He had not seen his brother in a long time. To be honest, I doubt either of them really regretted the time which had slipped away between them. When they parted it was not exactly on the best of terms. Jacob and his twin brother Esau had a relationship bound up in turmoil and adversity form the very beginning. There was betrayal and fear and stolen birthrights. No doubt there was envy and bitterness and a father’s heart which broke for his sons. But now there will be a reunion. On the shores of the Jabbok River, Jacob prepares his huge family to meet his brother again. He arranges the flocks and the cattle and the servants and his children and wives in a sort of grand procession that moves off into the domain of Esau. He offers him presents so he might find favor in his eyes and be received into communion again with his brother. So, as night falls, Jacob watches as all he has crosses the Jabbok, and he is left by himself. He is alone in the darkness, alone in the silence, alone with his thoughts and fears and worries about tomorrow.
He was not perfect. He was flawed, deeply so, but he did what he could do. He did his best. He was going to find some sort of resolution with his brother. Then the unexpected happens. The one thing he certainly never anticipated, never saw coming, happens. In the middle of the night he is brutally attacked. An unnamed, unannounced assailant launches upon him in the darkness. Imagine the fight. Imagine being alone in the middle of the night and you are suddenly fighting of your life. This is not some play fight or even an assailant you know, there is just hard fists and strong legs and unknown arms flinging you around like a rag doll. Jacob does not know what is going on. Is this Esau come to finish him off? Is this some other scoundrel who waited until all his household was away to finally kill him? All he knows is if he stops, if he gives up, he may never see his family again. This is it. This is the fight of his life.
Imagine how dirty that fight must have been. What sort of things would you do to save your own life? How would you fight to see you wife again or hold your children one more time? And yet, perhaps the most terrifying thing about this attack is the silence of the attacker. He does not say a word. Not only is there no word of warning, there is no word at all. Imagine how your mind would race as you gasp for breath, wondering who this silent assassin is and how you can defeat him and what is coming next? The silence is just as bad as the fight itself.
Now you may not be Jacob trying to reconnect with your long-lost brother and you may not be camping out on the fords of the Jabbok River, but you know what it is to be attacked. You know full well what suffering is, what it is like to be blindsided by life. Just think of the young girl whose father was absent most of her life. Or think of the father who hears the doctor say it is cancer and too advanced to do much about it. Or imagine the husband who watches as Alzheimer’s slowly steals the mind of his bride. Or consider the young college kid whose failures and temptations cause him to doubt this faith. Or the friend who loses a job and the fear of becoming homeless begins to become a reality. Or the plague of addiction which break bonds of love and devotion for short term fixes. Or the car accident as it changes all your plans and goals, the disillusionment with one’s job, or the depression robbing life of joy and comfort. How many of you have wondered if perhaps the cards are simply stacked against you, as the attacks seem to just come one after another?
And yet, through it all, the most terrifying thing is not the attack. It is not the suffering and trial. You think, perhaps you could handle it if only you knew why. If only you knew what you could do to make it better, to make it stop, to fix what is wrong. And you pray. Oh, you pray a lot as you cry out into the night for some relief, some reason, something to explain the insanity. And there you find the real terror. For there you are faced with silence. A silent attack that does not operate according to your ideas of what is fair and just and right. You pray and there is silence. You cry and there is silence. You groan and there is silence. You fight throughout the night against the silence of God.
As the day begins to break and the sun casts its dim light upon the scene on the shore of the Jabbok, the silent assailant sees Jacob is not going to stop. In a sort of telling moment as to who could have won this battle at any time, He reaches out His hand and touches the hip socket of Jacob. Immediately his hip is thrust out of joint, but still Jacob will not let go. Finally, He breaks His silence, “Let me go, for the day has broken” (Genesis 32:26). Jacob holds on until the silent attacker speaks, and in His speaking, we are told the shocking truth, the unthinkable reality of the situation starts to become clear. This is not Esau attacking him in the night. This is not some robber or homicidal maniac. No, the one who attacks him is God Himself. As the new day breaks Jacob knows who he has ahold of and he will not let go. Even as the burning pain shoots through his body he clings to Him in faith and says,
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The silent attacker is God. This is the same God who said to him, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15). And he holds on to receive what God has promised.
And you, like Jacob, have received the Word of God. He has called you by name. He has made His promises to you. In the waters of your baptism He has declared you are His. You are bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is His freely given gift to you and all the sin, fear and guilt that is yours He takes to Calvary’s cross. He has said to you over and again, “You are forgiven!” Life everlasting is yours in Christ alone. But the attacks come with the hard times, the suffering, confusion and fear. But the most terrifying of it all is the silence, the horrible silence when you cry out for relief or an answer or reason. When you want some justice for yourself, some sense in the world, it is the silence that will drive you mad.
All you have is all Jacob had. From him we find the way forward, the way to conquer the silence. You cling to Him, to His Word, to what He has already said about you. You defeat the God who attacks you in silence with the God speaking to you in His promise. This is what we do. This is what church is all about. We cannot do anything about the silent attacker. We do not know why suffering comes as it does. We cannot control the hardships and pain of life, but we run to what we have. We cling to what we know. We know a God who became flesh and dwelt among us. We know a God who calls you His own dear children as He washes and feeds and speaks His Word to you. He says to you, I love you, I forgive you, I will not abandon you to the terror of the night or the eternal silence. You are mine.
Then He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). The name “Israel” means to strive or wrestle or fight with God. So, Jacob triumphs in his faith and gets a new name and a blessing from God. But he does not make it through unscathed, does he? He walks with a limp for the rest of his life. A constant reminder of what it is to fight the silence.
And you, you bear the scars as well. You know the wounds of the silence, the terrors of the nights that leave their mark on your life. But this means you have a story to tell, not of a perfect life or some Pollyanna existence, but the story of Israel. You have the story of a faith that clings to a promise in the face of the silence. For you are Christians, heirs of eternal life, the children of God. You have striven with the silence and you have conquered.