Have you noticed? In neighborhoods around the area, decorations are popping up. Creepy figures dot the lawns and pumpkins everywhere are poised to put on frightful grins. Halloween is coming, and with it our plans to embrace (or avoid) the traditions that focus on “dangerous forces lurking in the dark.” It is, perhaps, an appropriate time to offer up that traditional Scottish prayer that says,
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
But suppose the good Lord is the thing that goes bump in the night. What do you do when the dangerous force lurking in the darkness is not demonic, but divine?
Let’s find out. Listen to the scary story found in
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Then he 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, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peni’el, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penu’el, limping because of his thigh. (RSV)
If we had read from the beginning of the chapter, you would have seen that things are bad enough already for Jacob. Jacob wants to come home. He’s been gone a long, long time.
But there’s a problem.
Jacob has a brother who may not be too happy to see him-a brother who may not let him come home-a brother who may not let him live. Do you remember the story?
Many years before, Jacob asked his father for a blessing he didn’t deserve, and ran away from home when he got it. He was not a prodigal son, though he was a deceptive one. He did not lose his father’s property “living high.” He did not sink to feeding pigs for lunch money. Jacob went to stay with relatives and, over the years, made a small fortune in the livestock business. He “married up” (as they say) and became the head of a large and growing family.
But Jacob wants to go home. His father is long dead, but the older brother Jacob cheated is still there, and may not be any happier to see him come down the road than the older brother in that famous parable had been. So Jacob, the middle-aged patriarch, forms a plan, just as the young prodigal did.
Both plans involve a show of public humility, but Jacob is able to throw in a lot more material resources to sweeten the deal. Still, he worries about what his brother will do. He sends messengers to his brother. They return to say his brother is coming out to meet him-with a small army of men behind him.
As we pick up the story, Jacob has set in motion-literally-his plan for dealing with his brother. But before he sees his brother, Jacob will have a little unexpected business to attend t Jacob will have to wrestle with God.
Jacob had not intended to wrestle with God. God had been good to him and had even shown a special interest in him from time to time. Jacob had had some close encounters with God, but most of the time, Jacob was focused on his family, his business, his life. He had enough to do just getting through each day, with its hardships and hazards, without looking for God behind every pile of rocks or in every shifting shadow of the night. Jacob wasn’t looking for a wrestling match with God.
But God had other plans. You see, Jacob was there at the Jabbok because God had led him there.
When he left home years ago, Jacob had dreamed of God and called the place where he dreamed, “Bethel-the House of God.” But at “Peniel”-the place he will call “the Face of God,” Jacob will come to know God in a very different way. There will be no sleeping in the darkness at Peniel. Here, Jacob will find himself locked in an encounter with God that is “up close and personal.”
Sometimes the most difficult struggles in life are the ones you have with God, though it may take you awhile to realize that it is God Who’s got hold of you. Jacob does not know the name and cannot see the face of his attacker. All he knows is that someone has grabbed him and that he is alone in his struggle.
While Jacob is obsessed with fear that his brother will attack him-while Jacob is exhausted from all his meticulous preparations for his long awaited homecoming-while Jacob is all alone in a strange place on a dark night-God pounces, and the wrestling match Jacob doesn’t want, and hasn’t asked for, begins. No matter how meticulous your planning and how great your effort to control your life and its outcomes, God can break in at any time and wrestle control of it away from you. God breaks into life and changes plans.
But Jacob does remarkably well. Though taken off guard, Jacob holds on and struggles on. Hour after hour throughout the long night, Jacob wrestles with this powerful and dangerous stranger. More than once in his life, Jacob has turned his superior strength to his advantage. But on this night, with this adversary, there is only enough power in Jacob’s body to avoid defeat; there is not enough to bring him victory. The stranger will not be overcome by physical force.
But Jacob also has a quick and resourceful mind. Perhaps the advantage that eludes his hands can be won through his words. There are, after all, different ways of wrestling with someone. Jacob refuses to end the struggle without some benefit for the effort-and the suffering.
The stranger senses the approach of dawn and the return of the light. “Let’s call it a draw,” He says. Understand: the danger in daybreak is related to Jacob, not to God. God will tell Moses in Exodus 33, “…you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” God struggles with Jacob. God strikes Jacob in a way that will forever change his life. But God wants Jacob alive for what God has in mind for him.
Jacob, for his part, is willing to risk his life-for the opportunity to benefit from this costly encounter. “Bless me!” he says. Where most would have seen only the danger, Jacob sees possibility. Something good could come out of this experience: “I will not let you go unless you bless me. I’m going to hold on to You, no matter what!”
But God ignores Jacob’s call for a blessing until they have dealt with God’s agenda: the business of Jacob’s identity-the true nature of the man expressed in his name. “What is your name? Admit who you really are!”
