How we are in a crisis may depend on what the crisis is. Certainly, we each have our own experiences of suddenly having things change or needing to make a quick decision in response to a problem. Possibly we could experience our hearts beating faster and feel confused and anxious. In the Scripture stories this week, we are presented with some difficult situations, which perhaps could evoke varied thoughts and feelings for us, as if we faced a crisis?
The story of Jacob wresting an unknown stranger at Penuel, and the story of the dilemma of a crowd with not enough food to go around, might also prompt us to ask what will happen next? Now certainly some will say these are only stories yet like many of the Biblical narratives we are invited to engage with the story on many levels – as sacred and human stories.
The stories this week picture human dilemmas and a struggle, and as sacred stories invite us to ask – Where is God to be found? Many have interpreted the story of Jacob’s struggle as a struggle with God and with himself. If we recall a previous part of the Jacob family saga, Jacob has tricked his brother Esau out of the family birthright, now he is seeking to rebuild the relationship with some trepidation. It seems that Jacob is bringing a whole lot of his now gained wealth to offer Esau in the hope he might accept him back as brother despite what he has done in the past.
This is the setting for Jacob’s encounter at the river crossing with a mysterious stranger, who becomes his opponent, in some translations this stranger is called an angel – a divine personage. The wrestling that ensues is physical and spiritual, and Jacob is said to be injured in the thigh or hip. Yet he continues to wrestle and indeed demands the name of the One with whom he has struggled. Jacob is given no name yet receives a blessing.
A significant meaning to the story emerges as we discover Jacob has been wrestling with God with the new name, ‘Israel’, which can be translated as ‘God contends, or one who struggles with God’. Jacob becomes Israel as a kind of antihero figure, as a flawed character who has struggled with God and man and has prevailed. The place where the struggle happened also has a significant name, Penuel, meaning ‘face of God.’
There is a folk saying that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!’ What do you feel about such a statement? I feel a bit uncomfortable with this saying which seems to say you can be pushed to the edge of life, even face death and if you survive you might be a stronger person. I think of the famous video of surfer Mick Fanning and his encounter with a big shark while surfing (you can find it on the internet). In the Hebrew understanding if you came face-to-face with God you risked death. God’s presence, God’s light, the Shekinah Glory was considered so awesome few could stand or live. Yet in the story of Jacob – Jacob experiences the divine presence in a very ‘hands on way’ and it transforms him. He receives a blessing, a new name, and a new future.
Some of us may have faced life or death situations, certainly across the world in the health and emergency services sector this may be a daily risk. I wonder if we and others perceive God with us in these situations? Can you perhaps remember a struggle, a confrontation, a crisis, you went through? How were you changed? and was there a blessing you received? Sometimes in the places in our life we feel most vulnerable, something new emerges – a sign, an experience, a felt response that we are blessed despite the struggle that we went through. (Though this may not be immediate it can happen after the fact, and even take some time to realise).
The story of the feeding of the five thousand in Mathew’s gospel presents the dilemma of scarcity, too many people not enough food, every host and hostesses’ dilemma when catering, (certainly, a stress in the TV MasterChef kitchen). Yet the gospel story is not about mere catering, it tells a story about the provision of more than enough from a small offering of fish and loaves. The story tells of Jesus looking upward to heaven, symbolic of looking to God for help, prayerful, lifting his eyes beyond the presenting dilemma. Then he blessed and broke the loaves, and, somehow, they became a feast of ‘the more of God’. God becomes present in this simple meal.
In both stories God is encountered outdoors. We might ponder how in the experiences of life, in surprising ways and places, God blesses, yet the way this can happen may challenge our notions of who we are and who God is. Years ago, I remember the title of a book called ‘Your God is too small’ by J. B. Philips. And sometimes in the crises of life we are challenges to expand our awareness of God and where God may be found. From our readings today we can consider that sometimes people can encounter God in the struggle, sometimes people encounter God in their experience of felt need for food, for shelter, for healing, for love …
Perhaps one of the stories resonates more with you in your faith journey. I invite you to consider where God may be found in the crisis of these Covid-19 times. Yet also to draw on the resources of our faith that speak to us of receiving a blessing, in our weakness, in our desire, to serve others, in our family stories, and as part of communities of faith across the world. We too might be those who lift our hearts to find God is in the midst, right beside us, and the crisis becomes an opportunity to trust, for there is more life and love beckoning us forward. Amen.