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13th Sunday of the Year 26 June 2011

Dr Lutz Ackermann (Christ Church, Polokwane)

Wrestling with God and with humans (Gen 32:22-32)

Often, when I switch on my computer, it gives me a message: the virus database has been updated. This is a regular reminder that there is an Antivirus Program running on the machine and every day it tries to get (download) the latest information about new computer viruses, so it is constantly well equipped to recognize them and to fight them. So while most of the time I am not aware of it, there is this piece of software, all the time on the watch and ready to strike when there is danger. It is almost like a silent war, an invisible struggle going on all the time. The antivirus program is like a fighter, fighting unknown enemies and attackers under the cover of night and darkness. In the first reading we head a story about someone who is fighting in the night: Jacob. It is a strange situation: Jacob is alone at a river crossing at night-time. Someone attacks him and Jacob has to defend himself. The two are wrestling each other throughout the night and it seems like neither of them will win or loose. Eventually, the stranger tries some unfair move, but Jacob wouldn't let go. But while Jacob is still trying to figure out, who he has been wrestling all night, the figure escapes into the dark, just before the sun comes rises. I am sure, most of us are quite familiar with the life story of Jacob as related in the book of Genesis. Son of Isaac and Rebecca he grows up in the never-ending rivalry with his twin-bother to Esau and eventually has to flee abroad after some fraud over the heritage. Many
2011 DR LUTZ ACKERMANN CHRIST CHURCH, POLOKWANE

years later, as he returns to his home country and to his family, the sins of his youth come back to him. He is ridden by fear: how will his brother Esau receive him, who had previously been so angry at him that he wanted to kill him? And so Jacob, living this life where he constantly seems to be on the run, comes to this crucial time in his life and to this eerie place the river Jabbok. It is the night before the great showdown the night before that day when Jacob would meet his brother Esau once again after so many years. He had heard rumours about his brother coming with a troop of four hundred men against him; he had made strategic moves to send gifts to his brother to gain his favour. He had split up his own group of people an extended family just in case they would have to flee, so that at least some would escape. But now the night had come and there wasn't much more he could do. So it isn't very surprising that he doesn't sleep right through the night. At some time, he gets up to continue his journey. They start the rivercrossing: his family and all his belongings go ahead of him to the other side, only he remains on this side of the river. It is almost as if he could not cross that river, which separated him from his home not yet. First he has to fight. Jacob, it seems, is being attacked out of nowhere. Its a bit like if you were walking the streets of Hillbrow at night all alone and all of a sudden someone attacks you and just like that you find yourself in the middle of a fight. You didn't ask for it, you didn't provoke anyone; but now someone attacks you and you have to fight. Who would do that? Who is this figure in the night? For Jacob this fight comes almost like a physical manifestation of the struggle he has been involved with most of his life. Already before they are born, apparently, the twin brothers Jacob and Esau were struggling in their mothers womb. And for Jacob this struggle with his
2011 DR LUTZ ACKERMANN CHRIST CHURCH, POLOKWANE

elder brother continues, as they grow up. Later in life he has this huge conflict with Laban, his father in law. So Jacob is struggling with other people. But there is also some inner conflict going on. While we don't quite know, if Jacob actually regretted his act of fraud against his brother and his father, we can sense the anxiety and the tension in him, as he returns back home. Maybe it is the demon of his past, his messed-up life history that he has to fight. Maybe it is the darker side of his character and personality he is wrestling with. Somehow he has to come to terms with his life. It is dark around him, Jacob is in the dark. He can's see his opponent, who is that? But there is no time for questions Jacob just has to fight. No longer can he run away from his own life. I think that this is where we all can find ourselves from time to time. We seem to be fighting maybe not physically but nonetheless fighting but we don't really know, who is the opponent? Are we wrestling with other people or with ourselves? Are we struggling with the demons and shadows in our lives or with God? It can be like a fight in the night, when all is dark and only one thing seems to be important: to fight. But every night has got it's morning. In our story, as daybreak approaches, the stranger wants to escape, still under the cover of night. He asks Jacob to let him go, but Jacob has got one condition: you have to bless me first! That may sound like a strange thing to do: asking a stranger in the night to bless you, after you had to fight with him. Maybe it is this old obsession of Jacob to get every possible blessing he can get even the one he is not entitled to. But maybe he already starts to sense: here, in this man I am wrestling, I encounter something more than just the human level. In any case, Jacob insists: bless me first, then I will let you go.

2011 DR LUTZ ACKERMANN CHRIST CHURCH, POLOKWANE

But that is not the end. The stranger now demands his name. Now that's a dangerous thing. Once he has revealed his name, his identity, he is even more vulnerable. But he doesn't seem to mind, he doesn't seem to hesitate. I am Jacob. Ah, Jacob the wrestler! But then the strangest thing happens: that figure in the dark simply changes his name: So you say you are Jacob? Nope, not any more. Now, you are Israel. You have struggled against God and against humans. And: you have won. And then this stranger blesses Jacob and disappears. Jacob still tries to find out from him, So who are you? but the other one just tells him: Don't ask this question. Again this is an experience which we can sometimes make. We fight and we struggle, and we don't even know against whom. And then, just when it's over, we realize what a blessing this was. Sometimes there are places in our lives, like this river crossing. We dread them because we do not know what lies ahead of us on the other sid of the river, as it were. We fight, we struggle. But all of a sudden, out of the blue, the whole situation turns into a blessing. But like Jacob we might experience a crippling victory. Yes, the fight is over. Yes, there is the promise of blessing. But Jacob leaves the site of the nocturnal fight, limping. He is carrying his scars and bruises. He will never forget this encounter. For him it becomes a watershed in his life. He went into this night as Jacob, the crooked guy, the tsotsi and he comes out of it as Israel the one who has wrestled with God and with humans, and has done so successfully. And he recognizes this, because looking back at what has happened he says in awe: in all this, I have met God face to face. In this stranger, in this fight I have met God. In this night, in this encounter where maybe for the first time in his life he didn't run away and hide at the river Jabbok he met God.
2011 DR LUTZ ACKERMANN CHRIST CHURCH, POLOKWANE

It is a dark story and it reminds me of the darkest night in Jesus life, the night before his execution; the night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The night of struggling against fear, weakness and temptation the night of wrestling with God. He's like No, this can't be true. Can't I just wake up and this cup of poison is gone? Do I really have to go all of this? But eventually he arrives at the point where he says to God: if this is what you want I will do it. And I think that is the deeper reason, why even in our darkest nights, in our deepest struggles we will never be alone. Wherever we find ourselves Jesus has already been there. We may encounter our darkest side, struggle with our enemies or fight against our worst demons; we may even, in the middle of the night and darkness around us, not really be able to say, who it is we are fighting. But in all that the Jesus of the Garden of Gethsemane, the Jesus of the night of tears is right with us. It may not feel like that, while we are fighting. But then morning comes, and looking back we may be able to realize: it was actually a blessing. And we may even find: in all this struggle, in all this fight, we have met God, face to face. And we walk away, limping and yet we know that God has blessed us. Amen.

2011 DR LUTZ ACKERMANN CHRIST CHURCH, POLOKWANE