Sermon delivered on Trinity 8A, Sunday, August 6, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17.1-7, 16; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes, when we read through a passage of Scripture, we find that it is the text that is reading us, showing us the things God has revealed to his people throughout the ages that also stand to be true of ourselves. This morning’s Old Testament lesson is one such passage, that if wrestled with for any length of time, does just that.
Jacob is an interesting man. By interesting, I mean we can see a reflection of humanity in general in his story. Always cooking up some scheme to promote himself, to secure his own destiny, to take care of good ol’ number one. We can recall, even from his birth, his mother in great pain with both him and his brother Esau wrestling within her womb, that he had some quality of character that is being emphasized in the text that is not quite on the level. In fact, his name, Jacob, means “heel grabber” or “supplanter,” remembering the prophecy from the angel of the Lord who said “the older shall serve the younger,” and the fact that as they were birthed into this world Jacob was grabbing onto the heel of his older brother, Esau. Jacob’s story includes his swindling his brother out of his birthright for food and drink, and the taking of a blessing from his ailing, blind father by following his mother’s instructions to to wear the skins of the goats that had been slaughtered for Isaac’s food. Jacob had successfully cheated his brother twice in a short time. It wasn’t long before he received in return the sort of unscrupulousness he had been dealing out when he was given Leah in marriage instead of Rachel, whom he was forced to wait longer to marry.
But Jacob had a few moments of clarity where his eyes were opened wide by the Lord himself, revealing to Jacob his providence and love toward him, a love that will ultimately work to transform Jacob into the man God was seeking to use to bless all the people of the earth. The first of these happens shortly before the marriage debacle in Laban’s house when Jacob saw the ladder reaching into heaven, the Lord’s angels ascending and descending it, and God himself standing above the ladder, repeating the same promise to him that was made to Abraham concerning the land, his abiding presence, and the blessings to be poured out to all through him and his offspring.
The second is that which we have heard this morning, and it comes in the context of Jacob’s fear of his older brother Esau, whom he supposes is coming to take him out for his past swindling. Jacob has much to fear here, since much of his success has been built on quite a bit of self-centered, egotistical scheming. Jacob is fleeing from Laban and Naman, headed back to his homeland with his family and all of his possessions, but the direction he is headed in is where Esau still resides. And when he hears that Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men he splits his party into two camps, hoping that if Esau sacks one he’ll still come out with the other. He also instructs all those who will go ahead of him to try to cut a deal with Esau so that he can continue to live. After sending his wives, female servants, and his children across the river ahead of him, he makes camp. This is where the truly interesting bit happens.
A man (who this man is we are unsure…is he just a man, an angel, the Lord himself? The Scripture does not tell us) wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the next day. Jacob, the man who was in immediate fear for his life, refused to let go of the man until he would give him a blessing. All night long, through exhaustion and pain, Jacob wrestled with this unnamed person, giving the fight all he had, just barely hanging on. The man touched Jacob on his hip, causing it to come painfully out of place. But Jacob still hung on, waiting for the man to give him a blessing, possibly the last one he would ever receive. And as the morning sun began to break upon them from the east, starting to spread those pink and yellow streaks through the darkness upon its arrival, the man finally relented and gave to the unrelenting Jacob a blessing. But with this blessing Jacob received something else: a new name. No longer is he called supplanter or heel grabber, but now he is called Israel, striven with God, struggler. Saint Ambrose comments: “The new name was presented to him for the new people,” as though this name is not only given here to Jacob, but to the whole people of God as a sign of their spiritual strife.
This all night wrestling match was not merely a test of physical strength for Jacob now Israel, but rather was the physical manifestation of that which was happening in his soul. His struggle in life wasn’t merely one of making himself secure, of having enough, but of realizing God’s faithfulness to him even in those times when Jacob was less than faithful in all of his scheming and self promoting. God isn’t actively trying to withold this blessing from Jacob, but human lives are lived in a pressure cooker that prepares hearts to receive it. To have the blessing of God is most important, even if his life is about to soon end and he has to endure through some terrible event to receive it. The worry about having enough is beginning to pass, and all because Jacob just continued to hang on. That limp that was given him as he journeyed forward would serve as a reminder of this, and to remind all of God’s people when the time would come that the first Israel was wounded as a sign to them just as the perfect Israel, Christ, will be someday.
What is it to have enough? What is it to have God’s blessing? This question is also seen, and I think answered, in the Gospel appointed for today. Surely, most of us have heard of Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fish. This is on every basic Sunday School curriculum for children all around the globe, and finds its way into our appointed texts for Sunday’s and the Daily Offices quite often. Jesus did a miraculous thing there. But what was the point?
In the passage we read that it was getting to be late in the day, and there was an enormous crowd of five thousand men, not counting the women and children who had accompanied them to see Jesus. Jesus had just healed many of their sick, and they were hungry for more from him. But as night was beginning to fall, their hunger for whatever they wanted from him was being overcome with a hunger for food. So, the disciples, thinking like many of us would, said to Jesus, “we should send all these folks away into town so they can get something to eat.” That makes sense, right? The place where they were was desolate, and folks hadn’t really prepared to be out there all day I suppose, so they didn’t have enough for all these people to eat.
“But Jesus,” says the Gospel writer…I love when a sentence starts like this in the Gospel, because we know we’re about to get the meat and potatoes type stuff straight from our Lord’s mouth. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
“But Lord! We don’t have enough! There’s only five loaves and two fish.” Goodness, do I hear myself in that that.
Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs them to bring the food to him. Showing the perfect faith always envisioned for Israel, the one who perfectly represented Israel as their true King, turns toward heaven, and says a blessing. Breaking the loaves, he gives them to his bewildered disciples, and tells them to give them to the people in the crowd.
“How in the world are we ever going to have enough to feed all these people? This is crazy!”
But as they continued to serve the bread and the fish the food continued to remain plentiful. It remained so much so that when everyone had eaten their fill there remained twelve baskets full of leftovers, much more than that with which they had begun.
Under God’s care, and according to his provision, when he decides to call his people to something that to us may seem impossible for lack of resources, there will always be enough. God doesn’t put his people to the task of moving his Kingdom in this world forward without providing. Yet, like Jacob in his scheming during those times when God was silent, it is a human tendency to worry about the provisions that one has on hand. God’s silence in the meantime doesn’t erase the promises he has made in his call of his beloved, nor does it mean the call has changed. Rather, what he has set his people to do is what they should continue to do until clearly told otherwise. And all the while, God’s people will inevitably struggle with the Lord, sometimes coming out with a limp, for the struggle we have as mortals attempting to understand the mind of the Immortal One is a task that can be frustrating, especially during those times when we really want a clear voice to be sounded right now. For to be sure, it isn’t easy, and we may come out of it beat up, but we still must strive to hang on. God wants to bless his people, to see them accomplish the mission to which he has called them, but his people need to be prepared for it. And this is no more true than when we worry about having enough.
God has blessed us already, St. Augustine’s. Absolutely, without a doubt, the Lord has blessed us. But I also notice a lot of us walking around with some limping. This is a good thing. Keep striving with the Lord, holding fast to the promises, and set your hearts to serve him faithfully. There will always be enough when we are following the command of our Lord, for he has already given to us himself, his body and his blood, and has awakened our hearts to the reality of the resurrection, his and ours. So with joyful, thankful, and faithful hearts approach his table of grace today, and be sanctified by him, knowing that in him we always have enough.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen