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East Harwich, MA 02645
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Matthew 14:13-21

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Genesis 32:22-31

22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Romans 9:1-5

9I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

One Tough Angel
Genesis 32:22-31
The Rev Dr Dianne ES Carpenter
6 August 2023

Jacob wrestled the angel of God, and Jacob won.  Is this scene attractive in the same way that when there’s a fight on the playground everyone quickly gathers around to watch?  Do you want to see what happens here, and already know that Jacob wins?  Do we want to see how we do it and what happens afterward?  Are we tempted to shout: why don’t you pick on someone your own size! – at the Angel

Perhaps, even stronger than that is the draw of seeing a picture that we recognize well.  There is something familiar here and something I find refreshingly honest and true to life.  Jacob is wrestling with God.  Not Jacob sitting quietly with God, not Jacob walking faithfully alongside God (In the Garden), not Jacob on his knees speaking and listening to God, but Jacob: a real live human being, wrestling, grappling, struggling with God from dusk until dawn.  It’s a scene that resonates with many people’s experiences.  What is there that you care enough about to wrestle until morning?

The Jacob story brings out into the open what is often experienced as hidden.  It makes public visible what can often be private and invisible—the human experience of wrestling with that which we do not know, can’t understand, and can’t control.  It’s quite common, and quite human, for us to do battle with those mysterious angels…  And to come out on the other side with a blessing, and some bruises.  We are engaged in what Sister Joan Chittister calls “a spirituality of struggle.” 

She says: God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act.  God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness.  Yet it is a struggle…  How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them?  To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” (Sister Joan Chester, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, page 16)

This scene of struggle happens at an important transition in Jacob’s life.  He is on a journey, between the land of Laban, his uncle, where he had lived his adult life, married, and had children; and the land of Canaan where he is now headed, his place of birth.  Jacob’s time with Laban had been productive.  He came with nothing and had acquired wives, children, servants, flocks, and herds, all the signs of wealth and prosperity of that time.  But he and Laban were almost always at odds with each other, each trying to trick and deceive the other for personal gain.  [sounds like the market place-the rat race]  Interactions that are so common when we try to deal with systems and structures. Our federal and state organizations.

So, Jacob is leaving and heading back home.  To get home he will have to cross paths with his brother Esau.  On this night Jacob is camping by the river Jabbok.  His wrestling match with the angel that night will not be his first conflict or confrontation in life.  The event serves as a sort of parable for Jacob’s life up to that point.

He had always been wrestling-both by nature and by nurture.  He wrestled with his twin Esau in Rebekah’s womb.  Genesis 25:22 says,” The children struggled together within her;” and she said,” If it is to be this way why do I live.” Apparently, Jacob lost the match, because Esau came out first, but Jacob wasn’t giving up as he was born grabbing onto Esau’s heel.  Esau, the infant wrestling champion, had all the legal rights and blessings of the firstborn, but for the slightly younger Jacob, this was just round one.  He would spend much of his adult life trying to wrestle for blessings.  He wrestles Esau’s birthright from him, he wrestles his father’s blessing from him-the blessing had ritual and legal significance, so this was a big prize.  When Esau finds out he is furious and vows to kill Jacob after their elderly father dies.  Jacob flees the scene with his hard-earned blessing and goes to find his uncle. 

So now he is leaving Laban with all the blessings he gained while with him and facing the fact that he will soon be encountering Esau.  How do face what you are afraid of? [a visit to the dentist, relationships – like Thanksgiving gatherings.  At the river Jabbok, Laban is behind him, Esau is just ahead of him, and Jacob gets jumped by God. ************* At the river******* For ages important things happen at the river

Jacob should serve as a model to us because we don’t wrestle enough, perhaps.  There’s no way to handle the hopelessness of the results when most people just don’t care anymore.  “The opposite of love is not hate, but apathy.”

Part of the mystery of the story is the ambiguity around whom Jacob is wrestling.  Is it a God?  An angel?  A human being?  Is it himself?  All of these are possibilities.  From a modern psychological perspective, it’s easy to read this as an internal battle within the anxiety-ridden Jacob.  Quite possible.  The text identifies the opponent as a man in verse 24, who then later tells Jacob that he has wrestled with human and divine beings.  Eventually, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The line is blurred here between the struggle with another human being, like Brother Esau, an inner psychological struggle of confronting your own demons, and the struggle with God’s own self.  These kinds of distinctions are ones that the text leaves unclear.

What is clear is that Jacob sees his very real, physical struggle as an encounter with God.

We can relate this to any kind of wrestling match we may be involved in, in our psyche, in our family or friend relationships, in our struggle to promote justice and peace, and in our quest for spiritual and physical healing.  All these encounters are, in hindsight, encounters with God, seeing God face to face.  Recent experiences lying in a hospital …or visiting with friends… unable to do anything … to take away the pain…

Jacob wins not because he pins his opponent, but because he simply won’t let go.  He holds on for dear life- like those in the marches for racial justice and other issues- and refuses to loosen his grip until he gets a blessing.  His victory comes at a cost.  He gets bruised up.  From now on he will limp through life, bearing the scars of his encounter.

Struggle before reconciliation with God who so loves the world he sent his only begotten son—do we struggle enough to internalize that wonderful gift

Struggle before reconciliation with our estranged loved ones

He’ll never quite be the same, and visibly so.  He also never gains complete control over his wrestling partner.  And we come to this wonderful ritual of naming.  Naming plays a very significant role in the Old Testament, like many other cultures.  To name something or someone is to capture the essence of that person.  [Advertising has a focus on naming] Naming also can imply having power over a person.  If you can name something, you have a kind of authority over it, [God paraded creation before Adam for him to name the animals] sort of like us diagnosing and naming a certain disease so we know how to try and gain power over it.  Jacob tries but never gets to name his opponent.  The creature remains unnamable.

But Jacob does get his blessing and he gets a new name—Israel, roughly translated as “God- wrestler”.  It captures his character.  It’s also the name for the nation that came out of its descendants that continued receiving blessings and bruisings through its wrestling with God, and the name that the New Testament gives all people willing to enter the ring with this God.  We too are children of Israel and we are God-wrestlers.

The Hebrew translated wrestles…  “Stirs up the dust” …  We all need to stir up the dust- don’t we?

Genesis 33:3 [Jacob] himself went on ahead of his family, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.  But Esau ran to meet him, and embrace him, and threw his arms around his neck and kissed him, and they wept….  Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?”  Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.”  But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep which you have for yourself.”  Jacob said, “No please; if I find favor with you, then accept my blessing from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God since you have received me with such favor.  Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.”

So, for all his wrestling and struggle, the greatest blessing for Jacob is one for which he did absolutely nothing.  He gets blindsided by an unexpected, undeserved, gift of grace from his brother.  And both realize that they have all the blessings they need.  And again, maybe even in a deeper way now, Jacob has seen the face of God.

So, wrestling and struggle are only part of the story.  Blessings also come in the form of unexpected, undeserved, gifts of grace that God hands out generously.  Reconciliation with an estranged family member, the healing of a memory, the healing of a body, or being given peace of mind about an illness that isn’t going to go away any time soon.  This is what theologians simply call grace, and it’s something that happens beyond the wrestling ring with all are striving and sweating and holding on for dear life.

1 Church St, Harwich, MA 02645
508 432-3734