Genesis 32: 22-31

This story of Jacob wrestling in the night has got to be one of the strangest in the whole collection of stories we have in scripture. For all its detail, we come to the end and wonder “what was that? What just happened? And why? And who was that who took Jacob on by the river that night?” When it all comes to an end and what we have, more than anything else, are questions, what’s the use? … why bother with a story like that?

Because there comes a time, and never only once, when every last one of us is struggling.  I’m not talking “should we paint the walls white or ruby red?” … or “will we go for the appetizer or the dessert?” I’m talking about being in the grip of those events in life that test us to our core …that bring us to our knees, that hit us like a ton of bricks. So we’re in this place of having to make our way, in the last place we want to be, and have to work with it.

That so much remains hidden in Jacob’s story, so much we’re left to wonder about, while it might frustrate us to no end wanting to know more, one of the things it offers through all that gets left unsaid is room-- room for each one of us with our own scenarios of struggle, for goodness knows there’s an endless stream of possibilities. This kind of struggle has many names, whether it’s the ones we’ve already come through, or the ones we’re in the throes of right now.

Laying Jacob’s story alongside our own, it may offer up some clues, even some language to speak of what’s happening; and courage perhaps for making our own way.

The first thing we glimpse through Jacob’s story is how unprepared he was for what came. The part we didn’t read leading up to that night along the river, is all about Jacob attending to no end of details for his encounter with his estranged brother. He’s got it all figured; made all these sophisticated arrangements, communicated the plan … all of it basically to safe-guard himself. This is a man who’s prepared! Having set it all in place, ready for the big day tomorrow, he settles in for the night, alone, by the river.

And kaboom! There was no preparing for what hit him. It wasn’t that he overlooked it … some things just arise without warning …or at least they appear to.

The wrestling goes on all night long … from dusk til dawn --not forever, but a long time. Neither of them giving up or giving in. You don’t stay with it that long and hard without becoming exhausted, even hurt.  In fact that’s one of the details we’re given. Jacob gets hurt in the wrestling … he’s struck on the hip socket, putting his hip out of joint. He’s up against a cunning opponent who knows exactly how to compromise Jacob in the struggle. And yet it’s a measure of Jacob’s strength that this doesn’t finish him; that even wounded there in this way, he’s not overpowered. 

Locked in each other’s grip, finally we hear them speak. The stranger first:  “Let me go for the day is breaking,” he says. A lot has been at stake all night, each struggling like crazy to hold their own. And now Jacob hears, “let me go.” 

What’s he supposed to do with “let me go” ? How do you make the move from holding on with all your might to letting go?  How do you let go of what you’ve struggled with and struggled against for so long, having mustered everything you have not to be defeated?

There comes a time when holding on is the thing that defeats us. It’s when we won’t finally loosen our grip on the grief, on the guilt, on the agony, the unfairness -- whatever plagues us-- that we will be defeated by it. There comes a point when surrender is not about giving up. It’s about moving on. Surrender is the moment in which we realize it is time to allow something else, time to become someone new.[1]

“Let me go,” Jacob hears. And what does he reply? “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I expect to hear him say. It could be this is a Jacob thing… Jacob who stole the blessing that belonged to Esau. It might just be Jacob’s way, whatever the circumstance, to go after more. Or, it might just be a human thing …to insist, at that point of letting go, after the hard hard work of getting there, to insist there’s got to be something I can take away from this … given all it’s cost me … all the grief, the life energy, all I’ve spent in getting to this place … there’s got to be some goodness, some gift come out of this … something more than the scars to take away.  

Do you know that resolve, that insistence?

Jacob’s insistence on a blessing is met with a question: “What is your name?”  “Jacob,” he replies. (Jacob meaning the heel, the trickster, the cheat.) "You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel … for you have striven with divine and human beings."

Maybe that’s the blessing each one of us comes away with … a new name … one that redefines, re-conceives us … one that somehow gathers up and gathers in the strength of our spirit that brought us through the struggle, alive … naming who we are more fully … putting us in touch with a strength and a future we didn’t know we had.

I wonder what the names are among us, that we’ve received on the other side of our struggles? What do you hear when you listen to your own life, when you look at what has been revealed to you in and through your own profound struggles?

While Jacob does indeed receive a blessing, he doesn’t get his way when he asks the name of the one he’s wrestled with all night long. Somehow it wasn’t for him to know. Who’s to say why? Maybe Jacob or anyone of us isn’t given to know the name because maybe it’s not just one thing that’s wrestling us to the ground … maybe it’s that figure AND the thing in us that this figure is bringing out in us … like our pride perhaps, or our shame, or the illusion that we can do it all, or that we’re in control, or whatever you call it that imagines everything should go our way. 

“What is your name?” Jacob asks the figure at dawn. He and we never hear the name. Except that Jacob names the place where it happened Peniel … meaning “the face of God” … “for,” he says, “I have seen God face to face and yet I live!”  Who is this who has wrestled him to the ground all night long?  Somehow, whatever has happened to Jacob in and through it, he finds himself naming it as somehow of God, that somehow God was in it.

Do you notice … Jacob didn’t defeat his opponent. He simply survived the struggle. As this part of his story concludes, we see him walking away, into the light of a new day, alive … alive AND limping. It’s true isn’t it … this lasting mark, this wound we bear as a result of our struggle … sometimes obvious to others, sometimes apparent only to ourselves. But far from diminishing our lives, the limp it turns out, may in fact be our saving grace … the reminder we carry with us of our vulnerability which finally makes us more human. 

Joan Chittister writes about her own season of struggle, when her life as she imagined it would be, came abruptly to an end. Here’s what she says in hindsight about the wounding that arose through her struggle:  when “I am powerless and vulnerable, unsure and open to the elements of life, limited in resources and even more limited in spirit, then my limitations can become my strength. Then I can discover the rest of the human race. Then I can come to realize the basic bounty of life. Then I am suddenly in a position to allow myself to be at the mercy of a merciful universe.  … It is only vulnerability that prepares us to live well, to understand others, and to take our proper place in the human enterprise.”[2]

Maybe that’s the wonder … that it’s possible to come through our struggles and move forward into the light of a new day. And that it’s possible to come through our struggles not having just survived … as though “surviving” isn’t immense in itself! But to come out the other side, limping yes, but more whole, more human, that wouldn’t have come any other way. To emerge even with something to offer for the good of others.

None of this of course is quite so apparent when we’re in it, holding on for dear life …when we’re caught up in the wrestling. But we can know this: given struggle comes to every life, we are never as alone in the midst of our struggle as we might imagine. In fact very likely we even have the witness of our own lives to shore us up, to give us hope. For we enter every struggle with the experience of the last … of coming through what we could only suppose would have crushed us to the grave. Each time exposes a strength we never knew we had … a strength we never knew we could be given. 

“Despair says there’s no place to go but here. Despair says that I am God and if I can’t do anything about this situation, then nothing and nobody can.

Hope says, remember where you have been before, and know that God is waiting for you some place else now, to go on again to something new.”[3]

We are never as alone as we might imagine … for we live in God’s world. Thanks be to God.

[1]   Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003, p. 59.
[2]   Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 67, 68.
[3]  Joan Chittister, p. 107