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July 2011 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"A Burden of Joy" — July 3
"God Isn't Stingy!"
— July 10
"Not Yet Shining like the Sun"
— July 17
"God's Vantage Point" — July 24
"Changed By A Living God" — July 31

“A Burden of Joy”
July 3, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus’s words can bring a grown man or woman to tears: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I love this reading from Matthew. We can have peace, here and now. We don’t have to earn the peace of Christ by crossing off all the items on our “to-do” lists.

Rest is God’s gift to us, and do we ever need it! We’ve been busy here in April, May, and June—with the Easter cantata, confirmation classes, the yard sale, the Property Committee work day, and Vacation Bible School. Now, it’s time for us to rest. July is the slowest time in churches, except for congregations on the Jersey Shore who get visitors all summer. Pastors love it—there’s time for long conversations, and time to read, and time to visit. How wonderful, to look forward to relaxation over the Fourth of July!

We all knew how to rest when we were children—remember? Jesus says that in the gospel lesson. Did you ever play Monopoly for entire weekends, and leave the board spread out on the living room floor? Could you do that this afternoon? Would you? Can we, the wise and intelligent adults, find rest for our souls the way children can? Can we even remember how?

When we are feeling worn out, we might not be physically exhausted. When weariness doesn’t go away with a good night’s sleep, it might be fear. We are weary because of our worries. We wonder if we can trust God to work things out according to His will, when we don’t know, and may never know, what God’s will is. We feel compelled to correct our lives to make them perfect, and to fix others so they are as perfect as we are. No wonder we feel tired.

When we lie helpless on a hospital gurney and are wheeled down the corridor and through the doors into the operating room, what’s going on inside our heads? Do we worry our way down the hallway and let go only when they put us to sleep?

When a relative has a stroke or heart attack, what do we think? Do we trust God then? Or do we bear the weight of our worry alone and feel exhausted under the load? Our coins and our paper money say, “In God We Trust.” That saying is as familiar to us as the Lord’s Prayer. We see those words whenever we pay tolls on the Turnpike or buy groceries. We take it for granted that we have a special relationship with God, here in America. But do we really trust God?

Can we trust God? Look at the violence and injustice in the land of the free? Can we trust God when a tornado wipes out a town, or when a congresswoman get shot at a shopping mall, or when children die in swimming pools?

Our little worries wear us out. They undermine our trust. Can we trust God when our daughters are out after four a.m. at the prom, when an old friend stops speaking to us, or when we get snarled at in the office? We spend far too much time worrying. Can we trust God when we have glaucoma and arthritis and diabetes and cancer? Will we worry our way through life, and miss the moments that really matter?

The sad news is that trusting God, runs counter to our need to be in charge of our own lives. We want to know what’s coming down the pike for us. We want to manage everything. But we can’t! Only Jesus can give us rest from our burdens. Even on a three-day weekend!

That’s why He spoke the words of our Gospel lesson today: “Come to me, all you that are weary.” His disciples were afraid, and He said these words to calm them. We are afraid, too-- heavy laden with a yoke called fear.

Let’s back up for a minute. We know fear. We know stress. But what’s the yoke Jesus is talking about? There’s a story about a Sunday School teacher who was teaching some older children this gospel passage. The teacher asked his students what a yoke was. Most of them said it was the yellow center of an egg. But one girl said, “A yoke is a collar you put around a horse or an ox.” And the teacher, who was really impressed with her correct answer, asked her another tough question: “What, then, is the yoke of Christ?” The girl thought for a moment and answered, “I suppose that would be when God’s got you by the throat.”

A yoke, in Jesus’ time, was an instrument that allowed two oxen to work together as a team. When a younger, smaller ox was yoked to a stronger, more experienced ox, sometimes the yoke didn’t even have to touch the younger one. The new ox learned to walk, following the lead of the stronger one. Gradually, the younger ox could begin to bear more weight. We are lifelong learners in the Christian journey. We can be like that young ox. Christ wants to carry our weight.

To be yoked to the Lord is to know life and peace. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Jesus says: Bring me your yoke of fear, and trade it in on a better model—my own yoke of trust. The hardest part is deciding to step out from under the burdens that the world is encouraging us to carry. After that, it’s easy! Jesus promises to shoulder our burdens with us. He creates little blessings every day, and if we pay attention we can spot them. The ceiling fans that were already on, when we came to worship this morning! The sayings by our Vacation Bible School kids, in the wall downstairs! The fellowship time after church today, and the flowers that are blooming under the church sign—which has just been repaired and painted! We have strong signs of life, even in the middle of a hot summer. A church doesn’t have to be big or new to be alive.

