Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Limp is Mightier than the Strut

(A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-32)

Sometimes I wonder how interested the church and the people who make up the church, including me, really are in doing things God’s way. We could hardly be blamed for shying away from it, for, as our text reveals, really getting in touch with God and having God get in touch with you and being on journey with God and having God be on journey with you can be risky and painful business.

When I look around at the 21st century church, I get concerned. We seem to buy in too easily to the idea that successful ministry means being big and powerful and rich and comfortable and respectable. If we do buy into such an idea, then corporate weakness has to be denied. Personal woundedness has to be covered up.

We’re not very Christian in our approach to life and ministry if those are our attitudes.

The text tells about Jacob, one of our spiritual ancestors. I’m glad that the Bible is so honest with us about the lives of those ancestors. It is brutally honest about Jacob. When I look at his life, I am impressed by two things. One thing is the complicated character of Jacob. Jacob was an accomplished cheat and a master manipulator. From the beginning and throughout most of his life, one constant was that he had a long way to go. He always had a lot of unrealized potential but he usually used underhanded methods to try to realize it. Another constant was the persistent presence of God in his life.

That brings us to the other thing that I am impressed by when I look at the life of Jacob: the mysterious purposes of God. God chose to make Jacob a central character in God’s story of salvation, perhaps both in spite of and because of Jacob’s complicated character.

Those two things, the complicated character of Jacob and the mysterious purposes of God, came together in a moment to which all of Jacob’s life had been leading. There is no time like the present; in a sense, there is no time but the present. Whether you are talking about a church or an individual, this particular moment is the most critical moment. That is because this moment is the culmination of all the moments that have gone before; everything that has happened thus far comes together to make up this moment. Everything that is going to happen from now on begins with this moment.

For Jacob, it was as if all the streams of everything that had ever happened to him flowed together into the Jabbok River. For Jacob, what happened to him at the Jabbok River was going to have a tremendous influence on him for the rest of his life.

There beside the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with God. There are other ways to interpret the text, but the fact remains that when it was all over, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (v. 30).

No doubt to wrestle with God meant that Jacob was wrestling with his past. He had been gone from home for twenty years. He had left home with his brother Esau breathing death threats against him. He had left home with the birthright and the blessing but he had, with his mother’s help, lied and cheated to get them. He had been blessed during his sojourn in Haran with Laban and his family, but he had gone through a lot while he was being blessed. No doubt Jacob was wrestling with his past.

No doubt Jacob was also wrestling with his future. Tomorrow he was going to meet Esau. He knew that Esau was coming with 400 men to meet him. Jacob knew the hearts of men because he knew his own heart so well. He expected the worst. He planned to divide everything he had into two companies so that perhaps one could escape if Esau attacked. Tomorrow could bring disaster. Tomorrow could bring reconciliation. Tomorrow Jacob would have to face his past and tomorrow he would step into his future—if he had one.

It was with all of that going on, and with the promises of God to bless him and to protect him ringing in his ears, that Jacob entered into his wrestling match with God. All night long they struggled. It was a mighty struggle, and at times Jacob even seemed to get the upper hand. “The man,” the text says, “struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him” (v. 25).

When the sun came up and the match was over, Jacob left the scene limping. I suspect that Jacob limped for the rest of his life. The Israelites certainly chose to remember the limp in perpetuity. He left with a blessing, but he also left with a limp. He left with some resolution, but he also left with a limp. He left with a new name and a new identity, but he also left with a limp.

Jacob would have liked, as I am sure we would like, both as a church and as individual disciples, to strut through life proudly and triumphantly, to represent God as his perfect specimen. But Jacob instead walked through life with a limp. And that’s ok, because in God’s way of doing things, the limp is mightier than the strut.

When you truly struggle with God, you live with a limp. When you truly do things God’s way, you live with a limp. When you truly live a Christ-like life and carry out a Christ-like ministry, you live with a limp. And it is in the limp that you see God. That is because the limp causes you to remember those times when you have struggled with God and how in those struggles you have become more of what you are supposed to be. It is in the limp that you see God because the limp causes you to remember that God has always worked through people who are wounded. It is in the limp that you see God because the limp causes you to remember that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the very Son of God, bore the deepest wounds of all because he perfectly accomplished the will of God in the way of God.

Jacob limps no more. That’s because he’s in heaven. The day will come when you and I will limp no more. But we’ll be in heaven. The day will come when the church will limp no more. That will be the day when God makes all things as he intends for them to be. Notice how the hymn puts it.

‘Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
Till with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.
(Samuel J. Stone, The Church’s One Foundation)

We are not the church victorious until we are the church at rest. We are not the church at rest until we are the church victorious. We are not Christians victorious until we are Christians at rest. We are not Christians at rest until we are Christians victorious.

Till then, we limp. Till then, as Paul put it, God’s strength is made evident in our weakness.

We shouldn’t deny those places where God in his grace has wounded us, because it in those places that we can experience and see the grace of God. The music video based on Reba McIntryre’s song “Is There Life Out There?” (the song was written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles) tells a story about a woman who had married young, had a few children, and then started wondering if she should be doing more. So, she went to college. As the story unfolds, the woman struggles with balancing everything that she is trying to do. She is having conflicts with her husband and her children. An important paper is on her kitchen table and one of her children spills something on it. It’s too late to do anything but turn the paper in. When the professor returns the paper to her, he has given her a good grade, but he tells her, “Next time, try to leave off the stains.” She replies, “I learned more from the stains than I did from the paper.” God teaches us a lot through the stains. He shows his strength through our weakness.

But the day will come when resurrection will be a reality and then we won’t have to be weak anymore. But for now we live with the weakness and it is in fact our weakness that makes us realize how necessary the resurrection is. The Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney visited a college campus. A student asked, “Dr. Marney, would you say a word or two about the resurrection of the dead?” Marney answered, “I will not discuss that with people like you.” When the student wanted to know why, Marney said, “Look at you, in the prime of the life, potent—never have you known honest-to-God failure, heart-burn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what can you know of a dark world which only makes sense if Christ is raised?” (Paul D. Duke, in “Transfigured Relations,” Christian Century, October 25, 1995, attributes the story to William Willimon)

The events that cause us to limp may be the events in which we most fully experience God. The events that cause us to limp may be the events that teach us the most about life and about God’s place in our lives. The events that cause us to limp may the events in which we come to understand most fully the hope and power of the resurrection.

Those churches and those Christians who strut around as if they have already arrived have it wrong, I think. Those who limp know and live the grace of God. Oh, we will strut one day, by the grace of God, when the resurrection comes.

But for now, by the grace of God, the limp is mightier than the strut.

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