A little while ago I read an article that tried to put some of the recent discoveries in quantum astrophysics into terms simple enough for lay people to understand. Actually, I can’t say it absolutely succeeded – I was left baffled but at the same time astounded and intrigued. The dry scientific language at one point went off the rails altogether, as the author noted with an exclamation mark: ‘Physics has turned into metaphysics!’ – the equally arcane branch of philosophy and theology that deals with the problem of existence.
The gist of it, though, is this – that the nothingness of empty space is not nothingness at all – the absolute emptiness of deep space, in which even inter-stellar dust clouds consist of at most one or two molecules per cubic kilometre, is not empty at all, but as physicist John Wheeler describes it, ‘the seat of the most violent physics’, a froth of activity in which particles and anti-particles continually pop into and out of existence. Empty space, in other words, crackles with activity, constantly generating the stuff of existence – nothingness paradoxically turns out to be pregnant with somethingness, the raw processes of primal creation happening literally in the last place you’d expect, in the darkness and void of empty space. This, perhaps, has something to do with that other hard concept astrophysicists try not very successfully to explain to the rest of us – the phenomenon of ‘dark matter’, theoretical matter and energy that must exist – in fact must make up 83% of the mass of the entire universe – in order to account for the gravitational and electrical and nuclear forces that glue the observable universe together. Dark matter seems to be everywhere and yet it can’t be seen or felt or measured, just – like the five-sixths of an iceberg that lurks under the surface of the ocean – surrounding us like a shadow creation upon which the visible, measurable part of the physical universe depends for its existence and within which the violent processes of creation continue to churn.
It seems a good metaphor for that other subterranean process of creation that I’ve been talking about over the last few weeks, the shadow side of our own selves - the unacknowledged and unfamiliar depths of our own selves, and the inexplicably tangled profusion of light and dark that makes up our own inner motivations. The good that we do in spite of ourselves, and the evil that all too often grows out of the fertile soil of our best intentions. Perhaps the shadow side of human nature is like the quantum vacuum of creation, that place of apparent emptiness where we struggle for coherence and integrity and where, I have been suggesting, God’s grace and holy spirit is most at work within us.
Jacob, today, brings us back to reality with a jolt. The parables of Jesus that we have been reading over the last few weeks have reminded us in a profound way that God works not just through the wholesome parts of human nature but also through the unwholesome aspects, that God is at work in the weeds as well as the wheat. And right alongside, we’ve been reading through the cycle of stories from the Old Testament that tell how God makes a covenant with a family that becomes a nation, these mythic-sounding stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob which, like the ancient mythology of Greece, describe human personality almost in depth-psychological terms, warts and all, the dangerous desires, the loves and the lies and the compromises of being human. And the Jacob saga has been reminding us, just like Jesus’ stories, that God works in the shadows of human life just as much as in the light, that God blesses ratbags and that God’s blessings come to fruition in and around the conniving of cheats. This, you might think, is an idea that is both disturbing and comforting. God’s blessings, it seems, aren’t dependent on whether we deserve them, and sometimes they don’t come in the way we think they should.
So, here’s the story to date. Jacob – whose name means ‘heel catcher’ – the one who takes what belongs to his brother Esau by trickery and who defrauds his father into giving him the inheritance rights and the blessing that should have belonged to his older brother – Jacob is on the run out of town and has a dream in which God appears to him and makes him a remarkable promise. The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to be the God of Jacob too, even though strictly it isn’t fair. And doesn’t Jacob know it. Jacob’s long stopover in Haran with his cunning uncle Laban must have rubbed it in. What goes around, comes around. The branch of the family that stayed in the old country turns out to be just as sharp and conniving as the immigrant branch in Canaan, and here Jacob finds himself on the receiving end for a while. Only for a while, because ultimately Jacob turns out to be the better conman, and at the end of 20 years skips town under slightly forced circumstances to head back home with more wives, concubines, livestock and children than he could ever have dreamed of. He’s finally arrived, Jacob is now a nomadic lord in his own right.
But Canaan is where Esau lives. Going home means running the risk that Esau would still like to get even for that original con that Jacob had been trying to put out of his mind these last 20 years. And as he gets nearer, Jacob sends out his spies who report back, Esau is coming to meet you with 400 men, in other words, with a military force. The old Jacob rises to meet the challenge, first dividing his own caravan into two so if Esau attacks one group the other might get away. Then he starts sending presents, small groups of slaves with sheep, goats, camels, all up over 500 animals, and he instructs the slaves to say, ‘oh, just another small gift from Jacob’. Like Puss in Boots sending the powerful king another small present from the Marquis of Carabas. With any luck, Esau is going to think Jacob is a whole lot more powerful and well-connected than he really is.
But then comes the moment in the middle of the night, when Jacob is all alone. Even the women and children have been sent across the river towards Esau and an uncertain reception, but for some reason Jacob stays behind by himself. Could it be that he is afraid? At any rate, he is clearly dreading the encounter with his brother, and he is preparing himself for the worst. Have you ever had a night like that, when all your chickens have come home to roost? Jacob can’t stop thinking about what he did all those years ago – and then, the narrator tells us, a man came to him and fought with him all night. A matter of fact report, we only gradually become aware that it is God himself who struggles against him. Is it supposed to be metaphoric, just a symbolic way of saying Jacob is having a sleepless night? I don’t think so, I think the story is telling us something real, that God is with us at the lowest point, but also that when we struggle, when in the dark places of our own soul we struggle against ourselves we are struggling with the God who takes our struggles seriously, the God who risks something in the outcome of our struggles. But God never wrestles without a purpose, and for Jacob – as it usually is for us - the issue of the wrestling is his shame, his guilt and his fear. In her book, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister sees Jacob’s struggle as a symbol of the spiritual struggle we all have to endure to become who God intends us to be. We all need to endure change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability and exhaustion. We all need to struggle in order to be transformed.
It’s a struggle which, remarkably, God can’t seem to win, even though God’s human opponent is wounded and will always afterwards walk with a limp. You can’t struggle with God and expect to come out unscathed. Jacob, who seems to have superhuman strength, can’t get the better of God, and surprisingly, God can’t get the better of Jacob either. Jacob the heel catcher is good at hanging on, and insists on a blessing before he lets go. Wouldn’t you think he’s had enough blessings already? But according to Joan Chittister, Jacob is doing here what all of us have to do to become whole. Jacob knows the blessing he needs, because in wrestling with the one who gave him life he has confronted the dark side of his own success, and the blessing God gives him is a new name – Jacob the heel catcher becomes Israel, the one who contends with God.
This new Jacob is physically crippled, but he’s finally grown up. He’s no longer damaged. That’s something you’ll never hear in churches that preach the gospel of prosperity. That the wounds you get in life are what heal you, or as St Paul puts it, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’. The place where you are broken is the place where you are in contact with God. That part of your life that maybe only you know about, that old failure you’ve spent years overcompensating for, that addiction you can’t shake, that old grief you can’t forget – turns out to be where you go to wrestle with God. What maybe you always thought of as a barren and empty corner of your life turns out to be a place of blessing, the place of deepest creativity and healing. Where you are wounded is where you go to find the blessing that only you can give.
Like you and like me, this new Jacob limps. But he’s learned how to live with the past. He’s learned how to live with uncertainty, with ambiguity, with fear and with hope. When morning comes he limps across the river to meet his brother.