Bishop Lanette Plambeck brings us this Ash Wednesday message, full of hope for the challenges we face in lives and our faith journeys, and illustrates it with Jacob's "wrestling match" with God from Genesis 32, as well as the struggles that John Wesley, the founder of our United Methodism, faced in his life, calling, and ministry.
Many of you know that lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It is a 40-day journey—not counting the Sundays—where we can really focus our energy, our attention, our practices on what we need to do to draw nearer to Christ as Jesus journeys toward the cross.
So, I think about the season of Lent and how we can journey alongside of one another and alongside of the Spirit as we walk with Jesus toward the cross and how we can engage in an openness that might cause some of us to enter into a wrestling season as well, where we wrestle with the way that we practice life, practice our faith. We might wrestle with regrets. We might wrestle with sin in our life. We might just have a deep sense that that God intends something better for us. And when I think about wrestling scripture, really Genesis 32 is what comes to mind; you might know about the brothers Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn and the one that had a right to inherit the birthright or the blessing of his father. And Jacob was a trickster and he tricked his father into blessing himself, Jacob, instead. And so, life had gone on. There was separation between the brothers and Jacob was returning home, and he was hoping for restored relationship. He was longing for redemption. He was seeking reconciliation and as they were getting closer to where his brother Esau was, Jacob set himself apart from others.
And he wrestled as he rested. I want you to hear the words of Genesis 32: 22-30 (CEB): “Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. The man said, ‘Let me go because the dawn is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me.’ He said to Jacob, ‘What’s your name?’ and he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won. Jacob also asked and said, ‘Tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why do you ask for my name?’ and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, ‘because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.’”
I think about this season of Lent, and when we gaze at Jesus on the cross, and how truly, that is us seeing God face-to-face, incarnate God, face-to-face. And one of the things that we can seek during this Lenten season is that blessing on our faith—that in any way that we are nominal in our practice, any way that we are nominal in our deep belief, any place that we struggle in our own faith journey and our relationship with God, others, self, and in some ways even creation, that we can lean into God during these 40 days of Lent, lean into our practices with a single desire of knowing God more deeply.
I think this emerged for John Wesley around 1735. You might remember this story, but he was traveling to Georgia with his brother. He had deep dreams of his missional work in Georgia. And there was a group on this ship with him called the Moravians, and there was a storm that occurred; there were actually many storms that he noted in his journal. But one particular storm, he was like: We’re about to lose our lives here. And then he looked at the Moravians and he wondered: How could they, even in that moment, know joy in deep devotion as they sang and prayed to God? And so, he really leaned into that practice of observing others and seeing something in them something that he longed for for himself. So he gets to Georgia– things don’t work out in Georgia the way that he had hoped that they would work out, and he went home feeling pretty dejected. He was depressed and he was not sure he could continue in ministry in the way that he was doing it because there was a gap.
So in 1737, he returns home and he’s feeling troubled and he also said despondent. He’s feeling this for a while because he’s seen in others a thing that he himself hasn’t experienced or a thing that he knows is a void in his life, And in 1738, he knew that his brother Charles had a heart-changing experience and he was lamenting to his friend, Peter Boehler, that he felt he shouldn’t even preach anymore because he felt that he was, well, an “almost Christian”—that he didn’t quite have it all figured out in the heart sort of way; he knew that there was something missing and he thought that maybe he shouldn’t be preaching, he shouldn’t be teaching, he shouldn’t be reaching others the way that that he felt compelled to because he was feeling a little bit like a fraud. And his friend Peter Boehler said: You need to keep preaching it because as you preach it, you will get it, and once you have it, you will want to preach it again and again.
Right after that, he had his Aldersgate experience where his heart was strangely warmed, and that is really where he began to talk to others about the importance of not just accepting where you are as a good enough place—that if there is a longing in you that you desire more, to pursue that intentionally so that you can, and we can, move from being an almost Christian to a full Christian. And he didn’t mean it in a judgey way; I want to say that. But he was noting that those that were living into the kind of Christianity that emerged in and through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ— there were certain marks that set them apart from others. They were marked by God’s love; they were marked by love of neighbor, even if your neighbor is someone you call enemy; and they were marked by faith and that longing or self-examination that John Wesley recognized in himself.
He would invite others, the early Methodists, into that space of self-examination as well. Nominal Christianity—again, it isn’t about being a heretic or a hypocrite, but it is that we’re going through the motions, we’re doing the things that we believe God calls us to do, but still something fills absent.
So, my friends, I would invite for you in this season of Lent to go a little deeper—go a little deeper in scripture, practice prayer, engage in communion with your friends and in conversation with your friends, get into the Adam Hamilton study, or go deeper with the sermons of John Wesley to really explore the fullness of life that’s available to us, a life that will be marked by the fruit of the Spirit, a life where we will lean into unity and that sense of who God calls us to be, together, so that we can be the witness to the world that God invites each of us to be.
Friends, I am so grateful to be serving here with you in the Dakotas and Minnesota Conferences of our beloved United Methodist Church. May these 40 days of Lent be for you healing. May they be hope-filled. And they may they be an opportunity to fully engage a life committed to personal piety and social holiness as we love one another, as we love our God, and as we express our faith, not just for ourselves, but as a witness to the world.