This is a sermon I gave in October at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church. The set readings for that morning were Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8.
Both of our stories today can be understood as relating to that most mysterious of Christian activities, prayer. In both cases, arguably, the original context of the passages gave them a different reading but Christians have, for many centuries, used them as analogies or metaphors for prayer.
In Genesis, we heard part of a much longer narrative dealing with the, not always morally exemplary, activities of Jacob, son of Isaac. He was understandably nervous about meeting his estranged brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his father’s final blessing. He camps alone at Peniel awaiting his brother’s wrath. In the night, he wrestles with a strange man – usually referred to as an angel but seemingly God incarnate, if you read the text carefully – and ultimately secures his blessing, albeit at the expense of a bruised hip. It is a strange and wonderful story that raises far more questions than it answers, not least of which is how this very sinful man could have successfully wrestled with the divine creator.
The second passage places us in much more familiar territory, with a parable told by Jesus. Like so many of Jesus’ parables, it concerns everyday people and situations – in this case an unnamed widow and judge in an anonymous city – but it gently subverts their roles. The judge is very far from being the upright, sober figure that we would expect of a person in that role. And the widow too is definitely not the meek and mild, helpless widow that we are used to from the standard depictions of such stories. As the Jewish commentator, Amy-Jill Levine, points out, our English translation really does not do justice to the force of the widow’s protests. Where we, in the NRSV translation, have the widow elegantly pleading, “Grant me justice against my opponent,” (Luke 18:3) Levine has the much more direct, “Avenge me”. And even more colourfully, where we have the judge fearing that the widow will, “wear me out by continually coming” (18:5), she notes that the language used is actually borrowed from sporting terminology and translates it: “I will avenge her, so that in the end she will not give me a black eye”! (Amy-Jill Levine. 2014. Short Stories by Jesus. New York: HarperOne. p221) The parable seeks to remind us how much more just and willing to hear is God than this uncaring judge. But it also a vital reminder that the parables of Jesus can never be tamed to say what we want them to, and should always challenge our preconceptions and assumptions.
For me, both stories reminded me of a story told by Philip Yancey in his excellent book on prayer:
‘I met a Jew at the wailing wall and asked him what he was praying for. “I pray for righteousness,” he said. “I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world.” “Are your prayers effective?” I asked. “It’s like talking to a wall.”’ (Philip Yancey. 2006. Prayer. London: Hodder. p106)
Our two passages echo this confusion and frustration at the act of praying. Of the almost insuperable challenge involved in communicating with a God who made both heaven and earth. The Welsh poet and priest R S Thomas described it thus:
Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. (‘Folk Tale’)
But with only the slightest hope of ever seeing a twitch in the curtains.
For me, the image of Jacob wrestling with God is probably the most accurate and evocative metaphor for prayer. Of wrestling through the night with an unseen and unknown stranger, with the result very much in doubt. You can be left bruised and battered by the process, and very uncertain as to whether or not you have actually achieved anything!
This analogy certainly matches my experience of prayer in one of the darkest times in my life: my ‘coming out’. For me, that experience – that is the public recognition of my own sexuality – had to begin with self-recognition. I had to understand who I was first. At that time, I lived in Hove by the sea and I would take long walks down to the beach, praying and arguing with God. And we wrestled. We reasoned it through, and after complaining bitterly to God about why he had so cruelly made me this way, I eventually cried out, “You have made me like this; you need to deal with the consequences.”. And never in my life, before or since, have I felt such an assurance of God’s love and calm in my life – it was the closest I may ever get to John Wesley’s feeling of having his heart strangely warmed.
There are so many issues about which we pray – individually and as a church – that feel like that one. That feel as though we are wrestling with a bear or a giant, almost – a force completely beyond our control; so vast that we can’t even reach to its edges and which seems to engulf us in its enormity..
On Thursday night in church we heard about just such a seemingly unstoppable force. We had an excellent meeting of the Oxfam group that has met on our premises for many years to talk about the refugee crisis. And as we heard about the massive scale of the problem that we are facing, the numbers of people involved and the extent of the human suffering that is entailed, it was very easy to become utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. As a I look around the church today, I know that many of us here have faced, or are facing, similar challenges that seem to dwarf us and overwhelm us. Loss, illness, or pain, to name but three. It is so tempting to ask, ‘What is the point of wrestling with such an overwhelming force? Much better to give up and cease this futile activity.’
Our stories today remind us, though, that somehow we need to keep on wrestling. However, strong the mysterious man is, however unjust and powerful the judge seems, the fight is still worth it! Because how much worthier is God than that unjust judge? How much more does he love each one of us? What has he not been willing to sacrifice for our sakes? And how much bigger is God than any of our problems? He can take the odd black eye from an enraged widow. There is nothing that we cannot shout or scream at God that will make him wince or walk away from us. It doesn’t mean that we will always get the result we want or that we will not emerge from the unequal fight without bruises and many sleepless nights. But it does mean that the struggle is worth it.
Think of those who prayed for 50 long years for an end to the Cold War in Europe. Or those who prayed for peace in Northern Ireland. For women who prayed for their voices to be heard in the church. For the victims of abuse who cried out for justice. For gay and lesbians who desperately wanted to be free. For women and men across the globe who pleaded with their leaders to take seriously the threat of climate change.
In these cases and so many others, it seemed as though the struggle was futile and pointless. No one was listening; no one cared. But God listened, God cared, and God listens still. And whether we believe that prayer changes God, or changes us, it DOES change the world and the lives of individuals. Take another example from Philip Yancey’s book:
The musician Bono once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu [in South Africa] how he managed to find time for prayer and meditation [as he presided over the lengthy and arduous process of the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee]. Tutu replied, “What are you talking about? Do you think we’d be able to do this stuff if we didn’t?” (Yancey, Prayer, p115)
Maybe we will not understand how or why prayer works until we – as the apostle Paul puts it – see, not “through a mirror dimly,” but “face to face”. (1 Corinthians 13:12) But we do know that God neither wishes nor chooses to remain aloof from his creation. He wrestled with Jacob; he walked among us in the person of Jesus Christ; his Spirit remains working in his world this day and every day. So, I urge you: keep on wrestling. Keep on crying out for justice and mercy. Keep on threatening to give God a black eye until you are heard! And do not give up until you have your answer. Amen.
Notes: I would heartily recommend both Amy-Jill Levine‘s book and Philip Yancey‘s. Please follow the links to buy them.
Images: ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ by Rembrandt van Rijn. Source: Wikimedia. ‘Praying Hands’ (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.