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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Monday, December 19, 2005

The God Who Waits for Us in the Darkness

(This is a sermon Ya'akov's wrestling with the heavenly Being, with lessons for us on how we may encounter God in the dark crises of our own lives).

Her name was Sophie. I can see her today as clearly as I saw her I was in my late teens. In my mind's eye she had this radiance about her that was simply supernatural. It wasn't that she was beautiful, not Sophie. She was decidedly physically unattractive. She was a single lady, the kind who forty years ago was called by the very unattractive term "spinster," which was hardly better than the even more cruel term, "Old Maid." But the last time I saw her there was a radiant beauty about her. Her radiance almost took my breath away. What was it about Sophie?

The last time I saw Sophie, I had just heard that she had been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Something about her suffering had deepened her relationship with God. Although not always, in most cases, the people who have the deepest relationships with God are people who have suffered. What is it about suffering, about the dark places of life, that tends to deepen our relationship with God?

And some of you reading this are going through personal times of darkness. How can these times of darkness become occasions when your relationship with God deepens, providing you with new strength for living, new hope for the future, new joy for the journey? How can some of you whose lives with God are "nothing to write home about" turn a corner so that your entire life is revitalized?

Today's parasha helps provide answers to these questions. Whatever our life circumstance right now, and even if we are in a very dark place, this passage can lead us to lasting transformation.

The passage concerns Jacob wrestling with the heavenly being. Through that wrestling his very identity, was changed, and he received a new name. He came out of that encounter a transformed man--and the same can be true for al of us here, if we will but pay attention to what God says to us through this text.

The story is familiar to you by now. It is here to teach how Jacob entered into a new phase of his relationship with God, with himself, and with others. The same can be true for us today. If we will put into practice the lessons of Jacob's wrestling with the heavenly being, our relationships with ourselves, with God and with each other will never be the same.

What are some of the lessons we can learn for our own lives from the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the heavenly being?

[1] God wants to wrestle with us in intimate encounter:
[2] We can encounter God intimately—mortal flesh can touch the Eternal realm. In other words, God is truly knowable.
[3] God always takes the initiative in these break-through encounters. However, it takes two to wrestle. Without our whole-hearted and persistent response, such an encounter remains nothing more than a transient superficial experience, an accidental brush against the transcendent in the midst of darkness. Mere goose flesh instead of glory.

For almost all of us, these occasions of close encounter with God come in the midst of crisis and suffering of some kind. Not all times of suffering become encounters with God, but most encounters with God come in the context of crisis and suffering. Why is this? I think the chief reason is that it is when we are really up against it, when we feel threatened, or afraid, or devastated, when we deeply and totally are consumed by a sense of need, it is then and only then that we are ready at last to give God our undivided attention. He has promised that we would seek for him and find him when we searched for Him with all our hearts. Usually, it is only when we are in deep crisis or suffering that seek him in this way.

Most of the time, the best we do with him is either pay him lip service or treat him like a convenience or add-on to our already busy lives. We shouldn’t kid ourselves here: very few of us live and act like our relationship with God is a high priority—much less our highest priority. And for that reason, most of us have at best a superficial knowledge of God. All most of us have is information and goose bumps—but nothing more.

These crises where God finally has our attention, and where we finally decide to struggle and strive to engage with the Holy One are often old, recurring themes that come back to haunt us again and again. Such was the case with Paul, whose crisis—his thorn in the flesh—was a recurring and persistent problem that plagued and distracted him. It drove him to seek the L-rd, to plead with him three times during three different seasons of prayer. You get the feeling these weren’t the kinds of prayers you toss up into the air while you’re on the run somewhere else. No, these were times of concerted, struggling, wrestling prayer.