We all have crosses to bear. Christ is our real rest; Christ is our real peace. There will be times when we fear the future. But as we carry our burdens, as faithful Christians, we know that Jesus will walk beside us.

Communion is Christ-with-us. He is here, inviting us to take His yoke upon us, and to crown His good with brotherhood. This is the time when we find rest for our souls. Let’s rest in the Lord.

Let us pray. Lord, just as we feel like we will collapse under the load of life, you announce to us the good news that if we come to you, you will give us rest. Help us to trust your promise and grant us grace to let you shoulder our loads. AMEN.


“God Isn't Stingy!”
July 10, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

When you think of all the stories Jesus told, which ones come to your mind first? Let me guess: the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan? I’ll bet the Parable of the Sower is the third story on your list. It’s the only one of Jesus’ parables that comes with a five-verse explanation. Take a look at verses 19 through 23; scholars believe they were added much later. Don’t tune this story out, even if you think you know all about it. It’s pretty interesting. I’d like to take a new approach to this parable today.

I was raised to believe that waste is sinful. My parents grew up during the Great Depression. My brothers and I were expected to be members of the Clean Plate Club. We weren’t allowed to go out to play or watch television unless we’d cleaned our plates at dinner. Even as an adult, I don’t like to waste time or electricity or gasoline or water or money, or even computer paper, and I’m still a member of the Clean Plate Club.

It seems to me that this sower in Jesus’ story was incredibly wasteful with seeds. He must have known the difference between rocky ground, packed earth, and cleared soil. But even so, it didn't bother him. He hurled the seeds anywhere and everywhere. Only a quarter of them fell on good soil. The rest of them fell on the road, on rocks and in thick bushes overgrown with weeds.

Parables always have a twist. It’s obvious that Jesus was trying to shock people when He told this story. Farmers in ancient Palestine had to be careful with seeds. Raising good crops was the only way to get food on the table, and you had to sell a lot of harvested food to earn enough money to live during the winter. The leftover seeds had to stored and cared for, during the months between the harvest and the next spring planting. Every seed was precious. Even today, when seeds can be bought at local farm supply stores, farmers try not to waste them. The sower Jesus describes in this parable is much too generous with his seeds. It’s obvious to me that this sower is God.

God is extravagantly loving—even foolishly loving-- with the human race. He starts sowing the seeds of love in the book of Genesis. God is never stingy with mercy. He picks out the Hebrews to bear God's covenant. Most of the time, they behave badly. They worship idols instead of Him. They kill their relatives. They complain a lot. And yet, because God scatters the seed of His Word so randomly, some of his seeds fall on good soil. That soil takes the seeds and produces a harvest of faith. And the Judeo-Christian tradition has endured for four thousand years, because of that faith.

Another sign of God's wasteful love is the variety we find in nature. God has created more than thirteen thousand species of flatworms. I don’t care for flatworms much, but I like to look at snowflakes up close. Every snowflake that falls is different! Every kind of tree has a unique leaf shape. Why does God create such abundance? It’s not practical or necessary; enough is enough, you or I would say. No one person will ever see or appreciate all those species of trees, leaves, flatworms or snowflakes. God is unbelievably generous with life on this earth. He scatters seeds everywhere, and we are constantly surprised.

This parable gets interpreted in the same way, most of the time. Typically, preachers tell you that the types of soil stand for different kinds of believers. Worldly people, for instance, are like the hard-packed path, where God's Word can’t take root and birds fly down to steal the seeds. The rocky soil stands for people with too many obstacles to being faithful believers. The weedy soil represents the people whose faith burns as bright as the sun for a little while, but dims and fades away like the sunset. We might say that the people of the weedy soil, talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

The good soil is supposed to represent the people who hear the word of God and grow in their faith. These are the only people who will produce a harvest for Christ. So the message is: we must always be good soil!

When I hear that I need to always be good soil, I get nervous. “I'm not good enough soil,” I think. I do the things I don't want to do, and leave undone many things I should do—even though I am a pastor. “Being good soil” seems a lot like being a member of the Clean Plate Club.

