Stranger in the night

Good morning, Friends!

A few weeks ago I decided to do a few Old Testament sermons, and I told the story of Jacob and his brother Esau. Over half the people at worship looked like they’d never heard that particular story before. So I did another story, about Jacob and the dream he had, of a ladder going all the way up to Heaven.

Thought I’d do another Jacob story this morning, and see if it’s one you already know.
Why are these stories are important? Because Jacob is one of our spiritual ancestors. In the Bible, we all go back to Adam and Eve. We all go back to Abraham. We all go back to Isaac. And we all go back to Jacob. Jews refer to themselves as the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So we need to learn about this guy. He’s our many, many generations back spiritual ancestor.

We also need to learn about Jacob, because even though he’s our ancestor, he’s not a perfect person. Jacob was dishonest. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing.

Jacob ran away for his life to another country, to get away from his brother’s rage and anger. So Jacob was also a refugee, who always wanted to return home to the land that God had promised.

Jacob was a schemer, who outraged his father-in-law with some fast deals he made with livestock. We didn’t talk about that story yet – maybe later. But one reason Jacob had to head back home was that he wore out his welcome with his father-in-law.

Anyway, here’s the story for today.

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So that’s what he named that place.

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

He told his servants, “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’”

When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”

In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, maybe the group that is left will escape.”

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps.

Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”

Jacob spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.”

He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’”

He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him 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.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, [which means ‘the face of God’]. He said “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:1-21

This is a pretty strange story. We often think about God as being warm and fuzzy. We think about God as being light and love. But here, God is totally different. God is a mysterious being, who struggles with us in the night.

The Old Testament is full of weird characters. They’re not always tame, or civilized. As I said before, Jacob is one of our spiritual ancestors. Jews, Christians and Muslims all look back to Jacob. It’s a kind of a formula we hear: “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . .”

Virtually all of the important people in the Bible trace back to this guy. Even Jesus counted Jacob in his ancestry. And yet, when you first look at him, Jacob is not a very attractive character. Jacob is a rascal, from the word “Go”. In the old days, people in North Carolina would have called Jacob a rounder. Jacob was always out to trick people, to outwit them, and sometimes to cheat them.

When Jacob was born, he was one of twins. His brother Esau was actually born first. But Jacob wasn’t far behind. Jacob was born, so the story goes, grabbing tight onto his brother’s heel. Even at birth, Jacob wasn’t going to let anybody get ahead of him, or do better than him.

When they were a little older, Esau came in from hunting one day, absolutely famished. And there was Jacob, out in the kitchen, stirring the soup. “Give me some soup!”, says Esau. “I’m starving!”

“First sell me your birthright,” says Jacob, as he smiled and took a little taste of the soup. “You give me your rights as the oldest son, and then we’ll talk about supper.”

You see the kind of guy Jacob was? He was always looking out for Number One. He was an opportunist. He took advantage of his brother, Esau, just as he took advantage of every situation.

A little later on, their father, Isaac, was about to die. Since Esau was the oldest, Isaac told Esau to go out and hunt him up something for a meal, and then he’d bless Esau before he died. Remember, back in those days, a blessing didn’t just mean nice wishes. A blessing was passing something concrete, from one generation to another. Isaac giving his blessing meant that Esau would become the head of the family, the head of the tribe.

So Esau takes off and goes hunting. Meanwhile, Jacob had overheard everything. So Jacob goes out back, kills a goat, zips it through the microwave, and glues the goat’s hair onto his own arms and neck – since Esau was a big hairy man, and Jacob wasn’t.

Jacob goes in to his father, who was nearly blind, and said, “Dinner’s on, Dad – time to bless me!” Isaac wasn’t totally fooled. So he asked to feel his son’s arms. Sure enough, his arms felt hairy, just like Esau. So he blessed Jacob, thereby making him officially the head of the clan.

