Things That Go Bump in the Night

Genesis 32:1-13, 23-32


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I regret to remind you of what’s going on every day, what we don’t want to notice and will suddenly sneak up on us. Since the middle of June, we have lost close to an hour of sunlight. I notice this in the morning, walking the dogs and in the evening as night falls earlier and earlier.

Expanding darkness presents real challenges for some, those who suffer from depression or seasonal affective disorder. Conversely, increased darkness is welcome for those who suffer from lupus or skin disorders and need to avoid the sun.

For most of us, darkness is synonymous with mystery, deception, the time bad things happen, which is why so many of us don’t like extended darkness.

Yet, in our faith tradition, so much of what is revealed by God occurs in the dark of night. Consider for example God’s call to Samuel, the dreams of Mary, Joseph and Zachariah. Paul was thrown into darkness, blindness, as he faced Christ. We celebrate the birth of Jesus during the darkest months of the northern hemisphere. Resurrection happened in the darkness of night – we only recognized it in the light of day. So often what transpires in darkness, although mysterious, creates profound goodness in all our lives.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s beloved writers and preachers has a new book out this summer. Briefly, it was NYTimes bestseller and she has been identified by Time magazine as one of the top 100 influential Americans.

The title, Learning to Walk in the Dark, aptly describes her formative years, a persistent fear of the dark and long-held desire to appreciate the half of her life lived in darkness. Her book chronicles this journey to:

…remember(ing) how to walk in the dark, since people of faith have deep pockets of wisdom about how to live through long nights in the wilderness….Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know.[1]

Taylor pursued a wide variety of adventures that forced her to give into the dark: spelunking into caves, which had never, ever seen the light of day. That portion of the book was a page-turner for me, not from my fear of darkness but the clarity of her writing evoked a visceral claustrophobia of being trapped inside the earth.

Taylor, who lives in rural Georgia on a farm, describes one night, as she ventures into the hen house to gather eggs, and doesn’t bother to bring a light since she has been doing this for years. Yet this night she feels something else besides eggs among the chickens. In darkness, at first she assumed it was plastic. After repeatedly encountering this object and discovering it could move on its own, she realized it was a black snake, in search of dinner.

No wonder we are afraid of the dark. She claimed it was a harmless black snake, but still a snake.

This encounter caused her to question: “when we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?”[2]

In our readings today, Jacob was not running from God. On the contrary, despite having received God’s blessing decades ago on a dark desert night, Jacob had exhibited no interest in God until now.

He wants to go home, but will face his brother, Esau, whom he cheated of inheritance and birthright and as a consequence has lived with his death threat. Jacob’s ongoing disputes with his uncle Laban, who is also now his father-in-law, precludes him from returning to Haran. He has no place to go.

In the dark of night, when faced with such fear, Jacob finally turns to God in the only extended prayer we find in all of Genesis. Jacob reminds God it was God who told him to return to his brother and it was God who promised him “offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.”

Esau is pursuing him, with four hundred men, so he divides his herds, wives, and children, and sends them ahead; thinking if Esau kills one company, the other may escape. Jacob settles in for the night, knowing the dawn may be his last.

Alone, Jacob struggles with an unknown, assumed to be a man at first and then thought to be God. Throughout the night they wrestle, but neither wins. As morning approaches, the mysterious man tries to leave, unable to loosen Jacob’s hold, he injures Jacob’s hip, and despite wounding him, still needs to plead for Jacob’s release. From this intimate, hard-fought battle, Jacob realizes this is much greater than a man, so he asks for a blessing.

Before this man offers a blessing, Jacob is asked, “What is your name?”

In the ancient Near East, your name was more than a name, it described your character and stated to the world of who you were.

“Jacob” was his name, synonymous for trickster and heel and usurper, the story of Jacob’s life.

When you wrestle with God and you take God seriously, you cannot hide the truth of yourself. You face who and what you are. Part of this reality may be your shortcomings, your sin against God and others. You cannot deceive God anymore than you can be dishonest with yourself.

When you wrestle with God and you take God seriously, you can also discover the image of God you bear that is your best self and then as this grace-filled image begins to flourish, you grow more confident in revealing this image of yourself and God to others. Jacob’s struggle with God, like our struggles, enabled him to see his full potential.

However awful or lonely or crippling our struggles with God may be, we may find that in honest struggles, God opens a new way of living as God reveals our gifts for our future life.

Jacob is given a new name and is to be known to all the world as “Israel,” which means “God preserves,” or “God protects,” or perhaps one who “God rules.”[3]

In our readings from Genesis, two dimensions are at play here – the human conflict between Jacob and his brother Esau and a divine confrontation with God.

Jacob’s mortal life is never independent of God; therefore his struggles are not beyond God’s care. When Jacob deceived his father, God cared. When Jacob committed to work for seven years, to marry Rachel, God was invested in the promise. God was in the midst of his mundane affairs, his trauma, and his successes.

Likewise, Jacob’s interaction with God is never divorced from his human life. God does not exist in just the transcendent, omnipotent, creator realm. When life became too much to bear alone, Jacob turned to God. God is in the grittiness of life and in life’s blessings.

