For a little background for this story, we should note that Jacob is sort of “reentering” the Promised Land at this point (and just as he encountered God when he was running away, he now encounters God upon his re-entry.) Jacob has sent his entire caravan across the Jabbok, an eastern tributary of the Jordan about 20 miles north of the Dead Sea. This is seen as an entry point to the Promised Land. It is unclear, though, why Jacob stays behind.
During the night, God wrestles him to the ground. Jacob may well have thought it was Esau, who had threatened to kill Jacob for taking his birthright. God and Jacob struggle for a considerable period of time. As daybreak approaches, God strikes Jacob in the hollow of the thigh. The blow has a crippling effect and brings the struggle to its climactic moment. But Jacob retains such a hold that God cannot escape from it. The wrestler is concerned about the coming daybreak and so the blessing is given. Jacob has the power to grant God release but at the same time it is God who has to power to grant a blessing. Jacob’s insistence that release be contingent upon blessing results in God’s giving the name Israel (“God-wrestler”) to Jacob along with the gift of blessing.
Jacob struggles with more than his subconscious. His whole being is engaged. Remember that it was commonplace that God’s face would not be seen and if it was, it was believed that the one who saw God would die. This says something about Jacob. He is willing to risk even death for the sake of the divine blessing. And God is willing to assume human form in order to encounter Jacob at his own level.
Jacob will never be the same again. He has looked not only God but himself square in the face and everything has changed. The wrestling has been an act not of destruction, but of transformation. Each step is now marked by the Divine touch. And Jacob, the Heel, is renamed. He has in essence experienced a true rebirth. He names the place Penuel, “face of God”. Not only has he seen the face of God, but his life is such now that he will continue to experience that over and over again. In the next chapter, he DOES encounter Esau. They reconcile and, once again, Jacob sees the face of God in his brother.
It is interesting to note that in our Scripture reading, the name is “Peniel” in one place and “Penuel” in the other. They both essentially mean the same thing. The difference is that “Peniel” (with an “i”) is singular or first person. It means “I have seen the face of God.” “Penuel” (with a “u”) is plural. It means “We have seen the face of God.” (Yes, this is the passage from which the name for this blog comes, because, yes, life and faith are all about wrestling until we, finally, see the face of God that has been with us all along.) So, Jacob names the place for his own encounter, acknowledging that he knew that he had seen the face of God. By the time he leaves, though, the name is plural, opening up new possibilities to all of us having a similar encounter with God.
We know of others in the Scriptures whose name was changed after they encountered God. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; and now Jacob (Yaacov) becomes Israel ((Yisrael). The difference is that Jacob is still called Jacob. Why is that? Perhaps in some way it is the acknowledgment that Jacob is still Jacob. His life is still one of a heel—still suppressed at times, subdued at times. And yet he is different too because he has faced God and lived to tell the tale. Maybe Jacob is no different from any of us.
I had seen many creative efforts to explain what could possibly be meant by a story in which a human fights with and prevails against God. I had tried several, myself. It is such a ridiculous premise that even the best efforts fell short of providing me with a satisfactory explanation. On the day that I was struggling with this text, I received a free copy of the premiere issue of a magazine called Our Iowa. Inside was a story about a high school wrestling match between Ogden and Humboldt. Humboldt had a senior on their team with Down syndrome. He was not capable of wrestling at a competitive level and posed no challenge at all to any wrestler. But the coaches asked if anyone on the Ogden team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat. An Ogden wrestler offered to take him on.
He not only wrestled him for the entire six minutes, but allowed his opponent to beat him on points. He gave the Humboldt kid the thrill of not only competing, but of raising his arms in victory. Both wrestlers got a standing ovation, and there was hardly a dry eye in the gymnasium. And for the first time, I understood what that Genesis story of a man wrestling with and prevailing against God was about.
