By Matthew Croucher

Genesis 32: 22-31, Matthew 14: 12-21

The Genesis story read to us by Roz is an old story.  It may have roughly reached its current form around seven or eight centuries before Jesus was born, so it was already ancient when he would have heard it in the synagogue at Nazareth.

The story may be part of a propaganda effort, retrospective myth-telling 8th century BCE-style, to legitimise the growing strength of the northern Kingdom of Israel as opposed to the ‘older brother’ (so to speak) of the neighbouring Kingdom of Edom.  Or maybe this story is simply the Word of God as dictated to Moses centuries earlier.  Whatever it is, our challenge is to wrestle with it to see if any blessing can be found – whether or not any part of us is put out of joint by it.

Incidentally, the photo on the front of today’s order of service is of the river, now called the Zarqa, which seems to have been called the Jabbok at the time this Genesis story was compiled.  The photo shows a fordable part of the river in the kind of landscape in which the “Peniel” of this story was probably located, in what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

And so to the Genesis text.  Let’s begin with the obvious: at face value, if the theme of this unusual story is not “the struggle”, then at the very least struggling is the metaphor by which the themes are worked out.

Take a moment to think about the biggest things with which you struggle.  Perhaps they revolve around a relationship with a particular person.  Or with an addiction. Perhaps you struggle with a moral question: what is the right thing for you to do?  Is it the demands others or circumstances have placed on you, or perhaps the demands you place on yourself?  Is simply coping your biggest struggle, perhaps with some aspect of your situation in life, such as your health or your finances, with parenting, with your gender or sexuality, or with your history of trauma?  Is your struggle with perceptions to do with your successes in life, or your failures?  With your faith, or your doubt?  What are your biggest areas of struggle at this point in your life?  I am well-acquainted with mine.

The story of Jacob that solidified into the last sections of the book of Genesis makes it clear that he struggled a lot.  In particular, he struggled to do the right thing, and often failed, sometimes spectacularly.  He is something of an anti-hero by this point of his story – half trickster, half fool; both knave and victim.  This story occurs at an important turning point.  He is finally going to try and rejoin his immediate family after having previously fled from them in shame years earlier because of the worst kinds of bad behaviour and he has no idea what reception he is going to receive.  He’s going to face the music, so we feel there’s some hope for him yet, but the stakes are very high.  The outcome of this part of his struggle is soon going to become clear, but right now it hangs in the balance.

It is exactly at this point that the narrators of Genesis decide it is important to tell us that Jacob finds himself alone, in the dark, hesitating before crossing the Rubicon to face whatever will come next.

Can you relate?  I can.  I remember what it was like when I was deciding how to come out to my family and decide what to do with my first marriage.  I remember struggling with whether I would re-engage with prayer and with church when the zeal of my evangelical upbringing had become sand in my mouth and lead in my boots.  Not one of my crisis-points resolved without my own moments of being alone, in the dark.

I think it would have been fine if this Genesis story had ended with “So Jacob was left alone, worked his way through it, and decided to feel the fear and do it anyway; so he crossed the Jabbok, and faced his brother.”  There would be worthy moral lessons and spiritual wisdom for us from a narrative in which Jacob wrestled with his fear and doubt and pathetic back-story and chose to take the risky but nobler path.

But, dear friends, the narrators pivot to something so odd you’ve got to admire the chutzpah: “So Jacob was left alone, and … a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”

The single most helpful thing I read in other folks’ considerations about this story was the observation that this sentence, strange as it is, does not say that Jacob initiated a wrestling match with the mysterious stranger, as in, say, “Jacob saw an opportunity and picked a fight with the stranger”.  Instead of calling this story “Jacob wrestles with an angel” perhaps we should call it “An angel wrestles with Jacob”.

What if it is worth considering the possibility that God sometimes picks a fight with us?  Including at moments when we are most vulnerable, at our weakest, and beset on every side.  Very unfair moments, very poorly timed … maybe that’s even the point: are these moments when God might, just might, have a fighting chance of wrestling us to the ground?

Or to think of this in a different way, what if God sometimes chooses these moments to provoke us, to poke us with a stick, to muscle in on our drama or our complacency so flagrantly that it sparks some fight in us; it triggers us, it inflames us to push back?

Does this have a ring of truth in it for you?  It does for me.  At one of my lowest moments as a young adult, sitting alone on a park bench in a city that was not my home, darkness fell and I was thinking about giving up.  Then I had something of a religious experience.  It seemed to me that God was suddenly there, and not in the warm and supportive guise I was used to, but in a confronting and frankly somewhat frightening one.  I felt an irrefusable divine “No!” to the strange attraction I was feeling towards despair.  The experience re-ignited the beginning of my “Yes” to living, only living differently.

I also think about the most important turning point in my adult life, when I was unexpectedly given a vision of such a bleak future that, like Scrooge, I was so shocked that I found the energy to return and live my present-day life in a way that had seemed wholly impossible until that moment.

