Isaiah 55: 1-13 & Genesis 32: 22-31 ’Wrestling a Blessing’

Reflection by Mart the Rev

What a year we are having! Two new church complexes coming ready.  The new Bryndwr church building opening this afternoon.  The new Papanui building on schedule for an October/November completion.  How exciting? Doesn’t it feel good!  I do see these buildings as signs of hope.  After the earthquakes and the losses of our St Giles and St Stephen’s Church buildings it is good to be seeing some of our hopes and aspirations for the future coming to something.   This year, not some year, we will have well-functioning community spaces from which we can offer the ministry of the church in the community.  We have high hopes for these relational hospitable spaces… we have been given the opportunity to dream up a way of doing church that feels more appropriate for the season we are in.  It has taken a lot of hard work and by the end of the year we will have everything completed.

Except, of course, we won’t. The buildings will be completed but the life in them has to be developed.

The truth is that we have not built complexes in a season where the church is riding a wave of new life and vitality. We aren’t in the late 1950’s when the St Stephen’s Church was opened and was soon full to overflowing.  Nor are we in the season where St Giles could encourage many of its young families to head out and start something at the new plants at Bryndwr and Bishopdale.

We haven’t built these new complexes in a season of buoyancy – we’ve built them in a season of considerable crisis. All around us most of the once strong suburban and city church communities are struggling to survive.  The signs are there that many will fold as the hanging-on-in-hope generation passes.

We are not immune here in The Village. Our foothold is precarious.  We are fortunate to still have a critical mass of people, and some dynamism in our community ministries as well as our children and family connections, and, we’ve made a few bold decisions that might give us a far better opportunity to build our life.  But let’s be honest, our foothold remain precarious.

We are having a go – just as we should, but there is no 1950’s and 60’s wave to ride and no easy fix to the challenges we face. We have two new complexes but our church is in the fight of its life.  Jacinda come and save us!

I marvel at God’s promise to despairing exiled Israel in Isaiah 55: “…[my word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

The call on the people was to believe in the promise and power of God’s Word, even though… To believe whatever their circumstances.  Even to believe, when in exile in Babylon, and it seemed that God had abandoned them.  Even to believe, while, in that fertile land alongside the Euphrates River, where anything seemed to be able to grow, their particular seeds of faith seemed to be withering and perishing.  To believe, even though…

This Word returns. It does not return empty.  It returns having accomplished its purposes.  It returns having prospered.  That’s the promise.  But our church is in the fight of its life.

Speaking of fighting. Where did we ever get the idea that it was going to be anything other than a fight?  Maybe we got this idea because many of us recall a certain heyday when we were younger. Sociologists of the church talk of the 1950’s and 60’s church attendances as a blip.  A post-war baby boom blip.  The perception of most of us was that in those days everyone went to church.  That is what it seemed.  Maybe, more accurately, we should say that everyone we knew who went to church went to church.

Kevin Ward, writing several years ago in the NZ Listener, offers what might be a startling statistic to us.  “In New Zealand, church attendance in 1960 was about 20% of the population weekly, and 40% monthly. By [the year] 2000 this had been halved to 10% and 20% respectively.” [source: http://knoxcentre.ac.nz/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Ward-Is-New-Zealands-Future-Churchless-2004.pdf]

Did you know that in New Zealand, the church has always struggled to have a foothold in the community?

Ok – pop quiz time: first question… In what decade did church attendance peak in New Zealand?  Second question… What percentage of the population attended church at that peak?

The answers: [people with sermon copies have to fill in the blank spaces] __________ ___________

[source: http://mikecrudge.com/2013/07/19/pop-quiz-when-did-regular-church-attendance-peak-in-new-zealand/]

As I said, the church in New Zealand has always struggled to have a foothold in the community. It has always been a wrestling match.  I wonder if that has also been a truism of the story of our faith.

From the early days of the New Testament church to now there has always been a struggle to reconcile what is held to be true with how people actually behave. There has always been a tension and a gap between what the gospel calls us to and what people’s desires lead them to.  But so too, the biblical witness of ancient Israel is as littered with stories of human greed, political crises, flawed leaders, and unfaithfulness, as it is a faithful witness to a covenanting God.  Even the bestowing of the name Israel upon Jacob suggests tension and struggle.

