A wrestling match at the side of a river was the theme of our Old Testament reading. At the time Jacob was returning to Esau, sending ahead of him gifts of cattle, sheep and goats to pacify his brother, from whom he had escaped years before after cheating him of his birthright and special blessing.
Jacob had met with God before, at the foot of a bright ladder of angels. At that meeting God had promised to watch over Jacob everywhere he went, and bring him safely back to the land he came from. Now the thought of crossing the Jabbok ford must have been very daunting, and Jacob was the last to make the crossing. He stayed behind to pray, to be alone, to prepare himself for that meeting the next day. That wrestling with God took on a new meaning with the arrival of an angel, a physical presence against which the struggle became a contest. All night the wrestling continued and Jacob was not beaten, and then at daybreak the angel resorted to the supernatural, touching Jacob's hip and wrenching it from its socket. Even then Jacob did not let go of his opponent. He demanded a blessing, recognising the source of the power against which he has fought. This request showed that although Jacob had held his own well in the struggle, he was well aware of the superiority of the angel and his own inferiority and need for God's strength to help him on the road ahead. And with the blessing came a new name for Jacob, 'he struggles with God', Israel.
Jacob left the place, as the sun rose reinforcing the dawn of a new era, calling it Peniel, because he said he had seen the face of God. His understanding of God had taken a great leap forward in that encounter. It was as if many of the mysteries that made faith difficult for him had been swept aside through the testing of the relationship between man and God.
In his letter to the Romans Paul speaks of his great sorrow for the children of Israel. Children of 'the struggle with God.' He was referring to those of the Jews who would not listen to Jesus' message, people who, after centuries of following God when those around them were worshipping idols, had failed to see that Jesus had come to renew and transform the relationship they already had with God. It was as if these people were not ready to struggle with the new 'angel', rejecting his challenge and missing the opportunity to come to know God on a new level.
But in the Gospel today we hear of many who at least wanted to face a challenge. People who followed Jesus. When they heard that Jesus was travelling by boat they walked round the lake to head him off. John the Baptist had just been killed by Herod and Jesus was looking for a place to be alone. Landing on the lakeside he knew that this wish was not to be fulfilled and he busied himself in the task of healing and ministering to the crowd. Through healing, through providing for their hunger Jesus demonstrated to them the peaceful power of God. He showed how God could take what little they could offer and use it to the good of all so that there was enough for everyone. He was able to show how by accepting God's grace and engaging with him the most impossible things could be achieved.
But the presence of so many men in the hills by the lake, five thousand besides the women and children, raises some interesting questions. In a time of Roman occupation those in authority cannot have approved of such a large gathering. They would present a considerable threat to the 'Pax Romana'. In fact it is probable that these people were ready for a completely different sort of struggle. In John's Gospel account of this miracle (6.15) 'Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself'. History is littered with occasions when man has tried to harness God, to use him as a figurehead to give his own plans, his own struggles a greater degree of acceptability. The crusades, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Spanish Inquisition. But God is not the figurehead of an earthly kingdom, and to make him one would be an abuse of his name. It is perhaps the systematic abuse of his name over the years that has turned so many away from the search to find out who he really is.
Jacob's struggle with God was personal, between himself and God. It did not seek to force others to change their ways; rather it deepened Jacob's understanding of what it was to be a citizen of the heavenly kingdom. Jesus challenges us to engage in our own struggle with God, to find out more about him, to deepen our relationship with him and to accept the grace he wants to bestow on us. It is through the struggle of all who seek to know God individually that the provision and blessing of God's Kingdom can begin to show itself as it did at that meal on the hillside.
It is true that as a church we can be a powerful influence for social change. We believe that, like the Israelites, we are God's chosen people and we should work in his name to fight oppression and unfairness. The Israelites of Paul's letter to the Romans did not recognise Jesus, and by their falling away the opportunity arose for us all to become children of the promise. Paul tells us, "Think of the extent to which the world, the Pagan world, has benefited from their fall and destruction...since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world." (Romans 11.12).
Paul's sorrow sprang from the appearance that God's promise to the Israelites had been broken. He goes on to argue that this was not the case. We should realise that to be children of the promise requires two things. Firstly that there is a promise, and this we know through the life and work of Jesus and through the scripture and testament of people who for thousands of years have followed that promise. Secondly we must be prepared to face the challenge of that promise individually. We cannot say we are children of the promise simply by attending church and doing all the things church people do. The promise is not extended to us because we identify ourselves with the right group of people, although by joining a church we can get support from, and give support to, others in our individual spiritual struggles. Through the preaching, worship, fellowship and study of the scriptures that we experience as a church community we can make the most of our spiritual food, so that the loaves and fishes of our spiritual nourishment can be effectively shared.
We need to engage individually and personally in our own 'struggle with God' through prayer and openness to his self-revelation to us through the insights and inspirations of our daily lives. Our aim to bring God's kingdom to earth relies on allowing Godís kingship to be channelled through us in the way that God's power and blessing was channelled through Jesus on the hillside. We cannot rule the world for Jesus, as perhaps the people who wanted to make Jesus king intended. Our relationship with God must come first and all action must follow from this. Israelite, Englishman, Pagan or Christian, we are all children of the promise and will make the most of God's blessing through our commitment to finding God for ourselves.
"For me the reward for virtue is to see your face and, on waking, to gaze my fill on your likeness." Psalm 17.15.