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Sermon for 18th Sunday after Trinity

Sermon for Sunday 16th October

Genesis 32:22-31

Luke 18:1-8

Jacob. Morally complex character. Life, a bit of a mess. So why should we care about him? What does Jacob have to teach us? He teaches us how to wrestle with the divine. 'A man wrestled with him until daybreak.' Notice the sheer physicality of this encounter, its intimacy. Jacob is wrestling with God, body and soul.

This business of wrestling with the divine. It's a difficult, dirty business. You bring yourself to God and you let God know that you are, frankly, a bit of a moral mess, your life is not really going according to any kind of plan. But one of the reasons Jacob matters is this: he wants to travel further into the divine embrace. He's not going to settle for second best. He wants God in his hands and in his heart. Jacob is the spiritual teacher for all of us, nervous pilgrims that we are.

'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.' Jacob has the courage to be wounded by God. He lets God 'put him out of joint'. This is one of the risks of divine intimacy. God may take your heart and go so deep that it is as if you are being wounded. But this is not a human wound. It's not the result of violence. It is the wound of love. If you wrestle with God, if you draw closer to the divine, God will wound you with love. God will take you and increase your compassion and pity for people and the world beyond what you thought possible.

The day is breaking. In other words, spiritual illumination is on its way for Jacob. 'But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." You really have to hand it to Jacob, he will stop at nothing to be blessed by the divine depth. Jacob is not content to sit at a distance, he demands that the angel will bless him, will touch him with divine fire. Just think of the passion here, the passion for God, the passion to receive God into all that you are.

The angel asks Jacob, "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." So, Jacob is given a new name, a divine name, Israel (which can be interpreted as 'Contends-with-God'). And we all have our names. The names we were given by our parents. But these names, these identities we were given, can grow so old and tired, so beside the point. And God is always, I think, calling us by new names. We are no longer simply the name we were given. We are a new identity given by God. We might be, for example, a lover of humanity and nature. We might be a messenger of God's grace. We might be a teacher of spiritual mysteries. We might be somebody of unusual tolerance. God calls us by our secret name, not the surface name: the secret name. And this is the consequence of Jacob's boldness. If we wrestle with the divine God will give us that secret name, lover, prophet, pilgrim, fool for God, forgiver.

'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, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." Jacob, Israel, receives the blessing, but he sees God face to face. Imagine that. Imagine the courage that takes.

We are all on spiritual journeys. We may be striding forward. We may be stuck in some lower valley with the mountain shrouded in mist in front of us. But I think Jacob/Israel teaches us precious truths about the bravery needed for the spiritual adventure. Don't stay at a distance from God. Don't wall God away behind myths and symbols and interesting theories. Meet with the living and loving God who wants to meet with you. Put your heart, body and soul into that relationship. If God seems silent, or vanished altogether, demand God's blessing.

Don't settle for your old identity. We all have narratives in our heads which say, I'm like this, I'm like that. This was the name and nature I was given by my parents and by society. Not totally true. God calls you to a deeper identity. God calls you by a secret name. You may not know what that identity/name is quite, indeed it is probably not fixed, but you can be sure you are not who you think you are. God thinks you are many other names and natures. Don't get caught in old identities and old patterns and old names. They can be boring. They may hold you back. We have our past, but we are also called into new possibilities and futures by divine re-naming.

Jesus, in today's wonderful gospel, tells a parable about the 'need to pray always and not to lose heart.' This is a version of Jacob's radical invitation to us. To pray always and not to lose heart is to live your life open to God at the depths of who you are. God, for Jesus, is not distant, God is your ground, your being. Jacob wrestles with the divine. Jesus tells us to live out of prayer. Both are teaching the miracle of divine intimacy, that God is so close.

It's not easy, wrestling with angels, or praying always. It takes a special kind of courage. But the path of a deeper and richer faith makes the apparent randomness of our lives find a new depth and harmony in God. The old name, the old nature that we were, is let go into God and God says you shall no longer only be called by that name, you shall be called by a new name.

And yes, you are wounded by love, put out of joint by love, your heart receives more, you see more, you feel more, but the sun rises as you limp forward, and you are more alive than you have ever been.


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