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Commentary
Once when Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, was traveling in Rome, he noticed a crowd of people gathered around a large red poster. They were talking rather excitedly among themselves about the message it announced, so he reached into his coat pocket for his eyeglasses. Only then did he realize that he’d left them back at his hotel.

So he turned to the fellow next to him. “Sir,” he said, “could you please tell me what that sign says? I’ve forgotten my glasses.”

“Sorry, Signore!” said the other, with a knowing look in his eyes. “I don’t know how to read either.”

Eyes are marvelous windows. Jesus called them the lamp of the body. Emerson said that a person’s eyes “indicate the antiquity of the soul.” George Herbert spoke of the power of the eyes when he remarked that they “have one language everywhere.”

That is the insight expressed in today’s lectionary passages. Eyes need to be trained. Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli soldier and statesman, wore a trademark black eye patch over the eye that he had damaged in combat. Once when he was speeding along like Jehu, Israeli police stopped him. He talked himself out of a fine by saying, “I have only one eye. What do you want me to watch—the speedometer or the road?”

His humor is true in this sense: we cannot focus everywhere. And where we decide to settle our eyes is as much determined by our hearts as it is by our heads. So it is with faith.

Our youngest daughter once told me I was lucky to wear glasses. She saw me take them off at night when I went to bed. She was sure I could never have bad dreams because without my glasses, I couldn’t see the monsters chasing me!

It is certainly true that we cannot see what we do not bring clearly into focus. No servant will serve his or her master without keeping an eye on his location and circumstances and desires. We see what we want to see, and that we focus on.

So in times of crisis we need to step back from ourselves to see, as Isaac and Jacob did, as the Christians of Rome did, and as Jesus’ disciples in the boat on the stormy waters did, where we are focusing. Will our eyes be mesmerized by fear, or made courageous by faith?

Genesis 27:1-4, 12-28
Only a few details of Isaac’s life are told on the pages of Genesis, and they occur in the transitional paragraphs from the Abraham story cycle (Genesis 12–25) to the Jacob story cycle (Genesis 26–37). Isaac is to have a wife from within Terah’s larger family back in the old country, and this is accomplished through clear divine intervention and leading (chapter 24). To Isaac and Rebecca are born twins who are opposites in character, and always in competition with one another (chapter 25). Rather than emerging with an identity of his own, Isaac seems doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes (chapter 26).

After those few notes, Jacob takes center stage. He is a conniver from birth (Genesis 25:21–34), favored by his mother (Genesis 25:28; 27:1–28:9), cheats his family (father Isaac—27:1—39; brother Esau—25:29–34, 27:1–39; uncle Laban—30:25–43; daughter Dinah—34:1–31), works for his uncle Laban to earn wives Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:15–30) and cattle (Genesis 30:25–43), is cheated by his uncle (Genesis 29:25–27), afraid of his brother (Genesis 32:3–21), a cowardly wrestler with God (Genesis 32:22–32), and finally receives the covenant blessing and mandate (Genesis 35:1–15).

While all of these stories are fascinating in themselves, there are two significant themes that emerge as dominant. First, in the character of Jacob the nation of Israel will always find herself reflected. After all, it is Jacob who bequeaths his special covenant name “Israel” to the community formed by his descendants. Hearing about Jacob and his exploits would be like reading a secret diary mapping Israel’s psychological profile. Even before leaving Egypt, the people were wrangling with Moses about burdens and responsibilities, seeking ways to shift workloads and blames elsewhere. Once the wilderness trek began, a variety of conniving subterfuges showed up, including complaints about who really had a right to lead. The spirit of Jacob remained with his namesakes.

Second, the meaning of the name “Israel” and the circumstances surrounding it became a defining moment in Israel’s theology. Rarely does the text of Genesis crack open to reveal an origin outside of its narrative timeline, but as the tale of Jacob’s night-long wrestling match concludes, there is indeed a note that identifies the organized nation of Israel as the audience reviewing these matters (Genesis 32:32). The story itself is more sordid than it appears at first glance. Jacob and his amassed company are heading back home to Canaan. Jacob hopes that his brother Esau has miraculously had a bout of amnesia and is excited to welcome him with no dark thoughts about Jacob’s nasty subterfuge a few decades earlier. But Esau has a good memory, and the report quickly arrives that the maligned brother is racing toward Jacob’s retinue at the center of an aggressive army seeking revenge.

Always the manipulator, Jacob strategizes ways to save his skin. First, he splits the caravan in two, hoping Esau will target the wrong camp. Then large gifts are sent ahead in the expectation that Esau will be slowed by the herds offered, and his men distracted by the feasts of fresh roasted meat they take. Perhaps a little drunkenness might accompany the barbecue rituals, and because of these subterfuges, Jacob’s groups will be able to slip past in the night.

