The audio for this sermon is available here.
Jacob was on the run, and with good reason. Even from the very moment of his birth, Jacob had lived up to the meaning of his name as a leg-grabbing trickster born grasping at the heel of his twin-brother, Esau. Genesis 32 begins with Jacob receiving the news that Esau is coming to meet him. This news strikes panic in the soul of Jacob, and rightfully so, Jacob and Esau had been fighting since the womb. Jacob had swindled Esau out of his birth-right as the firstborn and stole the familial blessing meant for Esau from his blind and dying father. The last time they saw each other, Esau promised to kill Jacob. So, Jacob panics. He assumes that Esau is coming to kill him and steal his rather significant wealth. So Jacob splits his camp into two parts and sends a gift of two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys to his brother. His final task of the day is to get his wives, his maidservants, his children and all of his possessions to safety; so he fords the Jabbok until he alone is left. You can imagine how tired Jacob must be; physically, emotionally, spiritually; he has endured quite a lot. Just as he begins to rest for the night, a man comes and wrestles with him. Is it Esau? Is it his father, Isaac, back from the dead? Is it his father-in-law, Laban, who he had also duped over the years? The wrestling goes on hour after hour. When it is obvious to the stranger that he is not going to prevail again Jacob he strikes Jacob's hip, dislocating it, but Jacob continues to fight. As the sun begins to rise, the stranger pleads with Jacob, “let me go, for the day is breaking” less for his own sake, but more for Jacob's. If Jacob saw the face of God, he would surely perish. But Jacob, still looking to get ahead in life, holds on for one more blessing. What a night, and he still has to face his brother Esau. But with a new day coming a new identity and now Jacob, the trickster, is Israel, the one who struggled with God, and though limping, he carries with him the blessing of YHWH himself.
I think most of us can relate to Jacob's situation. Sometimes, life feels like an all night wrestling match. You are already exhausted, weak from the trials and tribulations already endured, and just when it looks like you might have a chance to rest, something else comes knocking. Maybe life has felt this way for you recently. It certainly hasn't been a bowl of cherries in my three-and-a-half-years in Foley. Between Keith and I, we've performed 39 funerals in this parish since June 2007. As a nation, we have endured stock market volatility, a double-dip recession, and increasing political polarization. We've watched as our friends have struggled to find jobs. We've seen our neighbors' homes foreclosed on in record numbers. And, just when it felt like things might be getting better, just as the weather turned beautiful in April, we were struck in the hip socket and asked to endure an historically ridiculous oil spill that closed our regions' main revenue source for more than 50 days as oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for almost 100. It has been a long, long night, and at times it has felt like the sun was never going to rise, but the story of God's interaction with human history tells us again and again that God's plan is perfect, his will is peace, and his blessing is available. And honestly, at this point we might as well hold on and demand a blessing.
Maybe Jacob's story is too far-fetched for you. Think then of the problems faced by Luke's Church. As a whole the people were reaching the end of their ropes. Almost two generations had passed since Jesus had walked the earth. His return, once thought to be imminent, now seemed like something that wouldn't happen in a hundred lifetimes. Following the Great Fire in Rome in the year 64, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the great catastrophe and years of persecution followed. All around the Roman Empire, Christians were being brought up on false charges, tortured, and killed. Followers of Jesus were growing weary of the constant assault, the hiding, and the fear. And so, as Luke brings the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to its end, he reminds his readers (and I have to think he is reminding himself as well) of the need to pray always and not lose heart. “Hang on, my brothers and sisters,” Luke essentially says, “because at this point we might as well demand a blessing.”
So Luke conveys a parable that Jesus told. There once was a judge, an unjust judge, one who cared little about God and even less about his fellow human beings. A widow had a dispute with her neighbor and she kept coming to him and asking, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” It was the law that a judge should give precedent to orphans first and widows second, but we can assume that his courtroom was not so filled with orphans demanding justice that he didn't have time to hear the case of this poor widow. Instead, we assume that Jesus' introduction is apt, this guy didn't care about God or people or anything else for that matter. For a while the judge refused to listen to the widow's pleas. Until, of course, she got obnoxious and hit him were it counts; his reputation. She showed up in court everyday, crying out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She met him outside his home as he grabbed the morning paper, crying out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She bought her bread each morning from the same bakery at the same time he was grabbing a cup of coffee and a scone, and cried out “give me justice! Give me justice.” She was always on the treadmill right next to him at the gym yelling louder than his ipod could go, “give me justice! Give me justice.” She was everywhere. She was a pest. The judge began to think to himself, “I have no fear of God and I care not one iota about my fellow human beings, but she is wearing me out, her constant barrage of complaining is giving me a black eye, I'm being publicly humiliated, I might as well give her what she wants.” The widow wrestled and wrestled and wrestled until, finally the sun began to rise and God gave her a blessing.
She had faith that justice would prevail in spite of ridiculous odds to the contrary. And so Jesus ends the story by asking a not so obvious question, “when the son of man returns will he find faith on the earth?” Will he find people crying out for justice in the face of insurmountable odds? Will he find men and women who have hung on for dear life in the hope that the sun will once again rise, that blessings will come in the morning? Will he find faith?
Faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Will he find it? Jacob had faith. He held on for the blessing that he hoped for. The widow had faith. She persisted for justice, convinced that it would eventually be granted. What about us? In our time of trial do we hold out hope? Do we trust in God? Or do we turn to our own devices and walk away from the one who promises restoration and redemption for all his people? Are we ready, willing, and able to wrestle through the darkest night for the blessing that comes in the morning? Perhaps we could learn a thing or two about faith from the story that has held the headlines for the past two months.
It is rare for good news to make the news these days, so it was amazing to see CNN step away from its cable news counterparts and do the right thing. While MSNBC and Fox News continued to try to out yell each other while spouting nonsense about the painfully divisive upcoming mid-term elections, CNN took 24 hours to tell the great story of rescue for 33 miners trapped two-thousand feet below the surface of the earth for sixty-nine days. It was beautiful. 33 men literally coming from darkness to light. One of the men, Mario Sepulveda, in an interview just hours after his rescue told reporters, “I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won.” He said he grabbed God by the hand and never doubted that they would be rescued. Bolstered by the prayers of the world, and grounded by the daily prayers organized by their foreman, those 33 men survived 69 nights worth of wrestling and the very worst the devil had to throw at them based on their faith in God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
There are times when life will feel really dark. Times when it feels like you can't take another body blow. Times when it feels like God is a million miles away. In the midst of those darkest hours, remember, my brothers and sisters, that wrestling with God is an act of faith; one that says, “I know a blessing is coming, and I'm not letting go until I get it.” So hold on to the faith, for the darkness will end, the shadow will pass by, and God's gifts of grace, peace, and love will come soon enough. Amen.