Monday, October 17, 2016

Sermon on Genesis 32:22-30, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "The Hiddenness and Nearness of God"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Psalm 10 opens with these cries out to God, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” In times of trouble, don’t you feel like God is hiding? The Psalmist cries out, “Where are you God?” “Why aren’t you helping?” “Why are you so far away?” How often have you wondered the same? Is there anyone who hasn’t, at the lowest times in their life, felt like God was hiding His face, even when we were calling out to Him in prayer? In the midst of suffering? Or when evil seemed to be rising out of control? When earthly justice failed, and there seemed no help from heaven? In these trying times, we naturally think like the Psalmist, that God is hidden or distant.
This is a favorite type of scene for moviemakers, because it strikes a chord with our experience. Often they show a person in ultimate despair or loneliness, and they are crying out, but no one hears them. Sometimes the character is out in the wilderness, with no one to hear them for miles and miles, and the camera zooms out further and further from above, till they are just a tiny speck—to show how truly isolated and alone they are. Or they may be in the heart of a crowded city, house, or room, with hundreds or millions of people around them, but still no one notices, cares, or understands. These images are very powerful in film, and they show us that a person is all alone, but crying out for any connection, some sympathy, understanding, or touch. Anything but the silence and isolation.
We see many characters in the Bible facing the same “dark night of the soul,” and questioning or crying out to God with no apparent answer. Jacob had one of those moments, in today’s reading, returning to his homeland after a long absence. He’d run away from the hatred of his twin brother Esau, whom he had cheated and whose blessing he had stolen. Esau had sworn he’d kill Jacob if he ever laid hands on him. Now with many years between them, and despite both the promises and evidence of God’s blessing in his life, Jacob will soon confront his brother face to face, and Jacob fears the worst. He prays to God, and fearfully reminds God of His promises, and asks for deliverance from his brother.
But in Jacob’s dark night, he’s not crying out into oblivion, with no one to hear or answer, he’s not banging on the doors of some distant and unsympathetic lord who won’t answer, but God comes directly to him in a most surprising way. God physically wrestles with Jacob in the form of a man. After the experience, Jacob would declare, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God turns out to be very near, and though He was hidden at first, He comes face to face with Jacob for a blessing.
But certainly at first, Jacob seems to have no clue that he’s wrestling with God in human form—only that he’s fighting against some unknown attacker for some unknown reason! His dark night of prayer got interrupted by a brawl and ended with a dislocated hip! But Jacob wouldn’t surrender. Though Jacob may have a momma’s boy reputation, we know that when he first met Rachel, his future wife, he demonstrated amazing strength by moving a large stone, that usually took several men to move from a well (Gen. 28). But now Jacob puts that strength to his defense, wrestling his attacker. And listen to the words, “when the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.” This is apparently when it starts to dawn on Jacob that he’s not wrestling just some ordinary man. Jacob thinks he’s winning, then all it takes is a touch to his hip, and Jacob’s leg is dislocated. Obviously he’s wrestling someone whose been toying with him, and could easily have won. But Jacob still won’t let go, and demands a blessing. And he gets it!
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “he strives with God” or “God strives.” Consider that his old name meant “he cheats” or “he grasps by the heel.” Jacob’s life had been filled with deception so far. But now his faith would grow immensely, to rely not on his own devices, but upon God. And consider that the act of naming someone, is to claim a kind of ownership over them, as a parent to a child. It’s a reflection that you belong to me. And so Jacob, now Israel, indeed belonged to God.
God has also named you with His name, and claimed His ownership over you, in the waters of Holy Baptism. In Baptism, by water, Word, and promise, Jesus joined Himself to you, and made you His precious child. God says to you, His baptized child, “You belong to me.” And His Word and promise speak over us His love, His providence, and His salvation. God has not promised us to become a great nation, inherit Canaan, or to have many descendants, as He did for Israel, but He has given us the great promises of forgiveness from our sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen, comfort and guide us through all of life, and an unshakable eternal salvation in Christ Jesus. We can call these promises to God’s remembrance, not that He has forgotten them, but we claim them and hold them up before our own eyes as well.
When we strive and wrestle with God, His face may be hidden from us, and we may not see our “opponent”, but He is very near. When God’s face is hidden from us, we assume the worst. We fear that God is not listening, that He has cast us off or forgotten Him, or worse, that He is unwilling or unable to help. We cry out like Jacob, or the Psalmists, or Job. When we’re caught in the midst of trial or suffering, and God’s face seems hidden, life looks dark. But we are mistaken if we think that He is not near.
Claim those promises Jesus made in your baptism. He said, “Surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Claim the promises that He made when you confess your sins: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Claim the promises that Jesus has made for you in His blood, paid for our redemption: “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). “Take and drink, the blood of Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” God is not really so far off as we think—and He isn’t unaware or unconcerned about our struggles. Rather Christ Jesus has brought us near to Himself by His own blood, and in baptism He has joined us to Himself, and blessed us with His Name and ownership.
