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When We Find Ourselves in a Wrestling Match

When We Find Ourselves in a Wrestling Match
Genesis 32:22-31
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
24 July 2005

Two weeks ago Dan Peeler, who is the Children’s Minister at Cathedral of Hope – Dallas, e-mailed me regarding the new War of the Worlds movie. Dan wrote,

Everyone in the cast was motivated by their fear and panic, and no one seemed to have any prior faith in anything that could pull them through trying times. I think the front of that church building collapsing near the beginning of the film set the mood more than we could have expected. . . . Even that quote in the end narration with the mention of “God’s wisdom” which was from the H. G. Wells book didn’t redeem the hopelessness we had just endured for a couple of hours.

My own opinion was that War of the Worlds was one of the most anxious films I’d ever watched. I would like to know what my blood pressure was during the movie. For at least the first half the visuals and sounds combine to fill you with dread. In this respect, it is a well done film, a noteworthy cinematic achievement. The New York Times review went so far as to say, “all of these are reminders of how sublime, how aesthetically complete, a few moments of film can be.”

It is the story of one dad, Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise, who is divorced and barely has any relationship with his kids. He is an irresponsible man who has no idea how to provide for his family. One weekend when his kids are dropped off at his house, the aliens invade. Finally he must muster all his personal resources to care for his children. Ray Ferrier struggles throughout the film to come to terms with himself and his kids and with the dangerous world they find themselves in. Much of the movie plays out as a domestic drama, with the alien invasion in the background.

Despite the skillful filmmaking, the movie left me with many questions. Most notably, I kept wondering, “What is Steven Spielberg so afraid of?” In Spielberg’s previous alien films – Close Encounters and E. T. – the aliens are not evil invaders but are benign and good. So, I was surprised when I first learned that Spielberg was making this movie.

There are typical Spielberg qualities to the film. He has a unique use of lighting that is present here. The story is about a person coping with real life problems in the midst of fantastical plot elements, a standard Spielberg device. There is the endangered child, a recurring theme in his films. Plus there is the “Spielberg ending,” an ending that is resolved, where everything is tied up, and that is usually happy. However, the ending does not work in this movie. It seems out of place. As Dan Peeler wrote, the previous two hours have been too hopeless to lead to this ending.

Much has been made of one line in the film. Dakota Fanning, who plays the endangered daughter asks, “Is it the terrorists?” when the alien attack begins. Many reviewers have commented that this is Spielberg’s post-9/11 film. I agree, but think the dread and anxiety go deeper than that.

Discussing this film at the progressive ministers’ coffee one Wednesday morning, we made much of the fact that the alien invasion actually comes from beneath us. In this version of the movie, the alien ships have long been buried beneath human civilization. They rise from under us to destroy us. I find it an unconvincing and artificial plot device. So why do it? Is it only in order to get the dramatic and powerful scene where the alien tripod erupts from under the street? Maybe, but I think there has to be more to it than that. I think that a statement is being made about our destruction coming from within. That destruction comes from a force that has been hidden, that we’ve somehow missed. It is a pessimistic, anxious, maybe even cynical theme.

It is in this moment of the ship rising up from under the ground that the church building is destroyed. Dan Peeler said that he thought this was significant – the destruction of the church building. The more I thought about that, the more I agreed. In the old George Pal film version of this story, the main characters take refuge in a church near the end of the story. It is there that they find some level of solace and comfort. It is there that the hero and heroine are reunited. But there is no similar scene in this film. No similar role for the church to play. When you consider the role of the church building in the George Pal film then it is quite startling that in this latest version of the film the church building is destroyed at the beginning of the movie. I think the film is saying that no help will come from the church; that the church is ineffective for what is about to come.

In volume three of his Systematic Theology, baptist theologian James McClendon writes, “Art thus functions as a cultural telltale, a weather vane.” He writes that a culture’s art cannot be separated from its life, politics, society, or practices of religion. So, looking at a culture’s art is one good way to examine what the culture considers to be important, what its view of the world is. But art doesn’t merely reflect; it also creates. As McClendon writes, “art also refers to a new world, a world that is created by the artistic action itself.” Art, especially great and powerful art, helps to change the culture. It causes us to look at things in new ways, to examine our lives in a new light, to understand the world differently.

What does War of the Worlds reflect about our culture? What new world would it create? If my reading of the film is correct, it reflects a culture filled with fear and anxiety. A culture struggling with internal conflict. A culture that has lost the institutions that would ground it. A culture adrift, lacking the hope that comes from God. And, importantly, a culture that does not find help in the church.