Does God sometimes come to us as a mysterious stranger on a dark night of the soul, to pick a fight with us instead of to offer us comfort?  Is the voice of God sometimes in the Raging Fire, the Rushing Wind, and the Earthquake, and not in the quietness that follows?  Now please do not get me wrong here: I am not arguing that the nature of suffering is that it is deliberately visited on us to teach us a lesson.

The gospel story that Pauline read today is familiar to many of us as “The Feeding of the Five Thousand”.  When this moment in Jesus’ life is considered side by side with today’s Jacob story, it seems to me to share some resonance with it.  But you do need to read the verse before the editor’s “Feeding of the Five Thousand” narrative: John the Baptist has finally but shockingly been executed by the government and Jesus stops what he is doing to get away “to a quiet place” and cope with that news.  Can you imagine the impact on Jesus, no matter whether John and he had become friends, or colleagues, or even rivals?  Jesus really needs his moment alone and in the dark, perhaps because for the first time he clearly sees where his path will also inevitably lead.

But at this of all times, might we not notice in this story that a fight comes uninvited to Jesus, not entirely unlike it did to Jacob?  Not as a mysterious stranger who attempts to pin him to the ground but as a crowd of so many people that it seemed as if there were thousands; people who “were like sheep without a shepherd”, possibly in part because they had also heard the news about John.  If God’s hand can be seen in this, it is not fair and it is poorly timed.  “What are you going to do about that, Jesus?  Eh? Eh?!”

Jesus is recorded as choosing to enter into the demands of the unfolding situation, of wrestling with the moment by taking on these other peoples’ struggles for a time and allowing them to become his own.  And most importantly for me, he emerges intact as the Messiah he meant to be, not the Messiah people thought they needed.  Instead of rallying these sheep without a shepherd to react to John’s execution by beginning the long-awaited political movement against the oppressors of Israel, something that in the tinderbox of Galilee at the time he could surely have done, we have instead healing of the sick and a shared meal.  No doubt Jesus went up a mountain for some ‘me time’ later and no doubt he took the whole thing up with his ‘Abba Father’ in due course, but not until after this wrestling with the crowd’s needs was over.

Back in Genesis, we are told that the ultimate outcome of the story for Jacob was unexpectedly good.  Just as there were fish butties and healing for everyone in Galilee, there was rapprochement for Jacob with his brother Esau.  But before we get to that, today’s Jacob story brings in another element, one common to the whole of the Bible.  The narrative rounds off the immediate outcome of the struggle that God has joined with Jacob with a re-naming.

This also shares parallels with today’s gospel.  Jesus had already had his transformative moment of wrestling with an angel, recounted by Matthew in chapter 4.  Satan brings the fight to Jesus in the Wilderness and tempts him to be the kind of Messiah that the world could understand.  Jesus enters into this competition of values and prevails.  Closely tied with this story was the giving of a new title to Jesus, immediately prior to him entering that wilderness: “A voice from heaven said ‘This is my son, with whom I am well pleased’”.  Joining the struggle and being re-named are linked, and when Jesus walks out of the desert, it is not as a carpenter but as a rabbi.

Even though today’s gospel reading does not mention it, I wonder if Jesus was also changed by the way he chose to wrestle with what was brought to him by the crowds in this aftermath of John the Baptist’s death?  Doesn’t a real struggle always change us?

For Jacob, this story in the darkness at the ford of Peniel is his pivotal moment.  God and Jacob are struggling, both fighting to see a blessing take shape, and that blessing is a new name.  “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”  We can notice that this blessing did not come without an injury, a permanent limp.  Nevertheless, from here on the Genesis narrative is of a Jacob who finds redemption and sees the promises of God take shape, albeit with difficulty, until ultimately he dies in peace.

Stripped of whatever political meanings this wrestling story had in the 8th century BCE, a meaning it may also have for the religious right in modern Israel, at the very least suggests to us that sometimes, it is important to join in a struggle with God.

Which makes me wonder, what will give us the wisdom to discern between those struggles we would do well to engage with because of the promise of transformation, and those struggles from which we should plead for deliverance, asking “save us from the time of trial” or even “I surrender, Lord”?  I think such wisdom might itself need to be a gift, highlighting our complete dependence on the Grace of God.

But friends, to be honest, when I look at these two stories today and think about the major struggles that have been brought to me when I’ve been alone and in the dark, like Jesus, like Jacob, I’m not sure I’ve really had that much of a choice: no discernment went on.  The fight was brought to me and it wasn’t really possible to just walk away and say no.  They were life or death struggles.  I didn’t feel I had any choice but to engage with them.  I don’t think Jacob’s angel asked first before lunging for him.

Which, for me, dear brothers and sisters, highlights even more starkly our complete dependence, our shared need for the Grace of God in all our struggles.  Thanks be to Our Lord of the Struggle that the grace we need to wrestle with God and overcome is always available for us in Christ, un-earned, undeserved, and freely given.  Just don’t let go until you find it.


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