In fact, Paul speaks of wrestling in prayer in Colossians 4:12, where he writes of his co-worker Epaphras: “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Epaphras was a man who got the message of today’s parasha, the message I am trying to give you today—the message of wrestling prayer. For him it was a habit of life. And you can be sure that this man really knew God in a deep way. And as for Paul, although he didn’t get relief from his thorn in the flesh, he did experience a break-through in his relationship with God. God told him—and Paul heard it down to the marrow of his bones—“my grace is sufficent for you for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” As a result, Paul’s life was transformed in his relationship with his thorn in the flesh—whatever it was. What had formerly been an annoying preoccupation became an occasion for praise. Look how his relationship with his affliction was transformed: “Therefore I will boast the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Messiah’s power may rest on me. That is why for Messiah’s sake I delight in weaknesses. . .in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Cor 12:8-10]. He now “boasts” and “delights” in his weaknesses that formerly caused him to cry out to God for rescue. Struggling in the darkness, like Jacob in our parasha, Paul wrestled with God in prayer, and God transformed his life. And the same could happen for each of us, that is if we truly want transformation rather than just goose bumps and data.

Paul characterizes his seasons of prayer as times he “pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” Our arenas of suffering, or dark places, our times of crisis should, as in the case of Paul and our father Jacob, drive us also to deeply and earnestly seek God—to plead with him. Do you know anything about pleading with God about your life? Most people never really do this, and they certainly do not do so as a habit of life. What is the result? The result is that at the most people have “spiritual experiences,” brushes with the numinous, but not deep encounters with the Holy One, and certainly know nothing of transformational relationship God deeply desires for all of us. And this is important: God deeply desires this for us: but we are too busy or unaware, so nothing happens. Instead of glory, the best we have is a growing heap of religious data and recollections of goose-flesh.

Let’s take a closer look at this—at the disparities in different people’s relationships with God. Every one of us on this list can find ourselves in one of the following descriptions. Which of descriptions fits you?

A. People with little or no information about God who are either not seeking more information or rejecting or suppressing the information they have,
B. People who like to accumulate spiritual information—for its own sake.
C. People who have had brushes with the supernatural, those who have had spiritual experiences which they attribute to God.
D. People who engage in various spiritual disciplines, like meditation, or even Bible reading, but who do not really engage with the Living God. The disciplines may not be wrong in themselves. Yet for these people, the disciplines fall short of the bringing them into authentic relationship with God.
E. People who have had true encounters with God but who are either too busy, too distracted, or too unaware of the possibilities to really engage with him in an ongoing transformational relationship. God wants to wrestle with them but they don’t wrestle with him.
F. People who have not only encountered God but are also engaged with him in an ongoing transformational relationship. They engage with God in holy wrestling.

Why is it that some people never reach this stage of ongoing transforming relationship? Might it be because they do not know what it is to wrestle with God? Is it possible that too many of us are satisfied with mere spiritual data? Do we just settle for spiritual experiences of one kind or another: holy goose bumps? Are such people satisfied in knowing that they were born again at such and such a time, or consider themselves to have been baptized in the Spirit at such and such a time, but in day to day life not earnestly seek after God—do not really pursue him. Is it possible too few of us know anything about really wrestling with G-d?

Is it possible we are too tired, too busy, and just not interested right now, thank you?

If this dire diagnosis is true, then, if we are lucky, some calamity will come our way, some great darkness will overshadow us, and we will suddenly feel a desperate need for God and his help. It may be illness. It may be family crisis. It may be a sudden loss of a job with no real prospect of another. It may be that we discover we have wandered far away from God in pathways of sin, and now we’re just plain scared of where we find ourselves.

Whatever it is, if we are lucky, God will let the darkness overtake us, and he will wait for us in the darkness, ready to wrestle with us. But will we wrestle with him?

