9 Pentecost, Proper 13 – August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21
This morning we have one of my favorite stories – Jacob wrestling with an angel. It is close to my heart as I am reminded of the times I have wrestled with God in my own life. And we have the miracle story – the only miracle story to appear in all 4 of our gospels – the fishes and the loaves, the feeding of the 5 thousand.
Both have a common theme in how we respond and move through difficult times. What do we do when faced with obstacles in our life? When things don’t go the way we think they should, when we are afraid of the seeming outcome?
Let’s take a look at our scripture for today. A little back story on Jacob. Jacob was the second born of twins. He came into this world with his hand grasping his brother’s heel, almost as if he was trying to pull Esau back so that he could get out ahead. His parents named him Jacob, which means to supplant or replace overthrow. This was sort of a prophetic foretaste of what kind of person Jacob would turn out to be. By hook or by crook Jacob wanted desperately to always be the winner, but he did it by trickery, scheming and grabbing what he could get.
He spent his life getting out of one tight spot and quickly ending up in another. He had become his mother’s favorite at home, swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright, and tricked his father into giving him, not Esau, the family inheritance. He becomes a fugitive when his brother essentially puts his name at the top of a hit list.
Then after 20 years Jacob wants to go back home. Back to the brother who had threatened to kill him. Back to the father he had cheated and lied to. And this is where our story picks up today. Tomorrow Jacob will stand face-to-face with the brother whom he has so grievously wronged. Will Esau receive him or kill him? Jacob is worried. He’s really worried.
“And in the night a stranger appears, and they wrestle. But in the wrestling, in the struggle, Jacob is changed. Prior to his encounter with the man in the darkness, Jacob was filled with fear and guilt about his relationship with his brother, Esau. Now he was ready to reconcile, meet his brother, who he believed to be his adversary, face to face. And as the story goes, Jacob and Esau meet and mend their broken relationship.
So why did Jacob change? What was it about his wrestling match that night on the bank of the River Jabbok that set the stage for renewed friendship with his brother? The man that Jacob wrestled with that night was none other than God. God stepped into the ring that night and met Jacob on the mat. Together they struggled and in the process Jacob’s hip was injured. When the encounter ended, Jacob was blessed, and God changed his name to Israel.
Israel means, “The one who strives with God.” People of faith are not exempt from struggle. In fact, it is during those painful experiences in life when we grow. Sometimes we are enlightened and make changes in our lives. We might even take on a new identity as did Jacob.
Our struggles are not just physical. They are mental, emotional, and spiritual. We struggle with our beliefs. We struggle with relationships. We struggle with nature’s inflexible laws. We struggle with a changing society. We struggle with a pandemic.
It has been hot and humid this summer. The extreme heat causes us to adapt. Those who resist and take no precautions may suffer from heat stroke, sun burn or even something more severe. It is impossible to resist weather. Like the man who wrestled with Jacob, the weather engages us, and we need to respond.
Up to this point, Jacob was trying to go it alone. He was resisting God, trying to hold God at bay. God, however, engages us and wants us to wrestle with the paradoxes of life. The more we live the more we learn there are no absolutes. Life seems to have ebbs and tides. Just as a boxer in a ring moves side to side and forward and back, we respond to critical life issues by leaning one way and then the other.
Jacob did not emerge from his encounter unscarred. He got a little beat up. He didn’t walk away from his encounter. He limped. But the good news is he is a new person, a changed person.
When Jacob wrestled with God he was wrestling with his own dark side. It was a battle of the “wills.” His will versus God’s. His pride and ego came into competition with faith. If he held on to the past he would live forever in fear and never be reconciled with his brother, Esau. On the other hand, by accepting his new identity he could continue forward in life with new understanding and strength and with the assurance that God was with him.
This is a story about grace, but not in the usual way. When our lives are simply a cake walk, void of conflict and struggle there is no growth; there is no wrestling with the things in life that appear unfair; there is no wondering, no exploring, no pondering. Our faith is strengthened when we struggle. We grow, and the experience creates newness and the opportunity for change, perhaps even a new identity. There will be times when God confronts us and challenges our will. We need not be afraid nor that we are being treated unfairly. There may be wounds but, like Jacob, we too can receive a blessing”. (based on a homily by the Dr. Keith Wagner)
And speaking of blessing, let’s look at our miracle story of the fishes and the loaves. Jesus is working with his favorite thing – “next to nothing”. A large crowd is gathered in a deserted place and it is getting late. The disciples look at what they have and describe a scene of scarcity – they have next to nothing and go to Jesus, asking him to send the crowds away. And Jesus responds bring me what you have. Holding those few baskets of food, Jesus lifts his face to the heavens, blesses and breaks them, and gives them away. As is always the case, he is freely giving life, keeping it moving, making if flow. Everyone eats. And there was plenty more than enough. In the giving away, an abundance rises and spills over. We can imagine that those healed children of God never had a greater meal before or after that. And never did they forget it.
But there is a second miracle here as well: Jesus involves the disciples in his response. Notice that the disciples bring this to Jesus as a problem for him to solve – they know they don’t have the food to feed all these people, so they want Jesus to send them away. And whether we read their reaction as the opposite of compassionate or are more sympathetic and assume they are simply being practical; their goal is to get Jesus to solve their problem.
But he doesn’t. He puts the problem squarely back on their shoulders by asking them what food they have. And when they offer their meager stores, he takes and blesses what they bring and uses it – and them – to feed thousands. Which seems to be another significant miracle. That Jesus would invite them to take responsibility, accompany them into the midst of the challenges that confront them, and take and bless what they have and, in this way, involve them in this miracle.
So…the question of the day…might Jesus still be operating this way? Might Jesus also invite us to get off the sidelines, take responsibility for the problems we see around us, accompany us into these challenges, bless our efforts and whatever we might have to offer, no matter how small and insignificant we think it is, and use us to work miracles?
The miracle of the loaves and fish is not just a story, not even just a miracle…it is a way of miraculously living each day. When we’re faced with seemingly incalculable difficulties, instead of wringing our hands in worry or complain about how insignificant and lacking our resources are….let’s take what we have, offer it in thanksgiving, humbly, before the God who gave us everything. And then leave our meager resources to be blessed and broken by God. The blessing may just be in the struggle. Our God promises us life and not just life, but abundant life. Thanks be to God! Amen.