Strength and Commitment
Recently, we have spent time with the scriptures that tell us about Jacob. Today we hear of Jacob wrestling. Wrestling is a very intimate activity. Two people, strangers perhaps, in closer physical contact than would be wise at the moment. In our Genesis reading we hear that Jacob wrestled with someone. Our text says a man or some man. Some interpreters have tried to identify this unknown man as an angel of God. Angels are often unrecognised at first, seen as simply an unknown person. Other interpreters have suggested that this was Esau, unrecognised, the brother whom Jacob spent a lifetime envying, tricking, competing with, besting, Others have suggested that it was the Lord himself.
Not only do we not know, in detail and with certainty, the identity of Jacob’s opponent, we also do not know of any other wrestling match like this. Jacob is not playing to win if the other is weaker, or seeking to survive if the other is stronger. Instead he seeks an acknowledgement of relationship. He seeks a blessing, and come what may he will not let go until he gets it. Is this an effort to rewrite the stolen blessing from his father Isaac, that should rightly have gone to his brother? Was it an effort to seek forgiveness for all the wrongs he had done to others? Or a blessing on his future efforts to change his life and his relationships with God and with his brother?
Whoever his opponent, Jacob knew that this was his chance for blessing.
He did not receive this blessing easily. Firstly, he was renamed. He would no longer be Jacob, the one who takes the place of another and deceives another, but Israel, Is-ra-el, the one who has striven with God and with men, not just on this occasion but throughout his whole life. In turn, he asks the name of the one with whom he wrestles. The only answer he gets is, Why do you ask? Jacob decides that he does not need to be told. He declares that he wrestles with God and he names the place where it happened with that name.
Often in our lives we wrestle with issues, with situations and with relationships, including our relationship with God. Will we be as persistent and determined as Jacob, not giving up until the outcome is a blessing? That does not necessarily mean that all is or will be a bed of roses. After all, Jacob emerged from his wrestling match maimed and limping for life, but victorious all the same, not victorious over his opponent but over his previous situation and his previous self. This may or may not be a miracle, but it was certainly the achievement of what seemed impossible.
In our reading from Romans, Paul had a great struggle too. He was in deep sorrow for those who had lost their way. He declares that he would gladly be cursed and cut off himself, if they could be restored. His being cursed is scarcely a solution but at lease he is prepared to pay a price to achieve the salvation of others. We often pray for others but are we also prepared to pay a price to help them?
Our Gospel story of the feeding of the great crowd is also a story of achieving what seemed impossible.
There is a well-known quote from Mother Teresa, I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. Prayer changes us and we change things.
Bishop Michael Currie similarly spoke recently about prayer as a call to action and he related how he searched the Episcopal Prayer Book for an example of this. The prayer he found is very familiar to us. Make me a channel of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love. Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord And where there's doubt, true faith in You…And of course there is more. This prayer attributed to St Francis is structured around what we find in the world and how we pray to be able to respond.
Jesus was asked by his disciples to deal with a great crowd of hungry people in the only way that they could imagine, by sending them away to get food. This was a perfectly reasonable suggestion on their part.
Do you remember what brought the great crowd out that day? Jesus had withdrawn to a quiet place but the quiet time he sought did not happen. The people followed him, bringing their sick ones to be healed. And, we hear, Jesus had compassion for them. He really wanted a quiet time and space but he had compassion of them. He did heal many and they lingered, tired and hungry. I guess Jesus and his disciples were also tired and hungry. Many charities experience the phenomenon of compassion fatigue. People are moved by the plight of others and help as they can, but the need continues and they gradually stop responding to the cries for help.
But Jesus continued to have compassion for the crowds as the day wore on. He saw their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. While the disciples saw clearly that there was no food there and that the people should go and get food, Jesus had other ideas.
They are hungry. You need to feed them. And when the disciples trusted Jesus enough to start the task that he had given them, impossible as it seemed, Jesus helped them to bring it to completion. We often pray for God to fix something – poverty, injustice, sickness, war and violence, homelessness, broken relationships. It is good to pray for the resolution of these things. But do we also pray for guidance in what we should do, and the strength to do our part?
Like Jacob, we also need to wrestle with God and others until we and others are blessed. Like Mother Teresa and Bishop Michael Currie, we need to pray for continuing strength and commitment to do our part. And like the disciples, we need to trust that if we start the task, we will not be struggling alone.
May the Lord bless you with eyes to see, a heart to respond, and strength for the struggle. May we persist until we are blessed. Amen.