+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but whenever I have read the story of Jacob’s midnight wrestling match, I imagine that Jacob was wide awake before his mysterious opponent ever made the scene. Restlessness is a common reaction to anxiety, after all, and if anyone had good reason to be anxious as night fell in that wilderness place, it was Jacob. At the sun’s rising, he was faced with the prospect of a reunion with his twin brother, Esau, after over twenty years, and their previous time together hadn’t exactly ended well – not that their relationship had ever been terribly good in the first place. Maybe I should back up.
As I mentioned, Jacob and Esau were twins, the sons of Isaac – the child of laughter we read about last week – and his wife, Rebekah. Scripture records that the two of them were at odds from the beginning, even duking it out with one another in their mother’s womb before they were born. On the day of their birth, Esau was born first, but Jacob was close behind, holding onto Esau’s heel as he was brought into the world. As the first-born son, Esau was entitled to certain privileges – a bigger share of his father’s wealth as an inheritance (his “birthright”) and a blessing from his father that would establish him as the head of the family. Jacob, however, wasn’t satisfied with his “second-born” status. As Isaac’s death approached, Jacob convinced a hungry Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, then conspired with his mother to trick Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him. When Esau learned that he had been deprived of that precious blessing, he made clear that he had every intention of killing his younger brother as soon as he possibly could. Ever the opportunist, Jacob heard about his brother’s threat and got out while the getting was good.
That’s the situation as we return to Jacob’s restless night on the banks of the River Jabbok. Already on edge at the high possibility that his brother would soon exact the revenge he’d been seeking for two decades, Jacob suddenly finds himself in a fight for his life. Scripture doesn’t give us a ton of detail about the mysterious stranger who grapples with Jacob in the dead of night, describing him only as “a man”, but there are some clues which suggest that this figure is something more. The fact that this encounter took place at night, and that Jacob’s sparring partner feared being seen in the morning light, are pretty convincing evidence that this was some kind of supernatural being. Perhaps more important was the figure’s refusal to reveal his identity to Jacob. But the most significant clue is what the stranger says upon learning Jacob’s name: You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28, NRSV)
Jacob had spent much of his life striving with humans – his brother, for one, but also his Uncle Laban, who had made his life difficult for most of the twenty years he’d been away from home. There isn’t much evidence that Jacob had needed to struggle with God. Indeed, Jacob’s life appears to have been exceedingly blessed by God, a fact that is sort of surprising when you consider his tendency to be deceptive and manipulative toward his family at pretty much every turn. It seems pretty clear, then, that Jacob’s striving with God took place that night as he fought to stay alive against his mysterious adversary.
The story is told of a young man who was studying to become a young rabbi. When in his studies he came across this passage of Scripture, he went to his own teacher and asked, “Is the story of Jacob wrestling with God by the River Jabbok true?” His teacher put his hands on the young man’s shoulder and replied, “Of course it’s true. It happens to me all the time!” (The Rev. Brian Stoffregen, Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 9/26/2015) I think there’s something to that. The reason this story continues to be so compelling is that it seems to represent our experience. Life with God is an incredibly rich experience. It can bring times of unbelievable blessing and joy. The knowledge of God’s power and presence in our lives can be an immense comfort and source of strength. There are those times, however, that it feels like just hanging on with everything we have. When we’re confronted with anxiety and fear and suffering and pain, the reality is that we’re often left with nothing to do but grab hold of the one who has promised to be our God and to regard us as his people. Like Jacob, we will likely not come away from those experiences unscathed; indeed, for the rest of his days Israel carried with him the constant reminder of his midnight encounter with God. In the same way, wrestling with God may leave us with what the late Brennan Manning called “the victorious limp”, the sign of a life lived in relationship with the God who comes to us in our darkest nights, holds onto us until the dawn breaks, and then releases us with a blessing and our own new name: holy, righteous, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed (Lost and Found, “How Can You”, Lost and Found Comes Alive!).
Today, we rejoice at the baptism of two beloved children of God. In this sacrament – this mysterious means of grace – Alex and Aiden will be washed clean and welcomed into the family of faith. In the years to come, they will experience the peaks and valleys of life in this world with the knowledge that they have been claimed by God and called to join with all the faithful in serving and striving with God, come what may. As we witness the promise of God made real this day in water and word, may we be strengthened to face the days ahead with the knowledge that we are God’s, and that God will walk with us into the future that has been prepared for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.