A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
August 3, 2014
(Genesis 32.23-31; Psalm 17.1-7,16; Romans 9.1-16; Matthew 14.13-21)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Gospel story we have just heard is rightly known, remembered, and loved by Christians across our globe. The feeding of the five-thousand (although there were many more present that day) stands out as a miracle of miracles.
And indeed it is. When the disciples come to Jesus to remind him that the sun is low, and that all these hungry people are some distance from the nearest village, they have no inkling of what is about to occur.
I imagine the disciple’s frustration at Jesus’ response to their eminently sensible suggestion: ‘Why not dismiss the crowd so they can get to the market before the closing bell?’ His reply: ‘You give them something to eat’.
It must have seemed ludicrous. Yet the obedient and baffled disciples gather what they can. It amounts to very little. They count and present the tally as evidence of the merit of their original advice: five loaves, two fish. There is not enough.
But Jesus, strangely, asks to see their collection and invites the crowd to sit. He blesses, brakes, and returns the heaven-touched morsels. The disciples faithfully, indeed uncomprehendingly, distribute.
And there is enough. In fact the disciples spent the next few hours cleaning up after the abundantly satisfied crowd: twelve brimming baskets of leftovers. They must have learned a lot about God’s generosity as they gathered all those scraps!
It is a blessing rivalling all blessings. Add to this all those who were healed that day and heaven must have seemed so very, very close. A place where, a moment when, the veil between heaven and earth seemed wafer thin.
Recently we have been following Jacob’s fortunes away from the land of promise. Since his awkward wedding day, Jacob has served his father-in-law, Laban, for seven additional years; been manipulated by constantly shifting contracts; become a father on eleven occasions, and; made himself a small fortune. It has been a mixed journey.
But our reading sees Jacob returning, as God assured him, to the promised land. He left with merely ‘a staff’; he returns commanding ‘companies’.
Yet this now powerful man is filled with fear. The last time he saw this borderland he was fleeing Esau. He had stolen his brother’s blessing. He wanted the anointing of God!
And this even though the prophecies indicated the line of promise would, unusually, pass through the younger. Jacob was promised God’s blessing, but desired it so deeply, that he grabbed to make it his own. Patience was not his virtue.
Jacob knows there is no guarantee that time has healed his brother’s deep, unattended wound. He enters the promised land planning for the worst. Family, servants, and possessions are split. If Esau attacks, one group will, hopefully, have opportunity to flee. In addition, lavish gifts will meet Esau before either company. Maybe they will appease. He has said his prayers.
But family struggles are not Jacob’s only challenge. There is another unseen meeting of past and present that gifts and strategy will never satisfy.
Jacob will tonight meet with God. There will be no family, no flanking servants, not gifts. Our passage tells us simply: ‘Jacob was left alone’. He is, at least symbolically, once again on the borderlands. Here, an age ago he saw an open heaven, heard the promise of YHWH, witnessed angels rising and falling. Does he walk alone this night hoping for a similar vision?
If so, he must have been bitterly disappointed. Tonight Jacob will enjoy no deep sleep or reassuring dream. He will, rather, be ambushed and end up fighting YHWH. And once again Jacob will, with all his zeal, strength, and aggression, pursue the elusive blessing of God.
Wrestling, initially, seems like a strange activity to undertake upon meeting the creator of the universe. A shared beverage and a leisurely chat about the meaning of life might be more appropriate. There are more civilised ways to embrace the opportunity of a face-to-face with YHWH.
But Jacob is given no choice. He ends up rolling in the mud, every muscle and tendon strained, every ounce of energy spent. He is closer to God than ever.
To be fair, Jacob does not initially realise who he is taking on although he does develop an opinion. It is apparently affirmed by his assailants question: “Why is it that you ask my name?” Is there an assumption here that Jacob already knows that this is God?
And by the time his assailant leaves he has given three mysterious ‘gifts’: a dislocated hip, a new name, and the wrestler’s blessing.
Blessing? This does not look anything like blessing. What happened to green grass, instant healing, and abundant free food? Where is the casual stroll back to town as the sun sets gently over the Galilean hills?
But this is blessing. In fact, it is the very blessing Jacob has sought for so long though he could never have expected it to look like this.
It is a strange story, made even more remarkable by the significant place it holds for the nation of Israel. From this event the people adopted as God’s own, take their name. Israel means ‘strives’ or ‘wrestles’ with God.
And it leaves me with questions: Does this name somehow point to the calling of this unique people? Is Jacob an example of the role God desires to see Jacob’s descendants undertake? What might it say of us who claim to follow this same God? Are we to take Jacob’s zealous pursuit of God’s blessing as a warning or as exemplary? I do not have all the answers.
But I do know that Jacob limps away from a face-to-face with one he believes to be YHWH. ‘Peniel’: is the name he gave the place: ‘The Face of God’.
And from now he will be known, not for his deceitful ways, but for this night. Every stuttered step he takes from here will remind him of this hard won blessing and his all consuming desire for it.
Take note: the blessing of God is not always comfortable and cosy. In fact Jacob might say that it is inherently costly and confrontational. But it is blessing nonetheless.
And this ‘blessing’ is the only way I can make sense of our Romans reading. We too easily hear this passage as God choosing who is saved and who is not. We hear it as a discussion about Heaven, and about Hell.
Yet many commentators insist that Paul is defending God’s anointing of Israel. To the Roman community, united in Christ, yet struggling with God’s privileged place for Jew over Gentile, the discussion is pertinent. Who knows how accurately an unaddressed Gentile jealousy or a Jewish ego may echo the destructive rivalry between Esau and Jacob?
Paul insists that Israel is not God’s favourite because they are better or more moral. Being part of the Messiah’s family tree is an undeserved privilege – with attached benefits – dependent on nothing more than God’s ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’.
And so Paul’s heart breaks for his people because they have come to see God’s call as a right. Their vocation, their blessing, is no longer founded upon the grace of God. They understand it as deserved. Like Jacob (at least initially), and perhaps like the crowds blessed with Jesus’ free meal, they are tempted to see God’s blessing only in terms of benefit, ease, and privilege. In Rome, God’s blessing is wanted by those who feel left out and clung to by those who feel deserving.
Of course, those of us who relate closely to Jacob’s story dare not judge too harshly. We too can view the call and blessing of another with an underlying jealousy or an inappropriate snub.
Of course, neither response is faithful to God’s call. We are a people striving, rather for a third way. It may take a dose of learned humility, but we are called from first to last by God’s grace and faithfulness.
Take this to heart and it could change the way we – you – relate to God, others, and even to yourself. At the heart of the gospel is not your goodness, but God’s.
May we prove worthy of such God initiated blessing.