Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday of Lent 2015
Start Date: 1st Mar 2015
Start Time: 10:00

-

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in ResidenceIt was one of those fortuitous and extraordinary happenings—we call it serendipity in our household. Others call it 'good luck', coincidence, happenstance.In April last year I found myself on sabbatical after twenty-five years in ordained ministry. My colleagues on the Dean and Chapter kindly allowed me three months study leave, which I took in Jerusalem. The university I studied at ran on an American model, so I had the pleasure of a mid-semester break which I decided to use by travelling over the border into Jordan, and then joined a cycle tour which journeyed from Madaba to Mount Nebo; the Dead Sea to the Crusader Castle at Shobak; Petra and the Nabateans was followed by the desert of the Wadi Rum, the territory made famous in England by the exploits of T E Lawrence, 'Lawrence of Arabia'. And then, finally, we reached the sea: Jordan's only seaport at Aqaba, on what is now called the Gulf of Eilat, the point where Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia almost collide.And it was there, in Aqaba on Palm Sunday that I attended the Eucharist in the Mission to Seafarers Centre and had one of those moments of serendipity. At the end of the Communion service, as the congregation was leaving, I greeted that Chaplain, Adam Boulter, only for him to say, 'Haven't we met before?' And indeed we had, at a party! Next door to this very Abbey in St Margaret's Church, where I am also the Rector.And it was from this encounter that a new exhibition has arisen: 'In the Wilderness', which you can visit if you are attending the 11.00 am Eucharist in St Margaret's, or else later this afternoon, or during the week.The exhibition comprises of seven images taken from the desert, but related to scriptural passages: encounters with God on the fringes of society, and describing the spiritual journey which is at the very heart of this season of Lent. Alongside the biblical text and Adam Boulter's painting, there is also a set of sonnets by Malcolm Guite, Chaplain and Bye-Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge.So in this series of sermons at Matins during Lent, I am following the journey into the Wilderness which the exhibition describes, and this morning you will find the second image in the series; that of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.You will, I'm sure remember how this scene arose, but just let me remind you.The twenty-seventh chapter of Genesis has that incredible scene of family conflict, when Isaac prepares to bless the elder son, Esau, before his own death. Rebekah, Isaac's wife, connives with Jacob to steal the birth right due to Esau by the deception of clothing the smooth-skinned Jacob in skins of kids, so that Isaac mistook him for the hairy-man, Esau.The result is family disintegration of the worst kind: at the death of their father Isaac, it is said that 'Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself "The days of mourning for my father are approaching: then I will kill my brother Jacob"'.To save her beloved Jacob, Rebekah again conspires, this time in his removal from the country and his safe keeping with Laban. However, the first part of Genesis 32 describes the deep fear which confronts Jacob on his return. He sends messengers ahead of him to appease his brother whom he imagines to still be enraged and embittered. 'Tell Esau, I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now, and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favour in your sight'.He sends his flocks, his servants, his belongings; even his wives and children go ahead over the ford of Jabbok, and Jacob is left alone.And that's the point at which this encounter with the angel happens. Jacob is terrified of meeting his brother; he has denuded himself of all the wealth that he had accumulated as part of his birth right; the blessing he stole from Esau. And now he is alone, without possessions, laid bare.But this is no ordinary encounter: Jacob wrestles with a man with such force that the stranger puts his hip out of joint to subdue him, but still he insists on receiving the Angel's blessing.And the form of that blessing is that he will no longer be called Jacob, but rather Israel—the struggler, the striver—the father of the nation, a nation born out of struggle.Of course, it's not difficult to see in Jacob's encounter his abject fear about meeting his brother Esau for the first time since their separation. He must have been filled with anxiety, guilt, foreboding of what would happen. This wasn't so much wrestling with an angel, but as we would now call it, wrestling his own demons, the demons of betrayal.But then there is the reunion: Jacob is so scared that he divides up his wives and children so that at least some might escape. He goes ahead alone, bowing seven times to the ground until he approaches Esau.And the response? 'But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept … Then Esau said, "Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you"'.The demon had been faced, wrestled with, not avoided but put to rest.Winston Churchill famously said: 'When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened'.It's not that our fears and concerns are baseless: many of them have to be addressed. The encounter between Jacob and the angel shows how painful and wounding that struggle can be, but eventually how healing at the same time.And, of course, Scripture does not speak of wrestling demons, but rather of Jacob looking on the face of God. He names the place 'Peniel' (face of God). A God whose wounds are the wounds of love, and in whose struggle is the source of our healing and our salvation.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure