“The Fight and the Feast”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, August 6, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:13-21; Psalm 17:1-7; Romans 9:1-5; Genesis 32:22-31
“All our days pass away under Your wrath,” reads the ninth verse of Psalm 90—“our years come to an end like a sigh.” The tenth verse continues on in this same vein—“The days of our life are seventy years—perhaps eighty if we’re strong. But even then their span is only toil and trouble. They are soon gone and we fly away.” The intent of the psalmist in writing this way is not just to be negative about human existence, but rather to contrast its temporary and fragile quality to God’s existence, the God who, according to the first verse, “has been our dwelling place in all generations,” who “from everlasting to everlasting’ is God. Our lives and God’s life are vastly different and can in no way be compared in either extent or stability, which is exactly what makes God a God we can depend upon. However, the effect of these verses regarding human life’s frailty is to make life appear as if it is, for the most part, little more than an arena of struggle—a place where every day is a fight just to keep going. And really, I’m not sure many of us would disagree completely with that.
Although we might not find it as all-encompassing as the psalmist seems to, few of us would argue that struggle is a major part of our life—struggle with health, with money, with events, with and for those we love and those who oppose us—and sometimes these can be the same people, just to add another dimension of difficulty to the conflict. Our literature for the most part is based on struggle—few of us would read a piece of writing in which there is no conflict at all, where everything just goes just swimmingly all the time—it would not hold our interest, because interest is built up by seeing how characters in the story deal with situations of stress—it is, in a way, a method in which we imaginatively learn ourselves how to deal with stress while being safely distanced from it. Even our games and leisure time entertainments are centered on struggle—sports, video games, reality TV—all struggle-based. So, we’re used to this idea. We may not see life as only toil and trouble, as does the writer of Psalm 90, but toil and trouble are certainly a part of it. And that does not exempt believers.
There are some factions of Christian thought who preach that God wants you to live without ever having to deal with struggle or pain, that if you just believe enough, God will spread life out before you like a road with no potholes. But this has never been the view of most Christian tradition, nor is it the biblical view—virtually every book of the Bible, Old or New Testament, bears witness to the reality that life can be hard and that there will be in every life days in which we don’t want to get out of bed because of what that day will bring. And those hardcore days, which can try our faith, will come to believers as well as non-believers, just as they have to every believer before us, just as they will to every believer after us
The ways in which struggle enters our lives are of course, limitless, as varied as the varied details that make up our individua existences, those details providing the context for the conflicts. But today we read three passages of scripture which depict three possible forms the reality of trouble may take in the life of a person of faith. These passages will not, certainly, exhaust the possibilities, but they give us a little view of their variety.
In Psalm 17, the psalmist’s struggle is fairly obvious—he is in conflict with other people. Commentators sometimes suggest that the here struggle is legal in nature, that the writer has been accused of some wrongdoing, causing him to call out to God, “From You let my vindication come—let Your eyes see the right.” But while this may be indeed the psalm’s original setting, its application to our lives goes well beyond that. Like most people, this believer has people ready to cause him trouble, perhaps even willing to do him harm. His is not a charmed life without conflicts, and in those conflicts, he calls out to God for help, to be the “savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries”—“Please, O LORD,” the psalm might be paraphrased, “let my struggles become Yours!”
There is also a possibility suggested in these seven verses that the psalmist may be finding himself a little tempted to fight back against his opposition in ways of which God would not approve, making him just as bad and wrongdoing as those who threaten him. When he writes, “By the word of Your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent—my feet have held fast to Your paths,” he may be implying that to do so has become a fight for him—he is getting close to slipping into less godly ways, and is praying to God to help him keep to the path of faith.
If either or both struggles face the psalmist, he as our first example shows the reality of conflict in life as it arises out of life with others. Now we turn to Paul, writing in Romans, and find him engaged in a very different kind of conflict—one of the mind and the soul.
Romans 9 opens a long section of that letter in which Paul struggles with a theological concern—what will be the fate of the Jews—the fate of Israel—if it ends up rejecting Jesus as the Christ as God’s chosen and sent Messiah? These Jews—this Israel—are his people—his blood family—“my kindred according to the flesh,” he writes, and he is sorely concerned with “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” about their spiritual and physical future if they do reject Jesus who he believes to be the One in whom God has acted to bring new life to bear for the world. So concerned is Paul about this that he claims that he would allow himself to be separated from Christ of he could help them.
We rea only the beginning phrases of this struggle of his which carry on through Romans 11, for this is not a simple task. It is not a black and white question for Paul to grapple with because while he knows that God has acted in Jesus, and that the Jews, for the most part, have rejected Jesus, he also realizes that Israel is the chosen people—it was to Israel and in Israel that God first acted, and to them were given “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises.” And it’s this last mentioned that bothers Paul most of all. God has promised the covenant to Israel—now that Jesus has come, to open that covenant to the world, does that mean that God’s promises to Israel have become void? And if it does, what does that say about how much God will be faithful to us?
