Sooner or later God meets us where we live. For crafty, scheming, heel-grasping Jacob, whom we hear about in this week’s readings from the lectionary, Genesis 32, that meant God’s getting down into the mud and blood of this earth and quite literally wrestling with the man who had devoted his life to getting ahead by being stronger and smarter than his every opponent. Jacob wrestled with Esau in the womb, wrestled with Esau out of the womb.
Next Jacob wrestled with his father, Isaac, and then for about two decades had an ongoing wrestling match with his uncle– cum– father-in-law, Laban. God had stayed with Jacob through all that and even had made some pretty big promises to him at a place dubbed Bethel. But what Jacob did not yet know is what a lot of us are often slow to realize: the best things in life come by grace alone. The old self— the scheming, live-by-your-wits, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap self— has to die and only then can God bring us the blessing of a new identity. Jacob became Israel.
In Christ we become children of God. Who knows what our particular Jabbok River will be— we all have a different “Jabbok,” a different place of “Peniel” where we see God’s own face and discover the glorious truth that grace alone ushers us into God’s wonderful light. But God is as relentless as God is gracious and if we now live as children of the light, we can know for sure that our life is a sheer gift.
We live in a world of death, and this was a fact that crashed in on Jesus with peculiar force after hearing of John the Baptist’s brutal beheading. John’s death was so senseless, the result of a boozy, lusty, thoughtless offer by a corrupt king. So, Jesus withdraws to another place of death— a lonely wilderness spot— only to be followed by masses of people hungry for Jesus’s words and soon enough only plain hungry physically. But where Jesus goes, life follows (as Isaiah predicted). So, when the people had eaten and were satisfied, they perhaps sensed that life is grace— in the wilderness but always. If we manage to find life in a world of death, it is all grace.
Once a person discovers the truth that God alone gives life by grace alone (as Paul did the day, he stopped being Saul), then that person begins having a lifelong love affair with the gospel that reveals that grace. Once you have eaten the heavenly manna only God can give— the bread you cannot buy with money as Isaiah said— you want to share it with the whole world. For Paul in Romans 9, that meant sharing it with his fellow Jews who had not yet come to recognise Jesus as the Christ. Paul was so desperate to see also them fed that he said he would go to hell himself if that is what it took to get more people to take a seat at Jesus’s banquet table. Curiously, that actually is what Jesus did to accomplish that very goal.
I recall a story that I once heard of a brand-new seminary graduate, who had just returned home from his studies and invited to lead an adult education class in his home parish. Still riding high on his wave of celebration, and very much aware of himself as a "master" of divinity studies, he began to hold forth in a session on the story of Jonah. "In my exegesis of this pericope, I found no empirical justification whatever for a substantive faith in the notion that a human being could be ingested by a whale and survive. However, our efforts to spiritualize this foundational myth yield great promise for deeper theological and hermeneutical exploration."
Whereupon the recent graduate's grandmother, who was sitting in the back row, sucked her teeth and hissed under her breath, "Lord, you sent the boy to school, and he comes back here a fool. Anybody knows that it doesn't matter whether Jonah got swallowed by a whale, a goldfish, or a guppy -- the story is still true."
This week’s readings leave us like the that seminarian -- challenged to look beyond the limits of what we think we know, to find the truth underlying another miraculous event in the account of the Scriptures. In Matthew, Jesus starts out with two fish and five little loaves of bread, just enough food to feed one person for one day of travel. By the time he had finished blessing this small offering of food for the needs of the people, it is enough to feed thousands, with food to spare.
The very notion boggles the modern mind -- but not those people who read the story through the eyes of faith. For people like the grandmother in our story, the rich truth of this Gospel parable is summed up in the lyrics of the Gospel hymn writer: "God chooses ordinary people...and little becomes much when it's placed in the Master's hands." Interesting for us to reflect upon. So do we meet God where we are and do we allow our God to meet us there.