And with that, for Jacob, whose name does indicate his nature, the contest is over. Jacob cannot win this encounter with brute force or clever repartee. And now he cannot hope to receive the blessing he wants-unless he owns up to his deceitful ways and confesses his true nature. Jacob has to own up to his true identity-so that God can give him a new one. “I am Jacob, the supplanter, the one always trying to take something from someone else.” But from this mysterious stranger, Jacob can take nothing. He can take nothing-but he can receive everything!
God attacks the person Jacob is-and defeats him. It is Jacob who is attacked, but when the battle is done, it is Israel who survives. “You may have been Jacob, the sneaky, crafty manipulator, but you will be Israel, who strives with God and for whom God will strive.” In the struggle between Jacob and God, God lays his hand on Jacob and makes him what God wants and needs him to be in order for God to tie the divine plan for the human race and all Creation to this particular man. “You have survived so far; you have prevailed. Now, My blessing-My promise-is that I will see that you continue to do so.”
To see God, even in the shadows of the night, is not to be unchanged-unscathed. God marks him, renames him, and blesses him. Jacob is “marked” for success-marked by his struggle with God. Jacob lives a new way, with a new power and a new weakness. Jacob is broken and reborn.
God says that Jacob has prevailed. Jacob says only that he has survived. Jacob starts down the road of the truly victorious life when he recognizes the supremacy of God over it. The ultimate test: Does God’s favor mean more than life itself?
Jacob has come face to face with his God. Now he is ready to come face to face with his brother-the brother he so frequently wronged. With the ending of the night and his struggle with God, Jacob goes in the light of morning to meet his brother. But he goes not as Jacob; he goes as Israel.
Israel, as a person and a later as a nation, will always be at risk from his neighbors, but it is God Who poses the greatest threat, and God Who provides the greatest protection. The Bible records that Israel will always be struggling with God-wrestling with God-especially when the people called Israel have isolated themselves in moral and spiritual darkness.
And what about us?
There is a good deal of “Jacob” in all of us, really: just trying to get ahead-willing to take a short cut, once in awhile, if we can get away with it-willing to take advantage of others, if they’re not paying attention. But we don’t always get away with it-and taking advantage of others can leave us, eventually, all alone and far from anywhere we would call our “heart’s home.”
There’s a bit of Jacob in all of us. As with Jacob, God comes in that dark and unexpected moment, and wrestles with us.
When you find that the One you’re wrestling with is God, the first thing to do is hold on tight. Then you want to try to find out more about Him. And finally, you had better “stand by,” because sooner or later, His power will be revealed in you.
When that mysterious presence and power that you cannot escape and cannot defeat and cannot control comes upon you, hold on for dear life-and eternal life-and confess who you are, knowing that, in all the pain and confusion and danger, there is a life-changing blessing-and a life-blessing change-in the balance.
When God comes upon us, we are “Jacobs.” But God comes upon us to make us like Israel-one who has struggled with God and man and prevailed. If you have wrestled with God and survived, you can handle anything the world can throw your way. Jacob was afraid of his brother when the sun went down. He was afraid of no man when the dawn revealed a new and different day. He came to the Jabbok as Jacob; he crossed it as Israel.
This dark night spent wrestling with God also has its New Testament parallel: The disciples fell asleep in Gethsemane, like Jacob did at Bethel. But like Jacob at the Jabbok, Jesus was wide awake in the Garden and wrestling alone with God throughout that night, wrestling with God over the costly will of God for His life. Jesus saw what Jacob was denied: Jesus saw His heavenly Father face to face. And Jesus knew and spoke the Name that Jacob was not told: “Abba Father.” Jesus strove with God and with the desires of His own human heart in the Garden of Gethsemane-and He prevailed as the faithful Son and Suffering Servant of God.
Jacob wrestled with God alone in the darkness and he became Israel, the broken founder of a sacred nation. Jesus struggled with God that night in Gethsemane, and as He humbled Himself, God confirmed Him as the Christ He was born into this world to be. God made Jesus, in His weakness, the Pioneer of our faith and the first fruits of the Resurrection of the dead.
The nation of Israel was born of Jacob’s body, children of the one who wrestled in that dark place with God and prevailed. And now we are reborn in the Body of Christ, preserved alive in Him for all eternity as the children-and the New Israel-of God.
Whoever you are-whatever your name, whatever your nature-however far from home you have run or strayed and however dark is your life-Jesus stands ready to give you a new nature and a new name-His nature and His name. Give up the struggle and accept God’s grace. Today can be the glorious day of your salvation. Blest and broken, cross over the river and come home to the Promised Land God has prepared for you.