Sermon - 6th August 2017
Wrestling with God
Scripture - Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
One of the misunderstandings that people sometimes have about the Bible is that it is filled with perfect people who lived impossibly good lives and therefore it has no relevance to people today. But to those of us who have opened the Bible, we realised very quickly that the Bible is full of accounts of broken people who lives were complicated, very involved and far from perfect. Recently, we have looked at the life of Abraham. Today, we are looking at an account about his grandson, Jacob.
Jacob was the father of 12 sons, those who gave their names to the twelve tribes of Israel, including Joseph, the one who had the amazing coat! But Joseph’s story is for another day. Here is a little background on Jacob in whose life there was considerable deception. Indeed, the name Jacob stems from the Hebrew word to mean “supplanter” or “deceiver”.
Like his father Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca had to wait 20 years before finally having children. They had two twin sons. Esau was the first-born; Jacob followed. Like it often is in families, the two brothers did not get on. Jacob was resentful of Esau being the first-born. There was an incident where the starving Esau returned home and sold his birth-right as the elder brother in exchange for a bowl of soup!
Later, as their blind father Isaac lay dying, Jacob deceived his father by pretending to be Esau, wearing Esau’s clothes so he smelt like Esau, and put on an animal skin to feel as hairy as Esau. Isaac was taken in by the deception and gave his final blessing of inheritance to Jacob. When Esau found out, he was beyond angry and vowed to kill Jacob who fled North to his uncle Laban, who in turn deceived Jacob.
Some 14 years of indentured labour later, and at God’s prompting, Jacob decided that it was about time he put things right with his brother, Esau. He travelled back South to Canaan and sent ahead a large number of animals from his herd. In Jacob’s words: “I will win him over with the gifts, and when I meet him, perhaps he will forgive me.” The reading we are about to hear recounts what happened to Jacob the night before he meets again the brother he deceived.
<Reading: Genesis 32:22-31>
So what do you make of the story? While the human happenings, the emotions, the deception and the relationships could readily be the plot of any novel, film or soap-opera, does the other-worldly nature of the reading cause us to reject it as a whole? It is more than a story? Can we quieten our 21st century minds of reason by telling ourselves that it is just an allegory, a story which teaches us something?
Whoever we are, we will have experienced both complicated and more straightforward times in life, and as Christians, our journeys will have times of closeness to and times of apparent distance from God.
On the eve of reconciliation with his brother, Jacob sent his family over the river crossing, giving himself time alone, perhaps to reflect, to consider what he might say to his estranged brother whom he cheated out of his birth-right, and maybe even to pray. This was a turning-point in Jacob’s life.
As LGBT people, we have all had significant turning-points in our lives, the shorthand for which we tend to call “coming out”, a time when we choose to tell others about our homosexual orientation or our gender identity.
For many of us in our congregation, our “coming out” was something to be feared, even those of us born in the UK. Even though as we celebrate this month the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexual practice in the UK, the equality legislation and the massive change in cultural attitudes is less than 20 years old. Moreover, many of you come from countries where being gay is still illegal and punishable and your “coming out” may have been far more difficult.
As LGBT Christians, we can maybe empathise with the dark night and the struggle which Jacob went through, as we sought the courage to “come out” and to be the people we truly are. And, as LGBT Christians, maybe part of that struggle has been with God, as we have tried to make sense of the mixed messages of God’s unconditional love and the messages of hate that some leaders of the church have spoken.
Let us remember this: in our darkness, in our dark night, just like in Jacob’s dark night: rather than spending time alone, as we heard in our reading, Jacob spent the night wrestling with another!
Who was this other? The first part of the reading mentions “a man”, but a later verse says “you struggled with God”. And for the first time in the Bible, the word “Israel” is used. The “-el” suffix means “God”. Jacob’s 12 sons became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob is father of the nation people of Israel. The word “Israel” in Hebrew means “he struggles with God”.
Getting blessed was clearly important in those times, important enough for Jacob to deceive his aged, blind father into blessing him instead of Esau; and here in today’s reading, Jacob did not let go of the stranger (whether it be a man or God) until the stranger blessed him. Jacob recognised that the stranger was one capable of giving him a blessing.