But soil doesn’t make itself better. Someone has to clear the soil of rocks and weeds. It has to be tilled. Nutrients have to be added to the soil, in order to make it fertile. Soil can't make itself good. What’s more, God scatters the Word so randomly, we can never tell how seed will fall, or where it might take root. Only God can control the outcome of sowing. It’s not up to us.

One of my preaching professors told us a story about a woman named Grace who was a generous and loving teacher. She ran an arts and crafts studio. Grace was so good, she had a waiting list of people who wanted to study art with her. One day a young woman appeared at her shop with her son, Michael. Michael had a muscular disease so severe it had left him paralyzed to the point that he couldn’t even speak. "Grace," Michael's mother said, "we have just come from the clinic and the doctor says that Mike he needs to learn how to do something with his hands. Would you be willing to teach Michael to do some of the things you do?" Grace quickly replied, "Well I'm sorry, but I have a waiting list, and I can’t teach Michael. I just don't have the time." But later that day, Grace thought it over, and decided she ought to work with the boy.

Michael came in the next day and Grace gave him a frame to make a potholder—the kind you probably had as a kid at summer camp. The frame has pegs all around it in the shape of a square, and you use elastic bands stretched between the pegs so you can weave pieces of cloth up and down to make a potholder. When it’s almost done, you knot the loops together around the edges. Grace gave Michael a frame and some elastic bands. She showed him how it was done, and said, "Now, Mike, try to make yourself a potholder.'"

Michael's hands weren't strong enough at first. He would pull an elastic band half way across, but then he couldn't hold it, so it would snap back. Every time he tried, he would fail. And that little task, which was supposed to take an hour or so, took Michael several days. Day after day, he struggled. A week went by. Grace wondered if she was hurting Michael, more than helping him. Why should she keep setting this poor boy up for failure? But something made the two of them persist. Then, one day, Michael did it. First one band slipped over the peg, then the second one was a little easier and it slipped over the peg. The third one was easier than that, and by the end of the afternoon Michael had made a potholder. When the boy’s mother came to pick him up, he gave it to her as a gift. Then Michael motioned Grace to give him the pad and pencil on her desk. He scrawled a message on it, which said, "I'm proud of myself." Grace had been good soil. She had given time, skill and love to teach Michael, and God’s seed had yielded an abundant harvest. God is a better judge of soil than we are. Grace didn't scurry around trying to become good soil for God. She practiced patience and kindness. She let things follow their own course. In the end, it worked!

I’m not sure I can make myself into good soil for God’s seed. The word has fallen on rocks sometimes, for me. Sometimes it just gets blown away with the wind. I get discouraged by the dandelions and the crabgrass in my life. My hope rests in that wasteful sower. God keeps throwing seeds my way, and He finds good soil in me once in a while. That’s what gives me hope that I may someday bear a Kingdom harvest.

Let us pray. Lord of the harvest, teach me to be a reckless sower. Encourage all of us to scatter the gospel seed in unlikely places, because you alone know where good soil lies. Help us to listen well, and to open our hearts before you. Plant in us the seeds of kingdom harvest, we pray in Jesus’ name. AMEN

William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 58.

Tom Long, “Tape #7: Thursday Morning Bible Study,” August 4, 1994, Massanetta Spring Bible Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.

“Not Yet Shining like the Sun”
July 17, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Kids sometimes surprise us, the way they turn out. Did you know that Albert Einstein was badly misunderstood in his childhood? When Einstein was nine years old, the school principal told the boy’s parents that their son was mentally disabled and would never be able to hold a job. Historians believe that young Einstein was dyslexic. That’s why he couldn’t learn in a traditional school environment. Now many call Einstein the greatest physicist who ever lived.

Guess which two students were voted “LEAST Likely to Succeed” at the 1952 graduation at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts? The legendary actors, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman! I’m sure we’ve never heard of any of their “more-likely-to-succeed” classmates! 

You can’t size up people, or even parables, just by looking on the surface. They are too complicated. Matthew explains this story, beginning with verse 36: we are the wheat, and the children of evil are weeds. These aren’t the words of Jesus, according to scholars. Most scholars think Matthew added the explanation of this story much later to make it easier to understand. But there’s hidden meaning here.

