Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b
As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story. Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life. But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel. Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children. Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.
Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed. For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest. Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation. Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.
Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us. Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions. “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.
Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well. And that is a much harder prospect to face.
This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of loaves and fishes. I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily! But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia. Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example. What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning? What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?
Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle. Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there. The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.
And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.
Wouldn’t we all wrestle?
Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own? Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk? Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done? Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?
Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe. We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.
And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church. For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God. We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church. We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others. And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?
We wrestle. We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it. We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day. We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.
We wrestle, and for longer than a night.
But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner. For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway. I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and asks for a blessing anyway. He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness. He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all. Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.
Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.
We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers. And sometimes, we get hurt.
But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed? Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations? the miraculous abundance that flows from God?
We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?
Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?
May it be so.