Is it just me - or is there a new tinge of anxiety in the air? I think we in Australia and especially here in our own State had been starting to relax, even congratulate ourselves a little that we had done what other places hadn’t been able to, that we had squashed this thing. And the new normal was starting to relax back into old normal, just for a bit. But just this last week or two we haven’t been feeling so sure. The tone of politicians and medical experts has been a little bit less sure. We are aware that the second wave that has crashed down on Victoria and is splashing its way across the country may very well breach the defenses of our own State. And many more of us now have loved ones and friends in COVID hotspots. And - let’s admit it - we are feeling insecure.
Jacob, in the episode we read this morning, brings us back to reality with a jolt. The parables of Jesus that we have been reading over the last few weeks have reminded us in a profound way that God works not just through the wholesome parts of human nature but also through the unwholesome aspects, that God is at work in the weeds as well as the wheat. And right alongside, we’ve been reading through the cycle of stories from the Old Testament that tell how God makes a covenant with a family that becomes a nation, these mythic-sounding stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob which, like the ancient mythology of Greece, describe human personality almost in depth-psychological terms, warts and all, the dangerous desires, the loves and lies and compromises of being human. And the Jacob saga has been reminding us, just like Jesus’ stories, that God works in the shadows of human life just as much as in the light, that God blesses ratbags and that God’s blessings can come to fruition in and around the conniving of cheats. This, you might think, is an idea that is both disturbing and comforting. God’s blessings, it seems, aren’t dependent on whether we deserve them, and a lot of the time they don’t come in the way we think they should. But today - Jacob is afraid.
So, here’s the story to date. Jacob – whose name means ‘heel catcher’ – the one who takes what belongs to his brother Esau by trickery and who defrauds his father into giving him the inheritance rights and the blessing that should have belonged to his older brother – out in the desert on the run from his brother Jacob has a dream in which God appears to him and makes him a remarkable promise. The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to be the God of Jacob too, even though strictly it isn’t fair. And doesn’t Jacob know it. Jacob’s long stopover in Haran with his cunning uncle Laban must have rubbed it in. What goes around, comes around. The branch of the family that stayed in the old country turns out to be just as sharp and conniving as the emigrant branch in Canaan, and in Haran Jacob finds himself on the receiving end for a while. But only for a while, because ultimately Jacob turns out to be the better conman, and at the end of 20 years skips town yet again under slightly forced circumstances to head back home with more wives, concubines, livestock and children than he could ever have dreamed of. He’s finally arrived, Jacob is now a nomadic lord in his own right.
Except - back home in Canaan is where Esau lives. Going home means running the risk that Esau would still like to get even for that original con-job that Jacob had been trying to put out of his mind these last 20 years. And as he gets nearer, Jacob sends out his spies who report back, Esau is coming to meet you with 400 men, in other words, with a military force. Clever Jacob rises to meet the challenge, first dividing his own caravan into two so if Esau attacks one group the other might get away. Then he starts sending presents, small groups of slaves with sheep, goats, camels, all up over 500 animals, and he instructs the slaves to say to Esau, ‘oh, just another small gift from Jacob’. Like Puss in Boots sending the powerful king another small present from the Marquis of Carabas. With any luck, Esau is going to think Jacob is a whole lot more powerful and well-connected than he really is.
But then comes the moment in the middle of the night, when Jacob is all alone. Even the women and children have been sent across the river towards Esau and an uncertain reception, but for some reason Jacob stays behind by himself. Could it just be that he is afraid? At any rate, he is clearly dreading the encounter with his brother, and he is preparing himself for the worst. Have you ever had a night like that, when all your chickens have come home to roost - and you lie awake wondering? Jacob can’t stop thinking about what he did all those years ago – and then, the narrator tells us mysteriously, a man came to him and fought with him all night. A matter of fact report, we only gradually become aware that it is God himself who struggles against Jacob. Is it supposed to be metaphoric, just a symbolic way of saying Jacob is having a sleepless night? I don’t think so, I think the story is telling us something real, that God is with us at our lowest point, but also that when we struggle, when in the dark places of our own soul we struggle against ourselves - we are struggling with the God who takes our struggles seriously, the God who risks something in the outcome of our struggles. But God never wrestles without a purpose, and for Jacob – as it usually is for us too - what’s at stake in the wrestling match is his shame, his guilt and his fear. In her book, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister sees Jacob’s struggle as a symbol of the spiritual struggle we all have to endure to become who God intends us to be. We all need to endure change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability and exhaustion. We all need to struggle in order to be transformed.
It’s a struggle which, remarkably, God can’t seem to win, even though God’s human opponent is wounded and will always afterwards walk with a limp. You can’t struggle with God and expect to come out unscathed. Jacob, who seems to have superhuman strength, can’t get the better of God either. But Jacob the heel catcher is good at hanging on, and insists on a blessing before he lets go. Wouldn’t you think he’s had enough blessings already? But according to Joan Chittister, Jacob is doing here what all of us have to do to become whole. Jacob knows the blessing he needs, because in wrestling with the one who gave him life he is confronting the dark side of his own success, and the blessing God gives him is a new name – Jacob the heel catcher becomes Israel, the one who contends with God.
This new Jacob is physically crippled, but he’s finally grown up. He’s no longer damaged. That’s something you’ll never hear in churches that preach the gospel of prosperity. That the wounds you get in life are what heal you, or as St Paul puts it, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’. The place where you are broken is the place where you are in contact with God. That part of your life that maybe only you know about, that old failure you’ve spent years overcompensating for, that addiction you can’t shake, that old grief you can’t forget – turns out to be where you go to wrestle with God. What maybe you always thought of as a barren and empty corner of your life turns out to be a place of blessing, the place of deepest creativity and healing. Where you are wounded is where you go to find the blessing that only you can give.
Like you and like me, this new Jacob limps. But he’s learned how to live with the past. He’s learned how to live with uncertainty, with ambiguity, with fear and with hope. When morning comes he limps across the river to meet his brother - who it turns out has also grown up in the last 20 years and offers pardon and healing and peace. They will each go their own way after this encounter but both now belong in the land that they have inherited.
Actually Jacob will have to live all his life with insecurity and dislocation and fear. It’s what it means to be human. But he knows now that God is with him, he has found his purpose and he can live with integrity. It’s a helpful reminder for us as we in our own bubble of privilege find ourselves looking ever more nervously over our shoulder at a pandemic that is not after all beaten and that we might have to learn to live with.
The miraculous feeding in the desert in Matthew’s Gospel is a reminder of God’s providence, that God is with us and meets our needs - and you may have noticed that it is an echo of an earlier miracle of divine providence, the feeding of the people of Israel with manna in the desert. It’s the assurance that God knows and meets our deepest needs. It means we can trust and have courage in adversity, and we can be generous in our abundance. We are not alone, we are loved and so we can take the risk of loving, and we can depend on the graciousness of the God whose promises can be trusted through thick and thin.