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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/31/2011

According to legend, the Apostles’ Creed was composed by the Apostles, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, on the tenth day after the Ascension of Jesus with each of the twelve apostles contributing one clause.  That’s the legend and such a legend would certainly add prestige to the Apostles’ Creed even if it is just a legend.  The truth is more likely that the creed evolved over several hundred years with the form that we use, the form that many of us memorized as kids having been around since the 6th or 7th century.  So it’s old, but probably doesn’t date back to the Apostles themselves.  However, most of what’s in the Apostles’ Creed comes from theological statements that were current around the year 100, a time when the apostles themselves might not have been around anymore but people who knew them were.  These statements were called the rule of faith and the confession of faith that we use today is not substantially different from the confessional statements that were made by the earliest Christians.

Of course the creed starts with “I believe in God the Father Almighty creator of heaven and earth.”  It’s a good place to start and I dare say that for many of us that statement represents something of a baseline statement of our faith in God.  Our faith starts at pretty much the same place the creed starts with the idea of an almighty, all powerful, creator God who can do anything. 

It’s an image of God that we like, it’s God as powerful, God as a winner you might say and everyone loves a winner.  We hang on to the image of an all powerful God and it doesn’t bother us that much that such an image raises a lot of questions, most notably about how an all powerful God can let some of the stuff happens that happens to us personally or on a larger scale.  We know that there are some things about this almighty God that we don’t know, but still we don’t want to let what we don’t know or the questions that we have diminish God’s power in any way.  After all, when you pray, you want to pray to an all powerful God who can change things.  That’s pretty much the point of intercessory prayer.   You probably don’t want to pray to a God who can be wrestled to a draw by the likes of Jacob.

This story of the wrestling match at the ford of the Jabbok River is one of the classic Jacob stories, one of the most interpreted texts from this part of the Genesis material.  Now granted, the text never says specifically that it’s the Lord that Jacob wrestles with, but everything seems to point in that direction and most interpreters from the beginning have assumed that the stranger is indeed God, the Lord. 

According to our belief in God almighty though, this should have been no contest; the odds makers in Las Vegas wouldn’t even have it on the board it seems so lopsided.  The Lord should have crushed Jacob like a bug;  but that’s not what happens.  As I said, it’s more or less a draw.  They struggle through the night and come morning the stranger wants to be done with it.  But Jacob won’t let go until he gets a blessing and until he knows the name of his adversary.  He gets the blessing, but he doesn’t get the name.  Instead Jacob himself gets a new name, Israel, which means one who strives with God, but he also suffers an injury that will cause him to limp for the rest of his life.  He will remember this night and he will remember the one he wrestled with.

Actually though, the particulars don’t matter as much as the fact that the Lord doesn’t clearly prevail.  That doesn’t seem to fit with God the Father almighty.  God as all powerful is where we start in our thinking about God, but if that’s where we end, we’re essentially left with a distant, unapproachable God, a God who calls the shots from afar, but who doesn’t care to be in relationship.  But that’s not the God we worship as the God we worship is by nature relational, internally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and externally with the world He has created, especially with human beings who have been given a special role to play. 

That can lead to some pretty dense and difficult to understand Trinitarian theology, but the stories of the Bible make the theology easier to understand.  Throughout the Bible, there are stories that move beyond just almighty God, to God who exists in other ways for the sake of relationship.  Relative to today’s first lesson you could ask, “What kind of God would be wrestled to a draw by a mere mortal?” and the answer would be, the kind of God we need, the kind of God who respects our need to wrestle even though we know it’s a mismatch, the kind of God who for our sake empties himself of some of that almighty power and lets us wrestle.

And we’ve all been there with whatever our “why God?” or “where are you God?” questions might be.  You might have your times when you wrestle and wonder if any of this real or are we just fooling ourselves.  We struggle sometimes, we wrestle but when you read about those considered to be saints, they did too.  St. Paul prayed to God to take away some ailment or affliction that he thought was hindering his ministry, but it didn’t happen.  Luther, when you read about Luther, he was just a mess as he tried to figure out what God was up to in his life; he wrestled mightily.  You perhaps remember the commotion a few years ago when Mother Theresa’s writings revealed that she struggled mightily with the dark night of the soul, wondering if God existed at all.  The wrestling goes on.

We do need God the Father almighty, but we also need the compassionate God who allows us to wrestle, and who even lets us score a few points.  We may not get all we want, but like Jacob, if we refuse to let go, we’ll get enough. 

When we talk about God the Father Almighty, part of what we’re talking about relative to God’s power, is the power of compassion, which is not how we tend to think about power.  This story of the all night wrestling match is a story of God’s compassion.  Our belief in God the Father Almighty says that the Lord could have had his way with Jacob, could have put him in his place, but for Jacob’s sake and for the sake of the relationship, with the power of compassion, the Lord engages Jacob and in the overall sequence of this Jacob narrative, this winds up marking something of a turning point for him; he’s not entirely done with his sneaky ways but he’s at a different place on his journey.

For us, the power of compassion is revealed more fully in Jesus and today’s gospel story is a good example.  I think it’s interesting and significant, that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them; when the disciples saw the crowds they could only see a problem.  But what Jesus wants to show them is the power and the possibility of compassion.  The word compassion means to suffer with.  In this story Jesus shows what can happen when we see each other that way.  He shows what it means to suffer with someone instead of seeing others as problems to solve or to fix or to eliminate. 

Jesus does exercise power here, but he doesn’t use that power to gain an advantage over anyone.  Some commentators find it significant that in Matthew this story of the feeding of the 5000 follows immediately after the story of King Herod’s birthday banquet that culminates in the beheading of John the Baptist.  Herod throws a party as a display of his power, flexing his muscles as it were, because he can.  He has John the Baptist killed because he can; he has the power.  Jesus, in contrast, humbly and quietly goes about his business, providing for others out of the power of his compassion and the result is that there is enough, enough for everyone.  It’s the possibility of compassion.

We do believe in God the Father Almighty creator of heaven and earth.  But we also have to remember that power is redefined in this God.  It’s not raw power for the sake of control, but it’s the power of compassion for the sake of others that is most clearly revealed.  Stories like the wrestling story move in that direction.  It’s a story that gives us permission to wrestle knowing that in compassion, God will engage us. 

The power of compassion culminates with Jesus, who out of compassion, empties himself of power in the mystery of the cross so that even death is transformed for our sake.  As followers of Jesus then, we are called to lives that model the abundant possibilities of that divine compassion.  It probably won’t end our need to wrestle sometimes, but in compassion we come closer to knowing who God is, and closer to knowing who we are supposed to be.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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