We have all had one of those moments when a choice, or a decision, lay before us. We lose sleep, we worry, we procrastinate, but the deadline, a deadline that could forever change our lives, gets closer and closer. As children we made decisions about picking friends. Later we picked colleges, occupations, spouses, not necessarily in that order. I suspect all of us have looked back and explored how those choices shaped our lives. As adults, we understand all too well the radical nature of life changing decisions. We weigh all the options, hopefully we pray, but most of all we wrestle with our soul in a never ending battle of trying to make the right choice. And sometimes, at midnight, we go down to the river, wondering who or what might greet us with the morning light.
Such was the dilemma of Jacob. During the past weeks we have come to recognize Jacob as a scoundrel, liar and cheat. Those were his best qualities. He worked hard to manipulate life to suit his purposes, but this did not excuse him from his inevitable appointment with the river. Jacob was no role model. He is not the first person who comes to mind when we think of a biblical character we might emulate. And yet, like it or not, I imagine there is a little of Jacob in each of us. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob was no hero. He lived life running away from his problems. He fled Esau and Laban without even saying good-bye. What was there to say? He stole the birthright from Esau. He stole two daughters and the family jewels from Laban. If anything, Jacob was the anti-hero.
Unlike his father Isaac, Jacob was no poet. Isaac defined his life by that ghastly incident in the mountains with his father. When Abraham lifted the knife to slay his son, Isaac saw his past, and his future written before his eyes. Isaac won Rebekah with his words and blessed Jacob with his vision. But Jacob, the man who saw a ladder descend from the heavens, never spoke of his dream in poetry or song. Jacob saved his words to manipulate, to placate, to exaggerate in order to control the moment regardless of the lasting consequences. Jacob was no poet, for poets speak the truth. Jacob was just a liar, molding his desires, his appetites, regardless of the damage done to the innocent. Jacob could not see the future, therefore tomorrow became his greatest enemy. His fear of the unknown drove Jacob to finally confront his destiny and his God.
Jacob had been away from home for nearly fifteen years. His mother and father had died and Jacob had skipped both funerals. His brother did not relinquish responsibility of the land. Under Esau the herds had grown and the land had flourished. But despite all Esau’s labor, Jacob still owned the birthright. Legally the land still belonged to the younger brother who had fled in the night. Esau could not turn his back on his father’s dream. Jacob knew all of this. Jacob knew Esau had cultivated what was technically his. What Jacob could not know was how Esau would react once the prodigal returned home. In the light of day, Jacob figured there was no way he could manipulate his brother a second time. In the light of day, Jacob anticipated that Esau would respond the way he would respond; selfishly and self-servingly. Esau had to be waiting on the other side of the river with nothing but revenge on his mind.
But at night, another voice entered the consciousness of the manipulator. At night, Jacob encountered the God of Beth-el. At night, Jacob had seen a ladder descending from the clouds. At night, Jacob was reminded that God would remain with him, regardless. So at night, Jacob went down to the river.
The tough thing about making a decision is usually not the final decision. More times than not we already know what we are suppose to do. Choosing between right and wrong is not all that difficult. It is the complicating factors which confuse our minds. Doing the right thing is not always advantageous. Doing what is right often works against our best interest. Living a life where our self interests are set aside for the sake of a loved one, or a beloved community, might require sacrifice on our part. Jacob was no hero. For an entire life, his needs, his desires, his wishes, always superseded the needs, the desires and the wishes of his community. Jacob had learned to manipulate everyone, but God. And now it was night. Jacob had no place to run, no place to hide. Standing by the river, on the edge of his destiny, Jacob encountered a stranger.
Was it an angel? Was it God? Perhaps it was the deepest side of his psyche harboring all his doubts. Perhaps Jacob was attacked by an inner voice that said, “I am nothing, I am unworthy of my blessing, I am unworthy to continue the covenant established with my grandfather Abraham.” Perhaps Jacob engaged in a battle between the one destined to be a dreamer and the manipulative fugitive who was always prone to run away. After all it has often been said our truest victories are the ones we achieve over ourselves. Perhaps Jacob was forced to confront himself and found there was no place left to run.
As tempting as it would be to draw these conclusions, the text suggests Jacob encountered more than just his own psyche. We all know sometimes the choices between lawful or unlawful, or even between right and wrong, can be manipulated to serve our own purposes. Sometimes we must ask ourselves, what is Godly and what is ungodly? This conversation moves us beyond our conventional answers and challenges us to explore life as seen through the imagination of God. No where in Jacob’s limited psyche did he imagine that Esau might be waiting across the river with forgiveness in his heart. We constantly find ourselves limited in our choices by that narrow scope of what WE believe to be possible. Jacob had no idea what would happen when he encountered God. Few of us do. But for the first time in his life, Jacob did not run away.
Was he ready to repent? Was he hoping God would bail him out? Was he curious? Probably Jacob was all of the above. When our last resort is to be bold enough to wrestle with God, we are no different than Jacob. Tormented and confused, searching for a miracle, we stagger toward the river. Then, like Jacob, the miracle we discover is hardly what we expected.
What Jacob encountered was not a solution but rather a presence. Jacob went to the river and discovered God was already there waiting for him. Why should that surprise us? The covenant God made with Abraham, and Jacob, and us, was and still is, I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS.
Oh Jacob fought with God, for he had fought God all his life. But isn’t it better to fight God than to be without God.
Oh Jacob struggled with God, for he struggled with God from the beginning. But isn’t it better to struggle with God than be alone.
Beyond the battle, beyond the struggle, something Holy transpired. Jacob discovered the very essence of God. This dishonest man confronted Absolute Truth. This frightened man discovered a Holy Refuge. This insufferable man encountered an Unimaginable Love that never disappoints. Inspired by everything he had never been, the next morning Jacob crossed the river. But he did not cross it by himself.
God was with Jacob as God is always with us. That is what God does. God may not celebrate the decisions we make. But God does not desert us. Perhaps that is God’s greatest attribute. God, who we have come to know as is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and steadfast in love, is also the God of eternal presence. God is always there, always ready to listen, always ready to forgive, always ready to direct and always even ready to wrestle should it becomes necessary.
Therefore, like Jacob, we come to the river.
We come to cast our burdens upon the Lord.
We come to grasp what Jacob finally discovered.
God is with us, now and forevermore.