But our text today tells a very different story. It too is a story of anxiety and dread. And unlike War of the Worlds, it doesn’t have a happy, resolved ending. This bit of the Jacob narrative has a messy ending, like we’ve seen so often in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob is returning home with his now large family and his great wealth. When Jacob left home, God promised to be with him, to protect him, and to bring him home again. Now Jacob is returning home. But before he can do that, he must face difficulties. The journey home isn’t an easy journey. In these difficulties, God’s promises are tested. Is God going to be with Jacob and protect him?

First Jacob must successfully get away from his greedy and devious father-in-law Laban. Once he has done that, he turns his attention to his brother Esau. When we last met Esau, he wanted to kill Jacob. Now Jacob is afraid of Esau. He has successfully gotten away from one potential enemy who has chased after him, only to now be marching into the arms of another potential enemy.

I encourage you to read the entirety of this narrative, because it is so well written. I imagine it much like an old Western where the scene keeps cutting back from the helpless wagon train traveling along slowly and the Indian warriors riding fast upon it. The narrative has that sense of suspense and drama. Jacob knows that Esau is coming with 400 men, and Jacob does everything he can think of in order to prepare for every possibility. He is trying to apologize to Esau, but he’s not sure what Esau’s motive is.

In the midst of his preparation, Jacob prays,

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’

This is an important prayer uttered by Jacob. Walter Brueggemann points out that this prayer contains many of the important theological themes that are played out in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Themes like covenant, God’s concern for the least of these, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, deliverance, etc. What is important for us to note is that when Jacob is in his moment of dreadful fear that he turns to God and invokes God’s presence, protection, and love.

In the night Jacob wrestles. According to Brueggemann, at night “ things are unclear, and characters merge, confuse, and remain unstable. . . . The narrator understands . . . that the hidden powers of conflict and the hidden chance of resolve occur at night, beyond our intent.” This is a wonderfully mysterious text that lends itself to multiple interpretations. And I think it is meant to do that. In a sense it stands as a symbol for the whole of Jacob’s life. In order for Jacob to find blessing, he has wrestled and will wrestle with his family, his brother, his father-in-law, with the consequences of his life choices, with himself, and with God. Jacob’s life has been and will continue to be one full of difficulty and struggle, some caused by himself and some caused by others.

Is this wrestling match real or a dream? Is it a man, an angel, or God? What we know from the text is that the results are all too real. Jacob is wounded and limps as a result of the encounter. And Jacob claims to have seen the face of God. Plus Jacob’s name has been changed to Israel. From “He supplants” his name is changed to “The one who strives with God.” Many commentators point to the significance of this event in Jacob’s life. Before he can cross the river Jabbok and enter the Promised Land, he has to come to terms with himself, his God, and his brother. Through the encounters with God and with Esau the word “face” is used. When Jacob sees Esau, face to face, he comments that it is like seeing the face of God, which is how Jacob describes the encounter with the wrestler the night before. In another example, Everrett Fox’s literal translation of Genesis 32:30 reads:

For [Jacob] said to himself:
I will wipe [the anger from] his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face;
afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face

Referring to this constant use of the face metaphor, Karen Armstrong writes,

The text is subtly directing our attention to the fact that the ‘face’ of God and the ‘faces’ of Jacob and Esau are all one and the same. By facing his brother, Jacob would confront the ‘face’ of his God; but he would also confront himself. . . . Only when he confronted those aspects of his personality that filled him with fear and disgust . . . could he heal the conflict in his soul and experience the healing power of the divine.

The next day Jacob encounters Esau. All the suspense of the story has been leading up to this moment. Esau runs and embraces his brother and kisses him. It is a moving and powerful moment. But, it isn’t clear that all is reconciled. Jacob won’t travel with Esau, but says that he will follow to Esau’s home in Seir. But that’s not what Jacob does. Instead, Jacob travels to Succoth and establishes his own homestead. So, the moment is not as blessed as we had hoped. It seems that a relationship of trust and mutual blessing will not be found with these two brothers.

Jacob isn’t done wrestling though. I like the way Karen Armstrong reads the Jacob narrative. She takes the very next story to be of significance. Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter, goes out to visit the women of the country of Shechem. When she does she is brutally raped by the young prince, also named Shechem. The prince then falls in love with Dinah and wants to take her as his wife. He and his father Hamor go to Jacob and negotiate a marriage arrangement. When Dinah’s brothers arrive, they are enraged. They decide to act deceptively, as Jacob has so often done. As part of the arrangement, all the men of the city of Shechem must agree to be circumcised. While the men are still recovering and in pain, Simeon and Levi enter the city and slaughter all the men and take Dinah home. The other brothers then come and loot the city, including carrying away the women and children. It is a horribly brutal event.