In the dark of night, Jacob is transformed forever with the force of God’s power, evident in his limp and new identity. We can never think of or be in relationship with God apart from human life and human realities are transformed by our honest willingness to experience God, even if it is a struggle that exhausts us or leaves us unsatisfied with knowing God and life’s mystery.[4]

What transpired does not make complete sense, but no longer will Jacob, or I should say Israel, ever think to himself or present himself to others as anything other than claimed by God. This was the turning point in his life. Now, when he says his name, he is offering a confession and profession of his faith: I am Israel, I belong to God.

The same is true for us in the mysterious sacrament of baptism. Perhaps you noticed, although I knew Corinne’s name, I still asked her parents in the sacrament to state her Christian name, receiving her first and middle names, leaving off the surname. In her baptism she was christened – likened to Christ – as we called her by name to be part of God’s covenant, joined to the body of Christ and sealed by the spirit. Christening originally meant just what it sounds like: in baptism we are “Christ-ened,” that is, called by the name of Christ and made to be like him.

We are called many things besides our Christian names: sister, wife, mother, and neighbor, expressing the ways we are in a relationship with people. But those names never entirely describe all of us. Unfortunately, we are also called, sometimes behind our backs, names such as cheat, cheapskate, ingrate, lazy, or callous.

These hurtful names – however legitimate – never define us completely and never before God. We are called to remain Christ-like. We are called to be present in worship and in the church as a part of the body of Christ, caring for others. And even when we stumble in hearing or responding to God’s call, God still calls us Christ-like, seeing the good and divine. The grace by which we are claimed is a mystery. We do not earn it, but it is freely given to us by God through Christ.

Let’s go back to the night of struggle. Who was the mystery man? Even crafting this sermon, I did not know how to name the opponent who blesses Jacob. Jacob wanted to know. But, when Jacob asked for a name, the mystery man evaded with a question: “why is it you ask my name?”

In the ancient Near East, with so many gods, they needed names. There was a god of fertility, rain, or wine. Often a god was of a particular geography. One would seek to know a god by name and, through the name, capture the essence of the god’s nature. Idols were created to allow a tangible thing to be worshiped and appeased. To name something, in that world, was to exercise control over it.

God is being revealed in this story of Jacob’s struggle, who appeared in darkness, remained unnamed, seemed human-like, but could not be pinned down physically or otherwise. This glimpse of God does not satisfy our thirst for understanding, naming and controlling.   God is forever beyond what we can name and know. Even today, some Judeo-Christian traditions will not name God, instead, only refer to God as YHWH – consonants only – or with G_D.

This narrative is of another two dimensions, the mystery of Jacob’s struggle to attain his life and identity, and, the mystery of coming to know God.

John de Gruchy, distinguished professor of theology in South Africa and a world-renowned scholar of Dietrich Bonheoffer, released a new book last year, Led Into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death, following the death of his adult son, who was also a respected theologian and died in a boating accident. Throughout this book, he questions, after the bitterest of all experiences, looking into his son’s grave, what did he now believe?

I commend the book to you. It is not a fast read – the concepts are too rich to rush through – and his grief is heartbreaking. But amidst his struggle he pushes into the mystery of death and resurrection and God’s mystery as revealed in Jesus Christ.

De Gruchy begins by surveying the meaning of mystery and offers “(m)ystery is encoded or hidden like a secret: but unlike a secret, mystery never ceases to invite enquiry and exploration, for there is always more to be discovered.”[5]

One of the reasons we read the Bible, year after year, and generation after generation, is that the Bible reads us. We can find ourselves in the plight of the original dysfunctional family, the exiled people and those who are blessed. God revealed God’s self to this group of wayward people and continued to pursue them even when they forgot or dismissed God.

Why they would commit such malicious acts towards one another and to God is beyond our understanding…often true of our lives today.

We read the Bible and worship God in community and become inspired by the Holy Spirit so we can endure in dark times and live into the mysteries that may unfold for us. Our encounters with darkness, and the challenges we do not understand, may help us emerge from our struggles stronger and more confident of our life in God’s protection.

From De Gruchy’s grief, he discerns the strength of God’s promises and asserts “God remains unfathomable mystery even when revealed, for what is revealed is what we need to know about God, not everything there is to know. What we glimpse of God is never enough but always more than sufficient for us. Jesus as the revelation of God is truly God but not the whole of God.”[6]

So what happened with Jacob? It foreshadows the Prodigal Son and is a story of grace. God released him that day to face the demons of the day, but with a blessing, I believe, to humbly ask forgiveness and be reconciled. Could Esau have accepted a Jacob who was unrepentant and still a trickster? We will never know. The man whom Esau received was Israel who had received God’s blessing and had been remade for greatness in the world.

Come back next week. Israel’s beloved son Joseph receives a coat of vibrant colors, inspiring a blockbuster Broadway musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It is one of the earliest novellas in human history, Genesis 37-50, a story of tragic betrayal, survival and triumph. Thanks be to God.

Amen.


 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark. (New York: Harper Collins 2014.) 15.

[2] Ibid. 57.

[3] Walter Brueggemann. Genesis:  Interpretation. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 268.

[4] Ibid 210.

[5] John de Gruchy. Led into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death. (London: SCM Press, 2013) 37.

[6] Ibid 116.