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FEAR, STRUGGLE AND BLESSING Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8

Introduction
One of the most inspiring sights in nature is the eagle in flight. With an endless expanse of blue behind it the eagle spreads its mighty wings and soars majestically and gracefully across the sky. Free, powerful, complete. Because of this the eagle becomes a symbol for how we’d like to be. We all want to soar like an eagle in life.
But I wonder if you know how it is an eagle learns to soar? Apparently there is a particular species of eagle which builds its nest high up on the face of a cliff overlooking the sea. In this nest the eagle chick is hatched and spends its first days watching its mother come and go, collecting food and bringing it back.
One day mum decides it’s time her chicks learned to fly. You know how she does it? She forces her way right into the nest and then pushes her chicks out. The chick starts plummeting down the cliff-face, terrified, shocked, heartbeat racing, aware that death is just seconds away. And then something amazing happens. The chick instinctively stretches the wings it never knew it had, the plummet becomes a fall, then a gentle rise. Soon the chick is soaring like its mother.
It’s in that split second of terrifying danger that the chick comes face to face with itself, and face to face with wider reality. In that terrifying moment the chick discovers what it is. And without that terrifying moment it will never learn to soar.

Fear
The story of Jacob in the OT is one that has interested me for a long time. It has many spiritual treasures hidden in it and most of them come from the fact that a very human Jacob is portrayed in Genesis. Today’s reading tells of a pivotal point in Jacob’s life when things changed for him and this is symbolised by his name change from Jacob, meaning the Supplanter, to Israel, meaning man of God. I want to explore what happened to Jacob in three movements: Fear, Struggle and Blessing.

It helps to be acquainted with the whole sweep of Jacob’s story: he was the twin of Esau, and they were sons of Isaac. Jacob was born grasping his older twin’s heel and they grew up to be very different from each other. One day Jacob tricked his father into giving him Esau’s birthright, and when Esau found out Jacob fled for his life. Jacob spent many years far away, became very prosperous, married two sisters – Leah and Rachel and had children. But he always knew that one day he would have to return to his roots. That brings us to the part of his story we are thinking about now.

Jacob was afraid of Esau, especially when his own scouts informed him that his brother was coming to meet him along with 400 men. Jacob feared the worst – that his brother had so many armed men and he felt very vulnerable. Perhaps Esau was coming to take revenge for having been cheated all those years ago and wished to reclaim his birthright. So we hear how Jacob dealt with his fear – his strategies of coping with fear. He sends tranches of gifts trying to make up for stealing birthright; he divides his people and possessions so that if one party is lost the other might have a chance of survival. But one last strategy actually leads to more positive things: Jacob was beginning to realise that he could no longer continue running away, it was time to return and face his past. So we see Jacob moving from fear to struggle.

Prayer changes me not God
CS Lewis was the author of the widely read children's books, The Narnia Chronicles, as well as many novels for grown-ups and books on issues surrounding the Christian faith. The movie Shadowlands (which is now also a stage play) tells Lewis' story, focusing in particular on his relationship with his wife, Joy Gresham. Gresham and Lewis meet while Lewis is a don at Oxford University.
After Joy is diagnosed with cancer the couple marry. The movie invites us to witness their love, their pain, their grief, their struggles with faith and God. Eventually Joy dies.
At one point in the story a friend says to Lewis, "Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you've been praying; and now God is answering your prayers."
Lewis replies "That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God, it changes me."

Struggle
Various things in the way the story is told highlight the struggle that Jacob enters into at this point. There is a clear boundary which Jacob knows at some point he has to cross – the physical boundary is the brook Jabbok, but it symbolises the spiritual boundary he has to cross from being a supplanter, a thief on the run, to a man who settles with his past in order to enjoy a peaceful future. Jacob sends his wives and children over this boundary first and is then left on his own. In the end the struggle is one that only he can deal with. It is night time and this symbolises, his struggle in the darkness of his own soul. He then wrestles with man for the rest of the night. It is a mysterious wrestling match. Who was the man? Why did he wrestle Jacob? He seems to come from nowhere and disappear again at dawn. What is this all about? Jacob was convinced that he had seen God face to face in that experience. The point is that Jacob struggles. Wrestling involves almost equal forces and as the all-night match comes to an end Jacob sustains a permanent injury which would serve to remind him of that pivotal experience for the rest of his life.

Mr Jones arrives in heaven
Have you heard the story about Mr Jones, who dies and goes to heaven? When he arrives, St Peter is waiting at the Pearly Gates and takes Mr Jones on a tour of heaven. Mr Jones is awestruck. The streets are paved with gold, beautiful mansions glisten in the sunshine, choirs of angels sing the most beautiful songs.
Partway through his tour of heaven Mr Jones’ eye is drawn to an odd looking building, an enormous warehouse with no windows and just one door. What an odd structure for heaven! "You don’t really want to see what’s in there,” says St Peter.
"But I do, I do" says Mr Jones. He races across the lawn and pushes open the door to discover rows and rows of shelves, floor to ceiling. Stacked on the shelves are thousands of white boxes. The boxes all have names on them.
"Is there one with my name on it?" asks Mr Jones as he rushes to the J aisle. He finds the box with his name on it and opens it up. His mouth drops, his pulse quickens, and finally he says to Peter, "What are all these wonderful things inside my box? Are they the good things in store for me now I’ve reached heaven?"
"No" replies St Peter. "They’re all the blessings God wanted to give you while you were alive on earth, but which you never received."
A sad look came over Mr Jones. He looked into the box, to St Peter and then back to the box. "Why?" he asked St Peter. "Why did I miss out on all these blessings?"
Well, that’s a long story…" replied St Peter

Blessing
The wrestling match in the night changes Jacob. The man wants Jacob to let him go as first signs of dawn appear but Jacob will not let him go without his blessing. It seems a strange blessing that he receives: his name is changed from Jacob to Israel. But this is symbolic that out of this struggle Jacob is a new man – like Abram becoming Abraham or Saul becoming Paul. The blessing is won through struggle this time, not through deception. His new life of blessing begins with the sun rising on him, even though he will always be a limping man. His descendents become the people of God – Israel, and they don’t eat the thigh muscle in their meat is a permanent reminder. The outcome of story is that the twins are reconciled. Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge is one about prayer: what we learn from these stories being put together is that our spiritual growth is mirrored in the movement from fear, through struggle to blessing: but we must persevere to gain those blessings that we might otherwise miss.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith

   


 
 

God, our light and our salvation:
illuminate our lives,
that we may see your goodness in the land of the living,
and looking on your beauty
may be changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen


 

 



Acknowledgements