Written by Pastor Ed
A Limp and A New Name
August 6, 2017
Genesis 32: 22-31
Matthew 14: 13-21
Have you ever felt like you were wrestling with God? Let me put it a different way; have you ever wrestled with a decision you had to make, or a situation that you faced that you weren’t sure what to do about? Both of our reading this morning are situations that we can, if we think about it, probably relate to.
We read this account of Jacob wrestling with someone overnight, and it might seem like a rather strange story. But let’s remember what Jacob was wrestling with, or about. Jacob is on his way home. You remember who Jacob is? He’s the one who had this falling out with his twin brother, Esau, you know over a birthright and a blessing. Jacob had fled from home because of all that, gone off and had his years with Laban where he acquired two wives, Leah and Rachel, and acquired quite a large estate of cattle, sheep, servants, and children. And then he decided, partly I suspect because he didn’t get along with Laban all that well, to head back to his home country.
In preparation for going back, he sent messengers to his brother Esau telling him that he was coming back. Part of the message was that he had done alright for himself in the intervening years. I don’t know if this was a boast, or whether Jacob was testing the water, or what, but the messengers report back was a bit disconcerting. “Esau is coming to meet you with four hundred men.” In perhaps a bit of an understatement, the writer says, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.”
And so he begins to make plans for the encounter with his twin brother. He divides his company into two groups and separates them thinking that if one party gets attacked, the other can flee. He prays and pleads with God, and he sends a large peace offering to Esau, not just one, but numerous gifts of cattle, goats, sheep, camels and donkeys. Maybe, he thought that will appease Esau.
And then we have the night before they met in which Jacob wrestled. Can you imagine what was going through his mind? Have you ever spent a night like that, anticipating something you dread coming up the next day? Playing over and over in your mind all that history. How you deceived your father to get his blessing from your brother. How you got the birthright for a bowl of porridge. And you did this to your twin! What would happen tomorrow when you met after all these years?
It’s not hard to imagine that Jacob didn’t get any sleep that night nor that he felt as though he wrestled physically with someone as he lay there, tossing and turning. I’m sure many of us can relate.
The disciples didn’t face quite as big a dilemma, but they still had reason to be concerned and a bit anxious. They were still trying to figure out exactly who this Jesus was that they had been following and what it was about him that was attracting such large crowds. And now they had a really large crowd on their hands, and when they approached Jesus to suggest that perhaps he should send them home, after all you never know about people when they get tired and hungry, Jesus had said, “You give them something to eat.”
So now it was they who were going to get the blame if things turned ugly. You can imagine them huddling, scratching their heads and dispersing through the crowd to see what might be available. Maybe somebody had a picnic lunch for 5000, or there was a food truck just over the next hill. And then to have to go back to Jesus with the little bit they had collected and admit that they really had no idea how to feed such a crowd. They too must have wrestled with many questions. Why were they following this guy? Who was he really? Would the crowd turn on them when they tried to parcel out the little bit of food they had? Who should get fed first?
As is so often the case, both Jacob and the disciples could imagine the worst case scenario. It’s what we all tend to do when we are faced with dilemmas or situations, even ones that we have put ourselves in, like Jacob. We struggle because we see only the scarcity of what we have or we remember what went before that put us into this situation. We think about how we might react, or what our past interactions have been.
Now, let’s be clear. Nowhere is there any hint that such a struggle is a bad thing. Sometimes we are given the impression by others that we should never have doubts or struggle with our faith. The Bible is full of stories of people who had doubts and struggled to understand God or what God was calling them to do. All of the pillars of the faith through the centuries tell of their struggles, sometimes even to believe. We call it the “dark night of the soul.” As the bulletin cover says, wrestling with God means you have a relationship and any relationship sometimes has its struggles.
Jacob struggled all night, wrestling and struggling with himself and with the “man.” It is interesting to note, as one commentator did, that it is only in the morning that Jacob recognizes that it was really God he was struggling with. “I have seen God face to face,” he says in the morning. And maybe that’s part of the lesson for us as well. Often times we are faced with struggles or situations that cause us sleepless nights. We wrestle with decisions, dread situations we are going to face, or simply don’t know what the future may hold.
And it is only in retrospect that we realize we too have been struggling with God. That our dilemma has to do with whether we can truly trust God for what ever happens. We look at the few resources we have and think there is no way we can do what God has called us to. Or we remember our past and what we have done and wonder if it will come back to haunt us and create a scene. And in reality, part of that struggle is a test of our faith and a question of whether we will persevere until morning.
I’m reminded of an evening prayer, that’s actually in the back of Sing the Journey, #183, that says in part:
“It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
What has not been done has not been done;
let it be.”
And yet our struggles are not in vain. A workshop I attended years ago used this story of Jacob as a metaphor for the many struggles we go through in life and in the end we noted that Jacob came away with two reminders of his struggle; a new name and a limp.
Names in the Old Testament always have meanings, and say something about who the person is. Jacob was the one who grasped the heel of his brother. But after his night of wrestling, he was given a new name and a new purpose. He became Israel, one who strives with God, and thus became the father of God’s people in a new way. But he also came away with a reminder of that struggle, a limp.
Now, we may not come away from our struggles with God with a physical reminder, but whenever we go through those wilderness times, times of doubt, or times when we have to learn to rely on God, we too come away with reminders. For it is exactly in those times when our faith tends to grow stronger, because, as Jacob and the disciples found out, God is able to provide.
For all of Jacob’s fear and distress, when he finally met Esau, we are told that Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, kissed him and they wept together. It’s interesting to note that Esau, in fact, is the one who acts the most graciously toward his brother. Jacob is still wary and when Esau invites them to travel together, or even just send some men along to help, Jacob declines the offer and goes off in a different direction. Someone once noted that so far as the record goes, they never met again.
And the disciples, well you can imagine their wonder as they began passing out the food, and passing out the food, and passing out the food. And then Jesus has the audacity to tell them to pick up the leftovers! There were leftovers; twelve baskets full! What had they been so worried about?
As we come through those periods of struggle, we learn anew that God is able to provide, that our trust in God is strengthened, and that the anticipation of things is often much worse that the actuality. And we are reminded of that whenever we face the next struggle, whether it’s with a limp or a new name.