Updated: Jan 30
Today’s readings bring to my mind my own personal sacrifices over the past 13 years. If I had been able to put a box of tissues on each bench, I might spend the next half-hour telling you all the highs and lows I have experienced.
You would cry and laugh, so no dry eyes would be the result.
But, the lessons of today are not about me … they are about you.
When asked about the Genesis story of Jacob reaching the point where he changed his name to Israel, most people would say that he wrestled with an angel. Others would say his struggle was with God.
I thought the same thing; but you have to ask yourself, “How could God wrestle with Jacob and not win? Why would an angel not be able to easily win in a fight? Why would either God or an angel not readily be identified by Jacob, who had seen them while sleeping on a stone pillow? Why would Jacob need to ask who it was fighting him? And, why would this stranger bless Jacob with a new name?”
The answer is that Jacob was wrestling with himself in a dream. Jacob wrestled with the Jacob who used his brother’s hunger to take advantage of him. He wrestled with the Jacob who traded him stew that was rightfully Esau’s, as a member of Isaac’s family, for his rights as the first born.
Jacob struggled with the Jacob who had dressed up in animal fur, when his father lay blind and dying, tricking Isaac into giving him the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.
Jacob grappled with the Jacob who had stolen away from Laban, along with everything Jacob felt he deserved to keep as his own, without giving Laban the chance to argue differently.
Jacob fought with the Jacob who feared his brother Esau was going to kill him, if he ever got his hands on him.
The Jacob that was the son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, and a rightful heir as a priest for God, hated the other Jacob.
God had reached out to that Jacob when he had dreamed of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. God stood beside that Jacob, as he watched angels going up and down the steps. God told that Jacob He would give the land of Canaan to him and his descendants. That Jacob was told to depend on God being with him. That Jacob would be kept up by God.
This means Jacob was both Good Jacob and Bad Jacob. That was who wrestled one another that night.
The Hebrew says, “lə-ḇad-dōw way-yê-’ā-ḇêq ’îš ‘im-mōw,” which says, “alone there wrestled another with” or “him with.” Jacob was “alone with himself.” Therefore, Jacob “wrestled with himself.”
The injured hip was Jacob’s battle scar. His limp became a reminder of strong Jacob’s victory over the weak Jacob, the alter ego who succumbed to influences that led him to feel alone and afraid.
His name change became a reminder that to be a true servant of God one has to be proved and tested. Jacob had contended. He grappled with that part of himself that would always turn its face away from God; and, by winning that fight, Jacob came away wearing the face of God.
As the sun rose, the man now named Israel held high the trophy won from a hard-fought struggle – the glow of redemption, along with the look of commitment.
We all are just like Jacob. We all have two personalities within us.
It is like the cartoons, where a tiny angel with halos sits on our right shoulder, telling what good things to do. Then, a tiny red devil sits on our left shoulder, telling what bad things to do. It seems like those voices are external, but it is just like Jacob’s wrestle.
This is an accurate depiction, as the angel is always over the right shoulder.
We all have to decide: Will I ever commit to only doing good? Or, Will I always be afraid my sins will bring me death and an eternity in Hell?
God is not going to appear to fight with you over your decision. God will not send any angels to hurt your hip and make you limp, as punishment for not always doing good.
You are the one in the ring … in two corners. God is watching. Christ is your trainer, in your corner, ready to wipe the cuts, towel the sweat, wave smelling salts under your nose, and give you water, as long as you don’t give up the fight.
“Hang in there until dawn breaks, you can win the battle.” is the encouragement.
Jacob was alone when he wrestled with himself. That is where no one can see the battle going on. Alone no showmanship helps, no style points are awarded for acting brave and mean, while running from the grasp of another. “Alone” means there is no “tag team” assistant waiting to come to the rescue.
In the Matthew reading today, we hear that Jesus wanted to be alone. He went by boat to a deserted place, by himself. A crowd of Jews heard he had left and walked to meet him. They met Jesus when he reached the shore.
In a way, Jesus wrestled with the crowd, curing their sick as he walked among them. We read that Jesus would eventually feed 5,000 men that day. When you also read that “besides” the 5,000 there were “the women and children,” it makes sense that there could have been around 12,000 people waiting for Jesus on the shore. That would be the count if it included 5,000 husbands, 5,000 wives, and 2,000 children.
The people were there from out of town, because the Passover was near (John 6:4), so it wasn’t like they all had homes to go to, where their own food was ready to be served. The people were visitors, on a pilgrimage. They were expected to find inns or relatives to stay with, meaning feeding themselves was not free. Many needed to find vendors to buy food from to feed themselves.
However, as visitors invited to stay with Jesus in a deserted field, it was “Jewish hospitality” that obligated Jesus to feed his guests. Perhaps the people expected Jesus to be their Messiah, like a new Moses who would lead them to regain the Promised Land. They would make an encampment on the flat area along the shore, like his army of volunteers preparing to settle in; and it was up to Jesus to feed his soldiers: men, women, and children.
With as many as 12,000 sets of trusting eyes on Jesus, twelve disciples were frantic. “NO, NO, NO! Send them on their way, Jesus. All we have as far as food is five loaves and two fish a boy brought for us. We can’t feed them all with that!”
The disciples had two tiny spirits wrestling on their shoulders. The “It can be done” angels were having a hard time standing up to the “It cannot be done” devils. However, there was no wrestling for Jesus. He had complete faith in the Father.
Jesus “looked up to heaven,” Matthew wrote; meaning Jesus did his “Penuel” (as Jacob named it), putting on the face of God. Then, with God upon him, Jesus blessed and broke the bread. Jesus then gave the bread to the disciples, who gave it to the people.
Now, the figure 5,000 is the important number because each man represented his whole family. Give a loaf of bread to a husband and he will in turn give some to his wife and children. So, five loaves were “broken” into 5,000 pieces of bread. Each piece became a full loaf of bread. That is a ratio of 1,000:1.
It means the gift was multiplied – in this case – a thousand-fold.
It is the principle taught by Jesus, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38) The measure was five to five thousand, and it was measured to all the people.
Still, when every one of the 12,000 had eaten their full, the leftovers filled twelve baskets – one basket of bread for each disciple, all of which had urged Jesus to send the crowd away. Not only was a multitude fed on five loaves and two fish, but the doubting disciples had more than they could eat left on their plates.
The disciples had been the voices of the devil. They were afraid, just like Jacob had been before he began to wrestle with himself and his doubt. The disciples wanted to follow Jesus, but their faith was weak. When the stuff hit the fan, they turned their faces away from God. Their inner demon always won the wrestling match.
Jesus never hesitated when the disciples showed their lack of faith. He said, “Bring [the multitude] here to me.” God did not fail to support Jesus. The disciples were the instruments of God, passing the gifts of God, touched by Jesus, to the people, so all were fed solid food.
It was a miracle.
Still, the disciples were doubtful.
It is not easy exchanging old ways for new ones. Sure, Jesus could work miracles, but none of the disciples could do what he did. None of them could stop storms or walk on water. None could cure the sick, much less raise the dead.
Jesus was special.
But remember, Jesus taught that you can be special too. You can be just like Jesus, able to create miracles with the blessing of God. It just requires that you get alone and wrestle with that part of you that keeps yourself from becoming special.
Those kinds of fights are not easy. There will always be some pain.
The way you walk today will not be the way you walk after you transform yourself into an Apostle of Christ. All the stuff you have now might disappear, causing you to limp along. All the ease you once knew will become harder to come by. Expect less money to pay for having things the way you want them. Expect fewer friends who favor your new path to righteousness. Expect to become dissatisfied with jobs that force you to regularly take advantage of others for your own benefit.
While we don’t read it in the verses of today, Jacob’s metamorphosis came after he voluntarily offered Esau a great number of his livestock … just giving it away to him.
Jacob sent some of his servants to tell Esau, “Take all these animals as a gift from your servant Jacob.” Jacob told his servants to let Esau know he would serve Esau as his master. Before God met with Jacob in a dream, Jacob had given, as an outward sign of repentance.
You have to give in order to receive.
The price you pay includes pains and struggles.
But, the pains of victory have a sunny side that makes all the hurt go away.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is important to realize that the first Christians of Rome were mostly Jews who believed God had sent Jesus as their Messiah. They were not pagan Roman citizens who fell in love with some strange religious cult and said they believed.
As Jewish Christians, they had a dual nature, the same as Jacob. Half of each of them was Jewish, while the other half was Christian. This identity was not easy to deal with. The Romans saw all Jews in the same light, with Christians simply a sect of Jews, followers of one specific Jew (Jesus). The Romans persecuted both Christians and Jews as being the worthless slum rats they thought they were, with both bad, and neither good. The Jews who did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah made Rome’s Christians be targeted as worse than regular Jews, making them known as zealots, revolutionaries, misfits and outcasts. So, in Rome there was a struggle between Jews, as a self-identity crisis – Do we believe and change, or stay the same and live afraid.
Paul told them in his letter, “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.”
That says Paul could wish to be a Jew, as he had been before he found Christ. After all, Jews were special people, chosen by God, with lots of perks and benefits coming to any Jews that recognized their covenants with God, maintained His Laws, went to the synagogue every Sabbath, and promised to stay pure, all while still waiting for the Messiah.
The 12,000 Jews that went to meet Jesus all expected to be rewarded by God for following Jesus … IF he were really the Messiah. And “rewarded by God” meant things, like land, animals, and possessions. Jews, after all, were special.
Paul was telling the Roman Christians, “You have to wrestle with the old ways of thinking and realize the new way is the right way, even though it will bring “great sorrow and unceasing anguish.”
Now, two thousand years later, as Christians long separated from our Jewish heritage, we think we are the special ones. Of course, the Jews still think the same thing. Thus, rather than wrestle with the Jews to see who God chooses more, we expect stuff to come to us, like it goes to them, because we too have followed Jesus to this flat place near Bethsaida. We expect to be fed things. We expect to be treated like honored guests.
The lessons today point to the battles we all face, but still fight because we have not defeated that way of thinking inside our minds.
We think we are special – as Americans – the greatest nation on earth, the most powerful – because we believe God has chosen us to run the world.
We think we are special – as Christians – the greatest religion in the world, the one truly supported by God – because we believe all other religions fear our Cross.
But, we are no different than Jacob, who feared his brother Esau – the father of the Edomites – would kill him because of hatred. Don’t people hate Americans and Christians today? Certainly they do.
Now, who caused hatred of Jacob?
If you see that answer, then you also know who caused America’s and Christianity’s haters.
We are no different than the disciples who urged Jesus to send the people away because they had no faith that they could afford to feed them all.
We each have to wrestle with the questions: Will I ever be capable of producing a miracle? And, will I always have fear that what I have is not enough?
Is your faith strong enough for you to give all you have, for the promise that you may receive a thousand-fold in return?
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