THE DAY YOU DON’T WANT TO WAKE UP TO
How do we live with ourselves when time stands still before a day we dread?
It’s said that time is a healer, but it can also mess with your head. Waiting for some outcomes can be unbearable: test results, exam grades, driving tests, job interviews, hospital operations, funeral services. Sometimes it for an encounter with a person you have fallen out with: the meeting has a fixed point, but you would rather hold it now, not tomorrow. The clock’s second hand seems to be stuck on its face. How on earth do we cope with this stretching of time?
Jacob and Esau were two of history’s most famous twins. Esau was ‘a skilful hunter, a man of the field’. Jacob was ‘a quiet man, living in tents’. Long before Hollywood’s conveyor belt of high school comedy dramas, the staple of the jock and the nerd had been established. Jacob was slippery, deceitful, irritating, clever. He outwitted his hapless, compulsive brother by cheating him first of his familial birthright and then of the paternal blessing. The latter was egregious. Thought and planning, aided by the mother who preferred Jacob, went into the stealing of a blessing that was rightfully Esau’s. If Esau had been impetuous in losing his birthright, he was utterly stitched up by Jacob’s crude impersonation of him.
Alerted to the plan of Esau to murder his brother after their father’s impending death, Jacob stole away to his uncle’s land a long way from danger. While there, he was subject to his own chicanery by Laban, who tricked him into marrying his older daughter, the sibling of the woman Jacob had fallen in love with. Jacob learned patience through this and also new skill in shepherding herds. The growth of his family and his flock presented a threat to Laban and it became clear to Jacob that he needed to return home. Where Esau lived.
Ever the calculating operator, Jacob sent emissaries ahead of him, showing how wealthy he had become; currying favour. The unwitting messengers were dispensable. If Esau were still furious, he would vent his anger on Jacob’s entourage first; they would die but Jacob would be warned. Having survived their encounter with Esau, the messengers came back with the terse response: ‘we came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men with him’. Perhaps Esau was being intentionally obtuse, keeping Jacob guessing as to his mood. Being willing to meet him but bringing a mob; coming to the peace conference with an armed battalion. Perhaps the messengers were retaliating against Jacob for treating them like cannon fodder; keeping Esau’s true intentions secret. Either way, the effect was devastating on Jacob, who was convinced his life was coming to an end.
This is the context for one of scripture’s strangest stories: the wrestling match between Jacob and an undisclosed ‘man’ in the dead of night. This has been interpreted many ways. Clearly, it is to be understood as an encounter with God in some way. The idea of wrestling in prayer finds its origins here and Jacob’s persistence in seeking the blessing sets a gold standard for perseverance with God. It also seems to mark a turning point in his spiritual journey, which to this point had been less than glorious. But can we ever presume to understand a story as odd as this, shared so long ago in a culture beyond our reach?
It feels, all the same, there is something here for the person who doesn’t want to get out of bed when they remember on waking what lies before them. Those who face an awkward encounter, perhaps made worse because of personal culpability. We may not experience Jacob’s wrestling match, but we toss and turn in bed, the covers twisted and hot; our minds restlessly dipping in and out of consciousness, eyes unable to resist sight of the gently ticking clock. Anguished, we forget God is there and wrestle only with ourselves.
The next day, Jacob, having prepared his people for an attack in a way which favoured those he loved the most, finally showed some courage and familial leadership by advancing alone on Esau. The terseness of Genesis at this point, as ever, is haunting and poignant: ‘But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept’.
The future rarely unfolds in the ways we expect; in the manner that torments us days before. With good reason Jesus encouraged his followers to think about the day in front of them and not to over-think the future or inhabit it before it arrives. If we must turn one way and then another in bed the night before the day we’d rather not do, we should remember God is with us to bless us as surely as he did Jacob.
In our anxiety and preoccupation we tend to forget one crucial element. God spends the night with the other person too. And with him, all things are possible.
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