STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
A sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 20, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
For a few years, back when our two sons were of middle school and high school age, they took up an interest in the sport of wrestling. And they both joined their school’s wrestling teams. (This was before Will discovered that he enjoyed working on cars, and before Raleigh dedicated himself solely to playing football.) During those days, as one might guess, Miriam and I became “wrestling parents.” Y’all probably know what I mean. We attended our boys’ wrestling matches whenever we could (which was most of the time). We even followed them whenever they participated in out-of-town meets. We got to meet some nice people along the way and we had a good time watching our sons compete. Both of our guys were pretty good at the sport and won some medals and trophies along the way…and we came away with some stories…
One Saturday morning, Raleigh was wrestling for Dunbar Middle School at a meet. Dunbar was hosting several schools at this event, some of which were from out of town. In the course of the meet, there was one coach of an opposing team that was very vocal in his support of his team members when they were competing. He would call out to his kids to do this move or that move in an effort to teach them how to gain an advantage. Such behavior was not all that unusual…but this coach was particularly loud…
Anyway, during one match, he was encouraging one of his wrestlers to make a move known as “taking a shot.” In wrestling terminology, “taking a shot” means to make a quick lunge forward against your opponent, going low, grasping your opponent’s leg in an effort to pull it out from under him, and then driving your shoulder into your opponent’s torso. The goal of the move is to force your opponent down onto the mat in such a way as to give you the advantage. It is one of the classic takedown moves that every wrestler learns early on. So in the middle of this one match, this coach kept calling out to the team member, “Shoot! Shoot!”
I was struck by the situation. It was obvious that this coach wasn’t from around the Lynchburg area. Shouting out “Shoot! Shoot!” is not something that one does in an inner-city school—or frankly, it is not something that should be done in any school setting in our post-Columbine world …At first, it struck me as a bit humorous—but afterward it felt kind of creepy…
Then there was the match in which our son Will had to wrestle a young woman from an opposing team. Now let me say here that I have no problem with Title IX provisions. You may recall that Title IX is the law which requires that female athletes are to receive equal opportunity to compete in
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school sports as male athletes do. I get that. It seems to me that is only fair. I think that generally Title IX is a good law. However, this situation presented its own set of difficulties…
Miriam and I have brought up our boys to be gentlemen. Part of that training has been to respect girls and to treat them as ladies. But in this wrestling match, Will was now being required to grab this girl and to put his hands on her in places that would rightly get his face slapped in any other context. I’m sure that he was conflicted. And to make matters even more awkward—the girl was from a nearby town and Will knew her personally. He was in a tough spot. As best as I could tell, there was really not a good solution to the situation. The match proceeded as scheduled, since they were in the same weight classification. And for the record, what Will remembers most about the match is that, though he was easily the stronger of the two, the girl was so flexible that he never was able to get her in a position to pin her to the mat for the win…
As you no doubt heard from the reading from the Old Testament a few moments ago, today’s text is the familiar story of Jacob wrestling with a man by the Jabbok River…Or maybe it’s an angel of the Lord that he wrestles with…or maybe it’s God himself…or maybe it’s something else entirely…The text is notoriously vague on this point. But whoever it is, Jacob wrestles with a stranger all night long. And as a result, Jacob is never the same.
At the beginning of the chapter, Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by four hundred men. After receiving this news, Jacob panics. As well he should. He figures that this is no friendly family reunion barbecue that Esau has planned. As you may recall a few chapters earlier, Jacob has cheated Esau out of his birthright and has stolen the blessing that Esau was to receive from the hand of their father Isaac. The scriptures tell us that Esau was not one to let go of a grudge very easily. In Genesis 27:41, Esau says to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; after that, I will kill my brother Jacob.” So Jacob had every reason to be afraid. He assumed that Esau is coming to take out his vengeance upon him—on him and probably on his family as well. So he gathers his family, his possessions and his flocks together and hurries away to escape. This is the place in the story where the text begins…
Jacob sends his family and possessions across the river so that he is by himself on the side of the river that Esau is approaching. We are not told why Jacob decided to send his family across the river. Perhaps he figured that he could serve as a shield between his family and Esau. If he were the one that Esau wanted, and if he were to give himself up to them, then maybe Esau and his men would spare his family the sword. If that were the case, then it would be one of the few decent things that Jacob has done. Up to this point in the story, Jacob has lied to his father Isaac…he has cheated his brother Esau…and he has stolen from his uncle Laban. Not exactly a very Godly person, to say the least. Until now in the book of Genesis, Jacob has been someone who lived by his wits and who primarily looked out only for himself.
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After the family is safely encamped on the other side of the river, Jacob thinks that he is all alone. But it turns out that he was wrong. A man appears in the darkness. Jacob and this mysterious stranger begin to wrestle.