The unique message of Christianity is that God is not an impersonal force, or a terrifying presence to whom we cannot relate in any meaningful way. God is not a person who expects only praise and sacrifices and groveling from us and has no further use for us. God is ready and willing and eager to get down and dirty with us. We are the spiritual descendants of Jacob. We are the people who wrestle with God. It is not presumptuous of us to make this claim. God was the one who gave that name to God’s people. That’s who God wants us to be. Of course God could squish us like a bug in a nanosecond. But for our benefit, God is always available to wrestle with us, at whatever level we are capable of wrestling. God sent Jesus into the world to wrestle with us, and Jesus allowed himself to get pinned to a cross. That’s what it took for us to experience the love that flows from God. (From “Wrestling With God”, by Nathan Aaseng, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?article_id=29, accessed 26 July, 2011.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does this say about Jacob?
- What does this say about God?
- What does it mean to wrestle with God?
- Is there a “winner” in this wrestling match?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 9:1-5
The oddest thing about these verses is that Paul never states what the problem is. He tells of his awful grief; he tells us how he would like to pray; he tells us why the problem is so bad. But we still don’t know what the problem itself is. But we can surmise that Paul thinks that the great majority of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries have not believed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is also worried that Gentile Christians in Rome may be happy that Jews should stay forever in that condition.
In some ways, Paul seems to struggle with what to do with these so-called “non-believers”, not because he thinks they are bad or even accursed, so to speak. He seems to be heartbroken at what they’re missing! And he loves them so dearly that he would give up his own salvation for them. He is not entertaining the notion that God has “written Israel off”. In fact, he recognizes them as the “adopted, chosen, covenant” people. From that standpoint, he seems to be willing to leave it up to God.
It’s probably important for us to remember here that Paul was not the only Jewish follower of the Gospel in the first century. Remember that Jesus did not just come in the flesh; he came in Jewish flesh. Jesus was never Christian. His is not a conversion story! God became incarnate as a Jew in a long lineage of chosen people who faced God and lived to tell the tale. So Paul would use the image of “grafting” the Gentiles into that lineage. We do not appropriate this lineage; we participate in it.
The relationship of the church to Israel and of Christians to Jews has the character of a sibling rivalry gone disastrously awry. The belief that Christians have “superseded” Israel as the chosen of God — that we have replaced the Jews as the apple of God’s eye, that we are the singular recipients of God’s election — has led, in the extreme, to the Holocaust. It has also kept the church from an honest examination of its flawed relationship with God….
But then comes a question: In choosing to be in relationship with the likes of us, has God rejected Israel? Does our covenant with God make the first covenant null and void? Paul responds, “By no means!” He argues that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus was God’s will for the sake of the reconciliation of the world. God has hardened the heart of Israel “until the full number of gentiles come in” to the covenant. God has made Israel “enemies of God for [our] sake,” he writes, “but as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” In other words, God does not go back on God’s promises. The first covenant holds forever, giving us the common hope that in the fullness of God’s time we will all be branches growing out of the one root of faith — gentiles as the wild olive shoot grafted on through Christ, and Israel as a natural branch.
In the meantime, we are left to sort out our relationship with the firstborn sibling of this God — the same God we know in Jesus Christ — who keeps covenants. If Paul’s take on salvation history bears any relation to God’s purposes, and if Christians are really intent upon hastening the day of the Lord, then we had better get to work — not on converting the Jewish people, but on reaching the gentiles out there who are religiously having coffee at Starbucks on Sunday morning. We should leave God’s relationship with Israel to God.
I have loved the church all of my life, but I am saddened and sickened when the church cannot seem to understand this part of its mission. We say we believe the gospel ought not be kept from anyone, but what we really believe is that we Christians have been given the corner on true religion and that we alone can mediate the relationship between God and humanity. I have bet my life on the truth that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, but I can no longer quietly accept the conviction of many of my fellow Christians that God’s revelation in Christ gives us a reason to judge Israel s relationship with God as inadequate. So with Paul, I say of my community of faith: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (From “Our Jewish Problem”, by Cynthia A. Jarvis, in The Christian Century, July 17-30, 2002, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2648, accessed 26 July, 2011.)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- Why do you think so many people struggle with what many would call a “universal” salvation?