This parable gives us a taste of the heavenly kingdom. The ancient Middle Eastern culture was far from heavenly. Palestine in 70 A.D. was a revenge-oriented society. People felt helpless under the reign of the Roman emperor, and they took their rage out on each other. Family feuds were common. Every family in Palestine had another family that was out to get them. The story of the wheat and the weeds is based on these constant fights and nasty tricks.

Every parable has a twist. The twist to this story is the fact that the landowner wins out by seeming to do nothing at all when the enemy sabotages his harvest. He doesn’t retaliate. He doesn’t pull weeds. He doesn’t even gnash his teeth. And God is pleased. God seems not to care that the Devil plants weeds.

Here’s the deeper question this story poses: "Why does evil exist?" There are three classic answers to that question:
• God is not good, so evil exists. We don’t want to believe this.
• God is good, but isn’t powerful enough to destroy evil. We don’t like this one, either.
• God is good…and good always has enemies.

I like the third choice. That’s Jesus’ message in this story. There is a power that opposes God and plants weeds. Our Property Committee members who were here Friday, at 8 in the morning, know this all too well; they pulled weeds from the front garden of the church for a couple of hours! Some of them had just weeded last week, but you couldn’t tell. When Jesus talks about the weeds the Devil has planted, he’s referring to a plant named darnel. Darnel was poisonous, but it was biologically related to wheat and looked almost the same. It was hard to tell wheat and darnel apart without pulling both plants from the ground and destroying the entire crop.

In the parable, the enemy has come and gone, and created the worst possible nuisance for the landowner. The weeds are soaking up water and sun, and destroying his crop. So if God is good, why does He allow evil to exist? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He zap the Devil? I know that many of you have experienced times in your lives when weeds have threatened to wipe out the good crops. Weeds can be people or natural disasters, disease, or stressors like financial reversal. The weeds rise up out of nowhere, and they threaten to choke the life out of us. Do weeds serve a purpose? Sure! Weeds remind us what is, and what isn’t, evil. They remind us that evil does exist, and that it won’t go away in our lifetimes. Several people have given me "bad examples,” not to follow! One of the worst was a library supervisor I worked with. She got her staff to work hard by having temper tantrums. She bragged to everyone that the library “wasn’t paying her to be nice!” Have you grown from having a horrible boss?

And then there was the school nurse in 1954. I was a sensitive kid with poor vision. I was nearsighted but didn’t wear glasses yet. As I tried read the eye chart in her office, and couldn’t even see the first line, she kept saying, “That is AWFUL! That is just terrible!” I was in third grade, and so ashamed! I thought poor vision was all my fault.

How can we guard against becoming weeds ourselves? Unfortunately, we can’t! None of us are perfect. Martin Luther put it best when he said, in Latin, that humans are simul justus et peccator. That’s Latin for, "at the same time saint and sinner." We faithful Christians are wheat, but sometimes we behave suspiciously like weeds. We judge one another so casually. Imagine a school having an award for the “Least Likely to Succeed.” How cruel.

We’re all weeds to somebody else. The interesting thing about today’s parable is that we don’t know who, or what, is a stalk of wheat, or a weed. Only God knows! The principal of Einstein’s school, all those years ago, thought the boy was a weed. Dustin Hoffman’s fellow students thought HE was a weed. And Paul Newman—imagine classifying HIM as a weed. But people did. It isn’t our task to judge people different from us. We aren’t God.

Some of you have told me how other Christians have judged you as a weed, because you didn’t meet their expectations. I judge people, too. I don’t like to see a lay reader standing in the pulpit, wearing flip flops and cut-off jeans. Maybe that’s petty of me. In my home church in New Jersey, some women in my congregation complained because a high school boy wore a baseball cap to worship. He was in the Sunday School class I taught. After I had heard this complaint a few times, I told them that the boy had just had his head shaved for brain surgery. When they heard this, they were sorry.

Jesus is saying that "nothing" is the best response to evil behavior. How can that be? The Greek word, aphete, that the landowner uses to tell his slaves to leave the weeds alone, also carries the meaning, "to forgive." The Lord’s Prayer tells us to "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Forgive, as Christ did on the cross. Don’t attack the weeds. Don’t try to pull them up by their roots. Don’t even try to confront them. Trying to remove weeds does more harm than good.

I see some of you raising your eyebrows. If we do nothing in the face of evil, isn’t that like giving the Devil permission to do anything he wants? God gave humans free will. We are free to live the way we choose. As God forgives us, we are also called to forgive. This is a matter of degree. We should never ignore the ruthless behavior of an Adolf Hitler or an Osama Bin Laden.

The landowner in this story wins a place in heaven by doing nothing. Are we to do nothing? That’s not what the parable says! It’s a call to action. The forces of good mustn’t give up. It isn’t easy being wheat in a world of weeds. But the best solution is still God’s solution: to forgive other people, even when it upsets us. Forgiveness is active, not passive. Jesus wants us to sow wheat and bear fruit. God is the only one who can reap the kingdom harvest. The sun is shining. Our field is the world, and we have planting to do!

Let us pray. O God, we give thanks that your way is not our way. In your wisdom, you have called us to be your church. We look for enemies. You engage suffering. We seek relief. You overcome evil, in your own time. We try to judge prematurely. Help us to be, and to grow, good seed. Help us to be as patient with one another as you are with us. In Christ’s name, AMEN

“Einstein, Albert,” The Reader’s Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and others (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 328-9.

Michael Barran, “Exegesis of Matthew,” Lectionary Homiletics, June-July 2008, 62.

John Pilch, “The Season of Pentecost,” New Proclamation 2005, Year A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 144.

“Wheat and Weeds Together,” Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1, 2008, 90.

Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 458.

Sakae Kubo, A Reader’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 13.

“God’s Vantage Point”
July 24, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Romans 8:26-39

Jesus loves the little children. I can imagine Him smiling as He listens to children’s prayers. It’s hard not to admire the honest questions children ask when they pray. Here are some real examples of questions kids have asked God:

* Dear God: Why isn't Mrs. God's name in the Bible? Weren't you married to her when you wrote it?

* Dear God: Why did you make people talk foreign languages? It would be easier if everybody could talk English like you and me.

* Dear God: If you made the sun and the moon and the stars you must have had lots of equipment.

* Dear God: How come you only have ten rules, and our school has millions?

* Dear God: When you made the first man, did he work as good as we do now?

* Dear God: There were no clouds Saturday so I think I saw your feet. Did I really?

* Dear God: I know there's a God because I go to His house on Sunday and see all the cars parked there.

* Dear God: Where does yesterday go? Do you have it?

* Dear God: I'm afraid of things at night more than in the day. So if you could keep the sun on longer that would be a good thing. 

God is with us, and faithful children understand that. We adults have a harder time praying than children do. The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing, but we aren’t sure how. We’ve all memorized a few prayers, but it’s not a matter of having the words in our heads. It’s challenging for us jaded adults to approach God in prayer. We have complicated problems. We have powerful emotions that we don’t express well. The Apostle Paul acknowledges his own problems with praying, in today’s epistle reading.

We’re like children in one important way. When we pray, we usually have questions for God. John read a verse to us that makes some Christians raise their eyebrows: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

How can Paul say that disasters always turn out for the best? That they are good for us? Tell that to the people left homeless by the gas explosion in Allentown last winter, or the people who lost loved ones on 9/11, or the people whose children died in the youth camp in Norway on Thursday.

We can hardly stand any more bad news. Even our pioneer and immigrant ancestors in this country never saw as much disaster as we read about in the newspaper every day: an earthquake here, famine there, turmoil in North Africa, crime in the Lehigh Valley. For most of us, the simple faith we had as children has worn off. If all the good that people of faith have done in this world, gets undone by evil, why should we do any good at all?

It’s important to understand what Paul isn’t saying about good and evil. He isn’t saying that earthquakes or explosions or murder are good, or that God causes them to happen. What he is saying is that God can work for good in all things—that God intermingles joy and sorrow, beauty and pain, harmony and terror over a long period of time. Can you look back over your life and see God’s hand moving over it, even in your darkest moments?

In today’s New Testament reading, Paul says that Christian faith gives believers spiritual energy. By learning to communicate with God, a faithful person can find serenity in the most threatening conditions. We grow in faith and in grace, even though that growing is painful. Paul saw his own suffering as the very scene of Christ's victory. It’s easy to believe in God when our lives are going well. Paul’s life hardly ever went well. He was stoned and imprisoned and shipwrecked. And yet, he stayed faithful. How did he do it? He let go of his grip on the world, and prayed often, and that’s how he got a grip on God’s grace.

