The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
God in the Dark
Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beautiful sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all tingly warm embrace, all peace and comfort. But some only seem to encounter God in the dark. Jacob was one of those men.
And in a way, I guess it is fitting. He was the kind of guy who was always on the run, staying in the shadows, like a fox who can't help but feel the warm breath of the hounds. He always heard footsteps. I mean, to be fair, he chose this life. That day he strapped goat skin to his arm – his first great scheme, snatching the blessing from his older brother – there was no going back; he set this course. And in some ways, the treachery and scheming made for him a good life. He did arrive at the Jabbok with his two wives, his two, well, the text says maids, but those maids were more than just maids, they were two of the four mothers of his children, his eleven children, and all of his Father-in-Law's finest sheep – the bounty of yet another devious scheme, once again perpetrated against members of his own family.
But a life of running takes its toll. And so he also arrives at the Jabbok fully aware that the next day could very well be the day of reckoning. For fourteen years, he had lived in this self-imposed exile. But after this night, he would once again see his brother Esau, the brother whose life he had taken, the brother who long ago promised to take Jacob's life in return. Jacob was turning himself in. His life of running was over, that was clear. What was unclear was: would his life be over?
Jacob planned to spend that night alone. He sent his wives, his maids, his children, his possessions, everyone and everything, across the stream. But he stayed, not quite ready to take the next step. I suspect he had a lot on his mind; perhaps he considered running away again – one more time, into the cover of the night. He was alone; everyone else was on the other side; no one would even know until the morning; that's a pretty good head start. There he was: alone in the darkness. Alone, with his past transgressions. Alone, with the uncertainty of his future. Alone, or so he thought.
That night was like back in the beginning – when God was creating and separated the light from the dark. It was that kind of dark. It was the kind of darkness that feels impossibly heavy – like it was pushing down on his chest, fighting against his lungs. It was the kind of darkness that always seems to grow from the seeds of anxiety. The kind that occurs before a dreaded day, before an uncertain future.
His long journey away from and now back to his brother, the years of running that would end with the daybreak, had started in the darkness as well. God met him, back then, in the darkness when he first started running. But that first darkness was different from this, at least it felt different. That was beautiful angels and a ladder to the heavens and the promise of a future; it was God giving him a reason to run into the new light of the morning.
He knew this darkness was different because instead of a head full of lovely dreams, this night offered a headlock. All night long Jacob wrestled and struggled with a mystery. Even the text is confused. The author says “man”; Jacob says “God”. And I suspect no argument could convince him otherwise.
Because that night changed him: body and soul, name and future. His first encounter with God in the dark gave Jacob the strength to run. This encounter with God in the dark ensured he would never run again.
He limped out of that night a new person, reborn in the womb of that dark night. He limped out of that night with this strange blessing. Not all blessings are created equal. Not every blessing is easily recognizable. A displaced hip is not the most obvious blessing, clearly. But his body was broken so that his heart and soul could be healed. Jacob needed that scar to live into the future God wanted for him. He earned that limp. In a previous life he stole a blessing that he did not deserve. But on this night he fought and struggled until he earned that blessing. The first one was cheap; this one, it cost him.
He could have run away from the struggle. God knows that was his history. He could have hid himself in the darkness. He could have slipped the hold and given up. He could let go long before the blessing. But Jacob, all busted hip and desperation, needed something that night; he would not let go without a fight; he would not let go without that blessing.
Jacob limped out of the darkness with a new name. But of course, the name was more than just a name; it was a new identity; it was a God-given future, a destiny. Somehow Jacob was changed in that dark, mysterious encounter. God grabbed a hold of him and he was never the same – and the change was much more than hip-deep.
Jacob is remembered now as one of the great patriarchs; the name bestowed by God in that dark night, Israel, became the name, not only of one man, but of an entire people. He is a legend – but Jacob was no saint. He left in his wake a lifetime of shattered relationships, the product of his dishonesty and trickery and cowardice. Had he walked out of the darkness into his brother's gleaming blade, no one would have been surprised; some would have considered it a form of poetic justice – the inevitable harvest of a life spent sowing seeds of deception.
But for all of his running, Jacob could not out run God. And that is really what this story is about. In their first dark encounter, God had a dream for Jacob. But he was not living the dream. In this deep darkness, God once again shows up with a dream for Jacob – a dream for a future that was better than his past. And even though no one would have blamed God for walking away from this shady guy and his checkered past, God doubles down, stakes a new claim with a new name, God stays with him through the entire anxious, restless night. When Jacob thought he was all alone, it was God who was there with him in the darkness.
Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beauty sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all warm embrace, all peace and comfort.
But some of us encounter God in the darkness. And sometimes it feels like a struggle. And sometimes the struggle leaves scars.
But sometimes only a limp will keep us from running away. Sometimes we need the scars to remind us that in the deepest darkness, we are never alone.