Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 6 July 2023.
• First Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31 (Jacob wrestles with God through the night at Peniel. Given a new name)
• Epistle: Romans 9: 1-5 (Paul’s love for the people of his own race)
• Gospel: Matthew 14: 13-21 (Feeding the 5000. Five loaves and two fishes)
The idea of continuing personal struggle is very much part of who we are and where we are going.
It could be a philosophical or theological problem, a relationship or a besetting sin. It may be some kind of contradiction that we see in society and how far it differs from our ideal. The inadequacies of science, politics, culture or of humanity itself.
And so we struggle with that question that gnaws at us and which gives us no peace. It will not go away and there seems to be no resolution.
In this way the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel is very comforting for it tells us that we are not alone in our personal questing.
And it is not as if the struggle was there in plain sight and under the spotlights like a boxing match. No, it is through the night and in the darkness and desolation of an isolated place, just as our own struggles are also in the darkness of the night and in the isolation of our own souls.
And this is not just a short bout of a few rounds of limited duration and under controlled conditions. No, it goes on and on, never letting up. Only as day was breaking did Jacob begin to come to any kind of resolution and peace within himself.
As a young Christian one of my struggling questions was the place of the law and of the Jews in the sight of God.
If as Paul says, the law was such a disaster and the Jews were so perennially rebellions, then had God made a mistake? Had He got it wrong? If the law was so central to His promises to His people and they were utterly incapable of keeping it – certainly in spirit and in truth then was there a flaw in the planning and the purposes of God – and if this was the case was God Himself flawed?
There were two possibilities in my mind: either the law and the covenants and the Jews were all one ghastly mistake – OR NO, THEY WERE NOT.
If they were not then they still had a glorious and wonderful place in the sight of God. The covenants and the promises were for all time and were never going to be repudiated not by God anyway.
And even more reassuringly, if God’s promises to the Jews were secure then so were His promises to me. You could not have one set of promises without the other.
And no, the church has not displaced them in the purposes of God. They continue to be loved and cherished. Even when they get things wrong – and that is reassuring when I also get things wrong. This is not about being Jewish: it is about being human.
For God does not go back on His promises, His covenants or His calling. Indeed, later in his letter to the Romans he tells us that the ‘Gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.’ (11:29) It is what we do with them that is moot – and for which we will answer personally.
So when modern questions about their land and housing policies, their security and currently their constitution are very much in the air – I can only say that if I cannot endorse the same policies of my own governments, how can I be expected to approve those of the Jewish authorities who have been at war in one form or another since before 1917, with little let up.
But there is another aspect here.
Our faith and worship, our teaching and sense of good works are all directly derived from the law and the prophets of Israel. We sing the psalms of the Jews and we read their holy books. The New Testament is a Jewish book, and even Luke the evangelist was a follower of Paul.
Take the Jews out of our worship and belief and concept of salvation and we have nothing. Receive the message of salvation at their hands and we then come to see that there is a glorious parallel here.
If in the death of Jesus we are saved, then now much more will we be blessed in His resurrection and ascension?
Similarly, if the falling back of the Jews has opened to us the glories of God in the scriptures and the salvation of Jesus Christ, then how much more glorious will be their restoration in the purposes of God? And it will come, in His manner and timing.
Just as Jesus was taken into the wilderness to be tested after His baptism in the River Jordan and there faced the reality of His journey to the cross, so also have the Jews been alienated and oppressed down the centuries.
But Jesus also shows us the kind of Messiah that He is. He is the one who in a lonely and stony place takes the pathetically small offering of 5 loaves and 2 fishes and who, through the obedient ministry of His servants, multiplies them for the people.
It is the kind of thing that the Messiah does. This is the kind of Kingship that He exercises.
Our task is to receive and give forth the loaves and fishes as He gives them to us. His gifts of food, His blessing and His multiplying of them. Not a contrivance of our own or another design more to our liking.
And yes, the greatest gift of all is His own life poured out for us. The message of His salvation. This is the foundation of all subsequent works of mercy for the people of the land.
It is the foundation for our structures of law and government, of education and healing. They are certainly not a substitute for that atonement. And yes, the gifts and calling of God really are irrevocable.