Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
June 13, 2021
Bless This Mess: Jacob
This morning we will hear part of the story of Jacob, one of the patriarchs of our faith. Jacob was a trickster, a fraud. Jacob was a wrestler from before his birth, struggling with his twin brother Esau in the womb. We know this because he came out of the womb grasping Esau’s heel – so Jacob means heel, usurper. The second born, who wanted to be first.
Jacob, you’ll remember, was his mother Rebekah’s favorite. He’s the kind of guy with a million-dollar smile, but you could only trust him about as far as you could throw him. He gets his hungry brother to trade his birthright for a dish of lentil stew… then he wraps his arms in wool to trick his father, old Isaac, into blessing him as the firstborn son.
When Esau is enraged by Jacob’s trickery, and threatens to kill him. So Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s family. Uncle Laban is his mother’s brother, who turns out to be as tricky as Jacob himself. Jacob lives there for almost 20 years, marrying two of Laban’s daughters, and growing wealthy with all manner of sheep, and goats, and livestock acquired by somewhat questionable magical means.
As time passes, his relationship with Laban becomes strained, and Jacob decides it’s time to return home. Problem is that he must pass through Edom, the lands where his brother Esau lives, to get to Canaan. When Jacob fled in the first place, all those years ago, Esau swore he was going to kill his brother for stealing his birthright. So Jacob’s a bit concerned about running into Esau’s territory, but he has no choice.
So the trickster decides to be a little tricky. He comes up with a strategy to avoid certain death, and divides his herds and his people into different groups, sending some as a gift to Esau, and others in another direction. And in case that doesn’t work, he leads his children and wives across the river with the rest of his entourage and leaves them there, maybe hoping that Esau’s army will have pity on them because they’re defenseless.
Great guy, Jacob.
This is where our story picks up this morning. Listen for a word from God.
(read Genesis 32:22-31)
I rarely have trouble sleeping. I’m not a worrisome person. I’ve learned not to drink coffee too late in the day, or else the caffeine leaves me jittery and awake – so most nights I can fall asleep and stay there without too much trouble.
I do tend to procrastinate, so long, late nights were common in college and grad school, as I would stay up till the wee hours writing or studying, doing work I shouldn’t have put off until the last minute.
When the girls were little, sleep was hard to come by, too. Particularly the first year, when they would wake up to eat several times each night. It was exhausting. But I realized I love the silence, the stillness, the strange peacefulness of being awake when it feels like the rest of the world is asleep. You can hear the clock ticking, the refrigerator kick on and off, the house breathing and settling, the birds begin to stir and sing at dawn. Even now, my most productive time is often early in the morning, before the rest of my family has gotten up, when I can write without distractions.
Still, the dark awakens anxiety – I’m sure many of you can relate to the feeling of lying awake, trying to fall asleep, with a loop of every awkward thing you’ve ever said running through your head. I like to remember poor choices, and relive my most embarrassing moments – or imagine worst case scenarios for what might happen in the days ahead. Is it just me?
This year, our sleep has gotten worse. The anxiety and stress of the pandemic has led to an epidemic of insomnia. People have so much to worry about, and it’s keeping us up at night – which isn’t good, because we weren’t getting enough sleep to begin with. Who got a full 8 hours last night? My friend Dave Barnhart writes, “Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.”
This past fall, a radio show/podcast I love set up an insomnia hotline – people called in to share what was keeping them up. And it was everything – people couldn’t sleep because they were worried about getting sick, anxious about finding a job, or paying bills; some people were awake because they had to be for work; still others were awake for the sheer joy of living – the night was too beautiful to end. The recurring truth, though, was that people were anxious and lonely – an aching, deep, loneliness led them to call a radio hotline in the middle of the night.
As many as half of Americans will experience insomnia at some point – which is why this story about Jacob feels particularly apt for me right now.
Because it’s night. He’s alone, and he’s dreading what the day will bring, afraid that Esau is still angry with him for stealing his father’s blessing. And suddenly he’s attacked by a stranger, with whom he wrestles until dawn.
There are a couple of clues that this is no ordinary bandit. In ancient folklore, spirits often fear the daylight and are only active at night. The stranger’s otherworldly strength, evidenced by his ability to fight all night long, and still put Jacob’s hip out of joint at the end of the bout. His unwillingness to share his name.
Jacob seems to know this, too, because he refuses to let go – demanding a blessing from this being who attacked him in the night. What do we make of this?
The traditional read of this story is that Jacob is wrestling with God themself – God who then rewards Jacob’s persistence and determination with a blessing of prosperity and progeny. God who gives Jacob, the trickster, a new name: Israel, who strives and overcomes everything that stands in his way.
You’ve heard people say, “Let go and let God…” well, this is the opposite of that. This is a story of the power of persistence – like the story Jesus told of the widow who would not stop asking the judge for what she wanted, until he was so annoyed he finally gave it to her. This is nevertheless, she persisted story, a story of someone so determined to survive and to thrive that he wrested a blessing from the very hand of God.
Preaching professor David Lose reads this as a baptism story – not a baptism by water or a baptism by fire. More like a baptism by mud as they struggle and squish in the mud on the riverbank. Baptism because Jacob comes away from the encounter with a blessing and a new name. He’s struggled all night within himself and with God, remembering every wrong he’s ever done, every awkward moment, all the tricks and deceptions, all the mess and brokenness. And he clings to God through the struggle. And though it is painful, he finds grace in the midst of the struggle. A blessing. A new name, just as the water in baptism names and claims us as members of the body of Christ, beloved children of God.
The struggle changes Jacob. Some say he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He is marked by this encounter with God. And when the dawn breaks and Jacob leaves to meet his brother, he discovers that Esau is not waiting with weapons drawn, ready to attack. His long lost twin greets him instead with open arms – Jacob, the trickster, is forgiven. All those years lost in worry, estranged from his twin – all those sleepless nights – for nothing. As Jacob limps his way into his brother’s embrace, he says that seeing the smiling face of Esau is like looking at the face of God. What a blessing forgiveness is.
I don’t know what’s keeping you up at night. Maybe you love the quiet productivity that early morning hours can bring. Maybe it feels like worries jump out and grab you out of nowhere when you shut off the light, like a stranger in the night. I can’t know the thoughts that may race through your head as the clock ticks and the darkness covers you like a blanket and sleep evades your grasp. All I can suggest is that it might help to be a little more like Jacob:
Cling to God, wrestling with questions and struggling for faith even in the darkest of times. Persist in pursuing your dreams of what might be, but isn’t yet. And trust that by the waters of baptism, God’s blessing and grace are already yours – your heart has already been washed clean of every mistake, every awkward or deceitful thing forgiven. Whatever the day might bring, God has already named and claimed us as beloved children. My prayer is that you will feel covered by the blessing of your baptism no matter what the night brings. And that that knowledge will give us strength to persist, to resist, to push on toward whatever dawn lies just beyond our grasp. Thanks be to God.
 Willis, Amy, “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31,” Preach This Week, August 3, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-genesis-3222-31-8
 Barnhart, Dave. “Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep,” June 10, 2021, on his blog, https://davebarnhart.wordpress.com
 Lose, David, “The Power of Names,” Dear Working Preacher, 10/14/13, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/the-power-of-names
 Wil Gafney pointed out this connection in her “Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31,” Preach This Week, July 31, 2011, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18/commentary-on-genesis-3222-31-2