Alan Trinity 19 2004
Trinity 19 – Genesis 32.22-32; Luke 18.1-9 – Healing Service 17.10.04
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.
Apart from the odd wild party in my younger days, and some nights spent writing essays for a deadline when I was at University, my knowledge of the middle of the night derives from the time when our first child was born – need I say more.
As the years have gone on my acquaintance with the middle of the night has grown stronger and more varied. It is a strange world at 2 or 3am, silent and lonely. The things that might cause a moment’s passing anxiety in the daytime are magnified out of all proportion for me in the middle of the night. There have been a few, thankfully just a few, long nights spent waiting for a phone call about a sick relative. There have been a few nights disrupted by the office phone. There have been wakeful nights when ridiculous worries drift into the mind and refuse to drift out again, nagging away irrationally and unhelpfully. And there have been nights when real worries have kept me awake.
I doubt that my experience is much different from anyone else in the church today, and I know that my experience has been far easier than many peoples. The night can be a lonely and fearful time when everyone else is asleep and the normal rationality with which we can approach problems in the daytime deserts us and we are left floundering and troubled.
When we or those we love are unwell, the night can be either a blessed gift or a time of trial. It can sometimes bring restorative sleep that gives us the strength to face the challenges of the new day, a rest from anxiety or pain, or we can find ourselves cruelly denied the gift of sleep and subject to hours of wakefulness in the very pain or anxiety we’ve struggled with in the day. When it is the latter, the night just magnifies the challenges that illness brings. There is the sense of being alone. For many of us, it is hard to articulate how illness makes us feel, and healthy people are sometimes reluctant to listen anyway. Many of us offer a kind word but few are able to really listen and give the time for the true picture to come out so that loneliness and isolation can begin to be overcome. In most cases, sickness physically removes us from the company of others: we can’t go to work, we can’t go out or have friends round – but we also find ourselves emotionally isolated. At a time when we need more than any other to be understood and supported, we find ourselves stuck at a distance from people going about their normal lives. And the loneliness of the day is only magnified in the night.
Illness also brings with it the twin challenges of fear and uncertainty, and these are made worse in the small hours of the night. When our bodies are on the edge of sleep, our mental processes slow down and we’re not able to provide the counter arguments and balance that we can sometimes manage in the day. We often imagine the worst, going over the doctor’s balanced comments and hearing only the most pessimistic scenario, or worse still struggling to get out of our minds the dreadful words thrown up by Google when we did the now obligatory internet search of the condition we either know or imagine ourselves to have.
The night is often a time of trial during sickness. And I wonder in the context of our service this morning, do we find ourselves close to God in these night hours? The psalmist writes: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you”. Rationally we know that God is no less real in the darkness of the night, that God is no less present when we find ourselves laid low with illness, but how do we experience God in these moments?
Jacob encountered God in the night hours, and what a strange and troubling encounter it was. It is a story where the scene ripples with many of the classic elements of the night terrors from folk history. But it is also a story that wants to tell us something about God and the possibilities of our relationship with him.
Many layers of meaning could be unpeeled, if we had the time and the patience to work with this story. And everything about this story will challenge a too cosy picture of God or of our lives, if we are prepared to read it honestly and truthfully. But I want to try to tease out a couple of themes for us as we gather today to offer prayer for healing, as we reflect on the relationship between faith and illness, as we try to travel a little deeper into God’s sometimes mysterious ways even as we encounter them in the depths of the night.
If we read the story first of all from Jacob’s perspective, we find a man who is deeply compromised by his trickery in stealing his brother’s birthright; who has himself been the victim of trickery when he sought to acquire a wife and was passed off at first with her sister; who now approaches a reunion with his brother with a degree of fear and trembling. And on this cold and fearful night he wrestles with a man till dawn. He doesn’t know with whom he wrestles. It could be a thief or someone sent to murder him; it could be a river demon. Whoever his assailant is, Jacob wrestles and struggles through the night, not giving into fear, but patiently and bravely persisting, until his opponent’s identity is revealed. And it is in this moment that Jacob is given a new name, a name not just for him but for his whole people. He is to be called Israel, because he has striven with God and with humans, and prevailed.
Jacob and his nation are to be remembered as those who wrestled, who struggled, persisted and prevailed. And of course, Jacob’s story has a surprising twist, for his assailant turns out to be God. He teaches us therefore that when we wrestle with our demons, we may be surprised to discover ourselves in God’s presence, blessed by God. The people of God are to be a people who wrestle, who struggle, who persist. This is not a message that many of us want to hear, we would understandably prefer something easier and quicker, but in this story the message comes through that our relationship with God may not always be one of ease. Faith may well involve struggle, prayer may be an uphill climb, healing and wholeness may have to follow hard persistent effort as we wrestle with God. But there is in Jacob’s story the thought that when we wrestle with our demons we may find ourselves wonderfully surprised by God.
If we read the story from the other end, as it were, from the point of view of God, we find this strange incident fitting into a pattern that runs through the book of Genesis. There is a disturbing theme there of God at enmity with humanity. It’s there in the story of Noah and the ark, when God sends a flood to destroy the world and only a few survive. It’s there in the story of the Tower of Babel, when God ironically comes down to have a look at human ambition and scatters people, dividing them and making them weaker. It’s there in the shocking story of Abraham being led to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. And it’s there in the story of Jacob wrestling with a man who harms him.
Genesis is the story of God’s promise to his people to make them a great nation and to bless them. But as the story unfolds, the promise seems very fragile and vulnerable. At many turns it looks as though the story and the promise is going to come to an untimely end. God both gives the promise and then seems intent on taking it away. It is a gritty and painful story, but at each turn, the promise does endure. Genesis is no fairytale, it describes a harsh and painful world. In many ways, the gritty realism of the perilous journey of God’s promise in Genesis is not unlike the painful experience of illness, when we often feel that all that God has promised us is being taken away, is being lost,: and sometimes our struggle with illness can seem like a struggle with God himself. These strange stories in Genesis are so powerful because they enter into the fragility of life and the promise as we know it, but in the midst of this they offer us also the hope that God’s promise will endure. And sometimes that is the only hope we can find during illness: the pain and the awfulness may not go away easily, but the hope can persist, because God’s promise will endure.
Jacob’s story is one among many in the Bible, and whilst it is important that we listen to its particular message and recognise that it tells us truths about God and our lives that are not easy. We have also to set alongside this the fact that there are other stories where healing comes as a gift with little struggle, and these stories of joy also have a claim upon our lives. But the truth is that none of us can know at the start how our own particular story will unfold. We need to listen to the strange story of Jacob in the fearful night; Jacob who struggled, persisted and prevailed. We need to listen to the story of God’s promise that sometimes seems under threat even, paradoxically, from God himself, but always manages to endure.
Today we come to God to pray for healing: we enter into the struggle, the wrestling, not knowing how or when our prayers will be answered, but open to the possibility that when it feels as though we are locked in an endless struggle with impossible demons, the struggle may turn out to be a path to blessing, and we should be strengthened to hold on to the hope that ultimately, amidst all the confusion and mixed emotion of illness, God’s promise will endure. For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. Amen.