During the week, BBC news told the story of Maria Barnard who did a parachute jump on the birthday of her son, Morgan Barnard, who had died in the Greenvale Hotel tragedy a year ago. It was a way for her to remember and celebrate her son’s life as well as to raise funds for charity so that the pain of her grief for her son might begin to find some kind of positive expression in the world.
On Sunday evening and Monday I had a number of sermon idea’s swirling around my head. But on Tuesday morning as I was sitting in quiet meditation, a line from last weeks reading from Genesis 32 began ruminating on.
“I will not let you go until you bless me.”
I have decided that for today, we will not let go of the Jacob story until we receive another insight or blessing from it.
As one reads the series of Jacob stories, it becomes apparent that Jacob is a character who is hungry for blessings. In fact his hunger for blessings gets him into trouble in the first place when he steals his father’s blessing that was supposed to be reserved for Esau as the first-born. Jacob is like us. We all long for the blessed life.
But what happens when bad or difficult things happen to us in life? Jacob’s hunger for blessings makes him determined to receive a blessing even in what might be described as a difficult or traumatic experience. In the story, wrestling all night long with a stranger in the dark one can imagine that the character of Jacob must feel like he is in fact fighting for his life.
And if the stranger had to slipped away in the dark, one can imagine the possibility of Jacob fearing, for the rest of his life, that this dangerous adversary might return.
But in the story, Jacob does something unexpected. He asks his adversary for a blessing. In fact he refuses to let go of his opponent until he has received a blessing from him.
What could it mean to refuse to let go of one’s opponent until we have received a blessing from them?
What could it mean, like Jacob, to seek a blessing out of one of the most difficult experiences in one’s life?
The story of Jacob is not alone in communicating the idea that one might be able to receive blessings even in our most difficult of experiences. Jesus points to this as well in the beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. The beatitudes come to us unexpectedly as they turn our own systems of expectation upside down.
There’s a blessing to be found in mourning according to Jesus.
There’s a blessing to be found in being poor in spirit
There’s a blessing to be found in being meek and humble
There’s a blessing to be found even in being persecuted
What could Jesus mean when he tells us that we can find a blessing even in these negative places?
The apostle Paul also concluded that God has the ability to turn negative experiences into good. That does not mean that God willed it to happen but that God can turn it into good, like an alchemist turning base metal into gold.
He seems to have come to this conclusion based on his understanding of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus represents a moment of darkness, cruelty and torture. It represents a moment in which humanity choose darkness over light and in which violence appears to triumph over goodness. And yet Paul is utterly convinced that God has turned this most terrible act of cruelty, darkness and violence into a supreme good, and that somehow in the death of Jesus, God has used it as a moment to bring reconciliation to the world, reconciliation between enemy people, and reconciliation between people and God, and in fact in his mind, the renewal of the whole universe.
Life out of death. Hope out of hopelessness. Light out of darkness. Love out of hatred. Peace and reconciliation out of violence and torture.
For Paul there was an even more personal element to this truth of God’s ability to bring blessing out of negative experiences, for God had somehow brought good out of his own life as one who he regarded as the chief of sinners. Having sought out and murdered Christians in his narrow-minded religious zeal, God had somehow been able to bring light out of the darkness of his own life and use him as a means of spreading God’s love made known in Jesus across the then known world.
And so Paul comes to the profound conclusion that God can work through all things for good in the lives of those who love him… and even ultimately in the lives who do not yet love God, for it was for sinners that Paul believed Christ died, not for the righteous.
After a night of wrestling for his life, Jacob will not let his adversary go until he receives a blessing. Like Jesus, and Paul, the character of Jacob believes blessings can come even from unexpected places. Jacob is willing and open to finding God’s blessing even in an experience which didn't feel like a blessing at the time.
What could it mean for us to say: “I will not let you go until I receive a blessing from you?”
I get the sense that Maria Barnard, as she parachuted from a plane this week in memory of her son, in her own way was saying: “I will not let go of this grief and trauma until it becomes transformed into a blessing for others.”
I would like to end with two quotes:
“God wastes nothing – not even sin. The soul that has struggled and come through is enriched by it’s experiences, and Grace does not merely blot out the evil past but in the most literal sense “makes it good.””— Dorothy L. Sayers
“You must learn, you must let God teach you, that the only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. God will waste nothing.” Philip Brooks.