Sermon for Sunday, 2 August 2020

By Professor Steve Smith

Hi, my name’s Steve Smith, and I’ve been asked by Ernesto just to give a ten- or fifteen-minute reflection on this book I’ve just finished. The book’s called Wrestling ’til Daybreak, and it has a subtitle, rather a long subtitle, called A Spiritual Guide for Disconnected Christians and Other Questioning Journeyers. So, I thought I’d just start by reading the first couple of paragraphs from the introduction, just to give you a flavour as to what we’re exploring, and then unpack a little bit some of the main themes of the book so you can get a sense of where I’m wanting to come from. And hopefully it’ll be food for thought, and when you are reflecting on your own relationship with God. So, if I just read out the first couple of paragraphs and we’ll take it from there. So,

There’s a very strange story in Genesis in chapter 32: 22–32, which tells of Jacob spending the whole night alone physically wrestling with a man who turns out to be a physical manifestation of God.

However, this night-long struggle leads to God mysteriously admitting that Jacob has overcome him, but then also to God incapacitating Jacob by dislocating his hip. Jacob’s incapacitation results in his blessing at daybreak and Jacob being renamed Israel, which means, according to some Bible translations, ‘He struggles with God’.

The main starting point then of the book, being the second of a trilogy, is that, like Jacob, we too should participate in struggling with God in all areas of our lives. Now, too often, wrestling with our creator is seen in Christian circles at least as indicating spiritual weakness and a lack of faith, when often the opposite is true. And this struggle, I believe, can show the committed engagement of us critically reflecting, and self-consciously questioning our relationship with God, albeit leading to a temporary disconnection from him.

Now, when participating in this struggle, we show ourselves as not being prepared to submit to quick solutions in inverted commas, to faith-based conflict, which merely imitate submission to God, rather, by struggling and wrestling with our creator through our questioning and our sense of disconnection from God. We, because of God’s love, can encounter him in new and liberating ways. Therefore, as our questioning journey with God continues, we discover against what we might expect that this struggle and disconnection ultimately brings us into closer contact with God, and how he wants us to rest more deeply in his everlasting love, peace, joy and stillness.

So, as I mentioned earlier, this is the second part of a trilogy, the first part was a book called Nine Steps to Well-Being, and with that first book I started off with the assumption that you need to hold my argument is and the kind of work this through my own personal reflections on various things that have happened to me in my life, but also my reflections on scripture. But basically, if we don’t recognise and hold fast to this basic tension between struggling and wrestling with God, I think we end up with one of two bad outcomes. So, if we are always struggling, we end up with an unceasing conflict which threatens, I think, the peace and stillness with God and what he’s promised us through his blessings and loving connection. But if we are forever trying to maintain stillness and rest with God, then we will end up having a superficial or complacent faith, I think, which denies or disguises in some sort of way the possibilities, the potential of a deepening relationship with God, which must in part come through this struggle with him as Jacob was struggling with God in his wrestling with him overnight. So, we also have this repeated again and again in our lives, too, I think. And it’s important for us to recognise this.

So, given this, the book is divided into nine chapters. And what I try to do is explore the larger tapestry of our lives, which are often characterised by this struggle, but then anticipating that out of this struggle, we get to a place which is reflecting a deeper connection with God. So there’s nine titles to the chapters and, as I say, I explore my own personal experiences and then try to connect that with my reflections on scripture and wider theological issues.

But the nine chapters are: ‘Frustration’, ‘Despair’, ‘Defiance’, ‘Solitariness’, ‘The search for meaning’, ‘The search for purpose’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Sin’ and ‘Death’.

So what I try to do is explore these different aspects, if you like, of our experience, which can often be characterised by struggle, and then start thinking about how through that struggle, through that disconnection from God, we might understand our relationship with God in a more deep and profound way. And my argument is – my experience is – that we experience God through this struggle, which then allows us to connect with what is often a mysterious and unfathomable character, very mysterious and unfathomable will and purpose as well in our lives, but that we must hold that as being mysterious and unfathomable so we can make sense of the limits of our understanding of the lives that we lead. So, I recommend that we should hold fast to this tension between wrestling and resting with God, but out of that, we should expect that we should engage in a liberating and transforming power of God that should take root in our lives.

OK, so just with that in mind, one of the other themes of the book, which is underpinning a lot of what I explore, is how we might understand God in this capacity – how we might understand God and his relationship with us in this capacity, bearing in mind Jacob’s story and his wrestling with God through the night, and that this wrestling happened, as it were, as part of how Jacob became more close and intimate with God. Because often we think of the possibility of us struggling with God, and many commentators, of course, have talked about how we must struggle with God in some form or another question and push. But one of the arguments really is that what God is doing with us in those times is not kind of putting up with our questioning or looking at our questions, as it were, from afar, and working with us, as it were, from a distance with these questions and with this capacity to struggle.

