December 7th, 2013

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Jacob Wrestles

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Scripture: Genesis 32

The story of Jacob spans ten chapters of Genesis, 25-35.  I could write about many different parts of Jacob’s journey, but none capture my imagination more than the solitary night he wrestled with the angel until the breaking of a new day.

Jacob would be considered a success by our standards.  He had an large family and many servants.  He owned flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and camels and donkeys.  He had power and independence.  He also recognized his own success.  Despite all this he was still absolutely, totally afraid to return to his family home.  So he divided his family and goods out in groups and sent them in this marvelous impressive caravan to meet Esau on the road.  Why?  Perhaps it was to impress Esau, perhaps it was to intimidate Esau, perhaps it was just to delay Jacob’s own departure.  Maybe it was a little of them all.  Whatever the case, on that last night, Jacob was alone on the far side of the Jabbok river.

What I picture is a man in distress, overcome by anxiety, perhaps pacing around a fire.  He won’t sleep in this condition because all his nerves are on fire.  I wonder if God sent the angel to him to spend some of that pent up energy in Jacob.  Energy that might have finally been spent running away – again.  Just listen to Jacob’s prayer to God from this chapter:  “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac…I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant…Please deliver me from Esau, for I fear him…”  Was the night of wrestling an answer to Jacob’s humble prayer?  A diversion suited to his frantic state of mind?  Why then, did Jacob have such a hard time stopping?  The answers to these questions will be conjecture I know, but this encounter with my daughter will influence my perspective for a long while.

My daughter is entirely non-verbal.  But what she lacks in words she makes up with a strong sense of self.  This trait helps her cope in this speech driven world, but when she becomes over tired that strong sense of self gets out of proportion.  One evening  as I was directing her to bed, she suddenly became determined to drag a very large blanket to bed as well.  I indicated to her she couldn’t take it to bed with her and what ensued was what any parent would understand to be a stand off and a little bit of a wrestling match.

I’m not sure if children learn anything from these events, but I did that day.  As I tried to wrestle the blanket from her grip, she transferred her hold from the blanket to me.  I looked down to see her sobbing and holding onto my lower legs. I was worked up as well and at a different stage in her childhood I might have just picked her up and carried her to bed.  That is no longer an option since we now look each other in the eye.  I wasn’t even able to move my legs, let alone pick her up!

(Marc Chagall – Jacob wrestles withe an angel, 1963)

In that moment a phrase came into my thoughts “I will not let you go until you bless me,” the same words that Jacob used with the angel that night.  The picture of Jacob wrestling with the angel shifted in my understanding in that moment.  Emma wasn’t distressed about the blanket, she was distressed about our relationship.  She feared my rejection and in her over tired state she panicked.  Jacob I think was wrestling with acceptance too,  as if he all at once realized how wretched his journey of scheming really was, and that he himself was the schemer, the perpetrator.  So, overtired, wasted from physical exertion, at the very end of himself his request was “bless me, accept me, choose me.  This is what I am, I have nothing else.”

And the angel does bless him and from that moment Jacob is transformed — he had “striven with God and man and prevailed” (32:28).  Read the rest of his story, from Genesis 33 onward, he doesn’t just have a new name, he really is different.

And Emma and I, how did we do?  I did as the Angel did.  I reached down and wrapped my arms around my daughter, not with words, but with my heart I blessed her, I named her, I called her my own.  She loosened her grip and let me sink down beside her.  We sat there in a heap for a while until the irrationality of the moment was replaced by the assurance of my love for her and her love for me and then we went off to bed.

Lord Jesus, as we turn toward Christmas, turn our hearts toward you. Amen