Martin Luther wrote that God lets us wrestle with Him, like a father toying with his child. But it is not to treat us cruelly or out of meanness, but out of Fatherly love to make us strive and grow stronger in faith—to make us struggle and persevere to gain His blessing. God doesn’t want to push us away or reject us, but He tests us to see how strongly we’ll cling to Him or whether we’ll let go. When God’s face is hidden from us, it comes to us as Law. When a young child is vying for our attention, they will often demand that we look at them, or if they can reach, may even try to turn our face to theirs. So also we should wrestle and prevail against God, with little hands grabbing Him by the chin, as it were, and turning His kindly face toward us. And we find the kindly and loving face of our Father in Jesus Christ.
Who was that man who wrestled with Jacob, and was later described as an angel, but it’s also said that Jacob strove with God (Hos. 13:4-5), and Jacob declared, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered?” You might not know it, but several times in the Old Testament, God comes in the form of a man, or as the “angel of the Lord” and meets His saints—and they declare in fear, that they have seen God, and are fearful they will perish. But God assures them of His mercy and blessing. It is one and the same Son of God that came and took on human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jacob wrestled with Christ, in the time before He permanently took on human flesh. Jacob saw the merciful face of God, and received a blessing, from the 2nd person of the Trinity—Christ in the Old Testament era.
Jesus taught that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and John writes that “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). It is through Jesus that we, or saints like Jacob, can know and see God’s face. Moreover, it is through Jesus that we find the kind and merciful face of God revealed to us, so that we can see God, yet our life is delivered. For to face God without forgiveness of our sins—to face Him without atonement or the cleansing of our sins—is to be destroyed in our sins. But to be brought near to God by the blood of Christ, is to approach God with confidence and boldness, to approach Him with tenderness as a child to our dear Heavenly Father. It is to see the fatherly face of His love and mercy toward us.
Just a few verses after our reading, Jacob at last meets Esau—the moment he dreaded. But it turns out to be a remarkable and joyful reunion, blessed by the forgiveness and putting away of old hurts and wrongs, and blessed by the reunion of brotherly love and affection between them. After this wonderful turn of events, Jacob remarks to his brother Esau, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Gen. 33:10). Finding his brother’s forgiveness was like seeing the face of God, as he had just experienced. From fearing the worse, whether from the hidden face of God, or of Esau, to clinging to God’s promise and not abandoning faith—Jacob eventually saw the mercy and acceptance of both God and his brother. Seeing the face of Esau accept him was like seeing God, because it brought the same Gospel—Good News—of forgiveness, for Jacob’s sins. And now the deceiver and cheat was blessed with a new life and a new name—Israel—who strives with God; and regained a brother.
When you fear that God has cast you off, or forgotten His promises, when life darkens and hope seems out of reach, then do not cast off your faith, but cling all the more strongly to it and to God, and wrestle and strive with God. Recall His promises, and know that they have truly been spoken and given to you, together with God’s new Name in your baptism. Recall and know that God is faithful and will not forsake us, even when the storm clouds gather. Believe and know it to be true that whatever hardships you endure in this life, it is God’s plainly stated will, not hidden from us, that He desires your salvation and to show His loving kindness to us. Believe this, and grab your loving Father in faith, and receive His blessing in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Genesis 32-33 to see Jacob’s fear, prayer and wrestling with God, and then reunion with Esau. How did Jacob pray? 28:9-12. Read Psalm 10. How do believers often think of God, when His face seems “hidden”? Has it ever seemed to you that God’s face was hidden from you? Why?
  2. How is Jacob’s dark night of worry and prayer interrupted? What does Jacob say about it? Genesis 32:30. Was Jacob a strong man? Genesis 28:1-10. How did his opponent prove his superior power? Then why did he let Jacob “prevail”? What does this tell us about God’s character and what He desires for us to do when we wrestle with Him?
  3. What does the new name Israel mean? What did his old name, Jacob, mean? Being named by someone speaks of a certain kind of ownership. How has God’s Name been placed on us? Matthew 28:18-20. What does this mean for who owns us?
  4. What promises does God make to us? Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 13:5; 1 John 1:9; Ephesians 2:13. How do these promises carry us through the dark hours of life when God’s face seems hidden from us?
  5. Who was the man who wrestled with Jacob? Hosea 13:4-5. Cf. Judges 6:22-23; 13:16-23. No one has seen the Father (John 1:18); but who shows Him to humankind? John 14:9.  What does the face of God look like to us in Christ Jesus?
  6. When he meets Esau, he describes Esau’s forgiveness like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10). Explain what this means, in light of his close encounter with God, in Genesis 32:30.
  7. How can we hang onto Jesus in the face of trials? How truly close to us is our God?

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