I like old Jacob. I find room in his strange tortuous story for my own struggles and contradictions to be faced up to.  Maybe the church can learn from old Jacob as it finds a useful way to be in the world.  With Jacob, it is not that he is a fantastic role model for us to emulate, but that we see in God’s interaction with him that God chooses him and is faithful to him, and that God blesses him, and that God almost seems to celebrate Jacob’s wilfulness. God’s Word, you see, always returns and accomplishes it purposes – often despite the odds stacked against it. The sequence of Jacob story is pretty familiar to us.  Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  He is the twin of Esau – the two fighting in the womb and fighting for the rest of their days.  Jacob, the younger of the two, born clinging to his brother’s heel, eventually swindles his brother’s birth right from him over a bowl of stew.  Later, he ends up running for his life, because, with his mother’s help, he robbed Esau of his father’s blessing.  And even later, beyond the story we heard today, we get Jacob the father of his twelve sons, all but destroying his family as he played favourite with his younger wife and played favourite with one of his sons, Joseph.  But God prevails and blesses.

I would suggest that the saga of Jacob wrestling all night with the stranger is the most important ‘take-home’ story for all who follow on from Jacob. Who is this strange man who wrestled with him all night?  An angel of God?  God himself?  The Christ?  More than a few things intrigue me in this story – here are five of them:

Who started it? Did Jacob with his fear-filled self-preservation mentality? Or did the stranger? Jacob, we are told, had sent his family across the stream at Jabbok and was left alone, until ‘a man wrestled with him.’  Maybe the strange man started it.  Is that what God does with us?  Does God come for a fight?

2. The strange man doesn’t prevail against Jacob. Is this also how God is with us – not able to subdue us and force our submission? It seems startling that this could be so.  God, all powerful, not able, or not willing to control us.  I think of Jesus and his coming in weakness and submitting to the cross… his humble posture a witness to how the kingdom of God finds an appropriate footing in the world, and how the church triumphant is quite possibly the worst thing that it can ever offer the world.  The strange man doesn’t prevail against Jacob but neither does he let him go.

3. The strange man wounds Jacob by striking him and putting his hip out of joint. Is this also how God is with us? That this faith-thing marks us – even wounds us. I think of the ridicule that often comes the church’s way and how it is often unjust and unfair and how it erodes our confidence.  I think of the prevailing societal dismissal of the faith-life and how hard it is to take a stand for Jesus when the dominant culture argues that we are deluded.  But I hear the call of Jesus that we take up our crosses and follow him, and in that I do not hear a promise of an easy walk.  I listen to Paul talk of his thorn in his flesh and how God brings strength out of weakness, and wisdom out of what appears to be foolishness.  Maybe we are meant to walk with a limp.

4. The strange man renames Jacob as Israel. What is the name of God’s chosen people? Those who struggle with God. I wonder if that is the way things are meant to be.  The faith-life as a wrestling match.  There seems to always be a cohort of believers who are adamant that any kind of doubt is some sort of sign of poverty of faith.  I wonder if that is an unhelpful position.  One writer, Frederick Buechner, described doubt as ‘the ants in the pants of faith’ – a kind of itch to keep you alert and sufficiently humble.  Is there anything more nauseating than a full-on Christian with all the answers and an ego to match?  Let’s see what happens to that cocky attitude when life throws a few of its inevitable curve balls!  One of the writings between Malachi and Matthew states this: “Gold is tested by fire, and human character is tested in the furnace of humiliation. Trust the Lord, and he will help you. Walk straight in his ways, and put your hope in him.” [Sirach 2:5-6]

Life for most people involves testing and struggle. God seems to honour Jacob with this name change.  A struggling Israel, it seems, is the only Israel we get!

5. The strange man refuses to give a name but does give Jacob a blessing. The only God we get in the scriptures of the Old Testament is the one whose fullness of face is more than we can bear.  The face of God we Christians get to deal with is Jesus, and that one is non-descript enough that none of the witnesses to his life with us even bother to describe his features! In our image-based culture this would never happen!  We would have his face plastered on our computer screens?  Maybe, just maybe, his face is to transcend culture, time and place.  Is it that all, or any, of our faces are to bear his likeness?  The fact is that the one who blesses us also remains somewhat of a mystery to us.  We never fully know in whom we will encounter him, and where and when!

Thus in our big year, with new buildings, and a vision for the future well embarked on, we do not have the last and clear word on how God is with us. We have not got our house in order.  We are just a stone-throw from teetering on the edge of viability and credibility.  We are not the church triumphant, we are the church in considerable weakness.  We are the church wrestling, experimenting, and wounded and clinging.  We are a church making our way with God on the precarious edge.

But there is considerable weight behind us – more than we realise! Behind us is a long story of people of the Word, trusting that this Word does not return empty.  That it returns having accomplished God’s purposes.  And trusting that God in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, will continue to prosper it.