God in Lonely Places
Sometimes when I read a book, I try to imagine how a movie or television writer would
present this story. Sometimes when I read the Bible, I also try to imagine how a movie or
television writer would portray a Biblical character. My imagination was at work when I
was reading and thinking about the character Jacob a.k.a. Israel, back in the dawn of
written history, in the dawn of a new experience and understanding of the living presence
of the Ultimate, what we today know as God. I can imagine a visual presentation beginning
at the end, beginning at the end of the long life of Jacob the patriarch and man of God,
father of the twelve tribes of Israel, reflecting back on his life. How surprising it
would be to learn that this pious and reverent man was once renown not as holy and wise,
but as crafty and shrewd, a shameless manipulator who would, and did, cheat his own
brother out of his inheritance as leader of the tribe.
Jacob may be a character from the dusty pages of antiquity, but his character is as
modern as today's newspaper. Jacob was driven to succeed, and he did not seem to care whom
he had to hurt if he was to win. Jacob was like many people today who set their priorities
according to their needs, beginning with the necessities of life - air, food, water,
shelter, security. We know that all living creatures have survival needs for respiration,
ingestion, procreation, elimination, protection. We also know that mammals, including
human beings, have needs for affection and play. Pediatricians know that infants and
children can fail to thrive if only their basic physical needs are met, but their
emotional needs for affection are unfulfilled. In our time, society is also beginning to
realize that humans have spiritual needs and drives which are strong and insistent.
Current thought indicates that mind, emotions, body, and spirit are so interconnected that
each affects and is affected by the other, that the fulfillment of one dimension affects
the other and the poverty of one dimension diminishes the other.
The elder Jacob, pious man familiar with God, learned about God in ways that were not
easy. The young Jacob knew what he wanted and was willing to do almost anything to get
what he wanted. He cheated his brother out of their father's blessing, then fled the
country to save his skin from his brother's violent hands. We read the account in the Holy
Scriptures that Jacob was alone in the night during his flight, sleeping in the open, when
he had a dream of angels ascending and descending a great stairwell from earth to heaven.
In his dream, Jacob was aware of the presence of God who promised Jacob that God would be
with Jacob and that Jacob would return home, that the world would be blessed by Jacob's
descendants. When Jacob awoke, he felt awe that he was at the gateway to heaven and that
God was so near in that lonely place.
Jacob's awareness of the closeness of the spiritual dimension did not last long. As
with most of us, Jacob soon reverted to type. He went to distant relatives who were as
devious as he. For twenty years, Jacob and his relatives did what they could to outdo each
other in chicanery and deceit. The time finally came when Jacob knew that he had gained
all that he could from his distant relatives that he must leave and return home. By all
accounts, Jacob was successful. He had two wives, eleven children, servants, flocks and
herds. He had devoted his life to increasing the supply of that which would fulfill his
physical needs with wealth and the security that wealth can bring. With all that he had,
why did he still feel emptiness, insecurity, and longing? He had done all that he could
and it still was not enough. The closer he got to home, the less secure he felt. When he
heard that his brother, with four hundred men, was coming to greet him, he feared for his
life and those of his family.
Jacob now knew that all his wealth was worthless if he were dead or if his family were
in danger. He sent all he had ahead to give to his brother, hoping to placate his anger.
He sent his family ahead so that they would not be associated with him and his guilt. When
night fell, Jacob was alone on his return as he had been long ago when he fled. This time
Jacob did not dream in peaceful slumber. This time, Jacob remained awake and fearful.
It is at this point that we would expect certain things. We would expect Jacob alone in
this dark and lonely place to see himself as he is, to understand that he is not in
control, that he needs God. We would expect Jacob to pray for forgiveness. We would expect
Jacob to find God in prayer. This is not what happened. Jacob did not find God. Instead
God found Jacob, and not in a gentle way.
What happened to Jacob is a strange story. A man came and wrestled with Jacob
throughout the night. Jacob, a strong and powerful man, could not win, but he could hang
on, which was what the name "Jacob" meant - "one who hangs on." Jacob
hung on, even when the stranger struck Jacob and put his hip out of joint. Jacob hung on
and would not let go until he received a blessing, because Jacob understood that this
stranger was more than human. The blessing Jacob received was strange. The stranger
renamed Jacob "Israel" because he had struggled with God and with humans and had
prevailed, but the stranger would not tell Israel His name. Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, limped
as he left that place, that lonely place, which he named Peniel which means "the face
of God" because he had seen God face to face and yet lived.