These are Paul’s struggles with for the next three chapters of Romans and they are not easy; they weigh that heavily on his mind. They were his question for his life. His question and concern and struggle will probably not be ours—yet, we will have our own. When I was a young person growing up in Nazarene Sunday School, one of my main theological concerns was “What is God going to do with people who have never heard of Jesus—are they damned to hell?” And I spent a lot of time thinking about that and talking to other believers about it. That is no longer my pressing concern, and it may not be yours, although it may be. But there is something that is—there’s always something. Perhaps yours has to do with abortion—or the presence of evil and cruelty in a life which Christians claim is in the hands of God. Perhaps your concern is about gender or domestic violence or gay believers or people you know who want nothing to do with God. Perhaps you ponder why the church sometimes refuses to act like the church, or Christians act in a way less than Christian. Whatever it may be, you and I would probably agree with Paul that it is very bothersome—if we are serious about faith, it weighs on us—it troubles both the heart and the mind, and can confuse both. It is a trial to faith sometimes even to have to deal with these kinds of questions of faith, and it always has been. And thus we have another source of struggle—our own beliefs and claims about God and life and how they mesh or sometimes refuse to, forcing us to struggle in our souls as Paul does in Romans.
But now we come to the last example of scripture, that dealing with the famous account of Jacob wrestling with an angel. And here we have what might be the most difficult struggle any of us will ever have to face—the struggle with ourselves.
Often times in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Genesis, commentators will suggest that old legends have become intertwined with the stories of Israel, influencing the form the stories have taken. Such is the case here. Old stories told about river demons or other spirits who would attack people during the night, and such a legend may have made its way into this story of Jacob. If that is the case, however, it’s unimportant now as we think about what the story means to our faith as we have it in Genesis. For the being that Jacob wrestles with is clearly not intended to be thought of as a demon or ghost by the final writer—it is rather, by most interpretation, in some way God Himself, a possibility which has its own problems to grapple with. But I think that possibly there is also another option to consider when wondering who this mysterious man is who comes into conflict with Jacob.
The first thing we learn from the text in this story is that Jacob is alone when he wrestles. He has sent his wives, his maids, his eleven children (Benjamin having not yet been born), and all his possessions, across the River Jabbok to its western shore, but he has remained behind—as the text says, “Jacob was left alone.” on the east side of the river. And I think this is how it had to be, for Jacob was about to undertake a supreme struggle in which he would have to face himself. We will only face our most inner selves when we are alone. When we’re surrounded by society or our friends or family with all our stuff and all our money and all our reputation and power, those things help insulate us from having to deal with our innermost being. It’s only when those are gone and we have nothing but God to depend upon, that we can we truly encounter our deepest issues. Thus it must be for Jacob, and he is left alone.
The story is mysterious, giving us no introduction whatsoever to the event and no explanation—all it says is that “a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Who is this “man” we ask, and why does he wrestle, and how does Jacob “prevail” over him? As already mentioned, old legends opt for a river demon. A clear favorite for most writers is that the mysterious wrestler is some manifestation of God—an angel perhaps, or God incarnate. But how can Jacob prevail over God, and what does it mean that the text says that he does? In what way does he prevail? But as mentioned before, there is perhaps another way to consider this unknown opponent’s identity. Before moving to that idea, however, we need to consider a few verses somewhat earlier in Genesis, in which we overhear a prayer Jacob makes to God as Jacob and his retinue are heading back to the Promised Land. Jacob has left one problem behind him, his troublesome father-in-law, Laban. But Jacob has also received news that as he is heading home, another problem is coming to meet him, one from his past. The word has come that his offended brother, Esau, accompanied by four hundred men, is coming this way. AND Jacob prays.
The prayer is made in Genesis 32 verse nine and ten, and this is how it reads. “O God of my father, Abraham and God of my father, Isaac. O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good—I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and faithfulness You have shown to Your servant. With only my staff I crossed over this Jordan River heading eastward before. Now as I return westward, I have two companies and all these children and possessions—You have given me great things and a great promise of the future. So, LORD, please—You have been with me before—be with me now as I have to meet Esau.”
The way Jacob addresses God here is very different from the way he had back when he had first begun his trip from home, running from Esau. Back then, when God had appeared to him in a dream, standing at the head of a heavenly ladder covered with angels and had promised him the covenant, Jacob had played the part of a bargainer—“If You will be with me, God, and take care of me, and give me everything I need, I will worship You and give You some of it back.” There was no humility in it before God, and very little indication of gratitude. That has changed now in this homeward bound prayer. Jacob now realizes that God has exceeded what Jacob ever deserved to get, even though Jacob, by his own admission, is “unworthy.” Yet God has loved him and stood by him nonetheless. God has been faithful to His word. “So,” prays Jacob, in a very different way, “please be faithful again, for I still need You—I will always need You.”
