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Sleepless Nights
a sermon based on Genesis 32:22-31
by Rev. Randy L. Quinn

How many of you are the oldest in your family?
How many of you are the youngest?
Now, how many of you are the "second-born"?

I am a first born child. As such, I "paved the way" for my younger brothers and sister. At times I was aware of that, but for the most part, I simply responded to the pressures my parents put on me.

Though I suspect my parents didn't realize what they were doing most of the time. Most of the time, they were simply facing issues for the first time and were trying their best to be good parents to me.

But whenever I did something right, my younger brothers benefited from it. And whenever I did something wrong, my younger brothers suffered.

As the oldest, I was always the one who "should know better;" but by the time my younger brothers and sister got to my age, my parents realized that kids don't always know things so they became more flexible and more lenient.

I'm not complaining. What I'm telling you is not only true it's a fairly common experience of those who are first-born children.

But I didn't realize some of the impact my life was having on my younger brothers until my brother Kelly wrote a paper a few years ago.

I was one of those fortunate students in school who learned quickly and did well on tests. I never had to study, but I graduated 8th in my High School class of 288. The only grades I had that were not "A's" were in Physical Education a subject I'm still not very good at J.

My brother, however, worked hard to get his grades. In college I predicted that his efforts in High School would pay off because he had learned to study. And sure enough, my college grades were much lower than what I had "earned" in High School while Kelly was always on the Dean's List in college.

In my Dad's family, I was the first person to ever graduate from college.
Kelly was the second.

I was the first person to ever receive a Master's degree.
Kelly was the second.

And while he was working on his Master's degree, he wrote a paper. In it he talked about the competition he had felt all his life competing with me. He wanted the attention I got as the first born. He wanted the responsibility that was thrust on me as the eldest. He was envious of my position as the oldest child and had worked hard to prove he was worthy of it.

I had no idea.

Now, I have to tell you that my brother was the first to get married. He has the first grandchildren. And in our family, he earns the highest salary more than the others combined, in fact. He has done well and he knows it. But in his heart, he still finds himself competing with me in a battle that he can never win because he was not born first.

His story reminds me of Jacob's story. Jacob wanted to be the first born. He wanted the blessings that came with that position in the family. He competed with his brother and eventually gained his desire and then ran in fear.

Our text today takes place years later. Depending upon how you read it, it was either 15 or 20 years later. In those intervening years, Jacob has done well for himself. He has a large family now. He has many, many possessions.

And he wants to impress his brother as well as appease him.

The last time he had seen Esau, Jacob had just stolen the blessing his father had intended for Esau. Understandably, Esau was furious. He threatened to take Jacob's life as soon as his parents were dead (Gen 27:41).

Now, it seems, their parents are gone and their reunion will resolve their competition with each other, a battle that will either end in death or bring reconciliation.

Jacob doesn't know what to expect. If anything, he is expecting a major battle to ensue when he hears that Esau has 400 men with him (Gen 32:6).

So in his usual fashion, he comes up with a scheme to gain the upper hand. First he sends gifts to his brother (Gen 32:13-20). Then he divides his family, thinking that should Esau attack, there will be time to save some of his family by retreating (Gen 32:7-8).

But along with scheming, Jacob does something he's never done before. He prays (Gen 32:9).

God had appeared to him before several times, in fact.
And God had made promises to him before.
But this is the first time Jacob seeks God.
This is the first time Jacob prays.

And as I alluded to last week, that prayer will change his life. Hereafter in the story, God has a new title a title that says less about God than it does about Jacob, who is now known as Israel.

No longer is this the God of Abraham; no longer is this the God of Abraham and Isaac; God henceforth becomes the God of Israel, or more commonly, "the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob".

But God has not changed. Jacob has. Jacob now realizes that he cannot rely upon his own strength and his own planning and his own wit. Jacob must rely upon God and the promises of God.

Our text says that on the night before Jacob met Esau, Jacob spent the entire night wrestling (Gen 32:24). Some have suggested that he wrestled with himself. Some have suggested that he wrestled with God or an angel of God. Some have suggested he wrestled with Esau.

It isn't clear who this wrestler was. Jacob's wrestling partner is never named. What is clear is that Jacob arises in the morning dramatically changed. It's as if his new name has taken hold of him and begun to shape the way he sees the world.

Rather than seeing his limp as a sign of weakness, Jacob/Israel sees it as a reminder of God's strength. And in the confidence of God's strength, he goes to face his brother (Gen 33:3).

Jacob no longer fears his brother Esau. Even if Esau should have a sudden change of heart and destroy Jacob and his entire caravan, Jacob is willing to trust God. He knows that God will triumph, or in Hebrew, "Isra El."

Jacob trusts God to triumph and lives into his new name, "Israel."

Paul suggests that Israel is a name that we have inherited, too (see Gal 6:16 and Eph 3:6). For we have witnessed God's triumph in the resurrection.

But God's triumph does not mean there is no need to pray. Nor does it mean there will be no more sleepless nights. Even Jesus spends a sleepless night or two in prayer.

Some of us learned how to pray early in our lives. Our parents taught us how to pray.
Some of us saw our parents praying and knew about prayer before we learned how to pray on our own.
Some of us never knew about prayer until we faced our own "dark night of the soul."

But anyone who has spent much time in prayer has come to the realization that prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us.

Like Jacob, we realize that God seeks us first. God chooses us. God makes promises to us. When we pray, it's simply a matter of entering into dialog with the One who has great things in store for us, the One who will triumph in us and through us.

And as Jacob learned at the river on that sleepless night, it really doesn't matter if we aren't the first-born. For with God, we have all become heirs of the promise and joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17).

Thanks be to God.