But what of Jacob in all this? When he first hears of the rape he keeps his peace, but as Karen Armstrong points out, the word used here implies “culpable inertia or negligence.” Jacob remains silent until the very end, unlike the other parent in the story. When he does speak, he doesn’t express grief over Dinah or concern for the slaughtered Shechemites; his concern is for his own reputation and safety.

The Jacob narrative in the Book of Genesis and the story of Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds are both stories dealing with the struggles of a man in a situation of fear and anxiety. Both must deal with their families. Both must face their fears and responsibilities. However, the two narratives have a substantial difference. One is hopeless and the other is not. Despite all the violence and unresolved conflict of the Jacob story, there is hope that life could be better than this. Jacob is trying to heal the conflict in his soul and turns to the healing power of the divine. When Jacob left home, God made promises to Jacob to be with him and to protect him. As Jacob is returning home we see that God is with him and that God is protecting him. Jacob knows that he can rely upon God, because we see Jacob turning to God in prayer when Jacob is afraid. The presence of God doesn’t mean that everything becomes simple and easy. It doesn’t mean that Jacob suddenly understands everything better. No, God is this mysterious force that blesses Jacob, but only after they have wrestled throughout the night.
We do appear to live in a time of anxiety. Many people are afraid. They are afraid of terrorists. Some are afraid of the American government. Many of us are afraid of losing even more of our civil rights. Even high gas prices make us nervous. Much less all the things that can normally make life anxious – sickness, economic difficulties, depression, grief, trouble at work, relationship issues, etc. We are a culture struggling with internal conflict, that is adrift because we’ve lost the institutions that ground us. And maybe, as the film says, ours is a culture that does not find help in the church.

But I’m just not that anxious. I’m just not that afraid. In fact, I was surprised by the level of anxiety in War of the Worlds, because I’m not that troubled. Why am I not that troubled? Because I know the Great Story, the gospel story. The story that says that God is with us. James McClendon writes that the story we Christians have to tell is that our human story and God’s story are both one and the same. This conviction rests in our central proclamation of good news, that the Word became flesh. He writes, “A church true to its revealed gospel might even yet provide this culture with the vision it so lacks.” That is the message of the story of Jacob – God is with us. In the Jacob story we come fact to face with our internal conflicts by coming face to face with God. It might be a wrestling match, but blessing awaits.

We, the church, are God’s presence, through Christ, in the world today. When we are obedient to God working in and through and among us, then we can help to create a new world – a world full of justice, peace, hope, and love. In order to be that presence we must live in the reality of our story. We must live as a people changed by the good news of Jesus Christ. That is our greatest witness. We tell the story by living the story, by demonstrating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Next week we will conclude our study of the Book of Genesis. The characters will finally learn how to achieve blessing. In two weeks we will celebrate our fifth anniversary. That night in the sermon we will look forward in faith to what kind of church we can be. And in the weeks following we will talk about what it means to be a church, in essence, what it means to be a community of disciples of Jesus Christ. In so doing we will be travelers on a journey together. I want you to begin to think about these things.

We come to a world in need with good news – God is with us. We believe that help can come from the church. Now, what is required of us to make that happen?


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Gailia Johnson

What is required of us to make that happen you asked.

In answer to this question I will speak to you what I sense the spirit is speaking to me in the past 24 hours.

Dinah (Leah's Daughter) is a picture of the church today. Leah had stopped having "sons". The problem is that Dinah went to town to play around in the "pagan city" according to the word.
You know I have been guilty as well and I didn't even realize it, but with the revelation God is giving to us all now; we must recognize that we have allowed Satan to disguise himself (circumcision) and blend in to the rest of us, saying we can live together in harmony, after all "I love your daughters". (As the fallen angels did in the days of Noah)
The other problem is that "Dinah" means judgement, because we have a hybrid seed not a pure seed (word) being taught in most churches. Neglecting to teach what is abominable to God the people still sin and not weep between the porch and the altar.

This is where we the church are at, unless we depart our mix with the ungodly we cannot enter into His secret place.

The awesome thing is that "Rachel" the picture of the new covenant church has already given birth to Joseph and Benjamine (the beloved) and the picture of the old has stopped birthing. The picture of the new has birthed and God said "Get out of Cannan" I am bringing judgement for the rape of my daughter Dinah (old covenant)!

We are here in this country and of coarse the world. America as must give up her pagan Gods for judgement is knocking on her door. Paul dealt with this in Rome.

We must fast and pray for all of God's people NOW!

The beloved, has the commandments written in their heart as do all Benjamites, they are the Beloved and Jesus is coming for His Bride to rule and reign with her.

May God Bless you and yours.

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