Today’s readings – Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Wrestling and limping
Let’s begin by thinking of someone who has taught you about God, or about following Christ – say a wee prayer of thanks – and all say together the first verse of the Timothy reading ‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it’
Jacob – wrestles with God, and won’t let go – even when his hip is broken.
St Paul says to Timothy – Continue– be persistent – endure suffering –
Jesus says, do not lose heart – pray always
Stick in – don’t give up – sort of thing really successful people on Desert Island Discs say. This seems like pretty unoriginal homespun advice…But then we could say that of love – of forgiveness – of tolerance – of reconciliation – of peacemaking…
The universality of these principles for life does nothing to diminish weight of wisdom that heaven itself is characterised by them. If these qualities flow from the created order – if they are representative of the kingdom of heaven, then it is hardly surprising that they ring true for peoples of all sorts of traditions and cultures and eras – there’s a universality about them. Equally, of course, these sort of values are absent from many human cultures and systems and societies (including our own) – as we are reminded every day – and that is when they seem all the more important (ie this week’s reports of Syrian snipers targeting pregnant women?).
I’m not sure why I find myself musing on the nature of endurance, of disappointment, and of perseverance this past two weeks… perhaps it’s just the lectionary’s fault.. Or perhaps it’s a word some of us are needing to hear just now. Regardless of whether there’s any truth in that, there’s surely a profundity about the wisdom of aspiring to a spirituality that addresses navigating the ‘realities of real life’.
Perseverance is certainly an identifiable and intentional strand within the Judaeo-Christian tradition of spirituality. As we’ve heard read today, it’s in the stories of the Hebrews, it’s in Jesus’ teaching, it’s in the epistles to the first Christian communities. It is a faith tradition forged in the fires of opposition, of persecution, of occupations, of martyrdom, of assimilations and integration with other cultures and societies.
For most people, getting through a day, or a week or a year is about all the perseverance they can muster. Working in full time jobs, raising children and being involved in church and/or social life or activities fills all of their time. Perseverance is not limited to manoeuvring through crises or disaster, but enduring the day-after-day faithfulness to get up and do what is needed, regardless of obstacles.
What is the key characteristic of the ‘perseverer’….. ?
Not just ‘sticking around’ – but expecting to be involved in a struggle. Lots of the migrating swallows don’t make it…. A pattern we observe widely in the natural world…. the stuff of life. This is not an especially appealing message – particularly to the modern mind. What we want as a culture is convenience, and ease of use and disposability (‘if it’s not working, then ditch it’). A thoughtful commitment to follow Christ is going to mean being involved in a struggle… counting the cost…. Take up your cross…. Don’t look back….
Jesus’ listeners probably understood that the judge in the parable was an corrupt official – an paid magistrate appointed either by Herod or the Romans, who were notorious – unless a plaintiff had influence and money to bribe the judge, there was no hope – they were popularly called ‘robber judges’. Obviously the widow is a symbol for all who are poor and defenceless in the face of injustice. She is, on the face of it, a no-hoper – whose only resource if persistence.
The Apostle Paul also serves as a superstar example of perseverance – who is this man who is giving advice to the younger Timothy about continuing and persisting in the faith. Paul’s ministry, from his unique conversion to his tragic execution spanned about 30 years. During that time he took three missionary journeys. He covered about 14,000 miles, mostly on foot. In two years and three months, under the ministry of Paul, all Asia Minor heard the word of the Lord Jesus, according to Acts 19:8-10. Throughout his travels Paul was constantly dealing with obstacles.
2 Corinthians 11:24-27 describes in vivid detail the hardships that Paul endured: “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” In addition to all of this, Paul always had in mind a concern for all of the churches and the people he had won to the Lord.
If the great stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are ‘types’ or ‘templates’ for the foundational truths of human life and society – then what of this compelling story about Jacob’s wrestling match? What foundational truth might echo from that across the millennia and across cultures and history – to us here now in this place?
Barbara Brown Taylor writes splendidly about this story. She talks about how we the church don’t like the idea of wrestling… Our faith is meant to make sense of the world and of our lives, after all – not complicate it? Aren’t we here to celebrate our salvation – saved from chaos, from sin – our lives restored to wholeness and purposefulness? Yes, but it’s not that simple… The stories of God’s people that we read, week after week, are habitually troubling…
So many of the great stories of scripture describe people in total chaos and scared out of their wits… Elijah trembling under his broom tree asking God to take his life – or Mary listening to the angel Gabriel telling her what she was about to experience – or Paul thunderstruck by the light and lying blinded on the Damascus road. Perhaps because we know how these sort of stories turn out we tend to overlook the struggle – or the blind terror of the wrestling involved to get there.
Our instinct, of course, is to journey through this life – being saved by gradual degrees – so we can see where we’re going. No-one in their right mind wants to be laid low by illness, or attacked, or wounded or frightened. And yet, many will testify that this is sometimes how the presence and blessing of God comes. Sometimes in the middle of the night – the desperate wrestling can be the answer to all our prayers.
You’ll maybe remember that Jacob is a bad lot – he’s poached his brother’s birthright, conspired with his mother against his father and torn the family apart, fled with the stolen goods – 20 years later is still terrified of his brother and starts a journey back home in fear and trepidation and camping along the way has this experience of an all-night wrestling match with someone he identifies as God – and stretched to his very limit he knows that he must not let go until he has received God’s blessing. The mystery wrestler asks Jacob what his name is… and if you know the story of Jacob you’ll know he was asked that question by his blind father and he lied and said he was Esau (that’s how he stole the inheritance) – so now Jacob is different – he says his name is Jacob and immediately that name falls away from him like a discarded skin. Now his name is Israel – which means, the survivor, the ‘striver with God’, one who struggles with God, or who perseveres with God. And we cannot fail to notice the eye-watering detail in the story about the intensity of the struggle being such that his hip-cracks (let’s all meditate for a moment and imagine that … no, let’s not). And as Jacob moves on, he limps…. How much more realistic could this story about the nature of life be about life’s realities.
God gave Jacob what he needed instead of what he wanted… everything necessary for his life – which turned out to be foundational for the story of God’s people.
Probably we can all think of examples of times in our lives when we’ve wrestled with our circumstances/family/relationships, wrestled with our consciences, wrestled with our self-esteem, wrestled with our fears, wrestled with our addictions. Perhaps that’s a dominant part of our experience right now. If ever we find ourselves wrestling in our lives, we might try and remember that if the Lord is with us, that doesn’t mean that it won’t be scary and that it won’t hurt. We need to hang on with everything we can muster, even if it does hurt. Like Jacob and like the widow in Jesus’ parable we should insist on God’s blessing, and not let go until we’ve got it… and then be able to thank God, and, if needs be, limp home.