Genesis 21.8-21; Genesis 22.22-32
In today’s texts we have the stories of two quite different encounters with God: Hagar in the wilderness at the point of despair, receiving the water she needs to keep her son and herself alive; and Jacob, wrestling for a blessing, which he does receive, but only alongside an injury. Neither of these are, perhaps, typical of what we might think of when we think about meeting God. But one thing the many and varied stories of scripture teach us is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model of encounter with the divine.
When I was a little girl, I went to a Church of England primary school. This is where I first heard about God, and first encountered the idea that God is someone you could have a relationship with, could communicate with. It was where I first came across the idea of prayer. At my primary school, we were given a very clear idea of how prayer should happen. Prayers were to begin “Dear God”, they were to end “Amen.”, and – and this was very thoroughly impressed upon us – they were to include the words “thank you” and/or “please”. This is how I was taught to approach God – it was important to get it right, and important to be polite.
And, of course, those please and thank you prayers have a place in my prayer life still, although perhaps not in such rigid forms. But they are not the be all and end all of the life of faith. Certainly they are a far cry from the sort of encounter with God which we see in today’s stories. These are not nice, polite, scripted interactions between God and God’s people. They are desperate, raw, real encounters between the awesome and merciful power of God and the frailty of human lives. And they can teach us something about our own encounters with God.
Let’s look at Hagar first. She is desperate at this point in the story – really desperate. Driven out of her home, and now with her son at the point of death, she has nobody to turn to. So what does she do? She does not compose a nice “Dear God… please… Amen” prayer. It is not clear that the words she does speak – “Do not let me look on the death of my child” – are addressed to God at all, or indeed to anyone. They are the distressed cry of a desperate woman. Watching the news recently, of refugees making dangerous sea crossings, of the explosion in Beirut, of the continuing devastation caused by Covid-19 around the world – I wonder how many parents might be uttering those same words. Hagar does not ask God for anything. And yet God acts, and acts in a way which she could never have expected, providing the lifesaving resource of water, or perhaps opening Hagar’s eyes to a resource that was already there – the text is unclear on this point.
And then there is Jacob, wrestling all night with this mysterious stranger, who is perhaps an angel, a messenger from God, or perhaps is God. Either way, as Jacob wrestles, this strange dialogue takes place. There are no ‘please’ and ‘thank you’s here either, although there are certainly demands. Jacob asks for a blessing and the stranger replies by asking his name, and giving him a new one: Israel. Jacob asks the stranger’s name, and instead of answering he gives Jacob the blessing he had asked for before. It’s a curious conversation, and certainly a long way from how we might have been taught as children to think about “talking to God”.
But the God we see in these stories, and throughout much of scripture, is altogether more complicated than the God of the children’s prayer book who awaits our polite requests and grants them. And our relationship with God is, or has the potential to be, far more complex too – richer and deeper, encompassing every aspect of life.
In the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, we see a God who does not wait to be asked, a God whose saving action does not rely on politely phrased requests. This is the God who hears our despair even when we can’t put it into words, and who is still present and active when the situation seems to us to be too far beyond hope even to pray about it.
In the story of Jacob wrestling, we see a God who does not give us easy answers, but who allows us to grapple and wrestle with who God is and who we are in relation to God. This is the God who has room for the difficult questions, space for us to bring all our doubts and wonderings. This is the God who responds to our demands – but not in the ways we expect. This too is the God who does not allow us to remain unchanged.
There is a strand of Christian thought that wants to iron out the difficult parts of life, to package faith – and by extension God – into a nice neat framework. But I don’t think God is like that. I don’t think life is like that. And I don’t think the life of faith can, or needs to, duck the tough questions like that. We live in a complex world, and we lead complex lives, and God is big enough to deal with it all.
When we find ourselves pushed beyond our capacity to cope, when we reach a point of desperation, God will meet us there in unexpected ways. Not to solve our problems or make it all ok, but perhaps just to nudge us towards what we need for the next step, the next breath, the next moment. When we find ourselves wrestling with big decisions or difficult questions, problems that seem unsolvable, God will be right there wrestling with us, and even as we wrestle, we will be blessed in strange and unexpected ways which change us forever.
When we think of meeting God, it is tempting to think of drawing apart from our everyday lives, in search of beauty, peace or inspiration. And there is a time and a place for that. But these stories, and so many others like them, inspire us to keep alert to the presence of God in the ordinary, God in the tough stuff, God in the uncertainty. God does not wait for our polite requests or our set-aside times, but comes to meet us, to bless us, and to transform us in all the difficult, glorious, grace infused, human mess of our lives.
This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.