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Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

The apostle Paul writes with some dizzying logic sometimes, doesn’t he? He calls those of us who follow Christ “ambassadors of reconciliation,” but then he goes on to leave a trail of irreconcilable contradictions about how we reconcilers are seen in the world. “We are treated with honor and dishonor, verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as fake and real, unknown and well known, as dying, but look, we are alive. We were punished but not killed, going through pain but always happy, poor but making many rich, as having nothing but owning everything.” Contradictions upon contradictions. This list is more like a seesaw or a tennis match than my vision of what it means to be an “ambassador of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation, in my mind, means making things go together smoothly, even though they might naturally conflict. The dictionary agrees with me that to reconcile is to “make two apparently conflicting things compatible or consistent with one another.” Paul doesn’t seem to reconcile any of those things—he just holds them up and says, “We’re both! Dying and alive, honored and dishonored, fake and real, known and unknown. We’re both!”

This holding together of tensions, this being “both-and,” is very much what I think we are supposed to remember every year on Ash Wednesday.

Butterflyfish is a bluegrass band writing faith-inspired children’s music, led by my friend Elizabeth Myer-Boulton and her husband Matt, who is the new president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Matthew has written a song that I think speaks to this “both-and” tension. It’s basically a little parable, and it’s called “Great and Small.” The words go like this:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shape, or
To keep my fears at bay
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
Take it out and read it when I’m getting into shape, or
When I’m walking tall
It says you are small.

‘Cause you are great and small, you are tiny and tall
Remember through it all, you are great and small.

Isn’t it true? Don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed great? When we are frightened or discouraged or rejected or vulnerable or powerless, we need to be reminded of the power we have as one person to change the world in love. We are great. And don’t we all just need to be reminded sometimes that we are indeed so very small? When we are self-centered or narrow-minded, ego-driven or unrelenting, unforgiving or ungracious, we need to be reminded that in the vast universe and the long arc of history, we are small.

Some people think that the season of Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about reminding us that we are small. After all, we are about to put ashes and dust on our foreheads, and repeat the phrase, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For some, remembering we are dust is about remembering all the ways we’ve acted like dirt, and try again to act like the spirit of God. While repentance is a good thing, and confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiving grace is an important part of remembering that we are small, these dusty ashes upon your foreheads are not about calling you a dirtbag. They are about reminding you that you are a human being, created by God from the dust the earth. In Genesis 2, God created human beings by scooping up the rich, dark soil, adamah in Hebrew, and (whoosh) blowing life into it. You are of the earth. You are made of the stuff of this world. Like everything else in this world, you will live and you will die this one precious life, in this one fragile body, and then that lifeless body will return again to dust. Among all other creatures and lives, surrounded by all the dirt of the earth, each one of us is one tiny speck in the vast universe. We are so very small.

Photo by Inger Ekrem, Riksförbundet Svensk Trädgård.

But that’s not all. Whenever we remember we are dust, whenever we remember that we are adamah, made of clay, we also have to remember what else we are made of. What other ingredient, apart from the earth, comprises humanity at the dawn of creation? (Whoosh) The breath of God. You are dirt and to dirt you shall return, but you are also the breath of God, and to God you shall return. Inside of you dwells the spark of the Almighty God, the power of God’s spirit animates your life. You are filled with the power to love, to give, to serve, to rejoice, to overcome, to hope, to be transformed. Even more, you can transform the world around you by your work and your love, your witness and your welcome, your peace-making and your graciousness. The eternal breath of God breathes in you. You are great.

Every Ash Wednesday, we remember what it is to be human, to be made from dust and the breath of God. The opposing contradictions of great and small, known and unknown, clarity and mystery, life and death—they all are reconciled in each and every human life. We are indeed ambassadors of reconciliation. When our lives reflect our true nature, we are simultaneously reflecting the transient beauty of the world and the eternal beauty of God.

Great and small. Dust of the earth and the very breath of God. You are both, insists Paul. You are both, says the author of Genesis. That’s what it means to be human—to be both great and small, and equal measure of dust and divinity.

As we enter this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are invited to remember who we are. Where in your life do you need to remember you are small? How is God reassuring you that you are not God, that the world does not rest upon your shoulders, that all this will come to an end and you are not in control? Where in your life do you need to embrace your greatness? How is God calling you to do big things in the name of love, to transform the world with grace and hope right where you are?

We have for you tonight, in addition to the ashes for your forehead, and a taste of the bread of life and cup of salvation at the table, a couple of pieces of paper for your pocket. Can you guess what they say? One for each pocket. You are great. You are small. I invite you to carry them with you as the season progresses, as a reminder that in you, in your oh-so-human-life, lies their reconciliation. The great and the small, the dust and the divinity, in you—an ambassador of reconciliation. Thanks be to God.

This sermon was originally offered at the joint Ash Wednesday service with my congregation and the local Disciples of Christ church in town, February 22, 2012. You can download the song “Great and Small” at Butterflyfish’s website, www.butterflyfishband.com.

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.

Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)

Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.

So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:

In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.

So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”

On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)

As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.

