“When it was evening…” That’s a little detail often overlooked in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The day was over; Jesus had been preaching. The people were captivated! Now, night was falling. Where would they all find something for supper? Strange things can happen in the nighttime. All the people sat down on the green grass, and something unexpected happened – a little became a lot, with the blessing of Jesus. Hungry people were satisfied. Weak people were strengthened. Hmm.
Almost two millennia earlier, we see Jacob. He is beside himself with fear of his brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his father’s blessing – his birthright - as a young man. Haven’t we all cheated somebody out of something? In a sense, Jacob has been running from that ever since. Now Esau has caught up with him, and Jacob is terrified.
Jacob tries to protect his household from Esau’s approaching army of men. Jacob has two wives (we heard about Leah and Rachel last week), two maids, eleven children, plus flocks and herds and possessions. He is not a poor man. He sends them all across the Jabbok River hoping they’ll be safe – not a lot of protection, but then, what else can he do? Then, “Jacob was left alone,” the scripture says. Alone. Jacob is finally stripped bare, without defenses, to face his life: his past transgressions, his present danger, his uncertain future.
Nighttime is when we often feel the most alone – with our thoughts, our anxieties, our old well-worn worries …. Sometime sleep won’t come, so we take pills to help. When we get to sleep, we may be afflicted by what I call “tumultuous dreams” – not exactly nightmares, but unsettling dreams nonetheless. When we wake from these, we may feel more exhausted than rested, like we’ve been working – or wrestling – all night.
Jacob was alone: it was night; he fell asleep…or did he? Was it all a dream? We don’t know…. The story only tells us he wrestled a man until daybreak. Who was this man? It doesn’t say, but it seems pretty clear this man was from God – and that makes him an angel. (Most angels don’t have gauzy gowns and fluffy wings. This one must have been pretty strong.)
Jacob is persistent; he won’t stop wrestling. Finally, the angel has had enough. “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Jacob responds with impressive strength: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
“What is your name?” asks the man/angel.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Fast-forward again to Jesus and his disciples –
It is evening after a long day. The disciples struggle with the problem of a very hungry crowd of people; they want to escape, avoid the situation. They are still learning about this man Jesus. “Send the crowds away, Lord….” Jesus forces them to face their fears and anxieties: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” But they wrestle with him: “But Jesus, we don’t have what it takes…there are only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish!”
There are times – often nighttimes – when we have to face the situation: our anxieties about our own capacities, our fears of external forces. God does not allow us to turn and run any longer. And so we wrestle. And it’s in the wrestling that we can experience God’s presence in a new way. It may be a mixed experience – God is not a granter of wishes and dispenser of chocolate kisses! Life is often hard, challenging, difficult. God is not a rescuer, but a sustainer, a companion.
We may end up with a limp, a scar….but also a blessing…. Maybe even the abundance of a great feast, enough to share with a hungry world around us.
I just read a little book by Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night.
A sweet novella about an old woman, a widow, who makes a strange proposition to an old man, a widower, who lives around the corner: that he come and spend nights in her bed – just to talk. (Really.) She was lonely. She was tired of sleeping alone. So he comes over, every evening.
Soon, wonderful conversations are happening in the nighttime, and both people are happier…. Much happier. There is no pretense. They talk about their lives, their spouses, their children, their jobs, all the things that weren’t right, the disappointments as well as the happy times. And together, acknowledging the scars and limps they carried, they find a blessing. They find a new happiness in the moment, in the day that is given.
I wonder if we might be able to find more joy in our lives if we took a few chances - took some chances to get closer to people, to be honest with people, to share our lives more deeply…maybe even talk far into the night…wrestle a bit, even. Who knows what might happen. Maybe if we could acknowledge how hunger we are for connection, for honesty, we might find the food that satisfies. We might find that others – our friends, our spouses - are hungry for that real connection too. We might find, in retrospect, that we’ve encountered a bit of God during the dark hours. We might find that our scars are acknowledged, that our limp is not so bad. That in fact others are limping too – we all are. We might find a certain blessing to be had.
So this evening, when darkness falls, and it is eventide, acknowledge your deep hunger, and ask God to feed you, to fill you. Open up, and see what might happen to your soul at night. Be ready to wrestle with a God who will not let you go. Be prepared to come away with a bit of a limp, but also a blessing on your life – your one, real, imperfect, human life. AMEN.