Dark Struggles, Divine Blessings:

Posted: August 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

Dark Struggles, Divine Blessings:

Genesis 32:22–31     Matthew 14:13–21

Jacob was a man on the run. Deep-seated family hostilities characterized Jacob’s entire life. Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau grew up hating each other and he also swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. Later, he and Rebekkah lied and connived to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father. When Esau threatened to murder him, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham had departed. Jacob married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. But it doesn’t end there.

Sick of his father-in-law’s manipulations, Jacob fled Laban, only to encounter his long lost and embittered brother Esau. Jacob the consummate deal-maker, concocted a bribe and sent a caravan of gifts along with his women and children across the river Jabbok. Perhaps that would pacify his brother’s murderous threats? Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, alone in the desert wilderness, shorn of all his considerable worldly possessions, powerless to control his fate, Jacob collapsed into a deep sleep on the banks of the Jabbok River. With Laban behind him and Esau before him, he was too spent to struggle any longer.

But only then did his real struggle begin. Fleeing his family history had been bad enough; wrestling with God Himself was a different matter altogether. During that long, lonesome night an angelic stranger visited Jacob. They wrestled throughout the night until daybreak, at which point the stranger crippled Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life. By then Jacob knew what had happened: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” he says. (Genesis 32:30). In the process, Jacob the Deceiver, for such is the meaning of “Jacob,” received a new name, Israel, which likely means “He struggles with God.” Most important and unlikely of all, at the conclusion of that riverbank struggle, we read that God “blessed him there” (Genesis 32:29).

In our culture at large, the myths of success, achievement, and certainty, live large. We celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory, beginning with sport at all levels, schools at certain deciles and jobs of prestige and income levels. Our first job, our first home. We abhor and fear weakness, failure, struggle, and doubt. One homeless person can create a reaction based in fear far greater than someone who rents a hovel. At least they are trying to better themselves we say of the renter as if it is somehow better status to live in a hovel than it is to live on the street. Even though we know that a measure of vulnerability, fear, discouragement and depression accompany most normal lives, we construe these extreme examples of life as signs of failure or even a lack of faith. In real life, naieve optimism and the rosy rhetoric about the state of achievement are a recipe for disappointment and discouragement. Sooner or later reality catches up with most of us. There but for the grace of God go I we say, as a way of countering the fact that the myth of achievement is fragile and suspect.

The Jacob story jerks us back to reality as well. Frederick Buechner characterizes Jacob’s divine encounter at Jabbok as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Similarly, in her book Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope, the Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister uses the Jacob story as a paradigm for a “spirituality of struggle.” In Jacob’s story she identifies eight elements of our human struggle — change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. Did not Paul himself describe being “harassed at every turn — conflicts without, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5)? But God does not leave us there, says Chittister, and in each human struggle there is a corresponding divine gift available to us — conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”

The end result of the nocturnal struggle for this cheater and liar was God’s blessing: “God blessed Jacob there” (32:29). When you read further in Jacob’s story these twin themes of dark struggles accompanied by divine blessing continue to be intertwined. His daughter Dinah was raped. Two of his sons, Reuben and Judah, committed incest. As if to mimic his own parents who favored him over his twin brother Esau, Jacob played favorites with his own son Joseph, sewing seeds of fraternal enmity for all. And yet, God renewed the covenant with him. “God appeared to him again and blessed him” (35:9). Late in life he reminisced, “God almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there He blessed me” (48:3).


Contrary to cultural propaganda about the place of achievement, the human struggle is never easy, and certainly not the struggle with God. But the struggle is never devoid of divine presence and blessing. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis reminds us that the divine-human struggle is neither tidy nor tame, but it is still one we can live with confidence. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies. “Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jacob’s struggle at Jabbok reminds us of this truth, that God is good, but not safe. We may well struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak God only intends to bless us.

And to leap to our new testament reading we first need to resist the temptation to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. Not as a way of theologically skirting around miracles because there are in fact everyday miracles in life, but rather as a way of not missing the others in the text.

While we can debate whether Jesus suspended the natural order to feed the five thousand or whether his example merely prompted the crowd to share what it already had, these weren’t the concerns of the earliest Christians. Rather the wonders Jesus performed were, as John is most consistently adamant about, always signs of the character of the God whose presence Jesus seems to bear.

Which is what brings us to the first of two miracles described in this story that are anything but pedestrian: the point isn’t what Jesus does, but why. Because the character of the God Jesus reveals and represents is captured in a single word, “compassion.” Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them. And so he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

Notice, before going further in the story, the context of this scene. It begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The thing Jesus just heard about was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In the first century, gods aren’t normally supposed to care about people like the crowds. The gods of the ancient philosophers, for instance, were considered dispassionate and so were regularly referred to by cozy names like “the Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause.” At the other end of the spectrum, the gods of the Greek and Roman empires were notorious for using humans as playthings and for ordering the world to their whims. At best, gods were supposed to take the side of the rich and powerful, to stand with people like Herod and his well-fed party guests, sanctioning their exploitation of the poor and even the bloody murder of a truth-teller like John. They were definitely not known for siding with the oppressed, the ordinary, the downtrodden, or the hungry. The prosperity gospel has been around a long time it seems.

And yet that’s what happens here, as Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfills the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry. We recall that this was no minor endeavour, as what we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant. And so the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food isn’t just unrealistic – they are, after all, out in a deserted place – it’s ridiculous…and even a little insulting, as the folks making up these desperate crowds probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their callous self-concern and feed them themselves.

Which brings us to the second miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

And that miracle continues. When a university trained high achiever turns down a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

Because the real wonder of these two stories is that goodness and compassion, continue: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the shallow youth, the deceiver, the consummate deal maker, the manipulator, the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to care for them. The wrestling with God is necessary as it depicts the reality of life and the nature of the wrestling depicts the severity of life’s wrestle, yet such wrestling also reveals the miracles of living. The opportunities for compassion, and love. Amen.



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