The Divine Lunge

Genesis 32:22-31 – The 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 3, 2014

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

Jacob traveled to seek favor—forgiveness—from his brother Esau.

Jacob sent his family on ahead and remained by the River Jabbok.

River. Sunset. Night approaching...
River. Sunset. Night approaching…

It was night, with the heat of the day finally easing. The Jabbok flowed, a liquid ribbon of life among the arid hills and barren ridges. Stars glittered overhead, nocturnal jewels. A breeze soothed Jacob’s skin, carrying the smoky remnants of old campfires and lingering fragrance of his departed family.

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

In a darkness only partly caused by night, Jacob waited. He was alone with the countless promises that he’d broken and made and broken again, the old lies he’d crafted and sold as the truth, the shameful acts that moaned from the hidden corners of his soul.

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

Why did he wait?

Why had he sent his wives and children across the Jabbok?

Had Jacob intuited something, in the murmuring of the river or in the whisper of wind, which had prompted him to stay?

And then, so said Genesis, a man wrestled Jacob. It would be a brutal struggle, lasting the night, without rules, with neither adversary relenting, with Jacob sustaining injury and still fighting on.

Like Jacob we live much of our lives in darkness. But if we’re busy-busy from dawn to dusk, or if we have that rare stretch of dreamless sleep, we pretend to temporarily escape or ignore the darkness. Though often enough, the darkness of our fears find us.

Let’s say you’re a preacher and you receive nine hearty handshakes from smiling church members. They each greet you after worship, gushing over your splendid sermon.

But then . . . a tenth person arrives and mutters, “I wish you’d stop preaching sermons with the same examples.”

Or maybe the criticism wasn’t that specific, more a vague complaint. Or—for this does happen—the tenth person’s words were blunt and specific. But whom do you believe? The nine who adored your sermon? The one who complained? I can guess. A few callous comments and we feel exposed for the fools we always knew we were. Our inner darkness gathers and we feel lost.

It’s not just preachers.

The giggling child raised by loving parents becomes the teen who can hurl such heart-wrenching accusations at a mother or father. And a parent bemoans his or her dark failures. The teacher has become numb from giving the required tests and darkly wonders why he ever went into education. A lawyer once yearned to make the world better, but now, with a dark competitive heart, she schemes to accumulate more billable hours than her colleagues. Who remembers old yearnings when all you care about are this year’s earnings?

When the bosses decide to downsize, it’s you they point to. Everyone bought that stock at the right time, but not you. The driver that rear-ends you is not insured.

You are a magnet for darkness.

In the darkness of our lives, we have constant reminders of the worst; of the times and places and people where failure reigned and we were resigned to admitting defeat.

But it could be worse. We inwardly sigh with relief when reading headlines about murders and foreclosures and drug overdoses and the other damaging events that happen to . . . others. Is that what it has come to: we’re glad that the darkness we experience is not as bad as someone else’s darker and more dismal misery?

On the worst days, we are convinced we were born alone and that we’ll die alone.

Do we matter? Do I matter?

Jacob was alone, and yet not alone.

Jacob Wrestling the AngelAnd then, from the darkness, a man attacked Jacob. No, it wasn’t a man. Though Genesis is as clever with the words as the attack was startling, this was a Holy encounter.

But was it an attack? Or was it—in the darkest part of the darkest night—a divine lunge into Jacob’s very flesh to remind him that he was not alone?

Remarkably, Jacob would not let go. Was persistence his only gift?

On the river flowed.

On they wrestled: one, who was and is the Giver of Blessings; one, who had lived in so much darkness.

Jacob, who would be renamed Israel, who was no better or worse than you or me, held on. (And don’t you dare think he was better than you. The Bible, God bless it, was awfully clear about how wretched a person Jacob could be. The Bible, God bless it, was written by and for irksome humans and not inaccessible saints.)

Out of the darkness, light.

Just enough.

Jacob would name the place Peniel. To see God. Which, I believe, also meant you are called to see yourself as God sees you.


(River photo from here; Painting by Edward Knippers from here.)

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