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Sermon – Won’t Let Go – August 3, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 3, 2014

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Won’t Let Go Psalm 17: 1-7, 15; Genesis 32: 22-31; Matthew 14: 13 -21

Today we had a passage from Genesis about the patriarch Jacob, whose story comes long before Moses. In its written form it dates from a time when its tellers already pracaticed Judaism and had rules about eating kosher. We know that from the passage’s concluding reference to the taboo on eating a certain kind of meat imaginatively associated with ancestor Jacob’s wounded hip. The story’s origin is much older, partly revealed by its open-ended language about the nature of the divine being with whom Jacob wrestles. The oldest stories about Abraham and his family always identify representatives of the divine simply as “men,” and we take from the context and the conclusions of the narrator that they are equivalent to angels or to God. That’s the way the story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel–not the Bible’s language but our own way of harmonizing the incident with our tendency to read the whole Bible as one book–is told.

The gospel reading, on the other hand, comes very late in the creation of the Bible. It follows the letters of Paul. Matthew’s gospel follows that of Mark. It’s not the newest part of the New Testament, but it’s among them. Like the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis it relates events before its own time, but Jesus’ life is much closer to the time of the writing of the gospel than Jacob’s life is to its telling in Genesis.

I point out this historical stuff about our readings to make this point: the much older story is from a time so open to marvels and alert to the possible inbreaking of another world, a holier realm, that it s second-nature for the human being in it to suspect the one with whom he wrestles, who is not identified as anything but another man, to be a divine being, and to seek from him, divine blessings. The gospel story, conversely, despite the fact that it relates miracles, comes from a context so recognizably resistant to belief in wonders that Jesus’ disciples, who by this point have witnessed him working miracles repeatedly, don’t expect Jesus to have any solution for the hunger of the people he is helping other than to send them to places where they can get food for themselves. They’re thinking about it the same way they would if they all had been out in that lonely place to watch a foot race or collect butterflies rather than be taught and healed by a recognized wonderworker.

In other words, while both scriptures convey amazing things about the power of God, in the older story the human character expects that from the start. In the story closer to our own time, the reaction of the ordinary human beings is to rely on common sense and daily custom instead of looking for anything surprising from heaven. This is so instinctive with the disciples that when Jesus tells them to give the crowd something to eat, they only think of their own resources. They count up the loaves and fish, and report back, to demonstrate the impossibility of being expected to do anything.

The disciples in Matthew’s gospel could learn something from Jacob in the Genesis story. Of course, Jacob has no choice but to be with his Lord because they’re wrestling. The disciples are free to think and act for themselves, so the temptation to expect nothing from God’s power has its chance. However, the action of Jacob’s story shows that it is Jacob’s desire to get a grip on God, get something from God, force some kind of benefit out of the presence from God, which is behind the wrestling. Even when his hip is put out of joint–a move forced on his mysterious opponent by Jacob’s tenacity–Jacob won’t let go. Jacob’s persistence further is shown by the other wrestler’s finally saying something like “Uncle!” What he says is, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.”

See, Jacob is not being forced by the Holy Being with whom he wrestles to stay in this clinch. Jacob is forcing the struggle. Jacob keeps hanging on even when he is hurt in a way which will make him limp the rest of his life.

Contrast that with the disciples closer to our own time. Of course, they’re not looking for a blessing for themselves. Perhaps selfishness helps Jacob work harder at dealing with God. Jacob is looking to be blessed, while Jesus’ disciples are being told to bless others.

How much more interesting to us to receive blessings, rather than have to bestow them. Isn’t that how we usually think? I know on gift-giving occasions older people will say “I don’t need anything” and they’ll say that their pleasure is from giving to others, and I hope people mean it Lots of times in life, however, we’re happier to think someone wants to give us something good than we are to think that we’re being asked to give someone else something good.

You’d think the disciples would be embarrassed to give up so easily. They’re not just anybody. They’re Jesus’ disciples. They have been invited to be part of a great movement, a world-changing way of bringing the truth and power of God to bear on the lives of men, women, and children. Nowadays they’d all be wearing a shirt with a Jesus logo on it. Back then the way people knew they were disciples was by seeing them with Jesus, and later, when they were in Judea, because they spoke with the same accent Jesus had. Remember Peter warming himself at the fire after Jesus had been taken indoors by those who’d arrested him. Someone said, “You’re one of the disciples, aren’t you? because they thought they’d seen him, and because his speech gave him away. How determined was he to hold onto Jesus at that point? Well, he’d gotten that far, but being connected with someone who was in big and probably fatal trouble he couldn’t risk, so he denied Jesus three times.

Where did Jesus tell the disciples that they’d all give up and abandon him? It was at the Last Supper. When he mentioned a betrayer, meaning Judas, Peter and the others said, “Hey, we’d never let you down.” Jesus told them they would, and at first they all did.

We are disciples in the midst of a world which is one big lonely place, filled with people, some of whom still look to the church of Jesus Christ to meet their needs. We see them looking needy and we tell Our Lord, “say something so those people will go take care  of themselves.” What does Jesus say? Can Jesus mean it? How could we take care of them.?

We don’t have enough. We need what we have for ourselves, and even if we were to sacrifice ourselves it wouldn’t be enough to do any good against the amount of need out there.

So what does Jesus do? Does he yell at everybody? Does he sigh, shake his head, act disappointed or contemptuous? No, he takes it out of our hands–takes what we think is inadequate, and invokes the power of God, and it all works out.

That’s what Jacob would have expected, and that’s what the disciples could hardly grasp even when they were picking up all the crumbs.

Is communion a miraculous feeding? Is this just us making sure we have more than enough for those of us here– and we do have more than enough. Is this just us taking care of ourselves, or might we dare to hope–and hold onto the hope until something happens– that through this encounter with Christ we can not only be blest, but be a blessing to others?

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