Wrestling Through the Night
The same night Jacob arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. Jacob took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, the man touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Jacob said, I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The man said, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me your name.” The man said, “Why is it you ask my name?” There the man blessed Jacob. So, Jacob called the name of 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 thigh.
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When I lived in St. Louis, a person had the choice at 11 am on Sunday mornings of going either to church or going downtown to watch live wrestling matches at the Chase Hotel. When people were not at church, I secretly wondered if they were downtown watching the wrestling events.
Well, wrestling is the theme of our Scripture story this morning; but it is a wrestling of a far different nature. It is a wrestling with one’s past mistakes, present fears, and future worries. This story has much to say to us; but before I get to the lessons, I want to review the story of Jacob that led up to this moment.
Jacob and Esau were twin brothers born so close together, Esau came out first from the womb with Jacob holding on to his heel. Esau was favored by his father, while Jacob was favored by his mother.
Jacob and his mother wanted Jacob to have the inheritance, which rightly belonged to Esau. One day, while Esau hunted game for his father, Jacob pretended to be his brother, and since his father was blind, he tricked his father into giving him the blessing that should have gone to Esau. Jacob thus inherited all his father’s possessions. When Esau found his brother had cheated him of his inheritance, he was furious. Because Jacob had hurt and cheated Esau many times before this, Esau vowed to kill his brother the next time he saw him.
Jacob quickly leaves and travels 500 miles to live with his mother’s
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relatives. There he falls in love with a beautiful and vivacious young girl and vows to work seven years to marry her. But when the seven years are up and the wedding is in progress, Jacob finds he has been deceived and has married the girl’s older and uglier sister. Jacob then works seven more years to marry the girl of his dreams.
Twenty years later, Jacob and his family move back to the land of his birth. The problem is Jacob must travel through his brother’s Esau’s territory.
Knowing he has stolen from his brother Esau many times, and is now about to face him, he sends herds of gifts to his brother hoping to soften him. Jacob “has changed but he could not imagine that Esau had.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Before meeting his brother, and worried about how that confrontation will go, Jacob finds himself alone. As often happens in the night, with the dark surrounding him, Jacob’s past haunts him, and he fears what the future will bring him. “Will Esau kill me as he vowed to do?” That night, amidst his worries and fears, a stranger, God in disguise, grabs Jacob and wrestles with him through the night. But, Jacob holds his own in the match will not let the match to end until he receives a blessing. God gives him a blessing but it comes with a price. Jacob’s hip is pulled from its socket, and he painfully walks with a limp.
What does this story say to us?
First, from this story we learn and remember how we, like Jacob, have had times when we wrestled through the night – late at night when fears come, buried memories surface, and worries startle us with their nearness. In those times, you cannot get to sleep, or you get to sleep but cannot stay asleep.
Jacob’s wrestling is a metaphor of our struggle with life and with God. As with Jacob, God actively engages us in our lives. It is not always a pleasant experience. This may surprise us. We believe our encounters with God should be a comforting experience, as if it is God’s job to make disturbing times stop, even though the Scriptures do not support this view. God has to wrestle with us if we are to receive a blessing.
God uses our occasions of fear and trouble to seek out openings in our lives so God can wrestle with us, and get us in shape for the challenges ahead. To go through it with God before we go through it with other people provides us resources of strength for whatever lies ahead.
Secondly we learn that oftentimes, God uses not only our own personal pain, but also the pain of others – like God’s children and God’s creation - to keep us awake at night, struggling. We struggle with God not only individually, but also as a church community, as a nation, and as a world community.
One thinks of the Jewish struggle after the Holocaust, who through the eloquent writing and speaking of the late Elie Wiesel struggled with God and with others regarding the questions the Holocaust brought forth. We struggle in our own lives with illness, death, and financial uncertainty, with personal disaster and broken relationships, and with the suffering of those we love. Today we witness the anguish of those fleeing violence in Syria, facing death and starvation in
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Yemen, of families torn apart by deportation. We struggle today with our political system torn apart, with deceit and lies being more the norm rather than the exception. Then there is the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures.
It is the job of those of us in the church not to set by while suffering continues, but to speak out the truth to allow suffering and those who suffer to be heard.
Third, Jacob teaches us that pain not dealt with will eventually destroy us. For years, Jacob had been running away from his past. His motto was clear: “Why face trouble when you can run from it?”
Eventually, however, he had to deal with his past For us, our wrestling match with the past may be something from our childhood we long repressed; guilt over past mistakes that never healed. The past may be relationships we never took the time to mourn. Or, it may be a dream that needs to surface and find fruition. The only way to win over pain and the past is to go through it.
Fourth, we learn from this story that all matches with life and with God leave us wounded. Jacob’s encounter left Jacob wounded. “When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.” After the struggle, Jacob walked with a limp.
The encounter wounded Jacob, but Jacob refused to let go. Life is like that. Life throws us a problem, a disaster, a loss, and we survive by nothing more elegant than simply hanging on.
Recently I read the book and saw the movie entitled, “Dunkirk.” It tells the true story of how British and a few French troops held on, though barely, in the summer of 1940. When Nazi Germany conquered Belgium and France these Allied troops were pushed to the French beaches at Dunkirk on the edge of the British Channel. These troops, about 350,000 were saved by a combination of naval and civilian boats evacuating the troops. By the act of hanging on, even when it seemed hopeless, both at Dunkirk and later in the Battle of Britain, the British turned the tide of the Second World War and saved Western Civilization.
In life, all we can do is hang on. For us, every loss, every illness, every death of someone we love leave us wounded. We cannot defeat grief or death. We can only persevere through them. We must hold on as painful as it may be.
Fifth, and finally, Jacob’s wrestling teaches that if we wrestle with what threaten us long enough, if we hold on, we may discover an unexpected blessing. Pain serves by telling us something is wrong. If we evade it, as Jacob did, the pain will haunt us. However, if we face it, if we tenaciously wrestle with it, we may find some good can come from it. We can find in it a blessing. From our deepest crises emerge our greatest turning points in our lives.
When Jacob’s guilt and fears finally caught up with him, it was God who offered a way out. God struggled with him, and Jacob persevered, until he received a new insight and a new name. No longer wrapped up in himself, Jacob limps from this encounter with a new attitude that makes him relate to others differently. Jacob goes out from this encounter with God to meet Esau as a brother, and he finds that Esau is looking for a brother too.
Finally this, the story of Jacob is our story. It mirrors our struggles. It reminds us that our strife with God and life will enact a price. We will feel drained, we will
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not run but limp away from the struggle. Yet, in the end, by the grace of God, we will emerge as Jacob did, strengthened and forgiven. God may bless us enough with new life and new strength for the rest of our journey. For when we face our greatest struggles, we are closest to our greatest miracle. Amen!
(Copyright by Jack Hughes Robinson, 2017. Use only by permission.)