Sunday, October 16, 2016

Oct 16, 2016 - Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

When was the last time you prayed? Well, a couple of minutes ago, I guess. What I mean is, when was the last you really, earnestly prayed? For some of you, it might have been last night when you went to bed, or this morning when you got up. Or maybe it was when you were driving to church this morning along the Deerfoot and someone tried to change lanes into you, and you sent up a quick, “Oh, God, don’t let him hit me!” (Who drives like that on Sunday morning??) For some of you, maybe it’s been years since you’ve really, truly prayed. And I’m not here to judge that, because I’ve been there, too.

My real question, though, is when was the last time you yelled at God? Or even argued with God? When was the last time your prayer was a striving, a wrestling, a struggling with God where you said, “You know, God, this is what I want. Not that. And you’re not making it happen, and I’m angry with you!” When was the last time you flat-out challenged God because you didn’t like the way things were changing, or not changing?

It may seem scandalous that I’m even suggesting this. The idea that we should argue with God is certainly not one that is dominant in our tradition. If I suggest to you that this is something we might consider doing, you may think I am contradicting our second reading from 2 Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed ... for the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.” After all, doesn’t the church teach that we should be obedient to God, and faithful in all things, and not question the decisions of God or complain about what God has given us in life? If God has given us challenges in life, who are we to demand something different? We have been raised in the church to believe that being faithful means being obedient and submitting to God’s will. Obedience has been associated with righteousness, submission with salvation, and bowing our heads results in God blessing us. Disobedience has been associated with sinfulness, self-determination with turning our back on God, and of course, if we turn away from God, then God may very well turn away from us.

And yet. Just because something has been the tradition, doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing things. Because when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible actually tells us something different. That is, the Bible tells us more than one thing. Yes, it tells us to be obedient - we have Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that not his will but God’s be done, and we have Abraham’s immediate obedience to God to leave the land of his ancestors and travel to Israel - but the Bible also gives us other stories. And these are the stories we hear today. 

First, we hear the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling the “man.” Right off the bat, I need to tell you that the English translation we have is misleading. Our English translation says that Jacob wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. But the original Hebrew says ish. Ish is a word that doesn’t have a direct English translation - it is something like a being, and in the Bible, ish most often refers to some kind of divine being - a representative of God. The word that translates most directly to “man” is a’dam, which is what God created on the sixth day of Creation, and where we get the name Adam from. And Jacob is most definitely not wrestling an a’dam. He is not wrestling another human being like us, he is wrestling an ish. A divine being - something that is alternately an angel of God, a representative of God, and God’s own self. Which means that it is more accurate to say that Jacob is not wrestling with a man, Jacob is wrestling with God. And more to the point, Jacob is winning. The ish says, “Let me go,” and Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob wrestles with God until he receives God’s blessings. Just imagine that! Imagine the audacity of saying to God, I will not let you go, I will not stop wrestling with you, struggling with you, yelling at you until you bless me! We might expect God to strike Jacob dead, but instead, God blesses him. God blesses Jacob, and gives him the name Israel, so that everyone might know that this is the one who wrestled with God and prevailed. God makes public the reality that wrestling with God does not automatically result in death, but in blessing! This is a far cry from wrestling with God and being abandoned. Quite the opposite!

And then we have the parable that Jesus told his disciples, about the need to pray always and not lose heart. And Jesus, who in the Gospel of Luke is interested in social justice and overcoming systems of prejudice and lifting up those who have been treated badly by society, tells his listeners not that they should suffer in silence and just live with things the way they are, but to continue to petition and pray for and nag the one in charge. You see, judges in those days made the rules. There was no comprehensive, binding, explicit code of law like we have today. Instead, each judge was responsible for deciding the outcome of any given situation, based on their own opinion. The judge was the law, in a sense; the ultimate authority - which is why Jesus uses the metaphor of a judge to talk about God. And Jesus encourages us to cry out to and challenge and petition and pray to and nag the ultimate authority until things change. The judge does not lock up the persistent widow. Or ban her from his courtroom. He does not turn his back on her or even just shut his ears to her. Instead, he responds to her. He acts in her favour. He grants her the justice she seeks. Jesus is telling his listeners that God responds to us when we pray and beg and persist.

This is because God has made a commitment to us. God has committed to be our God, no matter what. And being our God means responding to us, being in relationship with us, keeping our “going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore.” This is what we see in Jesus Christ - living evidence that no matter what we do, no matter whether we angrily drive God to the cross to die or just run away and abandon him, no matter whether we yell at God or turn our backs in silence - God will not abandon us. God’s love for us wins. It’s not our obedience or our submission or our passive acceptance or our silence that ensures that God stays with us. It’s God’s love that ensures that. And God’s love is as enduring as God, because God is love. Love for us. Love for the world. Love for you. It’s a love that endures challenges, that welcomes arguments, that responds to demands for change. Astounding as that might be, the Bible clearly tells us that when we go to God and wrestle for something, God sometimes actually gives us what we’re praying for.

So, knowing that, what do you think you might pray for? Really, truly pray for? What blessing might you wrestle from God? What injustice might you nag God with? What is worth your effort and time? Keep in mind - I’m not saying that God grants us every whim and half-articulated desire. Jacob had to wrestle, all night long, enduring an injury to his hip that made him limp for the rest of his life and no doubt caused him constant pain. We do not emerge from wrestling with God unscathed. And the widow had to be persistent, she to take significant amounts of time every time she went to the judge. She had to be brave and raise her voice to authority and risk her freedom. It is not easy, but even in this God gives us the strength to keep going and to not lose heart.

So what is your prayer? What blessing do you need to wrestle from God? What justice do you need to nag God to avenge? Each one of us will no doubt have something different in mind. Perhaps you are furious over the injustice of ill health as you age, or the injustice of dementia or mental illness. Perhaps you are wrestling with God over the blessing of this congregation continuing. Perhaps you are continually yelling at God over the desperate situation of war in our world that kills millions of innocent children and drives other into the horrific existence of refugees. I know that this week in particular I have been so, so angry with God about the way women have been ignored and dismissed and “handled” as if we are less than God’s creation, and so, so angry that God has allowed other Christians to encourage that misogyny by preaching that women should be silent in church and submit to their husbands and fathers. I wrestle with God that God has allowed to stand in Scripture Bible verses that support that injustice. What are you going to continue to go to God with, over and over and over, like the widow?

I know that those who hold to tradition, and to obedience as the marker of a faithful Christian, might tell us that when we wrestle and challenge and yell and nag that we have “itching ears,” and that we are “turn[ing] away from listening to the truth.” But the truth is that we are God’s children. God is our God. And God, who blessed Jacob, and who avenges injustice against widows, and whose relationship with us is defined by the love we see in Jesus Christ, our God sticks with us in our wrestling and our challenging and our nagging and our praying. So pray always and do not lose heart. Wrestle. Challenge. Nag. You have God’s ear. God is listening. God will not turn away. God may even address the injustice keeping you down, and bless you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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