Genesis 32.22-31 (Old Testament, continuous)
Jacob’s story is our story.
His mind is in turmoil and he knows he won’t sleep. Alone, Jacob sits in the darkness listening to the sounds of night and river. With no sense of immediate danger he allows his thoughts to roam free.
Twenty years ago in another darkness and on another journey into the unknown he slept and dreamed. God came to him in the dream and the memory of that encounter moves forward becoming a present reality.
Once again Jacob sees the stairs and the angels and hears the voice of God speaking words of promise and blessing.
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac: the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring ….. know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
Now, as then, Jacob feels the surge of awe and wonder that God should speak like this to him a deceiver and a trickster, on the run from a brother who is out to kill him.
Jacob remembers the vow he made at that time of mystery:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”
Tonight Jacob looks back over the last twenty years through the lens of that first blessing and he sees that indeed God has been with him, protected him and given him what he asked for: bread to eat, clothes to wear – and more. He has wives, children, servants and great wealth. God has done all that he promised even though Jacob, at the time, found it difficult to believe the promise could be fulfilled.
“If God will be with me and do all these things … then the Lord shall be my God” he had vowed.
Was that a conditional vow which depended on God delivering on his promise? Or was it a recognition of the magnitude of the promise given the circumstances in which Jacob was travelling?
Perhaps it was a bit of both. Jacob then was still Jacob the deceiver and grasper. He wasn’t going to side with a God who couldn’t give him what he wanted. But maybe Jacob was already beginning to change and in the hopelessness of his situation he recognised that if God really could turn things around so completely then he truly was a great God.
Whatever Jacob’s thoughts were, he sees now that God has done all that he promised and all that Jacob asked but for one thing. Jacob has yet to return to his father’s house in peace.
Suddenly Jacob is afraid, acutely aware that he has come to another decisive moment in his life and there’s no running away, it has to be faced. Above all else he wants to go home, to be in the land promised to him by God as it was promised to Abraham and Isaac. To do that he must risk losing everything for he has no way of knowing how Esau will respond after all these years.
Unless he can go home Jacob will not be at peace. Yet at home his life may be threatened if Esau is still out for revenge.
A blanket of inner darkness threatens to stifle his spirit. All night Jacob struggles and clings to God, refusing to let go of the promise and blessing even in the most bitter moments of doubt and fear.
Dawn is close and Jacob senses the withdrawal of God’s presence as the world around him begins to wake up. Jacob still hangs on to God, struggling to find a new way of facing what lies ahead. “I will not let you go” he cries “unless you bless me”.
A calming quietness descends and God asks Jacob “what is your name?”
The reply “Jacob” holds all that Jacob has been through to reach this point. He has grown from being Jacob the deceiver to being Jacob, son of Abraham and Isaac whose God he now knows is calling him.
As Jacob recognises and accepts who he is before God, God responds by giving him his true self, his true identity.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
Jacob receives his new name and the blessing of God.
Dawn breaks and, wounded but fired up with a new sense of God’s presence with him, Israel limps out into a new day.
Jacob’s story is our story.
In baptism we receive God’s promise and blessing. Our lives as Christians are journeys of growth, journeys of becoming our true selves as God sees us.
The hope we have before us is to return to our father’s house in peace. Along the way there are times of struggles in the dark nights of the soul. When that darkness comes we have a choice. We can turn away from the struggle, letting go of God. Or we can accept the call to strive with God and ourselves so that we learn and grow through that darkness.
We can cling on to the God who is struggling with us and for us. We may well get wounded in that struggle as the defences we have put up to protect ourselves are dismantled by God. But along with the wounds we will have a new name and a new assurance of God’s presence with us.
God took Jacob, blessed him and broke him and through his people made himself known to the world.
Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it and with it fed a multitude of people.
God takes us, blesses us and breaks us. Maybe we know what God is doing in and through us, maybe we don’t. Our part is to offer ourselves and then wait, watch and listen.