My experience is that God actually wants us to get into that place of struggle, that this is where intimacy with God is borne out. This is where it happens often is within this struggle. The mistake, I think, in our thinking is often that the struggle is, as it were, a reflection of our brokenness or a reflection of our inability to properly get close to God, that we have to struggle with him because we’re confronted with a world that’s very difficult to get to grips with, challenges, our experiences and so on. And this is all true for sure. But I think my other thought here, in the middle of all of this, is that even if that wasn’t true, God would still want us to struggle with him in this kind of way, because struggle of the wrestling kind that we see in relation to Jacob is central to building up an intimate relationship with God, where we push against God and he pushes against us, and that we in those moments become closer to him. You know, if we can imagine and picture what’s happening with Jacob wrestling with the physical manifestation of God during that night, we’re left with a very powerful image, a very strange image. But I think we’re also left with an image that was very intimate as well. That this reflects the closeness of Jacob’s relationship with God and that his renaming ,of God’s renaming of Jacob to Israel, is telling, if we’re to take some of the translations, like the New International Version, for example, as Israel, meaning ‘he struggles with God’, then we’re also seeing that the name that gets awarded, as it were, to God’s chosen people, is also very centrally concerned with this idea of struggling with God.

Now, what I want to just finish with really in these thoughts is how we might understand a God who’s able to engage in this kind of relationship with us. And I think the starting point, the Christian starting point, is that what we’re believing in, as Christians, is that we are following and trusting in Christ, who is God, in the form of a physical person. So we not only believe, if you like, in the infinite, we also believe that the infinite is become the finite in Christ. That this is the kind of orthodox template, the incarnation, which is at the heart of the Christian message. And, of course, it’s been in many ways changed. And many Christians would wonder about this and try to make it, I think, quite a much more manageable package to see Jesus is a reflection of God, but not a manifestation of God. But I think this actually – this move, is a mistake. And I think it’s a mistake because it misses what’s actually going on when God seeks to empathise with his creation, which includes our experience of struggle. Because, going back to my earlier point that struggle is not just a manifestation of our brokenness, it’s not just a manifestation of how we struggle with a world that’s damaged and struggle with ourselves that are damaged., what we also see is that Christ struggled with God. Christ struggled with his own identity in the context of how he lived his life here on Earth, which in the first instance sounds jarring because it seems to indicate that there’s something possibly wrong. But that’s already based on this mistaken premise that struggling with God is somehow flawed. It’s part of our flawed character, because if we are to see Christ as unflawed because he is God, then how do we get to this idea that he is struggling with himself and struggling with his own identity in the context of struggling with God the Father? But to me, in Scripture and in my life, I see this struggle being manifested in a range of different ways. And what I see in Christ is, permission, if you like, to struggle in this way, and what I want to focus on just to finish these reflections is what Christ cried out on the cross as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, in Matthew 27: 46.

He cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Why have you left me alone? Why have you abandoned me? That’s what’s behind that cry – it’s not a sanitised cry. It’s a desperate cry on the cross. And it’s a question as well. It’s a question which comes out of a place of struggle, bearing in mind that he, Christ, was struggling massively in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was feeling the pain and anticipating the pain of the crucifixion. But he was also feeling grieved as a result of anticipating the pain of the crucifixion. He was already, as it were being, had been abandoned by his disciples. And now we see this crying out. Why God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Which is on the cross. And that cry of despair, that cry of defiance in many ways, that cry of suffering, that cry of sadness, of abandonment is at the heart of human experience.  And that, paradoxically, is where God wants us to be, to be able to receive the fuller blessing of God.

The place of humility and submission to God’s will must in the first place come out of this cry on the cross as we cry out every day, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And, going back to this tension between the idea of resting with God versus struggling with God, then we’re also faced when Jesus cries out, why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you left me alone when he’s on the cross? We’re also reminded that that cry is also found in Psalm 22; in the first verse of Psalm 22. And Jesus obviously knew that when he was crying, that he was articulating his own pain, but he was also articulating the pain of generations of people that cry out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Why have you left me alone?

Now, that is the place of struggle, but it’s interesting to note, too, that Psalm 22 is right next to obviously Psalm 23. And Psalm 23 is that famous psalm, isn’t it? ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me to quiet waters’, etc. What you see with Psalm 23 is this idea of resting with God, where God takes you to green places, which takes you to places where you can quench your thirst, where you can trust in being with God, where he takes you through the trouble, through the valley of the shadow of death, where he protects you, where he will danger as well with many blessings as we go towards the end of Psalm 23. And for me, it’s very poignant that Psalm 22, which begins with that cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Is put alongside Psalm 23, which is where we rest with God, where we trust God, where God is the place where we can sigh and let go and be a place where we can feel loved and secure.

And it’s not a mistake, I don’t think that these two psalms are together and it’s indicative of how we must hold this tension. That it’s not that we must side for Psalm 23 and not 22 or vice versa, we must hold both psalms in tension as we must hold both our struggling and our rest together. Assured that we have a God who has become one of us, that the empathy that that demonstrates is that we can trust in a God who knows what it is too, to struggle and knows what it is to ask the big questions, and we should not therefore be afraid to ask the big questions of God, any question in that struggle. But at the same time anticipate a wonderful creative liberation and peace that comes from that struggle. So, the big Christian claim then, is that God, in his love for us, understands us all the way down, so to speak, because he’s become one of us. And for Christians, a God who hasn’t done this is self-evidently lesser than a God who has.

And so, in the middle of our struggle, we can also be assured that God knows exactly what that feels like and that’s where the intimacy in large part is born. Which allows us then to enjoy the many, many blessings that God wants to give us.