out of joint.  The stranger then asks to be released, because dawn is breaking, but Jacob refuses to release him until he receives the stranger's blessing.  The stranger blesses him but refuses to give his own name - and so it is that Jacob realises that he has been striving with God: and so Jacob names the place, saying 'For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.'  What a bizarre and perplexing story.

By sheer coincidence, on the same day that I first read that text in preparing this sermon, I came across a quotation from one of the earliest Christian theologians, Tertullian.  Tertullian was writing in Carthage, in north Africa, at the end of the second century, around the year AD 197 - so what I am about to read you really does take us to the very roots of Christian tradition and reflection.  When writing to his fellow Christians about the nature and purpose of worship, Tertullian made the following rather startling remark (and I quote):

We gather in one body and congregation so that we might wrestle with God in our prayers, a violence pleasing to him.

We gather in one body and congregation so that we might wrestle with God in our prayers, a violence pleasing to him.

Do you know - I don't think I have ever before heard it suggested that the purpose of our worship was to engage in a kind of prayerful wrestling match with God - let alone that such 'violence' (strange word indeed to use within the context of worship), is pleasing to him. But there it is - and coming from the mouth of one of the most influential theologians of the early Church.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe I can glimpse what Tertullian is talking about.  Because if there is a genuine personal encounter with God in our life of prayer, then of course it will involve struggle.  There is a parallel to be seen in our human relationships: there are probably people in your life to whom you feel the need to be polite - but that is as far as it ever goes.  And that is almost invariably the mark of a relationship that will only ever be superficial. 

By contrast, in those relationships that really matter to us - with those who are closest to our hearts - alongside all that is joyful and life-giving, the likelihood is that there will also on occasions be fireworks and times of strife - because real relationships with those we care about, tend to be like that.  And because we do not keep the people that truly matter to us safely at arm's length. 

I don't know if anyone these days still reads the marvellously humorous and humane books by Giovanni Guareschi dating back to the 1940s about a character called Don Camillo.  Don Camillo is a very opinionated and rather hot-headed catholic priest in a village in rural Italy, who is engaged in a constant battle with his greatest adversary, the Communist Mayor, Peppone - a conflict which often risks descending into actual  blows.  But there is also a third character who is central to the action, who, surprisingly enough, is Jesus, who looks down on their petty disputes from the large crucifix in the village church.  And Jesus and Don Camillo have the most wonderful relationship: Don Camillo constantly addresses Jesus with his own stream of woes and complaints - and Jesus replies, and he doesn't take any nonsense at all.

I shall read you a very quick extract just to give you a flavour: in the following piece Peppone's wife has unexpectedly turned up at the church, with two others in tow, holding a small bundle, which turns out to be a baby that they want Don Camillo to baptise.  When they arrive Don Camillo is up a ladder, polishing a saint's halo with Brasso, and he asks about the baby.

'Whose is it?' inquired Don Camillo, coming down from his steps.

'Mine', replied Peppone's wife.

'And your husband's?' persisted Don Camillo.

'Well, naturally!  Who else do you suppose gave it to me?,' retorted Peppone's wife indignantly.

'No need to be offended', observed Don Camillo on his way to the sacristy.  'Haven't I been told often enough that your Party approves of free love?'

 As he passed before the high altar, Don Camillo knelt down and permitted himself a discreet wink in the direction of the Lord.  'Did you hear that one?', he murmured with a joyful grin.  'One in the eye for the Godless ones.'

'Don't talk rubbish, Don Camillo, replied the Lord, irritably.  'If they had no God, why should they come here to get their child baptised?'  If Peppone's wife had boxed your ears it would only have served you right.'

'If Peppone's wife had boxed my ears I should have taken the three of them by the scruff of their necks and ...'  'And what?' inquired the Lord, severely.

'Oh nothing; just a figure of speech,' Don Camillo hastened to assure Him, rising to his feet.  'Don Camillo, watch your step,' said the Lord, sternly.

Duly vested, Don Camillo approached the font.  'What do you wish to name this child?' he asked Peppone's wife.  'Lenin Libero Antonio', she replied.

'Then go and get him baptised in Russia,' said Don Camillo calmly, replacing the cover on the font.

The priest's hands were as large as shovels and the three left the church without protest.  But as Don Camillo was attempting to slip into the sacristy he was arrested by the voice of the Lord.

'Don Camillo, you have done a very wicked thing.  Go at once and bring those people back and baptise their child.'

'But, Lord,' protested Don Camillo,' you really must bear in mind that baptism is not a jest.  Baptism is a very sacred matter.  Baptism is ...'

'Don Camillo,' the Lord interrupted him.  'Are you attempting to teach me the nature of baptism?  Did I not invent it?'

And so it goes on.  What is absolutely wonderful is both the way in which eternal forces combine with little incidents from everyday life, and also the glorious, no-holds-barred (note the wrestling metaphor by the way), relationship between the priest and his God.  And this is a Jesus who has no time for any of our selfish nonsense or pious claptrap, and does not hesitate to tell us so.

But I would like to close by returning to the story of Jacob, wrestling with God at the Jabbok.  Do you recognise the kind of experience when, like Jacob waiting to meet Esau, you are facing a situation that holds great fear for you.  At such times, during the hours of darkness, you can find yourself feeling completely alone - like Jacob.  And you can face a night time of struggle, with a force that feels as if it could overwhelm you.  But somehow you manage to hang on, and with the dawn comes a new perspective: what had seemed a source of struggle brings with it the possibility of blessing.  The strange force that you feared would crush the life out of you, is in fact an angel who is holding you close. 

Sometimes the hours of darkness are the times when our prayers can be most heartfelt and most robust.  And sometimes it is then that, like Jacob, by the grace of God, we find the strength to hold off all that causes us to fear, and instead to meet the new day as a gift, and a blessing that brings with it new life and new hope. 


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