Gen. 32: 22-31; Matt. 14: 13-21
The God Who Blesses Us
The Scripture lessons designated for this Lord’s Day introduce us to the topic of blessing. Blessing is central to the world of the Bible. On the giving or withholding of blessing life itself depends. No doubt that’s very hard for us to grasp. For us to “bless” means no more than to wish someone well. Can we even recall the last time we used the word “bless”? We seldom have the occasion to use that word unless someone in our close proximity sneezes. And even then that one may not hear us, because in the era of COVID-19, we have to be sure we are least 27 feet away from anyone who sneezes.
We’ve been following Jacob in his journey. Let’s recall that his desire for his brother’s birthright set this journey in motion. That birthright consisted in his father’s blessing. After selling it to his brother for a single meal, Esau sought this blessing in tears, but could not change what he had done.
Motivated by this blessing, Jacob finds the courage to venture out. He has left home, said farewell to what has been familiar to him, and heads toward a new and as-yet-unknown place. Strengthened by his encounter with God at Bethel, Jacob presses on until he reaches Paddan Aram. There Jacob meets the woman of his dreams and resolves to make her his wife. He comes up against obstacles, but does not give up. After working for Laban in Paddan Aram for a total of twenty years, Jacob is prepared to return home, now a wealthy man, married with children.
But no sooner has Jacob begun to enjoy his success than trouble plagues him again. The psychologist Carl Jung once observed: “Nobody, as long as he moves about among the chaotic currents of life, is without trouble.” That’s certainly true. The Bible is nothing if not realistic in this regard. In life our biggest problems often immediately follow our biggest successes. In Jacob’s case, returning home means confronting an aggrieved brother who is justifiably furious at him for cheating him out of the blessing to which he as the first born was rightly entitled. When he learned that Esau was approaching him with 400 men, Jacob sends a message to him, explaining all that he has done and become. Then he sends gifts to him, in the hope of pacifying him.
When we catch up with Jacob today, we find him sending his family and the rest of his possessions over the river Jabbok. Why does he do this? No doubt on the assumption that Esau and his men will not kill women and children. The buffer will buy him time to figure out how to neutralize the threat his brother poses. Having carried out his complex plan, Jacob spends the night all alone by the Jabbok.
What happens next is very mysterious. A man comes out of the darkness and attacks Jacob. Who is this man? Is it Jacob’s own self-projection? That is, is Jacob wrestling with himself? On occasion, when our past comes back to haunt us, when regrets gnaw away at us, we wrestle with our thoughts until daybreak, depriving ourselves of a good night’s sleep. The prospect of meeting Esau may have triggered memories in Jacob of the wrong that he did to his brother, causing in him enough inner turmoil to prevent him from falling asleep.
But the story does not tell us that he is wrestling with himself. As he and the man wrestle through the night, Jacob realizes that he is wrestling with God. Then in verse 28, we learn that Jacob has indeed been wrestling with God.
This is remarkable. How is it that the omnipotent God does not instantly annihilate a mere man in a fight? But God does not come to Jacob with hostile purpose. God comes to be present to him; God comes to meet him face to face; God comes to be involved with him. Indeed, the very word translated here as “wrestle” contains nuances of “intertwining, knotting around one another, being tied together.” Anyone who has ever gone to a high school wrestling match can picture this struggle.
It’s hard to imagine a more arresting image of God’s involvement in Jacob’s life—indeed, in our lives—than that of a wrestling match. But God comes to Jacob ultimately to bless him. And Jacob will not cease from his struggle until he obtains God’s blessing. In what does this blessing consist?
We have already mentioned the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac. But that is a mere extension of an earlier blessing. Remember Jacob is the beneficiary of God’s original blessing of Abraham. “I will be with you and make your name great. I will make your descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore, as the stars in the sky.” But that promise of blessing again stands under threat. Esau is approaching him with 400 men, and Jacob’s afraid for his life, and afraid for the lives of his family. To seek God’s blessing here is to ask God to guard, to protect from danger, and thereby to promote life, and create space for its flourishing.
That is what Jacob is seeking from God. Jacob clings to God in his crisis, in his difficulties, where God meets with him face to face. God is there with him in the struggle, and consents to bless him.
God graciously comes to us in our struggle, in our difficulties, and consents to meet us too in them. This truth finds supreme expression in Jesus Christ. In our gospel lesson we see Jesus in the middle of an all-too-common human problem. There is too much need, and not enough to go around. There is too much demand, and limited supply. In those moments when this problem weighs especially heavily on us—and those moments may be many throughout the course of our lives—we wonder, “does God even care?”
The disciples have only five loaves and two fish. But there are five thousand people to feed, not even counting the women and children. The demands of the hour exceed their limited resources. They can only say: “This is all we have. It is not enough.” What else can they do but to dismiss the people in the hope that they will find food in the surrounding villages? We can do nothing for you. You must fend for yourself.
But the God who blesses Jacob is there in the person of Jesus. He is not intimidated by our difficulties. He does not counsel us to flee from our problems, to run from our responsibilities, but rather to face them. “You give them something to eat.”
We are easily discouraged by the difficulties that overwhelm us, that exceed our ability to cope. But faith is nothing if not directed to the impossible. If faith sees only five loaves and two fishes, and immediately concedes defeat, it is not faith. It is certainly not biblical faith that believes Jesus is risen from the dead and still works powerfully among his people in the world today through his Spirit.
“Bring them to me,” Jesus tells the disciples. Note that responding to this command is an act of faith. Faith means to commit our problems, and the little we have to meet them, to Jesus, in the expectation of his help, his blessing. It means to give to Jesus, everything that we are and have, in practical obedience to his command, allowing him into our lives to do what only he can do.
Jesus took the five loaves, broke and blessed them, and then gave them back to his disciples, who then went to work in passing them out to the crowds. Let us be clear here. This is not magic; this is a miracle. There is a difference. Note the disciples are still the agents. To be sure, they receive their task back with the blessing of Jesus, but it is still their task. They still have to carry it out.
The lesson teaches us here that we, God’s people, share in Jesus’ power more than we may realize. The blessing of Jesus is given to us to promote life, to help it to flourish, but, like the disciples, too often we stand there overwhelmed, immobilized by the difficulties, like a wrestler in a submission hold. But in Jesus Christ God indeed gives to us his blessing. When we need the approval of a trusted mentor, when we need a vote of confidence from the one we admire, from the one whose life we want to imitate, we long to hear from him the words: “You have my blessing.” These words liberate us. They set us free to tackle again the project before us, to continue on in our life’s course despite the difficulties. From Jesus we have this blessing. Because we are blessed by Jesus, we have to learn to act courageously. We have to learn to believe we have more than enough to be of big help to ourselves and to those around us.
Jesus blesses us. He does this by using what we have in our hands and give to him to bless others through us.
One final point. It is no accident that when hear that Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives the loaves, we hear echoes of the Lord’s Supper. Let us not miss the point here. Before sending us out to feed the world, God first feeds us in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Before sending us out to promote life and to make it flourish, he first feeds us with the Bread of Life, which is Jesus Christ himself.
In Jesus Christ, we have all received one blessing after another. God has poured out his blessings upon us in him and will continue to do so. Let us then cling to him. Like Jacob, let us refuse to let him go until he blesses us. And then, let us be an open channel, so that the blessings that we receive from God into our lives may overflow into the lives of others. Amen.