Esau came back, and he was some kind of ticked off. Esau was angry enough that Jacob had to run for his life. He ran away to Mesopotamia, over in Iran somewhere, and he stayed there for 20 years.

Jacob got married out there, and when he figured that he might be able to go home safely, he asked his father-in-law about a dowry.

“What’ll you take?” said his father-in-law. “Tell you what,” says Jacob. “How about I’ll take only the spotted sheep, and the spotted goats, and you keep the rest.”

Jacob’s father-in-law figured that was OK. But then Jacob pulled off another trick.

Do you remember that old time superstition, that if a woman sees anything with spots on it while she’s pregnant, that her child will have birthmarks? Well, Jacob went down to the flock about breeding time, and he put up everything spotted that he could find. He put up signs with spots all over the place.

Lo and behold, next spring they had nothing but spotted lambs, and Jacob nabbed them all. That’s the kind of son-in-law that Jacob was.

That song that we sometimes sing, that old spiritual, the one about “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. . .” Jacob had a dream one night, as he was out traveling. In the dream, he saw a ladder, which went all the way up to heaven. And the angels of God were climbing up and down it.

And in the dream, from the top of the ladder, God Almighty called down to Jacob: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your grandfather, and the God of your father Isaac. The place where you are will be yours and your descendants’. People will bless themselves by your name. And I will be with you, wherever you go!”

If you want to talk about amazing grace, Jacob has to be one of your best examples. Here’s a guy who cheated even his own family, and God says, “Yup, I’ll be with you, wherever you go…” That’s grace – God blessing a rascal. I don’t know how you deal with that. I don’t know how you deal with Jacob. Sometimes I don’t even know how you deal with God.

Jesus used to say that God takes care of both the just, and the unjust. We have a lot of trouble with that saying. We want God to punish people like Jacob, don’t we?

You’ve got to admire Jacob’s gall, Jacob’s sense of what Jewish people call chutzpah, his boldness and effrontery. But nobody really wants to have Jacob for an ancestor.

And then, in this morning’s reading, Jacob reaches kind of a turning point. Jacob changes a little. Maybe the rascal part of him is partly overcome, and something else takes its place.

You remember, Jacob has been away from home for over 20 years at this point. He’s on his way back to see his brother. Maybe he’s grown up a little. Anyway, Jacob reaches the ford in the river, along the boundary of his brother Esau’s territory. Jacob very courageously sent his wives and children on ahead of him, while he stayed on the safe side of the bank for one last night.

And in the middle of the night, in the dark hours when unbelievable things become real, something happened.

It’s obvious that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was no ordinary human being. It was something supernatural. This story is usually referred to as “Jacob wrestling with the angel.”

It’s a spooky kind of story. When Jacob asked who was wrestling with him, they dodged the question. “Why is it that you ask my name?”, he asked. It was as if Jacob was supposed to know, already.

The wrestler is more than just another human being. It’s more than an angel. It’s God who Jacob wrestles with. Jacob’s really wrestling with God.

We do that, sometimes. We wrestle with God, we run away from God, we let our lives be ruled by our worse nature instead of our better self. We let our lives be ruled by fears instead of faith.

And in the dark hours of the night, those fears climb out from under the bed or out of the closet, and they grab us by the throat. Our fears seem more real when the lights are out, and everybody in the house is asleep.

But it’s not monsters and boogey-men we’re wrestling with sometimes. Sometimes we’re wrestling with God. That’s what Jacob found out.

Later on, Jacob called the place by the Hebrew name Peniel, which means, “I have seen God face to face, and survived. . .”

Back then, people believed that it was dangerous even to get a glimpse of God. When Moses went up the mountain to collect the Ten Commandments, Moses warned people not to go near the mountain, or they would be killed by the holiness of God.

It’s interesting, in a way, to compare this story with the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the young man leaves home. And when he comes back home to be reconciled, his father comes running up to meet him. The father forgives him, even before he gets a word of apology out of his mouth. “That’s the way God is,” said Jesus.

