August 3, 2014
William G. Carter
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This is a story for anybody who tosses and turns at night.
Often the Bible speaks in broad daylight: “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.” We cannot see them after dark. Only when the sun is up do we see the birds and lilies, admire their beauty, and reflect on how God takes care of them.
A large crowd gathers around Jesus, hanging on every word he speaks. They are so enchanted with his sermon that they lose all sense of time. When their stomachs start growling, the Lord decides it is time to feed them with loaves and fishes. Breaking what they have, he blesses it and gives it away. Everybody is fed and there is plenty left over. To observe all that, it must happen during daylight.
But this story of Jacob, it’s a night time story. It happens in the shadows when nobody else is around. He has sent away the women and the children, delivering them across the Jabbock River. And while he is alone, he wrestles all night in the dark.
It doesn’t take much imagination for Jacob’s story to become our story.
The child lies in the crib, whimpering with pain. Medication won’t help. The fever won’t break. She begins to cry again, and it’s four in the morning. What do you do? Wrestling in the dark.
You toss and turn in bed, can’t sleep. The rumors are out there and you can’t do anything about them. You thought those people were your friends, but they have made up a story about you, lied about the details, and show no remorse about doing you harm. Should you confront them? Or should you tell the truth, and risk looking as small as they are? You don’t know what to do. Wrestling in the dark.
The news comes about the person who works with you. He’s been arrested. You can’t believe what people are saying. The reporters are looking for a quick story to jump start the evening news. There is no proof of his crime, just one person who accused, and conspirators who were ready to jump on the case. You worry about him. Will he crack under this unfair situation? You sit in the shadows, turning over the matter in your mind. Your wife taps on the door. “Are you OK in there?” she asks with concern. Wrestling in the dark.
When was the last time you had a sleepless night? Then you can understand this story.
Here is Jacob, totally on his own. He has been trying to outrun Laban, his father in law. That man turned out out be more trouble than he was worth. Jacob put in twenty years of hard work for him, gained a couple of wives and a truckload of kids. He tried to get away from the guy, but Laban kept chasing after him. What a pain in the neck! They finally shook hands, made mutual gestures at one another, and parted ways.
Then Jacob discovered his twin brother Esau is not far away. Running away from Esau was the reason he got stuck with Laban for twenty years. The report is not good. Esau has four hundred men and a long memory. He’s really looking forward to seeing the brother who stole his blessing. What will Jacob do? Well, he is a schemer, after all. He pulls an impossible number of livestock out of his herds, gift wraps them, and sends them ahead to Esau. Maybe he can soften up the old warrior.
This is when he sends away his women and children. After twenty years with them, he decides to think about somebody other than himself. Get them out of the combat zone, he figures. No reason to put them at risk too. Especially when Esau has four hundred men. No reason for one of his own kids to act like a hero. He sends them off, along with everything he possessed. No defenses, no more bribes, no more con jobs, no more anything.
Jacob is alone. Completely alone. Except as we heard from the story, he isn’t alone at all. There’s Somebody Else in the dark, somebody who is never named. And he wrestles with Jacob all night long. Each of them holds his ground. Neither one of them has the advantage. They are evenly matched.
Now, before anybody rushes off to name the unnamed wrestler as “God,” consider what that would mean. That means that when people wrestle with God, they are evenly matched. Each one tries to get his own way. God desires to do his will. Jacob wrestles to win.
It’s worth reflecting on what it means to wrestle with God in the dark. When you worry about your child, or your reputation, or your friend, or whatever it is that consumes your energy and stirs up your fear, could it be that you are really wrestling with God? Not the God who smiles on us in the sunshine, but the God who comes upon us in the dark. The God who has stayed in the shadows, observing us, but now steps into the ring.
Years ago, on retreat in a beautiful desert canyon, I came upon a grizzled young man. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a week. From the hills outside of Denver, he said. He went to the desert canyon every second week of July. “This is where I come to slug it out with God every year,” he said. I looked at him strangely and he said, “I come here to tell God that I don’t want to do what He wants me to do, and then God tries to convince me other otherwise.” I thought he was strange, and then about midnight I heard a shout from the direction of the man’s cabin: “No, not that. Not again.”
Do you ever think of prayer as a struggle? As a wrestling match? Do you ever pray that hard? Like Jesus in Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he dies. “No, not that,” he says. “Let that cup pass. But if it is your will, I will do it” The Gospel writer says when Jesus prayed like that, he agonized. He knew that God never makes it easy.
My good friend Jim - soft-spoken, kind-hearted Jim – on the anniversary of his ordination to the ministry every year, he goes off by himself to pray. He reads the same passage of scripture that somebody read to him. He stares at the shoreline and says, “Do I really want to keep doing this? Digging weekly sermons out of the Bible, visiting hospital patients who never get well, listening to one broken heart after another, coping with fools, testifying to God’s goodness day after day? Do I really want to do this?” He calls it the Annual Re-Negotiation. One of these years, I expect him to return with a limp.
That’s what happens to Jacob. In the wrestling, he is wounded. His Night Time Opponent reaches to touch his hip and sets it out of joint. Jacob will hobble now for the rest of his life because he has been wrestling with God.
Did you know this story is in the Bible? A lot of people are uncomfortable with it. They want a god who makes them feel better. They want a god who sands off the splinters from the wooden cross. They want a god in whom there is no struggle, no ambiguity, no incarnational weakness. What they want is a god who will give them success, a god who would never wrestle with anybody, much less wound them. They want a god who takes all the mystery out of life, a god who exists to help us without challenging us. They want a god to bless their hard earned opinions without pushing them beyond their prejudices. They want a god in whom there is no striving, only sunshine. Give us that old time, sunshine religion!
Well, that’s not going to happen.
I commend to you a brand-new book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark. I read it this summer on the beach in broad daylight. Barbara is an Episcopalian priest and she says, “I’ve had enough of sunshine religion, you know, the kind of yellow plastic faith where everything is easy. That always struck me a fake,” she says, “simplistic and innocuous.” To say God exists only to give you what you want - another piece of chocolate pie, for instance – that’s not the God of the Bible. It is something far less that we have invented as a way of softening what kind of God we really have.
So back to the River Jabbok. Jacob is wounded in the fight but has one more move up his tunic sleeve. He grabs onto his Night Time Opponent and will not let go. “Let me go,” bellows the shadowy wrestler. “No,” says Jacob, “not until you bless me.”
They banter about names. “What's your name?” screams Jacob to the Shadowy Wrestler, but he gets no reply. He asks again, but is ignored. So Jacob hangs on all the tighter. He will not let go. That’s when the Wrestler gives Jacob a new name. “You are Israel,” he says, “the one who wrestles with God and has prevailed.” Then he blesses Israel – and he is gone. The blessing, the name, the wound – all are strange gifts. They came because Jacob wrestled them down.
On the night before he faces his brother Esau, he is most vulnerable. He has no props, no armaments, no possessions, no community. But he has the blessing of God as stands up and limps toward the dawn. You can’t help but wonder that is really what God wanted all along. Jacob wrestles, holds on, is wounded, is blessed – and in the end, his struggle has made him a different person.
Frederick Buechner describes the scene this way:
The darkness has faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all darkness of his days until at least he cries out, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!” Not a blessing that he can have now by the strength of his cunning or the force of his will, but a blessing that he can have only as a gift.
Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, [come to those ] who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight – God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, [God] demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives – our selves, our wills, our treasure.
So here’s the picture of Israel, the one who wrestled with God. He loses the match, but hangs on to win the blessing. He begs for God’s name, but receives a new name himself. And he sees the terrible, awesome Face of the One who loves him so much that he sends him limping into the dawn. Jacob hobbles forth with nothing to protect himself and everything to gain. Because that’s how it is when you wrestle with God.