Have you ever had a night where you tossed and turned, back and forth until the once silky sheets that were so luxurious now seem to wrap you up and suffocate you like a mummy? And maybe you know what’s keeping you awake and maybe you don’t. Could have been that extra piece of chocolate on top of the coffee you had earlier in the day. Or maybe you’re worried about the mortgage payment that’s due in a couple of days. Or maybe it’s something that you just can’t let go of.
Sleepless nights are inevitable. Even my dog has had sleepless nights where he whimpers and is up and down, up and down. We’ve all had them and probably we’ll have a few more before we move on.
Our friend Jacob has had a couple of restless nights not to mention an active nightlife, which could lead to some sleepless nights. With two wives who kept him busy plus their handmaids, who we know were also active in the propagation of this family, he didn’t get much sleep.
Then there was that one night where Jacob is on the run from Esau and he stops for the night and puts a rock under his head to sleep. And when he slept he dreamt of angels floating up and down a ladder all night long. Yep, Jacob’s nights were anything but restful. But there was one more….
After Jacob meets his wives Rachael and Leah, after he is given their handmaids Zilpah and Bilhah, they had many children between them. Jacob prospers and he was with his Uncle Laban for 20 years but towards the end there was strife in that relationship. So they made a treaty with one another and Laban goes home and Jacob picks up and continues his journey.
Now Jacob has some important work to do. Remember that he was on the run from Esau, his twin whom he duped twice out of a birthright and a blessing, when he when he got sidelined for those 20 years with Laban and made a family. So he sends messengers ahead of him and his clan to brother Esau. He waves the white flag and sends ahead his message of ‘truce’ hoping that he will find favor in Esau’s sight.
But the messengers come back with news that isn’t what he wanted to hear. Esau is coming to see Jacob, that’s the good news. The unnerving news is that he is bringing 400 men with him. Yikes! He assumes that they are going to attack so he divides his company into two companies, just in case one is decimated and then he prays! ‘I’m not worthy of your love; deliver me from the hand of Esau because I am afraid. You promised to make my offspring as the sand of the sea…. so help!’ He’s finally beginning to rely on God. And he tells the women and children and troops to go on ahead.
So here we find our scripture for today. You know the Revised Common Lectionary gives us the ‘Cliff notes’ version of this ancestral saga but ‘Cliff notes’ sometimes don’t make sense without context.
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, saying, “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.
The striking part of this scripture is that Jacob is alone and it is at night. And the person that Jacob wrestles with is not able to triumph so he breaks Jacobs hip. But the dawn prevails and Jacob engages his night visitor in conversation in this dawning light. ‘Bless me, otherwise I will not let you go.” But the man asks a counter question, ‘What’s your name? Your name will not be Jacob but from now on it will be Israel.’ Then the man blessed him right there on the spot and was gone.
Then the sun rose and Jacob limped off. But he was different than before that night, a change in him has taken place and now he is ready to meet his brother Esau after many years. Transformation happens with the dawning of a new day. It is that moment, after you have been awake for a considerable amount of time, that when you look outside the light is different and you realize that the dawn is coming. Objects are no longer just black silhouettes against a midnight blue sky but they begin to take shape because light is casting its first rays upon creation. Morning has broken and your restlessness ceases because you get up to face the day.
Many folks like to psychoanalyze this scripture saying that Jacob was wrestling with his inner demons and such, but that is inadequate, the fact is Jacob is awake, he never falls asleep, it’s not some dream that he is having. It is a struggle more than of just conscience. He is fully engaged in a physical struggle. And Jacob stands his ground and faces his God who chooses to come to him at this critical juncture in his life and be physically present too.
With this match perhaps God is sharpening Jacob’s faithfulness for more serious challenges that are ahead of him. Who knows, we don’t know God’s intention. All we know is that God is in the middle of Jacob’s struggles and in the end Jacob is blessed because of it.
New Testament scholar Richard Pervo reflects on Jacob’s struggle saying, “What kind of God will get into a night time brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even?, the kind of God we need.” We don’t need a God who ‘bests’ us. We need one who will be with us, the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare, not your harm.”
Our struggles are neither orderly nor tame and God seeks us out and wrestles with us to ready us for the challenges ahead. Our deepest struggle sin life do no lack divine presence, God is always there. In fact we need to remember that God is there in our most restless nights. Here we can ask those painful questions.
And while we may not be given answers – Jacob didn’t get answers; Job didn’t get answers – we know from this text that God is with us pronouncing blessings, which is to say extending us grace. God’s steadfast love in the darker times of our lives.
So the next time you lay down to sleep and you toss about like a tiny ship in the sea remember that you are seeing God face to face in your encounter. God is wrestling WITH you and your trials. And when dawn comes, as it always does, walk away with the knowledge that you have been blessed.