Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Have Seen God Face to Face” (Genesis 32:24-31)
August 3, 2014
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I was in middle school my friends and I used to enjoy watching pro wrestling on Saturdays, featuring early 80’s legends like Mr. T, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Andre the Giant, and of course, Hulk Hogan. Afterwards we’d gather in the basement and proceed to stack mattresses, couch cushions, pillows, winter coats, and whatever else we could think of to pad the floor. Then we’d imitate the antics of the wrestlers we had just seen, leap off the furniture and wrestle one another—it was great fun, and nothing short of a miracle that we were not seriously hurt ☺.
Several years ago there was a movie called The Wrestler (2008), a moving film about a fictional pro wrestler from the 80’s named Robin Ramzinski (played by Mickey Rourke), who was two decades past his glory days. Robin found himself living hand to mouth in a trailer park, addicted to multiple pain killers, and still wrestling for small fees at various dives around the Midwest.
After seeing a screening of this film Bruce Springsteen wrote a haunting song of the same name (the final track on his 2009 album Working on a Dream) in which he sings:
Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free? If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony then you’ve seen me Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street? If you’ve ever seen a one-legged dog then you’ve seen me
Then you’ve seen me, I come and stand at every door Then you’ve seen me, I always leave with less than I had before Then you’ve seen me, bet I can make you smile when the blood, it hits the floor Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more? Tell me can you ask for anything more?
This morning’s Old Testament passage describes a different wrestling match, one involving the patriarch Jacob who, as was the case some twenty years earlier, once again finds himself alone in the wilderness at night. The writer of Genesis tells us:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip” (32:24-31).
As the day dawned after that long night Jacob emerged with a limp, a limp that remained with him for the rest of his life, a limp that reminded him from that point on that the experience he had that night was indeed real.
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses (1992), the teenage cowboy John Grady Cole is talking with a woman who is missing two fingers. When she notices his curiosity about that, she explains what happened: “I lost my fingers in a shooting accident, she said. Shooting live pigeons. The right barrel burst. I was seventeen…There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. People are curious. It’s only natural.” Then noticing a scar on John Grady Cole’s face, she continues:
I’m going to guess that the scar on your cheek was put there by a horse.
Yes mam. It was my own fault.
She watched him, not unkindly. She smiled. Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten, can they?
(John Grady replies) No mam (p. 135).
Similarly John Green writes in his more recent 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars, “The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
Every one of us bears our own scars, either external or internal. Every one of us, like Jacob, has a limp of some kind, either external or internal. These scars, these limps, remind us that the wounds we have received in life—whether our own fault or left by others— are real, and that the events that caused them can never be forgotten.
Some of the wrestling matches or battles in our lives leave scars and limps that, although we cope and move forward as best we can, remain ineffable. In the final verse of his brilliant song, The Boxer, Paul Simon describes this:
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the remainders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
(from the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water).
But there is something else that is also real, something else that is also ineffable, something else that still remains…the love of God in Jesus Christ.
It has been said that “God will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.”
Why does God do that?
Because it is in the very places where you bear scars, in the very places where you limp, where God wants to minister the redeeming power of his love.
Back to Jacob’s wrestling match…in addition to receiving an injury that resulted in a permanent limp, Jacob also receives a new name from God: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
The name Jacob means “Deceiver,” and that describes Jacob’s entire life up to that point, for throughout his life he had deceived people, especially his family, again and again—but the name “Israel” means something entirely different: “Prince of God.”
And not only does God give Jacob the new name of Israel, God also blesses him.
And as the sun rose, yes Jacob had a limp, but he also had a new name and the blessing of Almighty God—and the writer of Genesis tells us that “Jacob called the place Peniel (which is Hebrew for “the face of God”), saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved’” (32:30).
And this event in the life of Jacob who became Israel, the Prince of God, points us to a different event in the life of another Prince of God, Jesus Christ—and as the church father Augustine tells us, both Jacob and the one with whom he wrestled point us to Jesus Christ and the redeeming love of the cross:
“An angel wrestled with (Jacob), representing Christ; and while he wrestled, though the angel surpassed Jacob in strength, he still seemed to succumb to him, and Jacob to prevail. In the same sort of way the Lord Christ too succumbed to (sinners); they prevailed when they killed him…(but) precisely when he was overcome, he overcame for us…because when he suffered, he shed the blood with which he redeemed us…O grand and splendid mystery! Overcome, he blesses, just as having suffered, he sets free; that is when the blessing was completed” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. II, 219).
Scripture tells us that God gives us a glimpse of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
And in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, in his own internal wrestling match in the middle of the night, fell on his face (Matthew 26:29), and later others spit on and struck that same face (Matthew 26:67).
And on the cross Jesus Christ atoned for all the events which have left the scars and limps you bear—whether your fault or someone else’s—and his blood ran from cross and “hit the floor” so that when it comes to the love of God for you, “can you ask for anything more?”
And even today the Risen Lord bears the scars of the cross, scars that remind us that the love of God is indeed very real.
And Jesus gives you a new name—you are Princes and Princesses of God.
And Jesus blesses you—especially in the places where you bear scars or limp.
One more illustration…John Henry Newton was an 18th century slave trader who oversaw the infliction of many wounds that left many permanent scars—and he no doubt carried his own scars as well—but Newton experienced the unconditional love and forgiveness of God and had a radical conversion to Christ.
As you probably know his most famous hymn is Amazing Grace, but Newton also wrote another powerful hymn, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, the second verse of which encourages us when we like Jacob, find ourselves wrestling in the night:
See! The streams of living waters, springing from eternal love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint, when such a river ever will their thirst assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the giver, never fails from age to age (Hymn 522 in The Hymnal 1982).
So be encouraged you Princes and Princesses of God, the never-failing grace of God guarantees that in spite of all your scars and all your limps, your life, like Jacob’s, will be preserved, and in heaven you too will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and with his own scarred hands Jesus will wipe every tear from your eyes (Revelation 21:4).