What is such wrestling with God like? A few pointers.
1. Wrestling with God always involves also wrestling with ourselves and with our relationships with other people. That night Jacob was tossing and turning, wrestling concerning his own terror over Esau coming to seek him out. Jacob was struggling with himself that night, with what he had done to Esau, and with what the consequences might be for him and his family. Jacob was scared. So will it be for us: we will wrestle with God in the context of struggling with who we are and with how we have behaved toward others. These factors almost always go together. And those who continue to refuse to face the truth about themselves and their relationships with others cannot know what it means to wrestle with the Holy One.
2. Wrestling with God, like wrestling with people, frequently involves one or the other person seeming to slip away, and the other party not letting him or her do so. In such wrestling, often one or the other party will seek to slip the hold, to get away. And what always happens is that the other partner will not let the would-be escaper get away. So it is with us and God. Sometimes we try to get away from God, but he grabs hold of us and won’t let us go. And sometimes God seems to be withdrawing from us. But if we are serious about our relationship with God, we will grab him all the more tightly as if to say with our father Jacob—“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
3. Wrestling with God is not always for ourselves alone. Sometimes, like Epaphras, we wrestle with God in prayer for others and for the progress of His Kingdom.
4. In wrestling with God, we get a hand hold on God through what we know of his character and his promises and we struggle, confessing and acknowledging sin [our own or the sins of others for whom we pray], and pleading with God on the basis of his character and promises until we have a sense that he has heard—that we have prevailed and that he will answer, or that we have said all that can rightly be said, and now we must wait.
5. It is only when we learn what it is to wrestle with God for ourselves, for our Union, for our families and friends, that we can expect spiritual growth and circumstantial breakthroughs.

In the New Covenant, the Greek word used for such struggle is “agonizomai”—which is related to the modern word “agonize.” In the Greek it is a word that suggests the kind of struggle which requires the focusing of all our faculties--the investment of our whole being. It's a term used in 1 Cor 9:25, where Rav Sha'ul describes talks about the kind of focused energy he applied in his life. Look at the comparisons he uses here:

I do it all because of the rewards promised by the Good News, so that I may share in them along with the others who come to trust. Don't you know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one wins the prize? So then, run to win! Now every athlete in training submits himself to strict discipline, and he does it to win a laurel wreath that will soon wither away. But we do it to win a crown that will last forever. Accordingly, I don't run aimlessly but straight for the finish line; I don't shadow box but try to make every puhc count. I treat my body hard and make it my slave so that, after proclaiming the Good News to others, I muself will not be disqualified" [1 Cor 9:23-26].

This "submitting oneself to strict discipline" is agonizomai in the Greek--a holy agony--a concerted, focused effort. It is the same word used in Lk 13:24: "Struggle to get in through the narrow door, because--I'm telling you!--many will be demanding to get in and won't be able to. . ." It is this struggling, this pushing, this concerted effort that Paul is calling for, that Yeshua is calling for, and that Jacob exemplified in his wrestling with God.

Let's not forget the context and the lesson. Jacob wrestled with God on the darkest night of his life--a night when he was terrified of meeting his brother, when he thought he might lose everything, a night when he struggled with his relationship with himself, with Esau and with G-d. He went into that night as Ya'akov--"the one who supplants, the guy who always has an angle." He came out of it Isra'el--"the one who struggles straightforwardly with G-d and with man and prevails." His whole manner of living, his whole manner of dealing with life was changed that night. And he walked away from that encounter with a limp that reminded him his walk with himself, with others, and most of all with God was forever transformed. He was no longer Mr. Angle. He was now a man who could face anything in life head on--and prevail. And so he rose from that conflict to go and meet what he most dreaded--his sin and his brother with whom he had unfinished business.

Are you up for a transformed life? Are you interested in making a quantum leap in your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God? Are you willing for God to help you deal with the unfinished business of your life? Are you ready to wrestle, to struggle, to agonize with God? Or will you only be willing to do so after some kind of desperate darkness to fall upon you?

Whether in the light or in the dark—God waits. The only question is this: do you care enough about your life and the difference God can make in it to do some serious wrestling?

Only those who wrestle can hope to gain the prize of a transformed life--a renewed walk with God, with a limp to remind us how much we need him. The choice is up to you.

If you believe that God has been speaking to you though this conetmpation about your need to seriously wrestle with God, I am going to ask you to do just ONE thing. I want you to decide right now on a place and a time where you are going to go to be alone in the presence of God where you can read the Scriptures and pray undisturbed. You need to decide exactly when and where that will be. It should be a definite time, proportional to the crisis you are facing.

Do not postpone this: now is the time to decide to decide or to defer to indecision.