August 2, 2014

Wrestling with God

The Readings begin with the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel - possibly with God Himself. The Apostle Paul is also wrestling with God over the refusal of the Jewish leadership to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Finally, in the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 the Disciples are wrestling with Jesus over not just the practical problem of feeding a huge crowd; but the deeper issue of who He really is. These readings teach us that it is normal and important to wrestle actively with God if we are to have a serious spiritual life.

 1. Jacob was re-named Israel which means "God Wrestler"
Jacob was in a very fearful situation. He was about to face his brother Esau. This is the same brother Jacob had cheated out of his father's blessing. He had fled and was now a wealthy man and ready to return. He sent waves of cattle on ahead of him to Esau as peace offerings. He is so afraid of Esau that he can not sleep. All night he wrestles with his fear, guilt and shame in the physical form of an angel or God Himself. In the morning he is re-named Israel by God. This is the beginning of the Nation of Israel. The change in name is also a change in purpose and mission. These people are to continue to wrestle with God. Their God is not to be a distant rule-giver. They are to wrestle with their God over their deepest personal fears and over the major decisions in their lives.

 2. Paul was wrestling with the stubbornness of the Hebrew People
They had long ago ceased to wrestle with God. They, like us, had gradually developed an idea of God, and then worshipped that idea. Paul is distressed. He knows exactly how they think. He used to be one of them. But Paul is now a changed person. His life has been turned around by an encounter with the Risen Jesus. Now Paul is wrestling with God to turn their hearts also. He is concerned that they do not know about Jesus. They do not know Jesus is the only way to forgiveness and peace with God. He knows the great joy they may never experience if they continue to reject Jesus as the Messiah. Paul is even willing to give up his own salvation for the sake of his brothers. This reminds us how easy it is for people to slip into a comfortable form of religion and stop wrestling with God. It reminds us how difficult it is to blast people out of their comfortable religion into the real thing.

3. The Disciples are wrestling with the idea of who Jesus really is
They are trying to deal with the practical problem of feeding a huge crowd in a remote place. They do not really know who Jesus is yet. They do not know if He has some form of divine spiritual power to solve this problem. They suggest the simplest solution which is to send everyone home. We can think of this as a form of intellectual wrestling. They propose a solution. Jesus proposes a very different solution. This is a contrast between what we could call 'worldly thinking' and 'spiritual thinking'. Jesus solution is very dramatic. It reveals who He is. It reveals His divine spiritual powers. The miracle of the feeding is sometimes dismissed as a psychological trick. Some teachers have said that Jesus simply shamed the people into sharing the food that they had each brought and kept hidden. This is also a miracle, but would have been reported as such. My sense of the Reading (Matthew 14.13-21) is that Jesus really did use some form of miraculous power to increase the bread and fish. The important thing in all this is not to get sidetracked on how Jesus did it. The important thing is to notice how the Disciples (and everyone) learned something important about Jesus through this process of wrestling toward a better solution to the problem of feeding a huge crowd.

The Readings challenge us to keep wrestling with God over our own hopes and fears
We all have fears and hopes that we can either ignore or wrestle with. In these Readings we see the danger of failing to wrestle with God over our hopes and fears. In the dramatic example of Paul wrestling over the fate of the Hebrew people, we see the cost of having a comfortable religion. My own experience is that it is very easy to just drift into religious tokenism. Anglicans are very vulnerable to this as we have developed such beautiful liturgy. Our spiritual lives can end up being automatic responses and ritual.  It is much easier to put Jesus on a pedestal and worship Him from far away, than to really wrestle with Him over what is most important in our lives. These Readings challenge us to face our fears and really wrestle with Jesus over them.

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