Sermon from Sunday 16 October

Wrestling with God


Reading(s): Genesis 32 v22-31 and Luke 18 v1-8. This sermon was given by Vanessa Lawrence at St Mark’s and All Saints.

‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always, and not lose heart’ That is your take home message of the day!! Especially the bit about not losing heart!! Pray always, don’t lose heart. In every circumstance, in every situation. This is our core work as Christians, this is what is at the heart of our identity. It’s what needs to be radiating out from each and every one of us, that sense of being connected to, and knowing that we are loved by, the God who hears our prayers and is connected intimately to our lives, our needs, our desires.

I wonder where you are with your prayers and your connection with God? How can I help you to make that connection stronger and more real? I am always very very happy to do that with you on an individual basis, or to point you in the direction of people outside the Benefice who can do that too, if that would be helpful. What activities would you like as a benefice that might help you to know that you are loved and guided by God?

Our reading from Genesis today is one of my most beloved of bible passages (I think I say that quite a lot, but it is great!!) Jacob wrestles with the angel, or with God – it’s a very mysterious passage and we don’t really entirely know what is going on, I think that’s why I like it! – and ends up marked, and limping, but blessed. This, I know, may not encourage you to leap into your own prayerful encounters with God, but bear with me!!

So, let’s think about what’s going on for Jacob. At the beginning of Genesis 32, Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by four hundred men. Jacob’s response is to panic, because he assumes Esau is coming to attack him. The subsequent verses narrate Jacob’s prayer to God for deliverance, and his plans of how to minimize the damage. Our text begins with Jacob sending his wives and children across the river Jabbok, the river’s name, Jabbok, plays on the name Jacob, and is related to the word “wrestle”.

Genesis 32:25 starts with the emphasis on Jacob’s solitude, and it is while Jacob is alone, in the night, at the ford of the Jabbok that a yet unidentified man wrestles with him. There is very little detail given to any specifics about the wrestling match except for its length; it lasts until the dawn is about to break. At that time, Jacob’s wrestling partner sees that he is not able to prevail, and responds with a physical blow to Jacob’s thigh or hip, requesting the wrestling stops as dawn is about to break. Jacob knows that he is in the presence of the divine, and refuses to let go until he is blessed.

The blessing, though, does not immediately happen. Instead, the two of them have a conversation about names. In 32:27, we read, “And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he answered, ‘Jacob.'” Jacob’s name has varyingly been translated as “heel/trickster/supplanter” and so in this conversation, Jacob must articulate this name, with all its connotations, to God. Jacob comes before God in authenticity, with all his faults and issues. God sees us, and knows us by name.

But God replies by doing two things: 1) identifying himself as the wrestling partner, and 2) by giving Jacob a new name, he renames him Israel, meaning ‘struggles with God’ or ‘wrestled with God’ . But this is not the final action: the last part of the passage reports that God blessed Jacob.

The last we see of Jacob in this pericope, he names the place Peniel (“the face of God”) to represent his face-to-face encounter with God, and he limps away into the sunrise because of his hip. Genesis 33 recounts the meeting between Jacob and Esau. Before Jacob wrestled with God, he feared the encounter with his brother. But it proves to be a gracious one, and Jacob goes so far as to tell Esau, “I see your face as seeing the face of God”. His struggles with God have changed Jacob. It hasn’t been easy – God is no Father Christmas in the sky type figure – but Jacob has grown, developed as a person and in his understanding of God.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus focuses on a widow dealing with a judge in a corrupt justice system. Luke twice tells us that the judge in this tale is someone who neither fears God nor respects people. Regardless, the widow repeatedly comes to the judge in pursuit of justice. For those familiar with Jewish Scripture, the judge’s lack of action is especially appalling. In biblical texts, widows are counted among the most destitute of society.

Jesus offers a few concluding comments that touch on the character of God and the nature of faith. He uses the judge’s words as a jumping off point to speak about God’s own deliverance of justice, which God dispenses to those “who cry out to him day and night”. God is in fact not like this reluctantly responsive judge. God does not need to be badgered into listening, and when God does respond, God does so willingly. If anything, God is more like the widow in her own relentless commitment to justice.

The widow, though, also demonstrates how we are to be oriented toward God - we are to act like the widow. We are not to wait quietly for Jesus’ return and accept our fates in an oppression-ridden world. We are instead to resist injustice with the resolve and constancy of the widow. Prayer is not a passive activity but one that actively seeks God and pursues God’s will. Like the widow, we are to persevere in the faith, crying out to God day and night. This is what persistent prayer looks like, wrestling daily with the God who loves us. Being prepared to be changed, marked and blessed through the persistence of our prayer.