Verse 24 tells us that it is a man who wrestles with Jacob. (It makes one wonder—how did this wrestling match begin? Did Jacob jump the unsuspecting man in the dark, thinking perhaps that he was his brother up to no good…or did the stranger pounce on Jacob unawares as he slept? It might make a difference in trying to interpret this passage correctly. But unfortunately, the text does not help us much. It seems to be purposefully unclear on this point…I don’t know. Maybe it’s vague for a reason…) But however it began, Jacob and the unknown traveler wrestled all night long.
Neither, it seems, was able to get the best of the other in the match. That is, until the stranger struck Jacob’s hip socket and pulled his leg out of joint. But even then, in spite of his injury, Jacob was still able to hang on to his adversary.
Dawn is coming and the stranger wishes to be released. Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger before he will release him. Interestingly, a blessing is not immediately forthcoming. Instead the stranger gives Jacob a new name. From henceforth Jacob will be known as “Israel”—a name that the narrator tells us means “one who strives with God.” While that is one way to interpret the name “Israel,” linguistically speaking, the word can be alternately translated as “God struggles” or “God rules.” The point is that not only does Jacob wrestle with God, but it also can be equally said that God wrestles with Jacob.1
Jacob—now renamed Israel—asks the stranger his name. The stranger chooses to not tell him. Afterward the stranger blesses Jacob/Israel before he departs. And so Jacob/Israel called the place “Peniel,” meaning “The face of God.” The scripture may not have been clear about who Jacob’s adversary was that night. But Jacob/Israel was convinced than his adversary was none other than God himself…
The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. One of the things to take note of here is that God does not punish Jacob for his misdeeds. As noted earlier, up to this point in his life, Jacob has been a scoundrel. He has been unscrupulous in the way that he has lived his life. Even though Jacob has paid lip service to serving the Lord, his actions have betrayed an unfettered amount of self-interest.
But all that changes once Jacob wrestles with God. Instead of punishing Jacob for his considerable sins, God chooses to challenge Jacob. He challenges and reshapes his character so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, a patriarch of a great nation and the conduit through which the whole world will be blessed through one of his descendants, our Lord Jesus Christ. God took this thieving, untrustworthy scoundrel named Jacob and transformed him.
1 I am indebted to commentator Sara Koenig for this insight.
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That is what God does. That is what God is in the business of doing. In the life of faith, God uses all sorts of people—those who are godly and those who are less so—to accomplish his intent. Before his wrestling match with God, no one would have imagined that Jacob could have become a vessel of godliness. There was certainly nothing in his actions nor in his character to suggest otherwise. But after wrestling with God, Jacob was a changed man. From this point forward, Jacob walked away from his wrestling match and lived out in his life convinced of God’s goodness and mercy toward him. He became much more aware of the presence of God all around him…and he learned to see it in the eyes of the people with whom he dealt…
But there was a price to pay for this realignment of who he was. It did not come easy. Jacob had to bear the scars of his wrestling match with God for the rest of his life. He limped along with his wound—the leg that had been yanked out of its socket—until the day he died.
As I look out on this congregation, I know some of your stories. Some I know much better than others. I know that we have people here this morning who could testify that they too have felt as if they have wrestled with God in the dark night of the soul. You have struggled to make sense of the events in your life. You have had to come to grips with the tragedies in your life that have caused you to seek for answers—to wrestle with God in wondering why things happened the way they did—and to keep on seeking and to keep on asking. And now your spirit bears the marks of that struggle with God…just as Jacob’s did…
One of the things that this story does is to alert us to the complex reality of the God we serve. It shows us that God is intimately engaged in our lives. This God seeks us out and blesses us in ways, and at times, that we do not expect. He is a God who bursts the box that we try to squeeze him into…for the God we serve is wily…unpredictable…and smashes our expectations.
It is easy to sometimes want to give up in the midst of the struggle to know God. Sometimes we despair…lack confidence…and doubt. Yet, we must wrestle until the break of day, which is a lifelong struggle. It was Jacob’s experience…and it is ours as well. If we endure and don’t let go, we will emerge from the struggle with a blessing…
The sermon ends today with a few stanzas of what has been called by more than one writer as “a masterpiece of devotional poetry.”2 It comes from the pen of the great hymn writer Charles Wesley and is based on today’s text. Wesley struggled for years to know God even though he was brought up in a Godly home and was ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church. After his conversion, he saw his own story reflected in the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. Here are a few selected verses of this magnificent expression of faith:
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom I hold, but cannot see,
2 Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody—A Manual of the Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1937), 335-338.
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My company before is gone
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery or sin declare,
Thyself has called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.
In vain Thou strugglest to get free
I never will unloose my hold;
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my insistent prayer:
Speak, or Thou never hence shall move,
And tell me if Thy name is Love?
‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me;
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure Universal Love Thou art;
To me all Thy heart does move—
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT