Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 02, 2020
GENESIS 37:1-4, MATTHEW 14:22-33
When we are sailing in a calm sea with a gentle steady breeze just strong enough to fill the sails and get us where we want to go; when the hand at the tiller can be anyone’s with just a little knowledge and a bit of coaching – we can go for hours, days, months and even years, seemingly on “autopilot”. We take life as it comes, and just sail on.
And then sometimes, all of a sudden, we end up some place where we had never thought to go. Oftentimes, it’s places we don’t want to go. There we face storms which threaten our families, our society – even our own lives. And we think “What did I do to end up here?” Most of the time, we don’t know if or how we actually did anything to get us there or to contribute to this peril. So, we struggle with the meaning of it. We ask “why me?” Sometimes, we get angry or we lose hope.
This story of journey, going off course and the struggle with God is told again and again in the Bible. There are many variations on it. The story of Noah is probably the first. Certainly, Abraham’s story fits this pattern. The story of Moses is probably the most well known in the First Testament and it sets the pattern for many others. Today it is Jacob who travels and arrives at a place where he feels his life is in danger.
Early in his life Jacob fled his from his home and his family because of the and deception that he and his mother, Rebekah, used to get his father, Isaac, to bless him rather than his brother Esau. He took what rightly belonged to Esau – and Esau was, rightfully, in my opinion, very angry with him. The story picks up today when Jacob is heading home, with his new family and all the wealth he has gained through his father-in-law, Laban. His father Isaac has died, and he is afraid of what kind of reception he will get from Esau.
In the passage just before the one we hear/read today, Jacob learns that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of 400. In the night, in his fear – possibly in his guilt for the original deception which caused this problem between the two brothers so long ago, Jacob struggles with a “man”. It becomes clear in the passage that this man represents God. Jacob struggles all night and finally wins out. He wins and as he once wanted a blessing from his father, he now wants a blessing from God. He has faced God – through his own conscience and his own fear. He has struggled with them both and in the struggle, in coming out the other side, he has found blessing. He has a new identity, a new name, because the struggle has changed him. He becomes Israel.
The circumstances of Jacob’s life and his name change are very different from our own circumstances. His struggle, though, is not that different from the kinds of struggles we have. Although he comes out the winner in the sense that he has gotten the blessing he looked for, he does not come out uninjured. And isn’t that usually the way of it? For us, when we hit a rough patch – and some rough patches are rougher than others, we struggle with it, we struggle with God. Sometimes our struggle is because we have deliberately made a wrong turn and we need to acknowledge it and to make it right in order to move on, to know God’s blessing once again in our lives. Sometimes our struggle has nothing to do with us making a wrong turn and yet we have ended up at this place where we do not want to be.
In both cases we are injured. We are marked by our struggle and we take that injury “on the road” with us as we continue our life journey. These rough patches in life change us. The change can be good or not so good. The person who gets divorced may wonder why they have to go through this terrible time of the crumbling of a life relationship. As they struggle, whether they come out the other side a better and a stronger person or a bitter person who can no longer trust in love, they are changed by the injuries they have received. If someone loses a job they may look back and see that as the time in their lives when they truly were forced to find what they were really meant to do with their lives or they may see it as the beginning of the end of their dreams. Whether the rough patch is illness, injury or even the death of a loved one – there is always injury, but there can also always be blessing. There can be change which will help us build our life again in our new circumstances. It can give us a new identity, a new name as we find blessing in our struggle. Yes, we sometimes limp away from the struggle – but if we know enough to ask for it, to demand it, we know that we take God’s blessing with us.
In his life, Jesus also struggled with God. He struggled with himself, with what was being asked of him. He was tempted in his struggle at the beginning of his ministry to go the way of power or the way of ease or the way of selfishness. Today we hear about his struggle with God in another way.
In the passage just before this one Jesus learns that John the Baptist is dead. He has been beheaded. Like Jesus, most of us have all been in the position where someone we care for deeply has died. A few have had to, like Jesus, face the violent death of a loved one. I think here about the families of the 22 victims of the mass shooting in our province earlier this year. They, like Jesus, face not only grief but also horror. John was a cousin to Jesus. They had known each other since they were children. More than this even: Jesus had been baptised in the Jordan by John. John was probably a mentor to him or at least admired by him. Certainly, he had been the person to whom Jesus turned for blessing at the beginning of his ministry. Is it any wonder Jesus wants some time alone; time to grieve. He needs, like all of us need, the healing hand of love laid upon him while he mourns. Like us, he needs time too – probably time to struggle alone with God about the meaning of this terrible violence and trajedy. Jesus doesn’t get that time. His struggle with God is turned into the demand that he feels pressing upon him to comfort others rather focus on his own need. We know that those who know about the process of grief would probably tell us today that he should have taken this time alone, but he doesn’t. There is no question in my mind that this internal struggle took its tole on him. It took him where was not planning to go – from healing time alone to taking responsibility for curing those brought to him, and then for feeding 10,000 of them!
Our struggles with God can look very different for different people, in different times and circumstances. Jacob became Israel by wrestling with God alone in the darkness of the night. In the death of John, Jesus struggled with God by being forced to turn away from his own grief to care of others. In another time and place, the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, like Jacob, also struggled with God alone in the darkness of the night. How do we handle our own struggles, our own rough patches? There is no magic formula which we can apply to our circumstances like a stencil that we can just copy again and again.
What there is, though, is the promise that no matter what has happened to us – no matter how we have been blown off course or taken ourselves off course, if we face the struggle with God, with the conscience we have been given, with the compassion arising from truly loving others, there will be blessing in the end. Struggling with God is always a dangerous prospect – we will come out of it changed, often injured – and sometimes with a permanent limp, like Jacob. However, if we do not face that struggle, we will continue off course, injuring ourselves and often others in much more devastating and destructive ways. When we hit our rough patches, let’s not be afraid to wrestle with God. God can take it. And whether we think we won the struggle or lost it, we are blessed because God is with us. God is changing us. God is preparing us for the ultimate blessing that Jesus found on the cross – Resurrection.