However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.

Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16

Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.

Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.

When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?

But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.

This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)

And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.

I went back to the scripture reading to try again.  I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”

I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.

What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.

Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.

When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.

God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10

I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.

But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.

It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.

The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.

While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.

I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well.  Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.

Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.

This is a sermon I preached at our United Church of Christ Conference Annual Meeting in June. The texts were 2 Peter 3:13 and Genesis 32:22-32, and the theme of the Annual Meeting was “Transformed Lives, Changing Church, Responsive God.” The pictures in the post were chosen by me and displayed on a screen behind me during the sermon.

“But according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” — 2 Peter 3:13

That’s our theme scripture for this Annual Meeting. And I have to be honest, the first thing I thought of when I contemplated that scripture was the Great Pumpkin.


You all are familiar with the Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, right? The ever-faithful and devoted Linus believes that every year on Halloween the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch to give toys to all the children. Full of hope and expectation, Linus explains to Sally that the Great Pumpkin chooses just one pumpkin patch every year for his visit—the one that is the most sincere. He convinces Sally to wait with him, saying,

“He’s got to pick this one, he’s got to! I don’t see how a pumpkin patch could be more sincere than this one. You can look all around, and not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

They wait and wait, and all they see is a certain incorrigible beagle. Sally is furious at missing trick-or-treat. She calls Linus a blockhead, and demands restitution. But Linus perseveres in his sincerity: sitting in the pumpkin patch all night, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Great Pumpkin will arise and he will be vindicated.

According to God’s promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Oftentimes, I think that in our anticipation of a church for a new time, for transformed lives and changing conference and even a responsive God, we are like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch. We seek out the most sincere church we can find—the one that practices what it preaches, the one that doesn’t exclude anyone, the one that serves the community, the one that genuinely welcomes all—and we sit in all our greatest sincerity, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Responsive Great Pumpkin God will arise and reward us.

Like Linus, our utmost sincerity has yet to vindicate us, as we face another Annual Meeting with reports of decreased membership and budget shortfalls and decline, decline, decline. So we wait again, and wonder if Sally is right—we are just a bunch of blockheads.

What I would like to offer today is another image, a different story about how God brings about a new church for a new time. And that is the story of Jacob.

Jabbok River

Good old Jacob. The original “Jake the Snake,” and a trickster of the highest order. He cut his teeth swindling his brother Esau—first convincing him to give up his birthright for a bowl of porridge, then later wearing a hairy costume to convince his blind father Isaac that he was Esau and wrangle out of him Esau’s  rightful blessing and inheritance as the eldest son. Esau understandably threatened to kill him the next time he laid eyes on him, so Jacob took off.

He ended up at the home of his uncle Laban, where he immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. He works seven years to earn her hand, but Laban has tricks of his own and switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob works another seven years to take Rachel as his second wife, but still feels that Laban owes him. He works out a skimming scheme, taking the best and strongest breeding lambs and goats from Laban’s herds and keeping them for himself. He amasses herds of hundreds by this petty theft. When Laban wises up, Jacob, Rachel and Leah pack up their herds, children, servants and household goods and take off. Oh yeah, and Rachel also steals Laban’s household gods, which sends Laban in hot pursuit. After much argument and many threats, Laban and Jacob work out a deal–you go your way, and I’ll go mine. They literally drew together a pillar of stones like a line in the sand and said, you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, and nobody gets hurt.

So with Laban’s line behind him, Jacob and his family are making their way back toward the land of his childhood, the inheritance he stole all those years ago, when they discover that Esau lies directly in their path. The same Esau who threatened to kill Jacob if ever they met again. And he was coming at them with 400 men.

This is where we find Jacob–on the run from Laban, headed off by Esau, in the middle beside the Jabbok River.

A Ford at the Jabbok River

The Jabbok is not a mighty, rushing river at this point–it’s little more than a stream, really–but it sits inside a deep and jagged ravine, with steep edges leading to high peaks on either side. Jacob sits at the bottom of this deep, rocky pit, with Esau on one side and Laban on the other, and nowhere to go. He sends his family across the ford of the river, and sits utterly alone on the other side as the night falls, awaiting his demise. He is empty of tricks, without his entourage, stripped of his wealth, status and power, frightened and desolate.

Our situation in the church is not so different than Jacob’s at the Jabbok. We mainline Protestants have also lost our entourage—presidents and politicians from among our ranks who took our counsel; mainstream media who showed respect, even deference and understanding of our faith; blue laws that kept stores closed and restricted baseball games to Saturdays; wealth and power and status. We have run out of tricks for church growth initiatives, miracle youth groups and successful Sunday School programs. Sometimes, it seems like we are simply awaiting our demise.

And yet, according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Here’s the key: the God of Jacob and our God, that God of the new heavens and the new earth, the God of Jesus Christ does not simply arise out of the Jabbok River to save Jacob, any more than the Great Pumpkin arises from the pumpkin patch bestowing presents.

God shows up to fight.