- What gets in the way of our just “leaving it up to God”?
GOSPEL: Matthew 14: 13-21
This is the only one of the stories of Jesus’ miracles that appears in all four Gospel versions. One difference between the accounts is that the Matthean version seems to depict the disciples as more engaged with the feeding. They seem to be the ones moving among the crowds, feeding the hungry onlookers. They are the ones that despite the challenge of sparse resources and insurmountable odds, they are actually doing ministry—and it seems to be working!
They are now on the east shore of the lake (remember that the “Sea of Galilee”, as we call it is really a lake!), Gentile territory, but the crowds are from the western, Jewish side. It’s almost like the writer of Matthew’s gospel wants the crowds to see that following Jesus means eating among Gentiles. The disciples are concerned about the crowd who, far from starving or destitute, seem to be so enthralled with Jesus’ message that they are reluctant to leave to get food. So Jesus tells the disciples to “give them something to eat”. Many would depict the reticence of the disciples as a lack of faith in what Jesus can do. Perhaps it is more a lack of faith in what they can do when they follow the Way of Christ. In words and actions anticipating the Eucharist, Jesus breaks the bread and distributes it to the crowd. (It is interesting in this account that we seem to lose track of the fish.)
The most fascinating part of this story for me has always been the fact that there were leftovers. God does not just give us what we need; God also gives us the resources to feed and sustain the world. God gives us the resources to actually do ministry, regardless of how much faith we have in ourselves. In essence, Jesus is daring the disciples to find out what remarkable things can happen with a little faith. Perhaps Jesus is daring us to do the same.
The disciples probably thought Jesus was nuts. What do you mean, “give them something to eat.”? We have nothing…count them…NOTHING…zero plus zero equals zero! Jesus’ response was simple: “Give me your nothing…and then dare to watch what happens.” And yet, when you think about it, he didn’t have just nothing. He started with the response of the disciples handing all of their nothingness over to Jesus. And that’s all he needed. There is nothing that you have to give and nothing that you have to do. You do not need to wait until you have enough resources or enough time or enough nerve to do it. God is pretty good at creating something from nothing. It’s been done before! But you have to respond. You have to start now.
I just finished reading The Help, New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. I read the book last week, sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with my extended family at a weeklong family reunion at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. As I sat turning pages of The Help, peering at the print from beneath the brim of my beach hat, I saw parallels to the situation of this text. It takes place in a spiritual desert—a racist Southern town in the early 1960s amid a culture of violence against activists and presidents who oppose racism and schoolgirls caught in the crossfire. In this desert, three women are inspired to gather their experiences and courage and create something, a book, that would challenge and inspire thousands beyond the three of them.
The novel is filled with specific instances of women both white and black who move beyond the prison of their circumstances and prejudices in response to the book project these three women create. Without giving away the story, all I’ll say is that somebody is inspired to leave an abusive relationship. Somebody else is inspired not to get into one. Somebody else refuses to fire someone. Someone else gains the courage to make a fresh start. That’s all I’ll say, but that’s a whole lot of nourishment out of one little book.
It was late afternoon by the time I turned the last page of The Help and closed it on my lap. Just about that time my son came up and said, in an impatient tone, “Come on Mom, enough excuses. Let’s see you get up out of that chair and ride a wave.”
Well, who could resist a challenge like that? Unfortunately, by this time in the day, the waves were breaking just a little too close to the shore to prevent me from being completely turned upside down and dragged up on the beach with both ears brimming with sand. I think someone in the family made a video that I hope is not on YouTube. (Do not check to find out.)
From the comfort of the beach chair to throwing yourself with abandon in front of a big wave isn’t that big a step geographically speaking. Spiritually, now that’s a different matter. It’s not easy to take Jesus’ “divine jest” (“You give them something to eat”) to heart and offer our resources, limited as they are, for him to bless, to break, and to distribute. Yet that is what this story, told five times in four gospels, reminds us we must and can do. Starting now. (From “You Want Us to Do What?”, by Alyce McKenzie, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/You-Want-Us-To-Do-What-Alyce-McKenzie-07-25-2011?offset=2&max=1, accessed 26 July, 2011)
- What meaning does this story hold for you?
- What does this say to us about living a life of “abundance”, rather than “scarcity”?
- What would it mean to live within God’s abundance?
- What would it mean in our lives if we had faith in what God can do through us?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Suppose your whole world seems to rock on its foundations. Hold on steadily, let it rock, and when the rocking is over, the picture will have reassembled itself into something much nearer to your heart’s desire. (Emmet Fox)
It is not right human thoughts about God that form the content of the Bible, but right divine thoughts about us. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God, but what God says to us. Not how we find the way to God, but how God has sought and found the way to us. Not the right relation in which we must place ourselves, but the covenant which God has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which has been sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. (Karl Barth)
God is a generous giver, but we can only see and enjoy God’s generosity when we love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength. As long as we say, “I will love you, God, but first show me your generosity,” we will remain distant from God and unable to experience what God truly wants to give us, which is life and life in abundance. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)
Come, O thou Traveler unknown, Whom still I hold, but cannot see! My company before is gone, And I am left alone with Thee; With Thee all night I mean to stay, And wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell Thee who I am, My misery and sin declare; Thyself hast called me by my name, Look on Thy hands, and read it there; But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou? Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.
In vain Thou strugglest to get free, I never will unloose my hold! Art Thou the Man that died for me? The secret of Thy love unfold; Wrestling, I will not let Thee go, Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.
Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal Thy new, unutterable Name? Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell; To know it now resolved I am; Wrestling, I will not let Thee go, Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.
‘Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue Or touch the hollow of my thigh; Though every sinew be unstrung, Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly; Wrestling I will not let Thee go Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.
What though my shrinking flesh complain, And murmur to contend so long? I rise superior to my pain, When I am weak, then I am strong And when my all of strength shall fail, I shall with the God-man prevail.
Contented now upon my thigh I halt, ’til life’s short journey end; All helplessness, all weakness I On Thee alone for strength depend; Nor have I power from Thee to move: Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.
My strength is gone, my nature dies, I sink beneath Thy weighty hand, Faint to revive, and fall to rise; I fall, and yet by faith I stand; I stand and will not let Thee go Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak, But confident in self-despair; Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, Be conquered by my instant prayer; Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move, And tell me if Thy Name is Love.
‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear Thy whisper in my heart; The morning breaks, the shadows flee, Pure, universal love Thou art; To me, to all, Thy bowels move; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
My prayer hath power with God; the grace Unspeakable I now receive; Through faith I see Thee face to face, I see Thee face to face, and live! In vain I have not wept and strove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art. Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend; Nor wilt Thou with the night depart. But stay and love me to the end, Thy mercies never shall remove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
The Sun of righteousness on me Hath rose with healing in His wings, Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee My soul its life and succor brings; My help is all laid up above; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
Lame as I am, I take the prey, Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome; I leap for joy, pursue my way, And as a bounding hart fly home, Through all eternity to prove Thy nature and Thy Name is Love. Amen.
(Originally, “Wrestling Jacob”, by Charles Wesley, 1742) John Wesley ended his obituary tribute to his brother, Charles, at the Methodist Conference in 1788: “His least praise was, his talent for poetry, although Dr. (Isaac) Watts did not scruple to say that “that single poem, “Wrestling Jacob”, was worth all the verses he himself had written.” A little over two weeks after his brother’s death, John Wesley tried to teach the hymn at Bolton, but broke down when he came to the lines “my company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.”