[A sermon preached at Douglas Presbyterian and Bethlehem Presbyterian on Genesis 32: 22-31.]
Sometimes I wonder if the way we often begin our worship – “the Lord be with you” – might be more aptly stated “let’s get ready to rumble.” If we take seriously today’s story about Jacob wrestling with God, then I think we have to at least consider it; after all, Jacob’s whole life has been something like a WWE cage-match, and round one, believe it or not, goes all the way back to the womb.
We’re told that Jacob and Esau wrestled with one another in their mother’s womb, and though Esau emerged as the victorious firstborn, claiming the birthright as his champion’s trophy, Jacob still managed to give him a run for his money. Jacob came out swinging, grabbing Esau’s heel as if to say “we’re not finished here.” From his very first moments in the world, we know Jacob as a fighter, and we can tell that this match is far from over. In fact, Jacob gets a second chance in round two, when he tricks his father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of Esau. This time, Jacob doesn’t hesitate to hit below the belt, using his cunning and deceit to get the competitive edge in this ongoing struggle with his brother. In today’s story, though, we meet Jacob on the night before his third and final round in the ring with Esau, and the stakes couldn’t get any higher.
A lot has happened in the twenty years since Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and fled his homeland to escape his brother’s rage. Jacob is now a middle-aged man with a lot to lose. He has numerous wives and children, a large family with an even larger herd of livestock, and plenty of servants to go with it. He’s wealthy and successful, a man who seemingly has it all, but he’s still estranged from his brother and unable to return home. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, feels a lot like defeat. Jacob has to do something about this, but he also knows that reaching out to Esau is a major risk: the last he has heard, Esau had been plotting to kill him. Despite the generous gifts and bribes he has sent to Esau to try to de-escalate the situation, when we meet Jacob in our story today, all hope for a peaceful reunion seems lost. He’s received word that Esau is coming for him with 400 of his men, and Jacob is terrified that he’s about to get a good, old-fashioned butt-kickin’. It’s the night before the championship round, and our star player is starting to look a lot like an underdog.
So, Jacob sends his family ahead of him across the river, and prepares for what he surely believes will be a sleepless night as he anticipates this meeting with Esau. He is left alone to confront his worst fears and his own sense of guilt, and the darker it gets, the greater his anxiety. It always seems to be the case that when we’re all alone in the middle of the night, the truth that we’ve run from during the day catches up to us. Surrounded by family, friends, tasks and possessions, it is easy to pretend. It’s easy to give glib answers that don’t really suffice, to plan in the face of uncertainty, and to think our way out of bad situations. But when we’re all by ourselves with the darkness descending around us, we’re confronted with questions we cannot avoid and fears we’ve tried to push away.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that this is exactly the place where God enters into the story. I mean, haven’t we all had those nights? You know the ones I’m talking about. Those nights where the shadows lengthen until we find ourselves in complete darkness, and suddenly, those cares and concerns that seemed manageable during the daylight hours all come flooding to the forefront. Those nights where the worst-case scenarios seem all too possible, and we toss and turn as our worries threaten to overwhelm us. Those nights that we’re so preoccupied by what-ifs and if-onlys that it is all we can do to close our eyes. These are the nights that we call upon God, that we lift up our confusion, fear, and raw emotion, praying for any kind of relief. These are the nights where we yell at God, accuse God, question God, despise God. On nights like these, we like Jacob, wrestle with God, fighting this way and that, until finally we collapse in utter exhaustion. Remarkably, though, instead of turning away from God in these moments, we often find ourselves clinging even more tightly to him. Like Jacob, we refuse to let God go until he blesses us. We realize that we cannot be our own saviors anymore, that we cannot make it apart from God, so we ask to be changed, to be renamed by grace, to be broken and then healed by love.
That is what happened to Jacob when he found himself alone, confronting his own worst fears in the dead of night, and wrestling with God. This story testifies to the fact that our encounters with God are not always comforting, peaceful, or affirming, but we can be sure that they will be transformative if we can just hang in there. Like Jacob, our faith struggles leave us with both blessings and bruises, and this story reminds us that God’s steadfast love for us doesn’t necessarily preclude knocking us out of joint and sucking the wind right out of us from time to time. But we endure the struggle for the sake of the gift.
This struggle was a transformative encounter for Jacob, and through it, he received the gift of a new life. The man who had formerly deceived his father by telling him his name was Esau now gives his true name, Jacob, revealing himself as someone who grasps and grabs, and owning his greediness for that which is not rightfully his. The man who had formerly tricked, deceived, cheated, and lied to get what he wanted, now asks openly and truthfully for the desired blessing. For once, instead of manipulating situations and people to get what he wants, he confronts who he has been and he accepts his own lack of control. Clearly, his name is not the only thing that has changed. He is bruised but blessed, and as he limps into the daylight, he is able to meet his brother, for the very first time, without pride, without trickery, and without deceit. His struggle, wounds and all, allowed him to bring about healing and forgiveness in his relationship with his brother, and the two were able to receive each other with open arms. Definitely not the ending we expected, but an ending in which God is deeply present, creating a new beginning for this reconciled family.
Thanks be to God for those long, dark, scary, life-changing nights. May we all be so wounded . . . and so transformed.