I confess to you that I feel sad about how hard life has turned out to be. Childhood was carefree for me. I left my home town when I graduated, and lost track of almost everyone from high school. After finding old friends on the Internet lately, I have learned how many of them have tragically lost children, or gotten arrested, or married the wrong people and lived to regret it. How little of this we imagined when we threw our caps in the air at graduation. Reunions get sadder as we get older. And yet, our perspective on forty-five or fifty years is a lot shorter than the vantage point of God. “A thousand ages in thy sight is like an evening gone!,” as we sang to God in our first hymn today.

Bible stories show how God has worked in history to save us. When Abraham and Sarah prayed, in their old age, they had a son. Joseph saved his family from starvation, and Moses was able to lead his people out of bondage. The gospel story gives us hope, too. When the disciples were in the boat on the lake and the storm blew in, when Peter lost confidence, Jesus was there to keep him from sinking. When people came to Jesus on the lakeshore and had no food, He found a way to feed them. When He healed children, when He brought Lazarus back to life, Jesus took hold of believer’s lives and never let go. Jesus is God’s greatest gift to us.

We cannot be separated from God. Prayer opens up communication with God; he taps us on the shoulder all the time, even if we don’t respond. He is the searcher of hearts, as Paul writes. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, even in the middle of our own personal disasters. Especially then! God doesn’t stand apart from our pain, but sends Jesus to dwell in the middle of it. Christ never leaves us, no matter the height, the depth, the things to come, the threat of war or death. No matter how lost or confused we may feel, Jesus won’t go away. Christ died on a cross to show us how to live.

Have you ever made a hook rug or a tapestry? My mother made a needlepoint piano bench cover, and it’s really beautiful on the outside—but ugly underneath. All the knots looked lumpy and messy when she was starting out. Now that it’s on the bench, you can’t see the bottom anymore. Think of your life as a tapestry that isn’t finished. We see the knots and loose strings on the underside, but the beautiful pattern is visible from the opposite vantage point.

The question Paul leaves us with today isn’t, “Why does God allow such suffering?" He asks us: "Can God use our pain and suffering to shape salvation—and can we, as Christians, help with that?"

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, help us to approach you in the right way. Give us an open, teachable spirit. Give us the courage to hear what you have to say to us, and, in hearing your will, help us to act upon your will for our lives. Keep reaching out to us, Lord, and keep revealing yourself, we pray. AMEN

Romans 8:28.

Hymn 78, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” The Worshiping Church, verse 4.

“Changed By A Living God”
July 31, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Genesis 32:22-31

Sometimes life seems to overpower us. When that happens, we may feel that God is trying to pick a fight. Jacob felt that way. He was camping out alone on the riverbank, and couldn’t sleep. He had just received word that his brother Esau was coming to attack him with four hundred men. Many years ago, Jacob had taken advantage of his twin brother, and now he was scared out of his wits. He was in danger and he needed help!

Throughout his life, Jacob had been ambitious and sneaky. His name means, “he who overreaches” in Hebrew. No matter what situation he found himself in, Jacob had always found a way to come out on top. But now, all alone by the river with Esau’s army getting ready to attack him, his good luck seemed to be running out. Jacob and his twin brother had never gotten along. When they were born, Esau had come out first, so Jacob had grabbed his brother’s heel, trying to yank his twin back so that he could be born first instead. And as the years went by, Jacob kept on grabbing. In fact, Jacob grabbed his brother’s birthright. Because he was a few minutes older than Jacob, Esau had been entitled to two-thirds of the family’s wealth, and Jacob, the other third. But one day, when Esau had walked home from a day of hunting, he had been very hungry. He had seen Jacob cooking stew. When Esau had asked for some of it, Jacob had answered that he’d hand over a bowl of stew to his brother, in return for Esau’s share of the inheritance. Esau had foolishly agreed to the bargain and reached for the stew. That’s how Jacob had grabbed the family fortune.

Later, Jacob had stolen, from his brother, the blessing that rightly belonged to him. Jacob had tricked their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing reserved for the oldest child. Jacob did that by covering his body with animal fur to look and feel like Esau. So when Jacob went up to Isaac, and his father reached out and put his hands on him, Isaac had assumed he was touching Esau. That’s how Jacob got his father’s blessing in disguise.

