Face to Face
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - August 6th, 2023
Genesis 32:22-31 (NRSVue)
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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, yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
When I was in college, a few of my fraternity brothers would take “magic mushrooms.” They would describe their experiences as other-worldly. They would see things that were unreal. The closest thing I could relate to this is to imagine Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory coming to life before your eyes. Occasionally, they would see things that would shock them or scare them. Although I never joined in on these activities, it seemed that their imagings were so vivid that they believed they were real. After reading some of Jacob’s bizarre encounters, I am beginning to know what the magic mushroom experience must have been like.
What does it mean to wrestle God . . . and win? Today’s scripture lesson from Genesis involves a surreal scene of God (or some say an angel) coming out of the darkness to wrestle Jacob as Jacob is on his way to meet Essau, the brother who said he would kill him. This was not a momentary skirmish, but a battle that lasted until the early morning hours. It is passages such as these that I am thankful that I do not take the Bible literally. This episode is a figurative allegory of what a relationship with God might look like.
In seminary, we learned that every relationship with God is measured by two extremes: the transcendent and the imminent. To have a transcendent relationship with God is to relate to God as an all-powerful, all-knowing deity in a remote time and place, far removed from the sullied nature of human existence. To have an imminent relationship with God is to have a close, personal relationship. This kind of relationship is more earthly and less ethereal. God is a partner, a friend, a confident, not a figurehead that is unconcerned with your circumstances. People who believe in the God of wrath tend to gravitate more toward the transcendent side of the scale. Those who believe in the power of God to change our circumstances, to right wrongs, and to manifest justice tend to gravitate toward immanence.
There is nothing wrong with either of these views per se. Most of us have a bit of both in our theology, but with leanings to one side or the other. Evangelicals and biblical literalists gravitate toward transcendence, the majesty and power of God. Progressives often, but with some exceptions, gravitate toward God’s desire to have close, personal interactions with humankind. Transcendence is marked by deep reverence for the holiness of God. It sees God as sitting on a throne in a temple or cathedral, judging the sins of humanity. Imminent God knows each of us personally, and roots for our successes and is crestfallen when we sin or stray. Imminent God is less concerned about punishment, and more concerned with grace (repairing the relationship with God).
Today’s scripture lesson gives us a vivid account of an imminent encounter with God. There can be no more intimate metaphor for imminence than that of looking God face-to-face, and wrestling God. To wrestle with God is to put God through the Almighty’s paces. To hold God to account, just as God holds us to account. To ask God hard questions: why does evil sometimes flourish? Why does God let good people suffer? Why do people with no faith seem to live charmed lives while true believers struggle to get by? Like Jacob, we should grapple with God for real answers to these difficult questions. We should also demand our own blessings from God just as Jacob did. This passage reveals a secret about God: God loves us so much in real (imminent) ways that God is not put off by hard questions. Challenging God is not a lack of faith, but rather a higher form of faith. We are not infants in God’s eyes, but people with obvious flaws, but also gifts that bring God happiness. When we help those who cannot help us in return, God smiles. When we hold the hands of those in grief from loss, it warms the heart of God. And when we finally understand what God has been calling us to be, it brings God joy. So wrestle with God. Challenge the Almighty and wear God down as Jacob did. Demand a God that is better. Demand your blessing. And relish your real relationship with God.