For us as LGBT Christians, in our dark night, as we may have struggled to accept God’s love for us because we are LGBT. And just as Jacob craved a blessing from the stranger with whom he fought, maybe that is what we, too, crave – a blessing from God that God loves us for who we are.
Some other commentators have different views of the story. Queer theologians point out the homoerotic nature of two men wrestling the whole night through! Others see Jacob’s encounter as a panic attack, or even a psychotic episode. Yet others have speculated that the stranger is none other than Jacob’s estranged brother, Esau.
Here is another strange thing: the text says that the stranger was not winning the struggle. If the stranger was God, that is almighty God, how can this be? Maybe God allows Himself to become weak, and so bring us to a point where we can be changed, just as Jacob was changed: ready to be reconciled with his brother, and ready to become the father of a new nation.
Names and the meaning of names are clearly important in this story. Jacob, a man whose name means “deceiver”, and who had become synonymous with deception in his actions, through this struggle with God, his name is changed, and he becomes “Israel”. The injury Jacob received to his hip, causing him to limp, will have been a reminder of his struggle with God, every time he took a step. This night changed Jacob or Israel’s life forever, just as the moment when we took the step to “come out” changed our lives forever.
For Jacob, in ancient times, away from the camp fire, it would have been very dark. The man with whom he wrestled would have been nothing more than a shadow. Nevertheless, the tiny amount of light gave Jacob enough to say “I have seen God face-to-face, and I am still alive.” In our own personal darkness, in times of despair, our rational minds and our reason will often leave us.
Similar could be said of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Gospels: in particular, the miracles He performed, where our rational, reasoning minds might tell us that these stories of miracles could not possibly have happened, and again they are just allegories.
We are going to hear one now: Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, one of the few accounts that appear in all four Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is placed immediately after Jesus learns that His cousin John (the Baptist) has been executed by Herod. Like Jacob craved some time alone, Jesus sought to be alone, but the crowds followed Him nonetheless.
In the face of this account, it is easy to be either wowed by the miracle, or to be dismissive of the miracle. Perhaps we might feel more comfortable with Jesus’ parables, which teach us to do rational and reasonable things, like to feed the poor or to fight against injustice. However, when it comes to Jesus’ birth and Resurrection, and accounts like this one, our 21st century minds can no-longer conveniently redefine the Bible accounts, and it comes down to an element of faith!
On one level, the account we have just heard does teach social justice. The scale of the miraculous feeding tends to overshadow verse 14 which mentions that Jesus “had compassion for them and healed their sick” and this is what He spent His day doing before the evening came and He performed the miraculous feeding. So healthcare and hunger were addressed!
Today’s Gospel reading does have parallels with Jacob’s story. God did not allow Jacob to be alone: God intervened and the struggled ensued, finishing with God’s blessing. Jesus, although seeking to be alone, was followed by the crowds, and through the blessing of the five loaves and two fish, the largest-scale miracle is recorded in the Gospels, bringing in one event mass-appeal to Jesus’ ministry.
Jacob’s story is difficult for the mind relying solely on reason. The Feeding of the 5000 men, not counting the women and children, also contains something which goes beyond our reason and appeals to our faith.
Just as Jacob clung to the man whom he fought, the people clung to Jesus: that is why they followed Him. In the ancient world, making food was a chore, a daily chore, whether it was catching, gutting and cooking the fish; killing and preparing the animal; farming the wheat or other crops; grinding the wheat to make flour etc. For these people, it may have been the first meal they ever had which required no effort on their part, except that they had faith in Jesus.
Just as Jacob clung to the man with whom he fought and received a blessing, the people in our Gospel reading were healed and were fed, and this was the blessing which they received.
Our readings this week show us that God will use us as He finds us – it does not matter who we are or what we have done - and God will use what little we have: Jacob, who consistently made poor choices, became the father of Israel; the Disciples who had just five loaves and two fish fed a great multitude.
We should not fear the darkness, for it is at these times that God is with us. Even though our minds and souls may be in pain, we should not hold back from God, but enter into the struggle, and seek God’s blessing and not to let go or to give up. Jacob became Israel, meaning “struggles with God”; we, too, can be called “Israel”.
Like Jacob and the people who followed Jesus, we cannot know how God will bless us, or how God’s blessing will change us: that is where faith begins!