Wrestling with God: A sermon on Luke 18:1-8 and Genesis 32:22-31

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

The theme of today’s scripture readings seems to be about the nature of contending with God.

Just how we relate to God, just how God goes about caring for God’s people.

I would be the first to tell you that sometimes, in this life, it honestly feels as though many of our prayers go unanswered.

And I wonder sometimes, just if God is actually doing on behalf of God’s people in the world?

The problematic nature of Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge, i

s that it seems to suggest that if we bug God enough with prayer…

God will grant justice.

And the problem with that is, when we don’t see God’s justice in the world,

then we take it to mean that we didn’t pray enough, or in the right way.

And so, we’re in a double bind.

We find ourselves to be both disappointing to God and disappointed in God.

Ultimately, I believe that today’s parable of Jesus is not meant to make us lose heart.

Rather the opposite.

In fact, today’s gospel actually says this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

I think today’s parable is encouraging us and lifting up to us the daily practice of prayer,

of engaging with and contending with God, for both reasons…

…so that we ourselves feel closer to God, and so that God’s justice becomes more tangibly seen and felt in this world.

Or, as one biblical scholar puts it, the point of today’s parable is not just that we should pray more,

but instead it is about recognizing that prayer brings about God’s justice on earth.

The widow is commended not solely because she persistently bothers the judge enough to get the justice she deserves, but…

instead, the widow is commended because she understands that the act of asking,

the putting herself out there, the standing before the judge asking for justice…

…has the power to create change.

Which is not to say that the change of God’s justice happens in the way, or when we want it to.

The poignancy of today’s gospel, in fact, is that Jesus shares this parable with his disciples while he is on his way to Jerusalem.

Where Jesus will be ultimately be betrayed by his friends, sentenced to die, and tortured to death on a cross.

Even after telling his disciples this parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart.

In just four chapters, Jesus himself will pray a prayer to God that will go unanswered…

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

One wonders if Jesus told this parable for his own benefit, as well as for that of his disciples.

One wonders if, praying to a silent God in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus might have lose some heart in that moment.

But it would seem as though he doesn’t because Jesus says instead “yet, not my will but yours be done.”

And of course, even though the cup is not removed from Jesus in the way perhaps, that he wishes…

God is working in the midst of it to bring about life, not death, resurrection, not destruction.

And Jesus knows this about God, which is why Jesus prays in the first place.

It is a both/and.

It is praying for God’s future work, and also praying about our daily longing for God’s justice.

Which is really what contending with God is really about.

Talking with God, praying to God, as a way of both trusting in and asking God to do God’s work in the world.

What I love about today’s first reading from Genesis, is that God is actually completely willing to do this.

God voluntarily engages with God’s people, when God’s people contend with God.

Jacob it seems, doesn’t even ask God to show up God just does.

God shows up and wrestles with Jacob.

God, it seems, is perfectly willing to have us wrestle with God in bringing about God’s work in the world.

Whether through prayer, or a longing for God’s justice.

And our contending with God, our asking, our wrestling with God doesn’t drive God away or make us unfaithful people.

Rather, it would seem, it is an act of faith that helps us to see better the face of God in our lives.

And if you don’t believe me, look at Jacob.

Jacob is about as unfaithful a person as you could get.

If you don’t know the history of Jacob up to the point in today’s story, let me fill you in.

Jacob basically steals his inheritance from his twin brother Esau.

And Jacob does this by tricking and manipulating his ailing and dying father Isaac.

Fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban.

Laban welcomes Jacob, letting Jacob work for him,

and Jacob ends up marrying two of Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and also two of their maids.

But then Jacob tricks and manipulates Laban, prospering at Laban’s expense, and when things start to get tense…

Jacob sneaks away in the middle of the night taking his flocks and family with him.

As if that isn’t cowardly enough, Jacob then decides to return home.

But nearing home, Jacob receives news that his brother Esau is waiting on the other side of the river, with an army of 400 men.

And Jacob is so frightened by this that he actually sends his entire family,

his wives and children and all his possessions across the river into his brother’s territory…

and leaves them there, hoping that his brother will have mercy on them.

He basically uses his family as a bribe, as a way of protecting himself.

And it is at this moment, when Jacob is nervously waiting by himself on the other side of the river, that God shows up.

So many of Jacob’s problems are of his own making.

He is in the situation he’s in through his own selfish manipulation and trickery…

…and yet none of that stops God from showing up at Jacob’s hour of need.

Whether or not we consider ourselves to be faithful people, doesn’t make God any less willing to engage with us.

It is the act of engagement itself that is the most important.

And for Jacob, it’s a wrestling match.

It’s a struggle, an actual physical struggle, for Jacob to engage with God, and yet God is perfectly willing to do it.

And the fact that Jacob engages with God at all, despite his own unfaithfulness, despite the fact that it is a struggle for him…

…the result, it seems, is that Jacob sees God face to face.

Jacob contends with God, and Jacob is, in the end, blessed by the encounter.

He has a new name, no longer Jacob, but Israel.

Israel’s striving with God, leaves Israel blessed.

And in the end, Israel’s brother Esau welcomes him with open arms, with tears of joy and great rejoicing, and Israel’s sins are forgiven.

It is the act of contending with God that both blesses us and, it seems, the world.

Not always, perhaps in the way that we want.

Israel himself, after all, bears some physical scars from his encounter with God, walking with a limp from where his hip is put out of joint.

Gods work, it seems, benefits not always just us, but all of God’s people and sometimes we bear some scars along the way.

But contending with God does, it seems, leave us with a taste of God’s justice,

with seeing God a little closer, a little more face to face.

And wrestling with God, engaging with God, persisting in prayer, however we do it, is an act of faith.

That shows us a little more who God is, and that God is working in the lives of God’s people.

Bringing about God’s justice in the world.