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God is generous — and gracious in giving whether we deserve it or not. A lot of people, in church as well as outside, don’t believe this.
On one level it’s easy to grasp but the disasters, differences and difficulties of human existence can seem like barriers.
It’s as if God has set us up to fail. But with faith, we see how by experiencing failure we seek His rescue, and find it. Without experiencing the opposite of God’s love and salvation, we cannot value what He freely offers us.
The story of Jacob is from way back in time and culture, but it makes this point. Despite Jacob’s tricky character, God, in His generosity, has decided to invest in him.
And His way of getting Jacob in the right place was an epic all-night-long wrestling match. We read:
“The man (personifying God) asked him, “What is your name?
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and overcome.(Genesis 32:27-28)
Which teaches us that we, of less-than-perfect character, can turn to God for help and direction.
This is what the crowd on the hillside following Jesus were doing, and their immediate need was finding food. We read:
Jesus replied to the disciples, “They do not need to go away, you give them something to eat.”… So they all ate and were satisfied.(Matthew 14:16,20)
God provided for them in their thousands, abundantly and without discrimination. But note that He involves people like us in His provision.
To these Jews, a flashback to the time God provided bread in the desert meant He was offering His salvation again. But this time Jesus is central — teaching us that He is our connection with God’s generosity.
Jews in their history knew all about God’s generosity, as Paul reflects.
“Theirs is the adoption to sonship, the divine glory… the covenants.” (Romans 9:4) And for us who do not have that history, he asserts:
“How how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:24)
So let’s not pass on what God is generously offering — whether we think we deserve it or not.
So, that’s a quick summary which gets the bearings of the story set out for us.
Now we can take a deeper dive, and start to hear what each part of the story means for us and our lives, as we consider God’s grace and generosity towards us.
We’re going to find three different but collaborative ways God reveals His generosity. In Jacob we see God’s generosity to those who clearly don’t deserve it! Then through Jesus, Gods generosity is experienced by others through His disciples — believers, like us who God relies on — and lastly in Paul’s regrets, expressed in this letter to Christians in Rome, we are reminded that generosity is so much a part of who God is, it is not just a promise but an expectation of His covenant with us, and us with Him.
Our way of connecting with God’s generosity is Jesus, but God speaks to us through all of His word, and Jacob’s story has particular application for us,
Let’s look more closely at Jacob’s experience, and understand what thist teaches us, living in a very different time and world, but relating to the same unchanging, generous and gracious God.
Who among us can say that we don’t ever have an undisclosed motive or a hidden agenda or a bargaining position? Of course we do, because that’s part of the fabric of life. However, we would aim to be open and transparent in our dealings — that’s part of our witness if we have become Christians by asking Jesus as Lord into our hearts and living new life in Him.
If we have been following this series, we have got to know Jacob already. In those days, name and character went together, and ‘Jacob’ meant ‘grasper’ or something like it. He grow up to be someone we might nickname ‘tricky Dicky’ or Wheeler the Dealer’. He was clever, and had the insights of a spiritual person but he didn’t always use them well — or generously. Being clever can result in a calculating cleverness, and observant can easily become opportunist. There’s a bit of Jacob in all of us in our old flesh nature!
We learned that Jacob was unsure whether or not God was with him, as he left Canaan. Then God gave him the amazing vision in a dream of a pyramid-like staircase to heaven, and spoke to him from the gate of heaven.
Now he’s learned that his brother, who her artfully persuaded to give up his birthright, was heading his way with 400 men. He has prepared an impressive gift to send, but for safety he has sent his family over the river, and he is now all alone. Then, apparently out of nowhere, there came…
From the Bible
“… a man (who) wrestled with Jacob till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”Genesis 32:24-28
Jesus and a LOT of people on the mountainside
The way we become changed from the old life to the new life is by meeting with Jesus. In some traditions it is common for people to adopt a new name when they become Christians. That might be the idea behind christening or naming ceremonies today for a new baby, but of course we can’t choose to receive Jesus for them, but we can certainly prayerfully encourage them to grow up and make that choice and decision for themselves.
What has that got to do with the crowd of men, women and children who were on a long march as they followed Jesus and listened to Him teaching them in a mountainside natural arena. Jesus taught them that the kingdom of God had come near to them, and they wanted this new life, this living under God’s order of justice and love and provision.
