Most people have a simplistic notion of the Christian faith.
That includes some people who believe it and the people who don’t.
The formula goes that you believe there is a God,
be reasonably nice, go to church some,
and ask Jesus to forgive your sins.
Do that and you go to heaven when you die.
In the meantime, don’t worry about things over much
since whatever happens is God’s will.
They often think that is what the Bible says.
Such people should be careful about reading the Bible.
It is actually a very strange book.
Christianity is a strange and wonderful religion.
The God we worship is a strange and wonderful God.
Take, for an example of strangeness, our Old Testament lesson.
Jacob had spent a lot of his life on the lamb.
As a young man he had swindled his brother Esau
who understandably set out to kill him.
So Jacob ran away to live with his Uncle Laban
in a far off country.
Laban and Jacob spent several years trying to outfox each other.
Eventually, Jacob had to run away from there too.
He was escaping from Uncle Laban
when he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him.
That was not entirely good news.
In our lesson for today, before Jacob confronts Esau,
he crosses the River Jabbok, a rapidly flowing mountain stream.
It isn’t easy to cross at any point or at any time,
but Jacob crossed it at night
with his two wives, two concubines, 11 children,
all his livestock and all his possessions.
Then he came back across to where he started
and he spent the night there alone.
It isn’t clear what Jacob was up to.
Probably he was moving his family and possessions
across the river to keep them safe from Esau.
But that night he ran into trouble bigger than his brother.
In the dark, beside the River, something attacked Jacob
and fought with him until sunrise.
They fought to a draw, but before the attacker left,
Jacob demanded a blessing from him.
The attacker blessed Jacob by changing his name to Israel,
which means “struggles with God.”
And Jacob renamed the place of the fight Peniel,
because he said, “I have seen God face to face and yet I live.”
This isn’t a moral example story.
Do as Jacob did because wasn’t he a good man.
Jacob wasn’t a particularly good man.
He wasn’t a hero of the faith.
He didn’t do anything right here.
He was running away from someone he cheated
about to face up to someone else he cheated.
Jacob was just scrambling for his life
when he found himself alone, in the dark, in a strange place,
attacked by a powerful stranger.
So he fought.
A strange story.
I don’t know what it’s doing in the Bible
except that it tells us how the people of Israel got their strange name.
But there are a couple of things we might learn.
The first is that we don’t really encounter God
until we are in trouble.
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century said this.
He called it “crisis theology.”
Barth said it works like this.
Human nature and the way of the world don’t mesh.
So sooner or later, we all find ourselves in hot water.
What is the way out of the hot water?
There isn’t one.
We cannot save ourselves.
That’s when God shows up and saves us by his grace.
We talk a lot about spirituality these days.
We like to pray and meditate, listen to uplifting religious music,
and feel very good about everything.
Isn’t God nice and it’s a wonderful world.
That’s fine until our life falls apart
as Jacob’s life had fallen apart that night in the darkness.
Then God shows up with a blessing.
I have done major league spirituality in most of its forms and styles.
I have done contemplative serenity and charismatic joy.
I have degrees and certificates to prove it. It was all a rush.
It felt really good and I was proud of how spiritual I was.
But I didn’t meet God until I was in the kind of panic Jacob felt.
And I can tell you this.
God may be in the lovely sunrise and the babbling brook.
But we connect with God in the dark night of despair.
When God showed up for Jacob,
it was not as a kindly comforter.
God came to Jacob like mugger.
This is not a nice God, but a fearsome God.
So Jacob struggled. He fought tooth and nail.
There is a point in that too.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just smile and nod politely.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just sing songs
about how sweet everything is.
There are several ways to struggle with God.
We might not be so sure God exists,
and might want to say “Why don’t you just show yourself?”
We might not be so sure God is good,
since the creation seems pretty harsh.
We might not get how Jesus dying on the cross
does any good.
We might not like worshipping God
since it makes us feel small
-- as if God might be better than we are.
Or we might just want God to do something for us,
and God might not be coming through.
After all, what good is a God who does not conform to our will
and meet our expectations?
We don’t get to know God until we struggle with God.
That’s ok because getting to know God
isn’t actually that high on our priority list
– not until we need God desperately.
A young man went to see a Zen master and said “I want to learn Zen.”
The Master grabbed him by the neck, pushed his head into a stream,
and held him down.
When the young man came up gasping and coughing,
the Zen master said,
“When you want Zen the way you just wanted a breath,
then you will know Zen.”
That’s when we know God – when we need God like our next breath.
Then, and only then, do we get honest.
Then and only then do we struggle with God.
Remember what God named his chosen people,
not the beautiful and the good people,
not the nice and the moral people,
not the people who always obey God like children,
but Israel – the people who struggle with God.
And struggle they did. Read the psalms and the prophets.
For centuries, Jacob’s descendants continued to fight with God.
The honest spiritual life is not all flowers and valentines
anymore than the honest marriage is.
It’s a struggle.
Oh, there’s a final point.
Jacob did not come out of the struggle unmarked.
God blessed him and dislocated his hip.
So Jacob walked with a limp after that.
We can know God and still live in the world,
but we will never be the same, never quite at home here.
Honest religion isn’t about getting our spiritual sunshine vitamins
and smiling all the time.
It’s facing reality without blinking.
After that we will be stronger, wiser, saner, but not the same.