Scripturally speaking, this is not the week for appreciating the joys and comforts of God’s presence; or resting in the peaceful protective valleys of God’s mercy. This week’s God, as we jump through the Jacob-through-Joseph section of Genesis, seems abrupt, mysterious and demanding in interactions with the major characters as we continue on to the Egyptian captivity and the Moses story. A God who breaks in every once in awhile, alternately fearsome and blessing, choosing humans who are no great models of sanctity, to keep the promise made to Abraham.
And does the Gospel we hear this week offer us Good News? We hear from a frank and uncompromising Jesus who himself has been learning the score: I have chosen you. I am sending you out to preach and heal and announce the kingdom of God. You are my Apostles. Go. Take nothing with you that offers any security, trust that you will be given what you need to witness, and be ready for a less-than-warm reception. You will be argued with and rejected and ejected. I’ll be with you, God will empower you, but you aren’t going to have an easier time of it than I have.
Wow. Isn’t it wonderful to be called by God? Do you get the impression that being chosen for God’s work – as in “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” – doesn’t exactly promise peace and personal satisfaction, success and public adulation?
I was leading a weekend retreat in the Twin Cities. My first private visit was with Meg. She walked purposefully into the room, sat down, introduced herself and began her complaint. “I’ve been a good girl. I’ve believed in Jesus and tried to keep the rules and follow his ways and to raise my family to practice the faith – and this is what I get in return.” She launched into a list of disappointments and losses, alienation from husband, troubles with children, her job, and more. And she concluded quite firmly and succinctly, “God has given me absolutely no reason to believe in him.”
For Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for Moses and the prophets, God was an unforgettable force, a commanding presence, who left little doubt about diving Otherness, and had definite ideas about the chosenness of the witnesses to announce God’s continuing promise for Israel to become a great nation. But God’s words were few and God’s revelations unexpected break-ins, and did not seem to rely on the uprightness of character or even a certain willingness. Jacob the trickster, stealing his father’s blessing, yet granted visions of angels and the promise he would become a great nation. That curious all-night wrestling match with a mysterious rival – human? Divine? Then Jacob/Israel’s sons, so jealous of their little brother that they plotted his death, threw him in a pit, finally sold him into slavery. So by this betrayal, God manages to get Joseph into Egypt and later in a famine the brothers, begging food, come to Joseph, now a high official, are forgiven, and eventually move into Egypt, lands are fruitful and multiply a bit much, setting the stage for slavery and then deliverance. Moses, having just murdered a man, is called by God from the burning bush. Worthiness, speech problems? Not an issue. You are to free your people – get moving.
The weird ways of the in-breaking of God – signs and wonders, questionable choices of human agents. And oddly this week we see the Gospel parallel. Jesus, a common carpenter, with a counter-cultural message that from the start meets argument and derision, does marvelous deeds that both win him favor with the people and hatred from their leaders, names his Apostles, none of whom we perceive as promising witnesses. He chooses them, sends them, and lets them know from the start that their journeys will not be vacations.
Hebrews and Christians alike, here’s the scenario: God has chosen me, given me my marching orders, overridden my reluctance, sent me on the way. And then God disappears, leaving me to deal with any number of troubles.
Meg’s wrestling is much more common than she might think. It’s part of discipleship. Jesus has warned us of troubles ahead. Our growth in faithfulness will require a number of trips to the mat, as we resist God’s growing larger and freer and more unexpected in our lives. We meet darkness, wander into the desert, and think we have been abandoned. We want to wrestle God down to a manageable size. We expected to be held close, in peace and tenderness, and given some applause for our efforts. But God comes and goes. So does our joy, our zeal, our surety. Meg’s complaint could be ours. “God gives me absolutely no reason to believe in him.”
Belonging to a community of faith gives us stories to grow by. We meet the unexpected, the resistance, the failures of our dreams. We berate an absent God. But we know better. And thankfully, so does God, who is ever willing to wrestle with us – and even lose! – in order that we grow in our grasp of the breadth and the length and the height and the depth of the Mystery that has chosen us.