“The Nightlife of God”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
July 20, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
You may have been taught to think of night as the time God turns in and devils come out to play. But what if, when the sun sets, God is only getting started? You may have said your prayers and tucked your activity in for the night, but God, as the Psalmist declares, neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Generally speaking, we imagine a God who keeps company with the light. After all, creation began with those life-stirring words, “Let there be light,” and Christ is known as the light of the world. But in Psalm 121, there is a surprising twist in the language where God is called the shade at your right hand, so that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. In other words, God is the darkness that covers you and protects you from the glare of day. Many of us have suffered a sunburn, but who has ever been beat up by the moonlight? Yet here in the imagination of the Psalmist, even moon is a threat and God is shade, shadow, blanket, shield.
Barbara Brown Taylor is the one who alerted me to the rather obvious fact that Jacob’s dream “was not something that could have happened in the middle of the day.” God came to him in the night.
I wonder if night was the one time of day when Jacob stopped scheming. Jacob, the conniver, the grasper, was rarely still. The glare of his plans were too overpowering for Jacob to see much beyond his own designs.
But in the night, he was stilled. In the night, work stopped and so did the frantic scurry to control. In the night, there wasn’t much else he could do.
Have you ever noticed how big losses and tragedies slow life down? How in the aftermath of some terrible thing, the small stuff that keeps us so busy suddenly seems unimportant and the trivial worries that occupy our energy suddenly fade. When a thick darkness settles down upon our lives, this blindness, ironically, can offer some perspective.
Like Jacob’s dream in the night, we see the world in a new way when we’re in the dark.
For Jacob, it was not only past sunset in the literal sense. It was also a dark season of life. Though he’d finally gotten what he wanted—his father’s blessing and his brother’s birthright—these coveted things came at a high cost, deceiving his father and losing relationship with his brother.
And now here he is, fleeing for his life, blessing and birthright doing him no good. Instead of basking in luxurious inheritance, he is sleeping with his head on a stone, wondering how it all went so very wrong.
And then, on a night absolutely ripe for nightmares, he dreams of angels. And for the very first time in Jacob’s life that we know about, he encounters God.
What kind of shock was that? After all the work and conniving he’d done to try and watch out for himself and his future, God shows up and lets him know that he is already being cared for. God says, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” On waking, Jacob says, “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it.”
“Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it.” This has been the startling realization of people waking up from dark nights throughout human history, and those surprising words may find their way to our own lips from time to time, probably when we least expect to say them.
We might call this event Jacob’s conversion, but that is likely too strong a word for it. After all, though God makes this remarkable appearance full of promise, Jacob hardly ceases being a schemer. His whole life looks like a battle for control. After the dream, he meets his con artist match in Uncle Laban. After his uncle tricks him into years of labor to marry his youngest daughter, next, the two of them try to outsmart one another in a quest for the best sheep, and Jacob concocts an elaborate sort of selective breeding system to ensure he gets the strong livestock for himself. When Jacob leaves Laban’s household, the Bible says, “Jacob deceived Laban in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee.” Then Jacob returns home, and he plans his return just so, with staggered gifts to Esau leading the way, in effort to appease Esau’s anger. Jacob is doggedly concerned for his own wellbeing and doesn’t consider it beneath him to scam his family. Then when it comes to his sons, he cares for one over the others. He seems to have passed his ways onto all his sons, for his favoritism of Joseph drives the other sons to hate Joseph and they react by deceiving Jacob and selling Joseph into slavery behind Jacob’s back. Jacob’s propensity to control people and relationships plagues him all his life, and we are left wondering if he ever learned to let go and trust.
I think of Jacob in his old age, how one of the final events of his life is when his long lost son, Joseph, is returned to him. This has to be one of the greatest moments in Jacob’s life, and the whole thing is sheer gift. Jacob, who presumed his son to be dead, did nothing—nothing at all—to make this reunion happen. Did it take this man all his life to learn that God was watching out for him, with or without Jacob’s striving?
Interestingly, today’s ladder dream isn’t the only time in Jacob’s story that there is a nighttime encounter with God. It is on his return journey home to Esau that the famous wrestling scene occurs. A man struggles with Jacob ‘til daybreak, Jacob demanding a blessing. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he bargains. The mystery man indeed blesses him and says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” And Jacob walked away with a limp, for he had been struck on the hip.
Jacob’s new name, Israel, meant “one who strives,” and Israel became, not just the name of this man, but the name of God’s people, which seems noteworthy to me. I’ve always viewed this story positively, because I have certainly argued with God in my lifetime, and so I am always pleased to read in Scripture that humans fight with God and live. This is comforting, to know that wrestling with the divine incurs no wrath.
But I find myself wondering, what if Jacob hadn’t wrestled? I mean, we don’t know what sparked the brawl. The text simply reports, “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Given Jacob’s history, and the fact that on this particular night he is fearful that his brother will meet up with him and kill him and his family, I can envision this strange man showing up unexpectedly in the darkness and Jacob reacting in fear. A preemptive strike, if you will. Attack before you can be attacked. At what point in the struggle Jacob began to sense that this was more than just a man he was wrestling, we do not know, but something clued him in, and he held on even tighter.
I am curious: what would have happened, if, instead of attacking, ole Jacob had merely said, “Here. Have a cigar,” then pulled up a rock for the man to sit on? What if they had talked through the night, instead of wrestling? Would Jacob have gotten his blessing that way? He certainly would have preserved his hip. And given what we know of God, the blessing would have stayed intact too.
It seems to me that what we witness in Jacob’s life is that even despite all our controlling, grasping, manipulating ways, God does not leave us, smite us, or shun us. I am glad about that.
But. Could it be that all our controlling, grasping, and manipulating really isn’t necessary? And that trust is a bit like being able to run limp-free through life? We don’t seem to know it very often, do we? That God is with us. That God will keep us, wherever we go. Too much of the time, we worry and fret and plan and strategize and direct and organize. Fight for our rights and our blessings, do battle, do work, do, strive, power through.
And then, night happens; that is to say, things fall apart. Our efforts backfire, our ambitions get thwarted, our ideas don’t quite work the way we envisioned. It may seem like all is lost, like you are lost, like you will spend a life of sleepless nights with stones for pillows.
And this, this is where things have the chance to get most interesting. Anne Lamott tells a story about a friend of the Dalai Lama who said that “they believe when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born—and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.”
Here is what can happen when you least expect it: The darkness turns out to be God shading you. The dark—your cocoon before the wings dawn. The dark—the death of your exhausting schemes. The dark—your reentry into trust. The dark—God at work in you and around you.
Welcome. Welcome to the nightlife of God, where unexpected things happen under dancing stars. You can embrace it or wrestle with it, but either way, God will not leave you. Surely, God is in this place, even when you did not know it. Amen.