Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29 C
Texts: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18:1-8
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When was the last time you did what Jacob did, spent a whole night wrestling with God?
Jacob was utterly alone. On his way to meet his brother Esau after twenty years of estrangement, having fled due to Esau’s death threats for stealing his birthright and inheritance, Jacob fears what tomorrow will bring. Esau has 400 men with him. For all Jacob knows, Esau plans to kill him the next day. Jacob has sent his family across the river, wives, concubines, children.
So this night he’s alone. And he meets a stranger who wrestles him until sunup, gives him a new name, “God-struggler,” and a limp. The text never identifies the mysterious opponent. But after this encounter, Jacob says in wonder, “I have seen God face-to-face.” Jacob, who struggled with everyone, spent the night trading moves with the God of his father and grandfather.
Maybe some here know Jacob’s struggle. But judging by how we tend to talk about prayer, we’ve domesticated the experience to a shadow of what Jacob knew. We endlessly discuss God answering prayer, as if prayer was some kind of ordering service like Amazon. We box prayer into specific times and places – at meals, first thing in the morning, last thing at night – and go on our way. But we don’t often hear people describe their prayer life as all-night wrestling matches with God.
Jesus has words of comfort today for those who do live into their relationship with God in a vigorous, constant, persistent way. If prayer is only our mild, carefully proscribed version, Jesus’ words won’t help much.
Also, when was the last time we took Psalm 121’s words about God seriously?
Have we stopped believing God actually cares about this world, means to participate in the life of this world, will keep us all from evil? We don’t often talk with each other as if we believe this.
Have we not only domesticated our prayer, but also domesticated God? Christians can talk about mission for hours without considering or naming God’s investment in it. I’ve been in conversation with pastors about issues of peace and justice and wondered whether we had confidence that God not only sought the same justice and peace but would strengthen and bless us in this work.
Apart from our prayers of intercession each Eucharist, in which we actually do call upon God for healing, intervention, strength for many people and many situations, do we sometimes shy away from asking God for help ourselves? Do we fear God might not want to help? Rather than struggling with God, do we back away and keep our prayers to ourselves?
Well, what if we emulated Jacob, and took heart from Jesus?
We might find joy in wrestling with God even as we took God’s promises to care for us seriously. We’d bring anything and everything to God in prayer, trusting in God’s unsleeping love our psalm sang about, and willing to stay in that conversation, struggling with God for understanding and hope.
Jacob reminds us wrestling requires two participants. When our prayer life is only us talking to God, we’re not there yet. In a wrestling prayer life we persistently struggle with God and God struggles with us, and both are changed, each learning the other’s heart and need.
A wrestling prayer life also means wrestling with God’s Word. Keeping at this gift God has given, digging, probing, reading, contemplating, wrestling with the words and with God in prayer to understand what God is trying to say. We learn things when we wrestle, we hear God’s voice. It might take all night, it might take years, but in that struggle we, too, see God face-to-face.
A wrestling prayer life means wrestling with each other, learning from our life together about God. When we struggle with each other’s pain, with the deep questions our world raises, with God’s involvement in our world, together we find greater insight than we could by ourselves. And a stronger faith.
And a wrestling prayer life means wrestling with ourselves, when God says things counter to what we want. It means struggling with our tendency to be self-centered. It means wrestling with the reality of our sin and willingly facing that struggle rather than ignoring it.
Such wrestling prayer helps us understand God and ourselves.
It’s astonishing that God wants such a relationship. That God gives us the invitation to pray, to struggle. That God meets us on the riverbank. The joy is that this gift teaches us so much.
When we struggle with God in prayer we learn that God does hear the cries of this world for justice and peace. That God hears all cries for help. That God is constantly working in this world for good. But we also learn God wants us to deal with this world. Ever since the first command in the first Garden, God has said, “this is your job to do.”
This isn’t arbitrary or capricious. The more we struggle with God the more we learn this is the only way we can become who God means us to be. We need to deal with the unjust judges of the world, with the unjust systems, with our unjust neighbors, with our own unjustness, because it’s our job to do so. We’re meant to deal with all that makes this world broken and evil and unsafe. We’re designed to care for this world for God.
That’s what God needs from us. To help us become fully human.
Much of the Word of God we heard throughout the summer could easily take us to guilt and anxiety. But God doesn’t mean to teach us to feel guilty for not doing enough, guilty for not serving and loving as we are called to do.
We learn through persistent wrestling with God that God means us to grow through struggle. If we are to become fully human, God can’t learn our lessons for us, take our conflicts for us, magically solve all our problems for us. Imagine a parent of a baby praying, “God, you take care of this child for me and raise it.” Or someone at a job saying, “God, you do this work for me.” Only by trying, working, doing, will we grow and become the people God made us to be. We see this in Jesus, who easily could’ve avoided all he faced, but modeled true humanity in becoming fully human, facing struggle, even to the point of death.
Wrestling with God in prayer helps us grow and learn about God and ourselves. Struggling to live faithfully in this world changes us, too. It’s how God created us.
But over all this remember: Jesus’ words are so we “do not lose heart.”
That’s why he told a parable of persistent, wrestling prayer. Because it can be discouraging to realize that prayer isn’t about getting easy answers or everything we order up, it can be frustrating to seek understanding from God and know it might take years.
But remember Jacob. As the sun rose, he still faced uncertainty and danger. He didn’t know if he’d survive the day. It turns out Esau welcomed him in love, but at dawn Jacob didn’t know anything would change. But he knew he’d met God face-to-face. He’d learned from God and taught God, and he was different. He had a new name, and he was more than he was before. And he knew he wasn’t alone.
You see, the joy is in the wrestling, because we are with God. We’re not alone by the side of the river, afraid, wondering. We’re with the Triune God who loves us enough to die for us, and the more we wrestle, the more that love enfolds us. When we’re wrestling with God, we’re never alone.
So we do not lose heart. We rise in the breaking dawn and rejoice that we have a new name from God, “Child of God,” “beloved,” and we face the day knowing whose we are and who will always be with us, in all our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.
In the name of Jesus. Amen