In this story, Jacob comes home, and he’s assaulted by God. He wrestles with God for hours, all night long. He’s injured by God. And yet he doesn’t give up. He forces God to bless him.

It’s an eerie, violent scene – the two of them, down by the bank of the river in the dark night, wrestling and straining and sweating and heaving great gasps of breath, and cries of pain, with no one to watch in the night and see what’s happening. “That’s the way God is,” said our ancestor, Jacob.

I don’t know which way God really is – the forgiving Father who runs to greet us, or the God who wrestles with us, in the darkness of the night. Maybe God does both things at different times.

My own experience of God is as a loving presence. The Holy Spirit normally seems to me to be the God of love.

But I think there are also times when God, or the Holy Spirit, seems to be something different in our experience, as someone who confronts us, who wrestles with us.

In this story, it wasn’t just a dream. It wasn’t just wrestling with God in thought. Jacob walked away from that midnight encounter, injured, limping.

I don’t want to say that God ever hurts us intentionally. This story in Genesis is an extraordinary story. But Jacob walked away, limping.

I don’t know what to make of a story like this. Maybe the purpose of the story is to remind us that religious experience sometimes includes wrestling. It’s grappling and struggling with things we don’t always understand. It’s only finding out later what was really going on in the dark night.

What happened afterwards, in this morning’s story, was that Jacob met his brother Esau again. And Esau forgave him. Somehow, Jacob’s wrestling with God was connected with a change in Jacob’s relationship with his brother. Somehow, that midnight battle made Jacob into the person God had intended him to be, all along.

The change in Jacob’s character came out in the new name that Jacob was given. The name he was given at birth, “Jacob”, in Hebrew meant something like “the supplanter”, “the grasping one”. His new name, Israel, means “He who strives with God,” or “God struggles with him.”

That’s worth thinking about, because that’s also the name that all of Jacob’s descendants took for themselves. “Israel” means “God struggles with us”. That’s a pretty accurate description, first for the trials which the Jewish people have gone through over the centuries, and later for all of the struggles we have gone through, as Christians.

Years ago, when my wife Joyce and I were first married, we lived in Boston. We had a friend there, Henry Yang, a Chinese-American doctor, who was a very gentle, spiritual man. Henry was also an absolutely rabid fan of the Boston Bruins hockey team. Henry used to talk about prayer as “going to the boards with God”.

If you’ve ever watched the close-ups at a hockey game, a bunch of players get tangled up in there behind the goalie net, all going together after the hockey puck at the same time. If you think about the shoving and elbowing and checking that takes place there, that, Henry said, is what it can be like when we pray.

Your idea of God may be “the Lord is my Shepherd.” And I don’t want to take that away from you. Or you may think that God is like the parent, in the story of the Prodigal Son. Myself, I like to think about God as the Redeemer, as the great Reconciler, as the Healer and Comforter and Counselor. I don’t want to take those ideas away from anyone.

But God is also the wrestler in the night. And sometimes we’re like Jacob, who walked away, limping, from the encounter. Jacob was changed, maybe into somebody better than he was before. But he was wounded, he was changed forever, by the experience.

I’ve always wondered, what would have happened, if Jacob had lost? What if Jacob hadn’t kept struggling? What if Jacob had just given up?

What would God have done? Would God have killed Jacob? It certainly had the feeling of a life-or-death struggle. And there is no suggestion that God was going easy, just so that Jacob could win. It was just when Jacob was about to win over God, that it says that God touched Jacob’s thigh, wounding him.

And even as Jacob lay there, gasping and hurt, Jacob wouldn’t let go, until his opponent blessed him. Maybe that’s the part of the story that we need to think about. Even when he was beaten and broken, Jacob wouldn’t let go.

And so Jacob received a new name, and a powerful blessing, just as the long night was over, just as the day was breaking.

And Jacob, our spiritual ancestor, left his fears behind him and went home, up the hill to meet his brother and to be reconciled, to be known forever as the one who wrestled with God.

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