Pentecost 19 – John Conway, Provost – 20th October 2019

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18.1-8

Words from the second letter to Timothy, our first reading this morning:

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’ All scripture is inspired by God.

Before we consider what that might mean, let’s approach it by looking at one of the other passages of scripture given to us this morning – the story from Genesis of Jacob’s wrestle with an angel, or is it with God? It’s a strange, but suggestive story – it has inspired many artists and writers, with its imagery of night-time wrestling to extract a blessing, even at the cost of a wounding.

The first thing to say is that the context of this story within the Book of Genesis is important. It is part of a series of tales that focus on sibling relationships (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Rachel and Leah – who, of course, are the two wives of Jacob mentioned at the start of the reading – and then, not least, Jacob and his twin, but elder brother, Esau). We have already had the story of Jacob tricking his elderly father Isaac by pretending to be Esau, tricking him into giving Jacob the blessing usually reserved for the elder son. In an agrarian society, which sibling comes out on top is vital. In a context of scarcity, of the hard work of surviving, which one receives the father’s blessing, and the material goods handed on with that blessing, becomes all important.

Having stolen the blessing that should have been his brother’s, Jacob is packed off to find a wife, and having prospered with Laban, is now returning with two. But he is also returning fearful of the reception he will receive from his brother Esau. And so we are told, in the passage we heard, that he sends his wives and children, and all that he has, on ahead and is left alone, by the ford of Jabbok. Left alone to wrestle. With his conscience? With his fears? With an angel? We are not exactly told. But he emerges having been blessed, and so rises, blessed and limping, to meet his brother. The passage goes on:

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

Jacob comes to meet his estranged brother, from whom he has been bitterly divided, and is met by an embrace, a moment of utter grace. The template of Cain and Abel, of all the other bickering and arguments between siblings in the context of scarcity and fear, is for a moment laid aside. And Jacob explicitly links this meeting to the strange events of the night before:

“truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favour,” he says.

That breaking down of barriers, even when it inflicts wounds, is where the face of God is seen.

To read that story is to be immediately reminded of our own nights of wrestling; wrestling with our fears, in arguments with our brothers and sisters (both literal and metaphorical); seeking a blessing in the most trying of circumstances and arguments. And to read of Esau’s act of generosity and grace, is to be asked if we could do likewise – find the gesture and action that puts the ugly past behind, starts us again on a different footing. Even if, like Jacob, there may be a cost to that too – so that we are left limping and weeping, but blessed and reconciled.

Like all great stories, Jacob’s wrestling with an angel isn’t just about what happened by an obscure stream a long time ago. It provokes our own reflections and wonderings, our own stirrings and wrestlings.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

That text is often produced to defend a certain account of biblical authority. I wanted to start by considering an actual scriptural text because the authority of the Bible should not be treated separately to its content. Authority is not something the bible possesses in the abstract, somehow inherent in being “The Bible”, but as something that its content evokes. The authority of the bible is not something evidenced by wheeling out 2Tim 3.16 – all scripture is inspired by God. Authority is arrived at through an engagement with the contents of the bible, what it actually is.

And when we do read it, live with the contents of this perplexing book, we discover that it is not a straightforward manual for living or a code of ethics, or a self-help book. It’s far more complicated and messy and joyous than that. Tales of sex and violence, for example, that would have self-appointed guardians of morals dashing off letters of outrage. Read the Book of Judges, but beware of its horrific violence; read the lyrical eroticism of the Song of Songs; or the many-layered vignette that is the Book of Ruth. These are not simple morality tales where good invariably wins out or virtue is finally rewarded. Often the biblical narrator seems to take no moral stand toward the events he or she describes. But the very mode of the story-telling – the sparseness of the language, the lack of psychological portraits of the characters – such devices draw us the reader in, force us to fill in the gaps, become involved, make moral judgements. And when we do so, when we become involved, we find that these expressions of human anguish, fear, passion, perplexity, eroticism, the search for wisdom and justice, the openness to the transcendent, these expressions of exultation speak to and unsettle us in our similar human predicaments and joys.

What we do here on a Sunday, as we gather around scripture, is not entertainment; it gives expression to our human need to seek meaning, and because the bible dares to speak of God, to seek what is ultimately meaningful. Above all, through worship, through open, engaged hearts and minds, what we do here on a Sunday is not to be entertained but is to dare to listen and to receive and be transformed.

These scriptural texts have been, and continue to be, at the heart of living communities of faith. Our reading occurs in the context of community – past and present. We need to listen to each other, and to our forebears in faith, as we listen to the bible. It is the quality of that listening, to each other, to the tradition, to the bible, that will determine the authority of scripture. That authority rests on the process of reading, learning, marking and inwardly digesting scripture by which we are nourished.

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’

Inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that leads us into all truth. That inspiration, that work of the Holy Spirit, is in the present, in the interaction between the text and us, the readers. It is as we are drawn into the acts of reading and listening, of questioning the text and finding ourselves questioned, that the work of the Holy Spirit begins. Too often we treat the bible as a historical document, locating truth as the answer to the question, did that really happen? To read the bible as scripture liberates truth, and the work of the Holy Spirit, to be that illumination, that exasperation, that wonder, that shock, that yes to God, that the Bible can provoke.

When Jacob finds himself engaged in a fight in the middle of the night with a ‘man’ who is also ‘God’, he does not say to him, as he would in a fairy tale: ‘I will not let you go till you tell me your name.’ Instead, surprisingly, he says, ‘I will not let you go till you bless me’. Whereupon the ‘man’ asks Jacob his name, and, when told it, announces that henceforth Jacob will have a new name, Israel. Our task is to wrestle with this book as Jacob wrestled with the ‘man’, sometimes in the darkness of not understanding; not for the sake of the contest or in order to wrest the book’s secret from it, but so that we may hear it utter its blessing upon us, and name us anew. Amen.

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