This is no gentle story of coming to God. This is a story of God attacking the
unrepentant, of forcing Jacob to struggle in his loneliness, of forcing Jacob to
acknowledge his poverty and insecurity which mere wealth and possessions and success
cannot provide. God attacked Jacob, and Jacob changed. He limped as he left the struggle,
as he learned what is truly important.
The story of Jacob is uplifting and spiritual. Many people like it because it seems to
imply that we can do what we want, and God will then bless us, if we ignore the part where
Jacob gave up all he had first, and if we ignore the part that God was far from gentle
with Jacob who was scarred physically, emotionally, and spiritually for life. Many people
who consider themselves spiritual like this story because we can say that spiritual needs
are so important that we ignore the other needs of people as somehow unimportant. Then
Holy Scripture gives us another strange story, a story about Jesus.
Once upon a time, in the time of Jesus, there was King Herod, son of Herod the Great
who had built the temple and ordered the slaughter of children when the magi came to
proclaim they had seen the star of the one born "King of the Jews." This King
Herod was the one who married his brother's wife while his brother was still alive, who
imprisoned John the Baptist and ordered John's decapitation because, at a banquet, in
front of guests, he had promised Salome, his wife's daughter, anything she wanted, if she
would dance. Salome danced and asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
When Jesus heard of the death of John, he went to a lonely place to be by himself, but
the crowds followed. When Jesus landed on the shore, he saw a great crowd, had compassion
for them, and cured their sick. When evening came, the disciples worried that the people
had no food. They were surprised when Jesus told them to feed the people. There was
nothing but five loaves and two fish, which Jesus told them to bring to him. Then Jesus
ordered the crowds to sit. He broke the bread, gave them to the disciples who gave the
food to the crowds. There was enough for everyone and twelve baskets of leftovers.
Commentators note that there five thousand men, besides women and children, which meant
that about 10 per cent of the population of Israel was fed that day. The banquet of Jesus
was an ironic contrast to the banquet of Herod with rich food, dancing, and death. Herod
gave from wealth and gave death. Jesus gave from sharing and gave what was needed to that
remnant who sought something in Jesus they needed. As their ancestors had been fed manna
in the wilderness, they were fed by Jesus. As Jacob had met God in a lonely place, they
What are our needs? Where are our lonely places? Where do we meet God? Do the followers
of Jesus have what is needed to feed the hunger of the world, hunger of body, mind,
emotion, and spirit? Are all things possible with God through Jesus Christ?
We have a hymn today that may not be familiar. Charles Wesley, the brother of John
Wesley wrote "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown" based upon the Genesis story of
Jacob wrestling with the stranger at night. It was said that it was Charles Wesley's
greatest hymn. John and Charles Wesley, brothers and ministers, did not always get along.
Years might pass before they spoke to each other, but they always loved each other. Two
weeks after the death of Charles Wesley, John Wesley preached. The service included the
hymn "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown. The congregation was singing the first verse,
and got to the words, "My company before is gone, And I am left alone with
thee," when John Wesley broke into tears. The entire congregation wept with John
Wesley in his grief.
We have so much, but we are so alone in life. We have so many things, but we are poor
in spirit. Christ have mercy on us that we might be fed in body, mind, emotion, and
spirit. What is the answer to our needs? There is another verse to "Come, O Thou
Traveler Unknown" that I am sure that John Wesley and the congregation sang, a verse
that is not in our hymnal today. That verse says,
I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou Art, Jesus the feeble sinner's friend, Nor wilt thou the
night depart, But stay, and love me to the end, Thy mercies never shall remove, Thy
nature, and Thy name is Love.
We are not alone. We are followers of Jesus Christ who offers
us the bread and wine of his body and blood to feed our souls for life eternal.
We are called by Jesus to receive His gift of healing and wholeness, and then to
share what we have with all the world, to have compassion for the needs of the
world. Jesus calls us in our struggles with the world and with God, to receive
what we need. We are challenged, as we struggle with our sins and our souls, to
know that we are loved and chosen by God. We are challenged to hold on to God
with all our might, to be blessed and transformed by the love, grace, and mercy
of God through Jesus Christ. God is with us though the night until the dawn. If
you will accept the challenge and love of Christ, come and be fed. Come and know
that Christ is with us