Would you blame Esau for being angry – or Jacob, for feeling guilty? And so when Jacob had heard his brother’s plans for revenge, Jacob had run for the hills. He’d ended up way up north in Mesopotamia. In that land, Jacob had lived with his uncle Laban, who was as much of a con man as Jacob. Laban had made a deal with Jacob for his younger daughter’s hand. “Work for me for seven years, and then I’ll give you Rachel as your wife,” he had told Jacob. For seven years, Jacob had tended his uncle’s flock.

But on the wedding day, Jacob lifted the bride’s veil and discovered that he hadn’t married Rachel. At the last minute Laban had switched brides, and given Jacob the older daughter instead. She was not so beautiful as Rachel. Jacob said, "Uncle Laban, what have you done?” Laban replied, “Work for me for another seven years, and then you can have Rachel, too." Jacob reluctantly agreed.

Jacob had gotten revenge against his uncle. He’d worked out a bargain with him, dividing up the livestock they had. As time went by, Jacob’s share of the flock had kept getting larger until he ended up a wealthy man. Laban hadn’t done as well.

Leaving his uncle behind, Jacob and his family headed home. As he passed through Edom, a land Esau controlled, Jacob sent messengers to Esau with peaceful greetings. But the messengers brought back a report that Esau was headed out to meet Jacob with a huge army. Kindness was not going to work.

And so Jacob sent Esau an impressive peace offering--hundreds of sheep and goats and camels and cows and donkeys. But, on the night before the twins were to meet in battle, Jacob was terrified. He couldn’t sleep, wondering, "Will Esau kill me? Who would blame him if he did? What scheme can I come up with to save my skin?"

And in the darkness, help did come to Jacob—in a mysterious way. An angel of God showed up and began wrestling with him. Before Jacob let go, he begged God’s angel to bless him. He wanted to hear how wonderful he was. Don’t we all want to hear this? Especially when we are under the gun! God’s angel refused. Instead, the angel asked Jacob his name. And Jacob answered, "I’m Jacob, the grabber." But the angel looked at him and said, "Not any more. From now on you are Israel – a name that means ‘the person who struggles with God.’ Instead of taking matters into your own hands, you will let God rule your life from now on.” The angel blessed him and then went away. In the name, “Israel,” Jacob found a new identity as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s journey is our journey, too. You may not have had a real wrestling match with God, but you have struggled to understand who God is, and who you are. We’ve all have been tricksters like Jacob at times. Good families struggle with rivalry and ambition all the time. Conflict sometimes hides God’s work in our lives. When God picks a fight, the way He did with Jacob, God hopes to bring out the best in us. Some of us have wrestled with God— struggling with a bad marriage or a frightening medical diagnosis. God wrestles in such a way that we have to surrender. We put our lives in God’s hands, He leads us on the path of righteousness, and we follow. When we are willing to wrestle with God, we find God’s glory shines on us, on the other side.

In the next chapter of Genesis, Esau and Jacob come face to face. But Esau doesn’t attack Jacob. He runs up to his brother and hugs him. When that happens, Jacob can’t believe it. God has been at work!

When we face problems in our own lives, we wonder, “How can I make things right?" But eventually, like Jacob, we realize that we need to wrestle with God. That’s what happens with people who want to conquer their addictions. They turn to God and put their habit into His hands, because God can make miracles we can’t make for ourselves.

Maybe you’ve heard others say, "As soon as I get my life back in order, I’ll come back to church." Doesn’t that seem like backward reasoning? If we wait, we may never end up coming back to God.

We have to put God in charge and discover His promise at work in our lives.

There are many Christians—in fact, several people in this congregation-- whose lives show the dramatic power of God to overcome hardship. Some had parents who made serious mistakes. Others have had faced tragedy. How have those people crossed over the dark river to receive God’s blessing? We don’t know much about their struggles with God, but they have survived. They have been brave enough to risk following Jesus, who was, Himself, wounded so we might receive God’s blessings. As we journey, Jacob our ancestor walks with us, and our Lord Jesus Christ leads us.

Let us pray. Gracious God, free us from the pain of our past. Challenge us to be free, and help us to lean on you. In your amazing grace, do for us, the many things we cannot do for ourselves. AMEN

Douglas B. Bailey, “An Honest and Painful Wrestling Match,” from Living on One Day’s Rations (Lima, OH:CSS, 1999. Also see Genesis 25:26.

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