Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Wrestling with God" October 17, 2010

“Wrestling with God”

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Gen 32:22-31
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."

But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

The man asked him, "What is your name?"

"Jacob," he answered.

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."

But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' "

And Jesus said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for God’s chosen ones, who cry out to God day and night? Will the Holy One keep putting them off? I tell you, God will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Human One comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

Will you pray with me? Holy One, you are always ready to listen to our prayers; remind us that “no” is an answer, and that your wisdom is beyond our knowledge. Bless our seeking and our prayers—in the name of our saviour, Jesus the Christ.

Prayer. So many books have been written about it, so many courses and workshops and retreats held, so many Bible studies and discussions…but it all boils down to two things Jesus said, One, of course, is the prayer he taught us, often called the Lord’s prayer. The other is this parable, which repeats themes found in some of his other discussions of prayer.

But let’s take a look at it. Parables are stories with a point; the characters in them aren’t always exact parallels or symbols, but may often be the opposite of what we expect—for example, the “good Samaritan” was a startling story for the disciples because the Samaritans were enemies of the Jewish people. It’s true of this parable too.

As with most parables, there are several ways to interpret this story. Whom do the judge and widow represent? Is the judge like God, whom we, symbolized by the widow, beg for mercy until, tired of our begging, God gives in? Or is the point that God is so much more willing to give us mercy than the judge, that if even that unjust judge decided to give in, how much more quickly will our loving God give us justice?
That’s the most common interpretation.

There’s another way of looking at it, though. What if we are the judge and God is the widow? God is begging us for justice—not because God needs it, but because our human sisters and brothers need it. We—in the general sense of “human beings”—often don’t seem to fear God or care about people. And yet God continues to reach out to us, asking us to deal justly with other people.

Remember Jonah? God called him to go to Nineveh, and Jonah didn’t want to go, judging the people of Nineveh as too addicted to their evil ways, and unable to change. Jonah tried to hide from God’s call. The book of Jonah says Jonah ran to Tarshish, which is in exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh. Jonah didn’t get away, though—God sent a storm, which threatened the ship Jonah was in, and so the sailors threw Jonah overboard, at his request. He was swallowed by “Leviathan,” whatever that was—some kind of huge sea creature, often translated as “whale.” And three days later, Jonah came to shore—near Nineveh. Grudgingly he went there and preached repentance—and the Ninevites proved him wrong by repenting. That still wasn’t enough for Jonah, who then complained to God about them repenting!

Jonah was asked to deal justly with the people of Nineveh by God and he refused and refused, until, exhausted by his trials, he finally gave in and did as God asked.

Paul too, resisted acting justly. He was a central figure in the persecution of the early Christians, ferreting them out and hunting them down; even standing by while Stephen, the first deacon, was stoned to death. But God kept calling and calling, begging Paul to do justice—until finally Paul listened to God, and answered God’s call to justice and mercy. Paul became one of the foremost disciples, even though he never met Jesus on earth, travelling all over the eastern Mediterranean, establishing churches and encouraging ones that were already begun.

Do we run away from God’s call for justice?

Jacob, now—he is the Trickster character in the Hebrew Bible, always up to something, tricking his brother Esau out of Esau’s birthright, tricking his father-in-law out of livestock…but this time, he is out-tricked.

Jacob wrestles with—someone—all night long, and in the morning, although lamed, he is given a new name, Israel, meaning, “God Strives.” We don’t know for certain that Jacob is wrestling with God, but that is the implication from that name and from the fact that no noun—like “person,” or “angel,” is used in the Hebrew, which doesn’t need a noun like English does. In Hebrew, the passage says that Jacob wrestled “with one,” all night. Notice that Jacob doesn’t actually defeat the person he wrestles with—the being—probably God—confers a blessing on Jacob, but it’s not forced or demanded, it is freely given. And God gives him a reminder of the struggle, too—that limp that Jacob will carry forever

But we’ve come back to the judge and the widow, haven’t we? Jacob, now Israel, struggles with God—just as Paul did, and Jonah—and like some of us.

Are you wrestling with God?

Jesus wants his followers to respond to God’s call, to do the justice God requires of God’s people. Jesus reminds us that God will do whatever it takes to evoke that response from us—send us to te ends of the earth, have a ginormous fish swallow us, knock us off our—donkeys—even wrestle with us all night long. But in the end, God will prevail.

How is your faith?

I wonder how those miners in Chile felt, when they realized they were trapped. Where was their faith? I know I would find it very difficult—I tend to a bit of claustrophobia! But they managed to hang on—and I have to believe their faith—whether in God or something else—had something to do with that. As Christians, our faith is in God—isn’t it?

John Wesley used to ask, “How is it with your soul?” I would ask you the same thing—“how is it with your soul this lovely morning in mid-October, 2010?” Are you willing to give in to God’s importuning? God has something to say to you—listen to God through your prayers, open our heart and spirit to God’s voice, open the eyes and ears of your heart, your faith, and do God’s will—justice, love, mercy, righteousness, lovingkindness, God’s shalom, God’s wholeness, intended for all God’s people.

In the many names of the one true God, amen.

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