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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wrestling with God

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 2011

Wrestling with God

Have you ever had a “peak moment” in life? That is, a moment when everything you think you know is called into question, or at least is severely challenged? Some might call it an “existential moment” or maybe even a midlife crisis. No matter what one terms it, it is clear that one’s life is about to change, usually in a major way.

When one reads the passage taken for our First Lesson today, it is clear that Jacob has one of these experiences. If we step back and review the circumstances surrounding his “peak moment”, it helps to put it all in perspective. In the 32nd chapter of Genesis, Jacob and his company are at last leaving Laban’s area, where he has served him twenty years. They are traveling to a destination that brings him close to Edom, where his brother Esau lives. While he travels, Genesis says that the ‘’angels of God met him.” He names the place of Mehanaim, because he has met some of God’s host. Then, he sends messengers to Esau, telling him that he has sojourned with Laban for some time and has become quite substantial as a result. His messengers return the news that Esau is coming to meet his brother, bringing four hundred men with him, a small army.

Obviously, this causes Jacob no little concern. He knows that he wronged Esau in a very real way many years ago when he stole, first his brother’s birthright, and then his blessing. He also stole away from Laban without telling him. He has been deceptive and clever all his life. No doubt he knows that Esau remembers it too, and thus the very large welcoming committee. Yet, even though he is concerned, even fearful, the wily Jacob hopes to work out something to pacify his brother. He divides his company into two groups, putting a flock of sheep, cattle and goats between each one. He thinks that Esau might destroy one group and perhaps spare another. He also sends a rather large present of a few hundred animals to his brother as a peace offering. This, he hopes, will assuage his brother’s wrath. Once again, he puts a space between each drove, hoping that Esau might be appeased before actually meeting Jacob.

Before the actual meeting the next day, Jacob sends over all of his family and host across the ford Jabok, which is “
a pouring out, or a wrestling, one of the streams on the east of Jordan, into which it falls about midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, or about 45 miles below the Sea of Galilee. It rises on the eastern side of the mountains of Gilead, and runs a course of about 65 miles in a wild and deep ravine. It was the boundary between the territory of the Ammonites and that of Og, king of Bashan (Josh. 12:1-5; Num. 21:24); also between the tribe of Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh (21:24; Deut. 3:16). In its course westward across the plains it passes more than once underground. "The scenery along its banks is probably the most picturesque in Palestine; and the ruins of town and village and fortress which stud the surrounding mountain-side render the country as interesting as it is beautiful." This river is now called the Zerka, or blue river.

Now Jacob finds himself alone, at night, at Jabok. It must have been both beautiful and terrifying in its beauty and its immense solitude. Imagine the wide open spaces under the Mid-eastern sky with absolutely no light pollution. The sky would be brilliant and the silence, except for the wind, would be complete. One is reminded of the night sacrifice Abraham offered in Gen. 15, when he first made covenant with God. In that scene, the sun goes down on the sacrificial animals, hewn in pieces. “A smoking furnace, and a burning lamp” passed between those pieces, obviously some sort of theophany in Abram’s sight. Afterwards, God made covenant with him and renamed him Abraham.

Similarly in Genesis 32:2, Jacob has a covenantal experience. It comes, however, after a struggle. In fact, Jacob “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. “ We don’t know if “the man” was the Lord Himself, in physical form, or an angel, although considering the way the story ends up, it is highly likely that the Second Person of the Trinity wrestled with Jacob , Yet, we are given no clue as to why Jacob was wrestling with “the man” at all.

Or do we? If we look at the scene as a whole we get some idea why Jacob might have been receptive to a peak experience. First, he is in actual mortal fear for his life and that of his family. For all he knows, Esau and four hundred of his closest friends are coming to utterly blot them off the earth. He is in a heightened state of awareness, with virtually every nerve standing on end.

Now, he is at the ford of Jabok, at night, alone. Perhaps he is acutely aware of his past sins and their present consequences, as he fears some sort of rough justice at the hands of his wronged brother. Maybe he realizes that all of his life, cunning, at times sneaky, and always playing the angles, has its limits and its bad fruit. No doubt, he poured out his fears and his anxieties in their fullest form to God. No doubt he prayed like he never done before. Then, suddenly he is engaged in a titanic struggle with a mysterious being. The Scripture tells us the actual combat continued all night. It surely was an existential time for Jacob, for this particular night yields changes in his life that were completely unseen to him.

Whether this is purely a spiritual struggle in Jacob’s mind or soul is possible, and some commentators think so, but the plain words of Scripture put it differently. In fact, after
a night of wrestling, Jacob prevails against the being, or at least he is not defeated. He prevails and he perseveres in such a way that he demands a blessing before he will let the “man’ go. Yet, he suffers a physical effect that shows that, despite his victory, He is not God. He is merely a man who has encountered the Almighty in a real and intensely meaningful way. Perhaps this is why Jacob’s thigh is put out of joint, to remind him of his own humanity.

Now comes the heart of Jacob’s “peak moment.” At the moment the being sees that Jacob is not defeated, he asks his name. Jacob responds and the being tells him, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Evidently, Jacob’s faith has been tested and he has persevered to the extent that the Lord has seen fit to change him.

This change begins with a new name. No longer will Jacob be known as the Supplanter, but instead Israel, which means, “God Prevails.” He will not be the slippery, cerebral, smooth tent-dwelling man any longer, but will assume his role in history as the Patriarch Israel. In the words of the angel, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” God has indeed chsen to affect a change in Jacob, now Israel, which is real and meaningful. God does this for His glory and for his mysterious purposes.

This is a wonderful story of redemption and change. It is not just an isolated incident that happened to a shepherd clan-leader some few thousand years ago. It is immeasurably more. The story of Jacob’s change, as well as the appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ, is historic and monumental in its implications.

These implications are two-fold. They deal with both universal and individual issues. On a universal level, they are most certainly a pre-figuring of the universal forgiveness and redemption of mankind by Jesus Christ. Note that prior to this scene, Jacob is not especially worthy of this redemption, but is saved by the grace of God only. In fact, it looks like Jacob and his family will cease to exist on the following day. Yet, by God’s grace he is he saved.

On an individual basis, it shows us that earnest prayer, accompanied by heartfelt repentance, can result in a serious change through the grace of God. A thought that might strike us is simply this: if God can take a man such as Jacob and transform him into the Patriarch Israel, what can He do with us? The answer is: anything He chooses, as we allow Him to work his mighty and mysterious Will in and through us. God has a plan for us, for all of us. That plan may be glorious in terms of how the world sees us, or it may be a humble, quiet work for the glory of God. In the end result, in the long view of eternity, it doesn’t really matter. That is, as long as the work is dedicated to the glory of God, it will serve for eternity.

Perhaps this is why St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” We are merely the people of God, with all of our failings and foibles so plain in His sight. Yet, when we assent with our will and follow that assent with positive actions led by the Holy Ghost, we become so much more. After all, there really is something different about a committed, Spirit-filled Christian. There is a palpable “something” that sets that person apart from the World.

It was that “something” that set Jacob apart on the mysterious night at Jabok. He entered as Jacob and emerged from that experience as Israel. He was, in fact, re-invented into a new creature. Pray God that He does the same for us.

Genesis 32:28 “And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Four Thousand Reasons

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 2011
August 7, 2011

Our Gospel for the day is the story of an incredible miracle: the feeding of the four thousand. This miracle is recorded only in the Gospel accounts of Mark 8 and Matthew 15. The other Gospel writers do not make a note of this amazing account, yet it is interesting that all four Gospels tell of the feeding of the five thousand. One can only surmise why…

Also, various differences abound between the two miracles. Some commentators have noted the difference in emphasis on Christ’s taking action, as opposed to the feeding of the 5,000, where Christ posed the question and the Disciples responded. In this case, Christ notes that the crowd has been with Him so long without food and has compassion on them. When He fed the five thousand, his motive for compassion was that they resembled sheep without a shepherd. In addition, other differences abound, such as the contrast between this group's being commanded to sit on the ground, whereas the five thousand sat on grass, because “there was much grass in the place.” This indicates to scholars like Trench and Bickersteth that the locale was different, much more desolate, and/or it was a different time of year. In addition, the numbers here noted were fewer (four thousand vs. five thousand) and available supply of food larger (seven loaves vs. five and “a few” small fish vs. two).

While these are interesting contrasts, they do not highlight the key difference between the two accounts. Coffman tells us that we must go back to St. Augustine to see the biggest contrast, namely that the people fed in this story were not primarily Jews, but Gentiles. This is significant. In this account, Jesus and his disciples have been passing by the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Decapolis. This region was comprised of ten cities of primarily Hellenistic culture, or better said, Greco-Roman culture. They were acquainted with the Jewish culture near to them, but were not tolerant of it. This was due in part to the Semitic practice of male circumcision, which they regarded as idolatrous because it created imperfect physical specimens. The Jews, for their part, looked at the Greek emphasis on male/male relationships with horror and disgust, considering them as pedophiles and sodomites. Thus, one can see that this was a fertile breeding ground for conflict.

Yet, into this area, Christ spread his abundant mercy and compassion. Previously, in the 7th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Christ healed a deaf man and a Syrophoenician woman, both Gentiles. He also castigated the Pharisees for their failure to notice the difference between ritual defilement and actual defilement (e.g. the difference between eating so-called “unclean” foods vs. defiling words and actions that come out of people.) Now in this arena of Gentile activity, He confronts he Disciples’ own cultural bias: their complete distaste for the Gentile world. We have seen that this particular group has been with Christ for three days without food. He had been healing them of various ailments and diseases; evidently their utter need for this outweighed their need for food. Christ in His mercy observed their desperation for food, while noting that He didn’t want to send them away, for fear of many fainting on the way home. Observe, however, that when Christ asks His Disciples about this, their response to Him is to answer with a question, almost flippantly, Mark 8:4”And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?”

Have they already forgotten the miracle feeding of the five thousand, which had previously occurred? Do they really not know Who is with them? Obviously, not. In addition, one commentator thinks that they were not that concerned about this group simply because they were Gentiles. Their attitude was, “Send them away”, or as Marie Antoinette once purportedly said to the malnourished French peasantry, “Let them eat cake!” While there is doubt she really said this, there is probably much less doubt as to the Disciples’ concern for this Gentile crowd. After all, they were Gentiles, possibly even Greeks, and a lower class of humanity. They were not the Chosen Ones.

Jesus Christ, in all His mercy and loving-kindness, does not make this distinction. All He knows is that here are four thousand souls, Jewish or not, Gentile, who are very, very hungry. So in similar fashion to the feeding of the five thousand, he has the people sit, takes what food is available, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples for distribution. In the end, all eat and are satisfied. How glorious that simple meal must have been! Looking at the entire situation, how glorious must have Christ’s Presence among them! If one is able to hold together a crowd of 4,000 people for three days without sustenance and yet without coercion, how incredible this is. Only one man could do this, Jesus Christ.

We should give thanks for this account of Scripture. We should give thanks for it because it indicates our inclusion in the heavenly family. Also, it indicates without doubt that we “wild olive branches” have been grafted into the true Vine of hope and salvation. Finally, if for no other reason, we should give thanks because it also foreshadows the universality of the great sacrifice at Calvary yet to come. If Christ had not meant to save us Gentile sheep, we, the ones grafted onto the true vine, this feeding wouldn’t have happened. So, let us give thanks, indeed. It is even more remarkable in the face of Christ’s own words, when He said, Matthew 15:24 24 "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

This statement seems incredible at first, but it was necessary for Jesus to be sent to Israel first. Not only to fulfill all Biblical prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, which is critical, but also that the Jews be given the first chance to hear the Good News. Of course, in the impenetrable mystery of God, they also chose to reject it; at least their leaders did. This too was meant in some strange and mysterious way.
After all, it is only fitting that God’s Chosen People have the bittersweet duty of offering up the One, Perfect, and Complete Sacrifice, Jesus the spotless Lamb of God, even if they didn’t know it at the time. In fact, most Jews still don’t recognize it, because it has not suited God the Father to remove the “veil” over their hearts and minds. Their leaders meant Jesus’ death as a means of ridding themselves of a problem. After all, it is Caiphas the Chief Priest who said, “…it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”. Unbeknownst to them, God also had a plan of ridding the world of a problem, the problem of sin.

We Christians know that we are indeed free from sin; not that we don’t commit it, for that is an impossibility. All of us sin everyday in some fashion or another. Yet, we are free from sin because we are able, because of Christ’s sacrifice, to renounce sin’s power over us. Yes, we sin, but yes, we can confess, repent and receive absolution through Christ our Lord. In time, as we continue this lifelong process, we will sin less and less as we grow in holiness. Will we ever cease from sinning? No, we will cease from sin only when we pass from the Church Militant on Earth into the Church Expectant and then finally, into the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Then, truly, you and I will rest from labor, from sin, and even from repentance. We shall be glorifiedand we shall be perfected.

We are not there yet. We still have the daily battle against the World, the Flesh and the Devil. We, like the disciples, have to battle with our own biases and our distastes for people and the things that they do. We too have to struggle against these things and we have to defeat them in the Name of Christ.

Again, we challenge you to examine your motives and your impulses for these considerations. If they are godly, cherish them and be led by them. If they are not, cast them away, rejoicing in the power of victory over evil and despair. This life is too short to be spent in unworthy judgments.
The life to come is too long to be forfeited, or to be lived in some inferior state, even in Heaven, due to unshriven earthly sin. This is a serious consideration. For example, I used to worry about the eternal state of my brilliant, but alcoholic father, now deceased for some 25 years... He was a sinner, as are we all. Yet, he was a good man with a fatal flaw. When drunk, he would blaspheme. When sober, he would repent; that is, until demon alcohol hardened his spirit to a state of absolute rebellion. Thus, I worried. A month after his death in July, 1984, my elder sister received a revelation in a dream. The words that she heard were, “Dad’s all right.” How blessed, simple, and reassuring those words were! God’s mercy is, in the end, all bountiful. He alone, after all, knows the heart. He alone gives us the chance of redemption and salvation.

Some two thousand years ago, Christ began the process of breaking through sin, prejudice, and ill will. He challenged his own disciples’ beliefs. He affirmed his own magnanimous, all merciful nature. He extended, almost by proxy, our possibility of salvation. He fed four thousand people.

Mark 8:8 “So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.”