That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. (Genesis 32:22-24)
When Jacob lies down, sleep eludes him. Behind him is the father-in-law he has cheated and fled. Before him stands the brother he has cheated and fled. His life is about to catch up with him. But when he ran from home years ago there was a moment, as he laid his head down upon a rock, he dreamt he lay at the gate of heaven: angels ascending and descending a great staircase.
In that holy and sacred place, where heaven touched earth, where the agents of the divine traveled to and fro to carry out God’s holy and mysterious purposes on earth – in that holy and sacred place God had spoken to him.
God had promised him a future. God had promised him this land. As it had been promised to his father Isaac and his father’s father Abraham, it had been promised also to him. So, now, when he has nowhere else to go, he heads back to the land of this promise.
His brother waits for him there. The brother he cheated out of that promise. The brother who had sworn to kill him. The brother who was bigger, stronger, tougher, than he was. The man who smelled of the earth. The hunter who brought his father wild game. He had fooled his nearly blind father by wearing this brother’s clothing and covering his arms with wool. The wooly brother rides towards him even now with four hundred armed men.
Jacob has no future going home; he has only God’s promise.
And as he lies there on the banks of the river Jabbok, he is attacked by some spirit. He wrestles through the night. Struggles with past and present and the awful truth of his life. Struggles with fear and guilt. Struggles with God.
It is something of a hero story: Jacob, our father, who wrestled with God and nearly won. It is also a story of the wounds we all carry; we are all limping. But it is above all a narrative of the journey to faith: the journey that ends and begins in that place where we have only the promise of God. Where we are at the end of our wisdom and strength, when we cannot fix all that has gone wrong. When we no longer have any illusions about our cleverness and power. When we recognize we have no right to the promise. When there is no hope but God’s mercy. But the promise stands, and so we dare to get up and cross the stream and go forward.
When we walk up the aisle on Sunday morning, when we slide out of our pews and limp up the aisle towards that eternal mercy embodied in the bread and wine, we are walking Jacob’s journey. Going forward on faith alone, trusting the promise that I, even I, am invited to God’s table. I, even I, have a share in the eternal banquet. I, even I, am granted a foretaste of the feast to come. I, even I, am given Christ and all his gifts. Once again we are at the river Jabbok.
We are Jacob, limping towards the promised land.