But Jacob knows the depth of his guilt, and his manic attempts at self-preservation continue. He sends his wives and children and remaining possessions across the Jabok River while he remains behind. This is a sinister and cowardly move, for it exposes Jacob’s family to the possible onslaught of Esau’s army without the moderate natural moat of the river to make their position more defensible. Meantime, Jacob himself would be sitting in the protection of the rearward hills, and will have the advantage of hearing the screams of his children and wives while they are slaughtered as a warning order to escape, even if they do not. Jacob is always the conniver, and a master of self-preservation.

Yet it is here, in the quarters where he had taken such pains to make himself safe, that he becomes most vulnerable. “A man wrestled with him till daybreak” (Genesis 32:24). We know even less about this figure than the little that Jacob seems to know. Nevertheless, both he and we are to infer that this was a divine engagement, and that God would not allow Jacob’s hiding to keep him aloof from the court of heaven or a confrontation with himself and the tests of righteousness. At the same time, there is a graciousness in the story which reminds us that the divine messenger does not overpower or overwhelm Jacob, but continues to grapple with him, and even provides a blessing he does not deserve. This, then, is the meaning of “Israel”—one who wrestles with God.

Looking back at Jacob, Israel at Mt. Sinai would see herself. She carried the conniving DNA of her forebear in her social makeup. But here at Mt. Sinai she also carried his divinely appointed name. In the Suzerain Vassal covenant Yahweh formulated with her, the wrestling continued. Yahweh and Israel were bound in an embrace that would change them both.

Romans 10:5-15
In Romans 8 Paul articulates an inspired testimony that declares “nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!” This powerful assertion, however, seems to cause Paul to reflect ruefully on a truly knotty theological problem. If Paul can be so certain about God’s strident grace toward us in this new age of the Messiah, why did God’s declarations of favor toward Israel in the previous age of revelation seem to fail? Why did Israel lose its privileged place in the divine plan, while the spreading church of Jesus Christ is suddenly God’s favored child?

These questions become the research matters for Paul’s internal intellectual debating team in Romans 9–11. First up, comes the standard reflection that God is sovereign. This means, for Paul, that God’s special relationship with ancient Israel was God’s choice to make, and is not undone now that God wishes also to use a new tactic in the divine attempt at recovering the whole of humanity back into a meaningful relationship with God.

Nevertheless, according to Paul, there has been something amiss about ancient Israel’s side of this relationship with God. Rather than understanding its favored position as enlisting it into the divine global mission, the nation tended to become myopic and self-centered. Instead of believing that she, too, needed to repent and find God’s care through grace, ancient Israel supposed that she had an inherent right to divine favor.

In the end, Paul believes that partly through ancient Israel’s false presumptions, and partly because of God’s temporary change of strategies in order to better fulfill the original divine redemptive mission, Gentiles have come to the center of God’s attention, while ancient Israel, though not forgotten, is partially sidelined for a time. But even this alteration in the temperature of God’s relationship with ancient Israel is a lover’s game: Israel needs to feel the good jealousy for a partner that she has too long taken for granted, so that she will recover her passions of great love. In the meantime, however, all win. God wins in the divine missional enterprise. The Gentiles win because they have a renewed opportunity to get to know God. And Israel wins because she is never forgotten, and is coming round to a renewed love affair with her beau.

Matthew 14:22-33
The disciples were in a predicament. They were tired. They were embattled by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus was not with them. After an incredibly tiring day of managing crowds, protecting their master, and “waiting tables” as they fed the masses, Jesus’ disciples were stretched beyond their common endurance.

Since some among them were experienced fishermen, the storm was not itself overwhelming. But the specter of a ghostly figure approaching across the waves in the darkness would have been a horrifying omen. Fear lurched through every soul, ping-ponging back and forth between brain and heart.

And yet, stronger than fear, came the calming power of faith. Jesus revealed himself to his own. Jesus loved his disciples and re-established the boundaries of safety. Jesus spoke a word of courage and refocused their attention.

As Matthew was aware, when retelling these things, this is an important message for all of faith. If you have been thrown by the horse of your religion, if you have scars from your encounters with the church, if your theology scares you, the challenge of scripture is this: Get back on the horse; find your way into the saddle again; learn how to ride your religion once more.

How do we do that? We begin, in part, by realizing that faith is more powerful than fear. That can be difficult because fear is a powerful force in our lives. Like a horse that has thrown us, fear towers over us. And well it should, because God has given us the strength of fear to keep us from being destroyed. Fear is the alarm that goes off in our hearts whenever danger threatens. Fear can make us run faster and jump higher than we ever thought possible.

