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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Encountering God

Last week we reflected on Jacob. I said that his life illustrated Paul's words in Romans; predetermined, called, justified and glorified. We saw how God had chosen him, called him, and allowed Jacob to suffer the same deceit which he had practiced. That suffering (call it punishment, Divine wrath or purging of sin) sets Jacob "right" (like penance) to receive the grace of glory (promise fulfilled). We noted that his father-in-law was a deceiver as well. The relationship deteriorated and Jacob, following the birth of Joseph asks Laban to let him leave. Laban recognizes God has blessed him because of Jacob, but tries to keep him there. God tells Jacob to return home (promising "I will be with you") and the growing hostility of Jacob's brothers-in-law and father-in-law leads him to leave with his wives and children.

The escape is discovered and Laban soon catches up to them, but God has warned Laban to not harm Jacob. It is their final meeting. Having solved that problem, Jacob now turns to to the pending return and confrontation with his brother.

32:1 Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him. Once more we are reminded that this very human situation is under divine favor ("I will be with you"). Jacob sends his own "angels//messengers" to his brother bearing gifts, a common middle eastern way of "doing business." Jacob (32:7) was greatly afraid and distressed. Jacob must face himself and the consequences of  his behaviors. In fact, the Hebrew word face will appear five times, recalling the deception of Issac who was too blind to see his son's face.

32:9-12 Confronted with his fear, Jacob turns to God in the longest prayer in Genesis. It is a classical Jewish prayer, reminding God of his promise, expressing need and then expressing confidence that God will be faithful. It is a helpful guide to each of us as we kneel before the Almighty God. Jacob's deceit has seemingly placed God's promise in jeopardy, because of Esau's threats. Jacob ever the master dealer send ahead more gifts and divides his family into two camps in the hope of escape. Having done all he can, both in prayer and action, Jacob waits alone in the Jabbok (notice he play on words)

At some point in life we all discover that we are an individual. Sometimes, even when surrounded by friends and family, we are alone. It is the mystery of human existence. It is at the heart of our religious existence as well. It is why, in the Jewish Bible, we hear the question asked (Is God with us?) and why so often God declares, "I am with you; often with the command, "be not afraid."

Jacob has the promise. He has the visions. He has the blessings. He has seen God and seen God's protection. Is it enough? No, because there has also been the struggles and the problems. His domestic life is not peaceful. Family conflict is every where. God's presence is not always tangible. Faith can be a pretty thin rope to hang onto in difficult times....

The wrestling scene is fraught with meaning and yet impenetrable. The sparse narrative raises more questions than it answers. We are told a man wrestles Jacob, but who is this man. We never find out. Some think it is a demon, ancient Jews thought it a spirit connected to Esau. We are prepared for this uncertainty by the story of Abraham's three visitors (God or angels). Maybe it was God--perhaps Jesus? [Certainly the church Fathers saw this story as a typological prophecy of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews.] The problem is we read the scriptures as 21st century Christians. We forget that our stories stretch back to a different place and time. There is something primitive about those desert people. They do not share our values nor our expectations of God. Exodus 4:24 recounts a similar dark encounter where God inexplicably seeks to kill Moses, and is stayed by a foreskin from a circumcision. Abraham has his own dark terrible encounter (Gen 15:9-12). We speak often of God's wrath, but have domesticated it in terms of judicial process and just deserts. These stories remind us why Hebrews 10:31 states "It is a fearful (phoberos) thing to fall into the hands of the living God..." As we read Friday at Morning Prayer, the women at the tomb are filled with joy and terror. The two are emotions are not typically thought of as twins, yet the English language betrays the mysterious connection: Awe... Awful... Awesome... we know real life is never easy or simple.

The story rings true of our lives, if we pause to reflect. God is not the giver of constant kindnesses. Our hearts are broken time and again. We are richly blessed and devastated by disappointments. Answered and unanswered prayers co-exist in our lives, which are sometimes also long wrestling matches in the dark..

Jacob was born wrestling with his brother and his entire life is mental and physical competitions.
Jacob is crippled by a single touch, yet somehow the match is a draw...
Jacob, once more, seeks a blessing, his hunger is insatiable for blessing

He receives a new name because he has prevailed against men and God (what could the latter mean???)
Jacob limps away from his encounter and declares that he has seen the face of God and lived.
And he goes out to meet the brother...

We are all children of the promise
We are all wrestling, each in our own way, to secure those blessings we seek, struggling with men, women and God.

God loves us, not doubt. He is with us, for sure.
We just do well to understand....

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