Wrestling with God.
First Reading Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm Psalm 121
Second Reading 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Gospel Luke 18:1-8
"The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore." In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In an easy reading of today’s gospel, we might sum up the lesson in the first line ... “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” We might stop the sermon here, finish our worship early, and beat the Baptists to the buffet. But on our journey to seek and serve Christ, to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and to assimilate and appropriate scripture, tradition, and reason, when has it ever been easy?
Jesus tells a story of a widow seeking justice. We do not know exactly what she seeks, but she is persistent. She finds herself in a world where being woman and widow places her at the bottom of the social order. Still, every day she asks for justice, shouts for justice, demands justice, and will not be silent. Every day the judge ignores her. She nags and badgers. She is relentless.
I remember being very young, and riding in the grocery cart. I recall praying a prayer, of sorts. I prayed to the ultimate authority in my life who provided comfort, guidance, security, and nourishment ... my Mom. Often in the sacred cathedral of sugary delights known as the cereal aisle, my prayer went something like this, “Can I have it? Can I have it? Can I have it?” I confess that more than once, when a head was turned, I dropped a box of Lucky Charms into the overloaded cart of weekly groceries. Sometimes I was caught, and the holy grail was returned to the shelf. A little further down the aisle, at another moment of opportune distraction, Captain Crunch would find his way into our cart. At the check out, the result of my persistent, pilfering prayer was often discovered, and in a moment of gastric grace, Mom would say, “Ok, we can get it this time.” My prayers were answered.
Shall we pester God? Shall we barrage God with our please’s and thank you’s until we get what we want? Is this the lesson in today’s gospel?
Prayer is not simply filling out a requisition form and expecting God to fill the order. Our prayer life cannot be reduced to an economy of exchange, quid pro quo, this for that. Some would like to believe if we pray hard enough, do all the things we are taught to be good Christians, God will give us what we want. If we don’t get what we want, just badger God a little more and God will give in. Our prayers are not to be calculated as answered or unanswered pleas, but are our participation in the coming reign of God.
We are invited in prayer to a deep, meaningful, authentic relationship with God. It is not always easy. As preacher Fred Craddock puts it, "All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry." As the old rabbinical saying goes, “If you have not shaken your fist at God, you don’t really know God.” Sometimes our deepest prayer is simply laying our lives at God’s feet, expressing our ultimate dependence on our Creator. Anglican Theologian Edward Keble Talbot offers, "Prayer is just clinging to God with one hand when the other has failed; if both have failed then somehow, clinging on by the eyelids; like a cat which clings on to you and if you detach one claw there is always another claw and then another." Sometimes persistent prayer feels like a wrestling match.
Jacob knows something about wrestling with God. Jacob finds himself toe to toe with the Divine. An earlier encounter with God in a dream confirms Jacob's status as the chosen patriarch. In the story of Jacob's ladder, God promises covenant, presence, purpose, and protection. In response, Jacob vows one-tenth of all his blessings to God ... Subliminal plug for our stewardship campaign. The making of covenants, promises, and vows is the easy part; living into and up to them is the challenge.
The current encounter is in the middle of the night, like last time, but this is no dream. Jacob finds himself alone, and is abruptly assaulted by an unknown. Then scripture describes what can only be imagined as a WWE smackdown title fight. Jacob and this mysterious foe wrestle until almost daybreak. It seems Jacob cannot defeat this mystery man, yet remains in the fight even as he is severely wounded in the hip. We don't really know who won. Whoever this divine being is, it seems he has a curfew, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." Jacob refuses to let go until the mystery being gives him a blessing. Jacob must have a hint that he is not battling an ordinary man, perhaps an angel or messenger of God, or God himself.
We must assume the divine being knows who he is wrestling. Jacob asks, "what is your name?" No name is given. Jacob will have to continue wrestling with this. But he is given a blessing. Jacob receives the new name "Israel". We get a sense Jacob knows the name of the one who blessed him. After the encounter he names the place "Peniel/Penuel" which means "face of God" and explains, "for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." Through this dangerous rite of passage, Jacob becomes the symbolic ancestor of God's people Israel, bearing their name. Jacob also becomes a symbol, epitomizing the relationship of the people Israel who continually strive with God and others, survive, and prevail. The sun rose on Israel, a new dawn, a new day, with new blessing and purpose from this encounter ... new life.
We strive with God to grow in the knowledge and love of our Creator, especially in the many, infinite things we do not understand. We strive with God to discern purpose, gather faith, and seek blessings. We strive with God in faith and hope in God's promises, knowing that we just might come away with a limp. We strive and survive with God, and are blessed by our persistence.
We continue to pray and discern, not because we are "good Christians", or because we possess a great and strong faith, or because it is what God requires of us, but because the Spirit gives us the courage to do so, to pray without ceasing in a broken and fearful world. We regularly pray for "thy kingdom come" but live in a world between Christ's first coming and the second. Prayer in this interim is hard work. It takes persistence, patience, and consistency.
Paul encourages us all as he encourages Timothy. “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” You have been equipped for every good work. Proclaim the message. Be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. “Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” All of this while praying, discerning, striving, and wrestling with God.
When Jesus challenges us, "Listen to the Unjust Judge," he does not suggest to be like him, or that God is like him. The Unjust Judge finally does what is right, this time, perhaps only because he enjoys the quiet life and cannot tolerate the widow's pestering. But what will he do next time?
By grace, God is not the Unjust Judge. God is not a judge who gives in, but one who has compassion, grants mercy, and gives grace. The widow pesters the Judge because he is not listening. We pray to God constantly because God is listening! God's love is persistent and just, even when we may not understand. We are called to strive with God in persistent prayer and authentic relationship, discerning to whom we belong and who we are called to be, and responding with action.
Count on God to come down on the side of justice. Count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. Count on God to hear those who have nowhere else to turn. Count on God not always to grant our requests, but to hear, with loving patience, the persistent prayers of our hearts. Amen.