A hunter came back to his camp late at night, clothes in shreds, hair full of brambles, skin cut and bruised. He was carrying a beautiful trophy: a magnificent leopard. As his partner looked the animal over, he said, “I don’t see a bullet hole. How did you bag this fellow?”

“Oh, I ran him to death,” said the hunter.

“What?” exclaimed his partner. “You can’t chase a leopard that fast!”

“Who said anything about chasing?” came the reply. “I was out in front!”

Fear will do that do us, wont it? Fear speeds up our reaction time. It strengthens our muscles. It demands that we run from burning houses. Whenever our senses tell us we’re being challenged, our adrenal glands squirt some fear into our system, and our energy level increases. You’ve probably heard stories of mothers who lifted crashed automobiles to release a trapped child. Fear said, “Get that child out of there,” so they did.

But the power of fear can hypnotize us, too. This was a huge danger for the frightened disciples. It can stand before us and cast a spell that keeps us from moving. Maybe you’ve seen a hypnotist at work. She puts a man into a trance and draws a circle around him on the floor. Then she tells him that he can’t cross the line – that his feet won’t be able to because of the barrier set against him. When she wakes him from his trance, try as he might, he cannot cross that line. The hypnotist’s suggestion keeps him pinned.

Jesus knew the hypnotic power of fear, the crippling power of anxiety. That is why he so often, like here, tells people not to be afraid. In fact, his command not to fear is recorded more than any other single teaching. The gospels record almost two dozen instances, including this one, in which Jesus challenged people to give up their fears and to try believing in God again. He said it to Peter. He said it to the ruler of the synagogue when he was told that his little girl had died. He said it to the disciples as a group on a number of occasions. Again and again he said it: “Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.” It was even the first thing he said after his resurrection.

If doubt and faith are necessary partners in our hearts, fear and faith are mortal enemies, often locked in combat. Only when we acknowledge that faith is stronger than fear can we climb again into the saddle of our religion and ride the horizons with our God.

Application
Robert Browning used to boast that he had perfect eyesight. That may not seem like much of a boast until you understand that he was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other. When he wanted to peer at things close to him, he covered the farsighted eye, and when he gazed at things distant, he covered the other. His unique malady was a conversation piece.

Sometimes we suffer from a kind of spiritual “double vision” when we want to praise God at a distance. We want the warm fuzzies of having God as our pet or bodyguard, but we don’t want him to get so close to our lives that he might affect how we live.

One of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems includes these mournful lines:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

His question includes a touch of wistful repentance that speaks at once of both praise and judgment. Obviously, there was something to be admired about that lad, something good and right and noble and kind. But just as obviously something’s gone wrong in the person he has become.

The chant of scripture is about recovering good vision. It calls us to praise God and things righteous. But that praise becomes a double-edged sword when it casts its reflected gleam on the dark and spotted places of life, the things that breed violence, corruption, and hatred. One cannot praise God lovingly without also calling evil sin and vileness unacceptable.

A father put his arm around his daughter as she was about to leave on her first date. He said to her: “Just remember who you are.” That’s enough, isn’t it?

You see, it is not so much that we are hunted into the kingdom of heaven, but that we are haunted into it. We are haunted by the selves we know we were, the selves we know we could be, the selves we see ourselves becoming in the eye of God. In the haunting of our lives, through praise and prayer, God brings us to our senses, restores our right vision, and helps us to see ourselves and our world truly.

Do you remember when you were soft, not hard? Do you remember when you were warm, not cold? Do you remember what you felt when you first brought songs of praise to God?

How will you see those things in yourself again? What will it take to restore the focus of your heart and soul and mind and strength?

Alternative Application (Matthew 14:22-33)
Henry Francis Lyte was only fifty-four, but several years of illness had kept him from functioning to full potential in his congregation in a small fishing village. His limitations seemed to have fostered problems in the church. At one time worship services were crowded, and over eight hundred children were taught by seventy teachers in the Sunday school program. At one time he knew the names of every boat in the harbor and every man who walked the docks. At one time his tireless care and enthusiasm drew even skeptics to Christ.

But now Lyte was failing rapidly. His doctor told him to quit the ministry. His congregation was falling apart. And here he sat, on a bluff above the sea, wondering what message to bring for his last Sunday evening sermon on September 5 of 1847.

The points and outline wouldn’t come. They were crowded out by the cares and troubles that surrounded him. But then a prayer began to form in his mind that softly caressed his vision back into focus. The prayer began to sing itself. And by the time his people gathered for worship, a new hymn called them into the presence of God.

Henry Lyte died a few months later. But he died a blessed man. And people in churches around the world know that, each time they open their hymnbooks to sing his prayer: “Abide with Me!”

I need your presence every passing hour;
What but your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me!

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