Poor Paul got dropped in the end! But hell be back, no doubt.
So here's the finished for now sermon - I'll probably have another look at it this evening & make a few changes on the hard copy - but this is nearly what I want to say!
Jacob at Peniel
I don’t want to start with the ‘cosy’ story of the feeding of the 5000 this morning. I want to start with the much more difficult reading about Jacob wrestling at Jabbok.
What happens? Jacob, returning to face his cheated brother, Esau, has sent his flocks and his family ahead of him, to try to curry favour with his brother. As he crosses the river Jabbok after them, alone, ‘a man came and wrestled with him until just before daybreak’. Who is this ‘man’ – what is going on? There are many ancient stories of wrestling and conflict at river crossings, of people being challenged by supernatural beings and emerging, triumphant, with a blessing. Some have interpreted this story as being an encounter with an Angel, with a messenger of God. Jacob’s account is “I have seen God face to face” – he feels he has met God himself. Some commentaries describe this as a spiritual struggle, as Jacob wrestling with his own conscience.
Rembrandt’s version of Jacob wrestling with the angel which is in the gallery in Berlin shows Jacob as a small, furious man, being restrained and almost embraced by a much larger, more kindly-looking adversary – much as an adult might restrain a toddler with a tantrum until their anger has dissipated. Did God wrestle with Jacob in order to give him chance to cool down and catch his breath before facing Esau?
We can’t know, of course, quite what Jacob encountered – but we can see the difference it makes to him.
When we look at the story of Jacob, he really doesn’t come across as a pleasant character . Born just after his twin, Esau, Jacob means ‘heel catcher’ and he seems to have lived up to that reputation as one who cannot entirely be trusted.
I remember many years ago joining in with a game a youth group were playing, one that involved chasing one another around a circle. I was just managing to stay ahead of Andy when suddenly I tripped and went my length. It was only afterwards, as I bathed my bruises, that someone who’d been watching said ‘you know, he tripped you. He reached out and tapped your heel as you were running’! I learnt the hard way never to trust a heel-catcher.
Jacob certainly lives up to his name. When he and Esau are grown, he tricks the hungry hunter into giving up his rights as first-born, when Esau returns home desperate for the stew Jacob has made.
Then when his father Isaac is old and blind he tricks him into blessing Jacob and not Esau. And so Jacob has to run off to live with his uncle, Laban, to avoid Esau’s revenge. There he marries Laban’s daughters and tends his flocks, eventually deciding to return to his homeland. Even then he manages to trick his father-in-law into giving him the best animals from the herd.
Still frightened of Esau, Jacob has sent 220 goats & 220 sheep, 30 camels, 40 cows and 30 donkeys ahead as a gift for Esau, trying to fob off his brother with gifts, while he hides at the back.
We can see why Jacob would be feeling unsure and uncertain. In the darkness of the night, all alone, it’s not surprising that he wrestled with something, even if it was only his inner demons.
But whatever happens at the river Jabbok, Jacob emerges from the encounter as a new man, convinced that God will use him and bless his descendents. He emerges as Israel, the one who struggles with God, and his family will become the great tribe of Israel, and will continue to encounter and struggle with God.
And surely if God can use a sneaky, deceitful trickster like Jacob, the blessing of God is there for all of us – using our imperfections, making us his people in spite of ourselves.
When we feel to be at the point of crisis, when we feel alone or abandoned, when we feel we are wrestling with some thing greater than ourselves, God’s grace can take us and change us, and use us for his kingdom.
I described the feeding of the 5000 as ‘cosy’ earlier. We might think of it as a pleasant pastoral scene, something like a church picnic. But whenever we encounter a gospel story about Jesus and bread it is hard not to think of the Last Supper, eaten before Jesus’ death on the cross. The blessing, breaking and sharing of bread all came to symbolise, to the disciples, Jesus’ giving of himself for the world.
In this incident in the gospel Jesus first heals the physical ailments of those he meets, then he feeds them, he satisfies their deepest need, he shares everything he has and everything he is with them. This is grace – but it is costly.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. We are ourselves fed by Jesus so that we are able to ask of others not ‘how little can I get away with giving them’ but ‘how much do they need’? When we allow ourselves to wrestle with God and be blessed by God and then shared with others, need can be satisfied.
Let no-one doubt that the God who changed Jacob will receive us all, and can use us all – all those who are prepared to struggle will receive his blessing and can be made agents of the gospel in the world.
To his glory.