This is a very different man praying from the one who had first left Canaan. And I believe that it is this changing Jacob, this awakening Jacob who wrestles with the old Jacob at the River Jabbok that night. And yet, even though one could say is one Jacob against another Jacob, it is also in a way God as well, for the changing Jacob is the one who God stands with, who God yearns to create, the one who will become Israel, the one who God has shaped and is shaping and will yet shape to become God’s covenant bearer.
And these two wrestle. It is a long and difficult contest and who would expect differently with such evenly matched wrestlers. And finally, it is only as Jacob is wounded in the hip, that one can be said to overcome the other, and that only in part. So Jacob loses—but, Jacob also wins. He loses, walking away from this match wounded, but in that wound he wins, walking away changed, made more into the Jacob—the Israel—he was always intended to be. He has striven with God and people and with himself, and God has been with Him through those struggles, and they have moved one more step ahead into the future God intends for him. The struggle is not yet over—it will go on. But with God at his side, Jacob—Israel—will continue to prevail.
All these passages of scripture this morning, while certainly not covering every shade of struggle we may face in life, do yet present ways in which every one of us will have to contend sooner or later. All of us will struggle with people and events—we will struggle with theology and what we believe and what we consider to be God’s calling for us as a people. And through all of those, we will struggle as well with ourselves to become more than we are, more what we can be—more of what God promises we can be in Jesus Christ. And all the trials that have been mentioned by these stories, along with any others you can come up with that might be personal to you, have a commonality—in all of them, God in Jesus Christ will struggle with us.
That, when all is said and done, is the meaning of the story we read in Matthew today of the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle story of Jesus told by all four gospels, showing just how important it was to the growing church. And that’s because the story is about a lot more than just food. It is that, but to an even greater extent, it’s a story of how God in Jesus Christ will be there to provide us for what we need when we need it, standing by us in every circumstance we might ever face and in every struggle we undertake. It is a story about of God’s “grace being sufficient for me” as Paul once put it.
The story opens as do others of the gospel accounts with Jesus trying to get away for a while to be by Himself and pray. He has just heard about what happened to John the Baptist—how Herod the king has put John to death, a death that foreshadows His own. And Jesus decides to spend some time with the Father in prayer, struggling with what this event means in His own life and spirit. But as He prepares to do this, He finds Himself thwarted, for the crowds, all of whom have some struggle or another of their own in which they need Jesus’ help, follow Him as He attempts to find solitude and surround Him asking for help, for strength, for guidance. And Jesus, being Jesus, and having compassion for them, sets aside His own struggle to be with them in theirs.
All day long Jesus heals and teaches and supports. And when evening approaches, the disciples, probably worn out themselves, suggest that it’s time Jesus dismiss the crowd and send them home to get their meal. But Jesus refuses. This is His flock—these are His people. And He will not let them go in their toil and trouble—He will not send them away. So instead, He tells His friends—“Let them stay here with Me, and You feed them.” And when they protest quite reasonably that this is impossible, He does it Himself. And that is the story the church as it grew clung to so firmly—that in what we needed, Jesus would be always faithful, God always faithful, the Spirit always faithful, never to send us away empty—never to send us away.
We relive this feast of God’s people every time we take Communion together. When today you look at this table spread as it is, don’t see a table at all—see a spreading meadow in which you with thousands of others have come to where Jesus is the Host and feeds us Himself. We have not come to what the liturgy calls, “this feast” without our troubles and conflicts—indeed, they have brought us here searching. We bring them all with us. But here in this place we are invited and urged to bring those conflicts and toils place them ion Jesus’ hand and heart, into the realm of God, and here have Christ take them upon Himself—to put His yoke upon us and bear us up, as He is always ready to do so. And as He lifts us up, we might find ourselves, molded into His image, more ready and able to lift others, to help others around us deal with their own conflicts and struggles, becoming blessings of the Blesser, shepherds of the Great Shepherd, ambassadors of God in Christ.
The psalmist is not wrong about struggle in Psalm 90. But neither does he end with them. Even though our lives may be filled with toil and trouble, and compared with God be brief as a whisper, still God has decided, has ordained, has acted in Jesus Christ to do more—to make us more. So, the psalmist goes on, praying—“Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Prosper for us the work of our hands, O LORD—make it Your own.” And God will do that—has done it already in Jesus. Though we may have to face a fight sometimes, engage in struggle and trial, some of which will wear us down, we are always by the promise of God invited also to the feast where we will find ourselves welcomed, fed, and strengthened by the One who, generation to generation, is God. +++