Many, many years ago their ancestors had escaped oppression and slavery in Egypt with the promise of a land of their own to settle in safety. The journey took them through a desert, wilderness area and like the deserts we sometimes encounter in our lives, God was using this — a prolonged time — to get the Egypt and slavery mindset out of them and relying on Him and His promises int o themI It took a generation, and while they were ‘on hold’ in the desert God provided food for them, a bread-like substance they collected and called manna.
What happens next is set against that backdrop, that part of their salvation history that they all knew off by heart. They are far from home — and hungry. And Jesus knows this, and has compassion on them, healing those who were sick and aware of their every need. And right now, it is — food. We read in Matthews account:
From the Bible
The disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
They answered: “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.”
“Bring them here to Me,” Jesus said. And He told the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.
They all ate and were satisfiedMatthew 14:15-29
What everyone remembers from this story is the MAGNITUDE of the miracle — and it is huge. The convention was to count the men present, not the women and children. So the five thousand mentioned in the full story is a figure you can double and add some. But how did all these people receive their food? And how did it multiply?
The aspect of God’s generosity we miss is that of God’s Spirit — present in the proximity of Jesus, although not yet generally given — and His working in each of the disciples as they did what Jesus told them. He had said: “You give them something to eat” and after breaking the loaves, he gave them to the disciples and we read, “the disciples gave them to the people”. Each of the twelve of them distributed to near enough a thousand hungry people!
The didn’t go back to Jesus for more, again and again, hundreds of times. The story doesn’t tell us that, and the practicalities deny it.
The disciples were acting as an essential part of God’s generosity and provision. Now for us, in the era of the Spirit being given and our learning to live in the Life of the Spirit, we see how ‘one man ministry’ came to an abrupt stop on this mountainside occasion! And we must be careful not to go back to it, for truly God works through each of us by His diverse gifts, in each of us.
The Jews and their covenant — and ours
Church practice has sometimes constrained ministry into its unbiblical and institutional mould, but we come to know God personally through Jesus, experience God through the Holy Spirit and participate in God’s historic promises, sharing them with others as we go. And this is the aspect which Paul now picks up in his letter to Christians in Rome, making a particular point about his own Jewish background and hope for his own people, as well as the many, many Gentile believers now making up the majority of the new churches outside Jerusalem. We hear Paul’s deep regrets that so many Jews were rejecting, and not receiving, the Good News of Jesus as he speaks of:
From the Bible
… those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, for ever praised! Amen.Romans 9:4-5
We know now that there is no discrimination on grounds of race or social position or anything else. So what is this teaching us?
Jews had a deep sense of being ‘people of the covenant’. people bound in a good way to God and His good promises. Unless they were persistently unfaithful to God — also a part of their history — God would be there for them. They could live in the blessing of His grace and generosity.
And us, if we are not of Jewish heritage? The context of what Paul is teaching is the new Life in the Spirit and how, by faith, we can live in the promises of God and the provision of God. His point, his regret, is that Jews have always known about this —and now they are the ones missing out.
As he says, “Theirs is the adoption to sonship…” and we know that a lot of the teaching he gives about the new life in Jesus and the new identity is about that great privilege of being adopted as sons and heirs of God, not passed down through tribal ancestry but by being believers who have trusted Jesus as Saviour and Lord and received the Helper, the Holy Spirit.
A little later in this letter — and we touched on it in the introduction — he writes:
How much more will these (that’s us) the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 121:34). It is as if that source of life and covenant belonging has always been there for us to be re-connected through Jesus.
The message of the Bible, put simply, is that God is good and God is generous and He treats us, not as we deserve but as His love dictates. That is why a joyless Christian is a contradiction in terms. Becoming a Christian through choosing Jesus is how the joy of the new life is released. It connects us to the age-old covenant of God’s promises, based on His goodness and generosity.
That is the discovery of our generous, gracious God.
Father, You so loved the world that You gave… and we experience Your grace and generosity in so many ways.
You invite us to draw near for refreshing, You make provision for us to meet our needs and You are generous in forgiveness when we turn to You.
May we always be open to what You want to do next in our lives. Forgive us our tendency to pride and self-sufficiency, when we are nothing and we have nothing and we can do nothing of enduring value — apart from You.
Thank You so much for sending Jesus, our Saviour, in whose name we pray. Amen.