Proper 13 / 12 Pentecost — 3 August 2008
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00
Genesis 32:22-31 Ps 17:1-7,16 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:13-21
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Last Sunday in Track One of the Revised Common Lectionary, and for a few previous Sundays, we were traipsing about in the Patriarchal Sagas in the Book of Genesis, and today we are still traipsing. The story has moved on a little; last week Jacob had finally been allowed to marry Rachel, at the cost of having to marry Leah first. Well, then this cheery family got into a baby-making contest (and you thought the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel just happened by accident?). Leah got off to a fast start, and Rachel wasn’t doing at all well, so Rachel gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be a surrogate mother so she could catch up. Leah said, Well, if that’s the way you’re going to play! and she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate, and then Leah had a couple more sons of her own. She also bore a daughter, Dinah, about whom a little later on there is a tragic and unpleasant episode, but that’s another story for another time; it’s not very edifying or theologically significant. I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t picked up on it yet. It’s full of sex and violence. Then finally Rachel had a baby of her own (Joseph). So in the Sons Contest, counting those born to the maidservants, Leah was up eight to three. (Rachel would later have one more son, Benjamin, but she would die in that childbirth, to Jacob’s very great sorrow.)
So Jacob decided that it was time for him to take his now rather considerable family and go back home to Canaan. (Well, an angel told him to.) There are stories about all of that, too, because Jacob’s father-in-law Laban really didn’t want him to leave, and there was a bit of contention about whose sheep and goats were whose, but they finally parted in peace. But that’s yet another story for another time.
This pretty much brings us to the First Reading for today, where we find Jacob on his way home from his long sojourn with Uncle Laban in the old country.
Jacob and his twin brother Esau were on the outs (a sibling rivalry of long standing, having to do with selling birthrights for a mess of pottage—that’s another story for another time!). And so Jacob’s return to Canaan was a careful one. In the event, you’ll recall or will be delighted to hear, Jacob and Esau were reconciled and reunited in peace; but in the part we hear read today that issue is still up in the air, and Jacob, worried about his family’s safety, sends them away, and he is left alone. And in the middle of the night Jacob has his famous—and mysterious—wrestling match with a stranger who turns out, apparently, to be an angel or a manifestation of the Lord, and Jacob receives a new name—”Israel”—which in Hebrew means, roughly, “wrestles with God.”
(People’s old Hebrew names actually meant something, you know. Rather like Native American names. I once saw an ad for a T‑shirt that read “My Indian name is Runs with Beer.” I liked that. Except I don’t run very well any more, and I don’t drink beer any more. Oh well. But I digress.)
“Israel” — “Wrestles with God.” I daresay that the idea of wrestling with God, or striving, or contending, or fighting with God, is not something most of us usually think of in connection with our spiritual lives as Christians. We think of worshipping God, or obeying God—or perhaps disobeying God—but not, very often, fighting with God. At least not as something to be regarded as positive or constructive. And yet the name “Israel” has its origin in a fight with God, and the whole history of the Israelite nation can be viewed under the model of wrestling with God—and not only the Israelites of Old Testament times but even the history of the Jewish people in the Christian era. The struggle with God is a common theme in Jewish spirituality right down to our own times—for instance, in the stories by Sholom Aleichem from which the musical play Fiddler on the Roof is drawn—remember Tevye the milkman’s running argument with God?
Are we willing to wrestle with God? Do we care enough about God, and our relationship with God, and the building of God’s Kingdom, that we will stand up in protest and contend with God in our hearts? Do we love God that deeply? Are we that committed to the Reign of God? Or do we quit? Do we resign ourselves and say, “Oh, it’s God’s will” and give up, long before we can possibly have found out what God’s will really is? (Be very careful about what you say is “God’s will”!) Or do we just walk away, saying, “Well, God, if you’re gonna be like that, just forget it!”? We surrender, or we desert, but we will not wrestle. And yet with God, as in our relationships with each other, to be willing to struggle is a sign that we take the relationship and our commitment to it seriously.
The depths of the mystery of God are very great, and God will not be tamed by us. Like Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, God can be very gentle and yet also very terrible. As indeed is Jesus himself (of whom Aslan is a literary figure). A major New Testament image presents God as our loving Father, and rightly so; yet God is not just good old Dad. In the depths of the divine mystery God also comes to us as the fearsome stranger summoning us to combat in the dark of the night: challenging us that we may truly grow, wounding us in order to make us truly whole, slaying us that we may truly live. Our response to this God who summons us to wrestle is to say with Jacob, “I will not let you go, until you bless me.” And thus—perhaps only thus—are we given to see who we really are, what our name really is. Only in relationship of that depth are we, with Jacob, able to see God face to face.
And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.