If we took all the sleepless hours you’ve had in your life, the late-night hours of tossing and turning, not being able to sleep, even the best sleepers among us, we would be able to rack up some high numbers. Even our children, who are starting to have restless nights of their own, thinking and worrying and even praying, talking to God...
But the kind of praying and talking to God in the middle of the night is usually not thankful praying -- we don’t wake up in the middle of the night to offer our thanks -- actually that might be the best way to get back to sleep (“count your blessings”). No, usually in the wee hours of the morning, our talking to God looks more like wrestling. And in this way, we can all put ourselves into this story of Jacob wrestling.
Jacob wrestles with God...all through the long night. I don’t know about you, but the nights are always longer when I’m awake wrestling through them. Keep looking at the clock...
At some point or another, I imagine, we’ve all wrestled with God through the night. Maybe we didn’t know it was God, but I imagine, we’ve all been there at least a time or two.
But to fully understand Jacob’s wrestling -- and in that way ours too -- I’d like to take you back in the story, and connect the dots to last week’s story:
We left off at Sarah laughing about being told she’d have a baby boy, Isaac, at nearly 100 years old. Makes sense that she laughed, right? But God gave her Isaac, who grew up to become Jacob’s father. Jacob wasn’t the only son of Isaac and his wife Rebecca, remember. Jacob had an older twin brother: Esau.
And when Esau was born out first, something, someone was hanging onto his heel and came out second.
The name Jacob actually means, “Heel”! And his whole life, Jacob played second fiddle, he was smaller, he was weaker, he was mommy’s favorite, but not daddy Isaac’s. Isaac loved his oldest son, like any good Hebrew father would, because you see the oldest would receive the birthright blessing. Jacob on the other hand was his mother’s favorite. And to make a long, great story short, she and Jacob tricked old, daddy Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright, the two of them disguised Jacob and stole what was rightfully his older brother’s!
Jacob has to run away after that, because his brother literally wants to kill him, even gather an army to hunt him down. Jacob is a fugitive and a scoundrel for most of his young adult life. Lots of mistakes, lots of deals and bad deals, lots of trickery and deceit. There are not many people around even today who can top Jacob’s list of shady deeds and backroom deals. Jacob was the least likely candidate for sainthood. I’m not sure any of us would have really liked the guy, except as a duplicitous character on one of our favorite TV shows. Jacob what a dirty man on the run.
He was on the run when one night he runs into this strange river being, at the Jabbok river, who wrestles with him through the night. Can you imagine how tired you’d be? “Through the night”! But in the morning the being asks Jacob his name, and then gives him a new name. Jacob is given a new name, after all those years of being Jacob. After all the dirty deeds, all the running and hiding, all the trickery. Jacob is given a new name. Once he was named “heel”, but now he limps away blessed, and with a new name.
How do you feel about going away changed, too -- blessed, wounded and given a new name? This is what happens to us every Sunday: we go away changed, having encountered the living God through the word, the meal, the waters at the font, and the community of the faithful. We go away changed every time! “But I’m a heel.” -- “No,” says God, “I give you a new name.” [pause]
Now, the struggle is we might not always feel all that changed when we go away from church. Sometimes the reading is vague, the sermon is boring, the bread is stale, the font is nearly empty, and the “community of the faithful” did something to hurt me this week. Maybe that’s a little more true to our experience, right?
But I’m here to tell you that despite these surface experiences, despite the monotonies and imperfections of church worship and church life, despite the falling short of God’s people...God changes you today, God changes each of us! How do you feel about that?! Beyond the earthly stuff that we can see and experience, the regular old, muddy, dirty dealings that that we know all too well, God breaks in!
God takes us with our imperfect pasts, our unethical dealings, our doubts, our fears, our selfish inclinations -- and God doesn’t abandon us out there, running: God wrestles with us through the night. God struggles and strives with us. God even knocks us out of joint, and gives us a new name in the morning. Joy comes in the morning. Morning has broken.
This week, I want you to reflect on how God is knocking you out of joint. What are ways in your life where God has thrown you for a loop, even in painful ways. Sometimes we need that jolt to focus us on what’s most important.
And then God gives you a new name. We might not always feel it, but sisters and brothers in Christ, we have seen God face-to-face.
[pause, slowly] I think often (and ironically) it takes a long, tough night, to open our eyes. Because after a long, tough night, that’s when we’re finally vulnerable. Our defenses are exhausted, and that’s where God shows up in real ways.
This God is with you today. This God is right before you. This God is not condoning the sins of our past -- that might be the hip-out-of-socket -- but God is forgiving us, blessing us, giving us a new name, and sending us on our way. Jacob goes on his way with the new name “Israel”, which means “struggled with God”. Israel goes on his way and raises up a nation, twelve sons, who become twelve tribes. Blessed to be a blessing.
Where is God sending you now? How might you/we be a blessing to those you encounter? Because this is real. Christ is present. You have been pinned, and you have been blessed. So go. And make this world better. AMEN.