Gustave Dore

There at the banks of the Jabbok, a man who Jacob seems instinctively to know is God shows up and they begin to wrestle. All through the night, back and forth, rolling in the dirt and mud at the side of the river, grunting and squirming and pinning and grabbing, God and Jacob, the Bible tells us, wrestle, and one does not prevail over the other.

See, when we’re sitting at the Jabbok, without our tricks, without our entourage, enemies on either side, God doesn’t show up to save us or to vindicate us—God shows up to wrestle us, to challenge our strength, and to change our very name.

This, of course, is not what we want. We would much prefer the God who rescues us to go out ahead of us and fix the things that are broken. We would much prefer the God who vindicates us to go and deal righteously with our enemies. Why can’t God just rise up from the pumpkin patch and give us presents? The God who wrestles us deals with us—taking us firmly by the shoulders, holding on tight and refusing to let go.

Mel Perkarsky

When God has got a hold of you, you’re in for some transformation, and that’s hard work. Wrestling is exhausting, sometimes even agonizing. All we really want is our nice herds and families and children and servants and wealth back. We just want to do our jobs, go to church, be nice, sincere people and get a good night’s sleep. But there is no sleeping at the Jabbok. God has come to us in this time and place in Christian history to wrestle us into a new way of being. We wrangle over theology and politics and resolutions. We debate how to worship and pray and talk about God. We reinvent children’s programs and youth ministries. We struggle over mission projects and giving, and reach out in service to a world of endless brokenness and need.

Ruth Beloe

So when all this wrestling leaves us feeling like we are being mauled or attacked or beaten, we must always remember who our wrestling partner is. We are not wrestling not some demon, some danger or distress or horrific creature of the night. We are wrestling with God Almighty. We may be far away from our entourage, but as long as we are wrestling, we are in constant and compassionate contact with God Almighty. We are locked in God’s embrace, so close we can feel one another’s breathing, and smell each other’s sweat and hear one another’s heartbeat and feel the heat from each other’s bodies. This wrestling is a time of utmost holiness and intimacy with God, where we, like Jacob, might claim to see God face to face.

Jacoib Epstein

When the wrestling gets us down, we must remember who we are wrestling with, but we must also remember what we are wrestling for. We are wrestling for a blessing. God wants more from us, because God wants more for us—more than the tired old scraps from Laban’s table, more than the life of trickery, more than being Esau’s nemesis. More than a has-been, wannabe, used-to-be church. God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a land and a future, many generations of descendants who come to love God and become a blessing to all nations. That promise is ours as well, as Jacob’s children. God also promises us a future—new generations who will continue to serve and love God, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. That is the blessing we are wrestling for, and we must not give up or let go until we receive it.

Rembrandt

When the dawn comes that morning at the Jabbok, and the wrestling match between God and Jacob is over, nothing about Jacob’s situation has changed. Laban is still seething behind him, Esau is still hunting him down with 400 men. He is still without his entourage. If anything, Jacob has only been weakened—exhausted and wounded from his night of wrestling. Likewise, our circumstances are not going to change—the world will not return to bygone days, blue laws or baby boom churches. But like Jacob, if we hold on until dawn, we will have been changed so that we are ready to meet that world, and we will have received the blessing of God’s promise for the future.

Shraga Weil

Like Jacob, we will have a new name. Jacob’s new name was Israel, “one who strives with God.” What will our new name be? What new name will carry us as leaders of the church into the future? Will God call us out to be explorers and entrepreneur? Inventors? Pioneers? Reformers? Artists? Guides? Whatever new name God blesses us with, that name will reveal our true identity as those who have wrestled with God and received a blessing.

The change will not be easy, and we will not emerge unscathed. Jacob acquired a permanent limp from his night at the Jabbok, the result of a hip knocked out of joint. I suspect we will have some parts of ourselves and our churches permanently knocked out of joint as well, and we will come out with a limp. Our entourage will not be coming with us. Like Jacob, our strength and ego and power and charming good looks will not be the first thing people notice about us. Instead they will notice our brokenness—our limp. But maybe, just maybe, that limp makes us approachable again—to the mass of humanity who does not feel strong and powerful and charming and good-looking, perhaps a limping and vulnerable, but open-hearted and humble church will be just what they need to find God again. We will have received a body shaped by God, even if God has to pummel it into submission to get it there.

Karen Novak

I imagine Jacob the next morning, as the sun dawns behind him, walking up the hill from the Jabbok, boldly ready to meet Esau, looking like Rocky Balboa at the end of the prize fight. Swollen cheekbones, split lip, blackened eye, yet triumphant. Limping, but confident, strong and proud. Through the bruises, his eyes are smiling and his mouth is wide in a grin. On his lips, a single word: Hallelujah!

According to God’s promise we are wrestling for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

As we embark upon this Annual Meeting, I remind you that we are at the Jabbok. Let us wrestle on—not with each other, but with the God of the new heavens and the new earth, who would give to us a new name and a blessing for the future. Refuse to sit and await our demise. God is here with us, holding us tight to wrestle us into new being. Let us keep up the struggle and listen for the blessing—so that the only sincere word that we can utter is, hallelujah! Amen.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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