King’s Acre Church, 21 October 2001
The two stories that we have just heard read are about persevering in the face of what seems like God’s intransigence. I find both of them a little bit difficult to handle, as it almost seems as though God wants us to argue and fight and struggle with him to get our own way. But I don’t really think that God is like that, somehow.
So let’s look a bit more closely at these stories this morning, and see if we can find out what God is trying to say to us through them.
First of all, then, that very strange story of Jacob wrestling with God. Now, you remember Jacob. He was not a very nice person. It was he, you will recall, who tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, buying it from him for a dish of lentil stew, and then later on tricked him out of his father’s blessing. Not altogether surprisingly, he then ran away, and worked for Laban, who became his father-in-law, for twenty years. He married Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, working seven years for each daughter, and then worked for a further six years to build up his own flocks. Laban is rather annoyed with him, as through selective breeding, he has built up a bigger flock even than Laban’s, and he has left in rather a hurry! Laban chases him, and charges him with stealing the “household gods”, but in fact it is one of his wives who has stolen them, and she hides them from her father by the simple expedient of stuffing them inside a camel saddle and sitting on it! They were not a God-fearing household; Jacob has met with God on a couple of occasions, but these meetings don’t seem to alter him in any fundamental way.
Anyway, Jacob sorts things out with Laban, and now has to face his twin brother, Esau, whom he cheated so disgracefully all those years ago. Will Esau receive him, do you suppose, or will he come after him with an army? He hears that Esau is coming with four hundred men, so he quickly divides his own company into two, and sends half on ahead, on the grounds that if Esau destroys them, he won’t have lost everything. Then a quick prayer – for like all of us, Jacob prays when the chips are down – and he sends an envoy ahead with a present for Esau, to determine whether or not he will be welcome. And meanwhile, he waits behind. And night falls, and the man, so he thinks, comes to wrestle with him.
So they wrestle all night, we are told, and Jacob wins, despite an injured hip. He refuses to let go until he receives the other’s blessing, receives the new name Israel, and finally discovers it is God with whom he has fought. And in some strange way, he really does seem to have been changed by this encounter, as by no other. The next time he erects an altar, he dedicates it to “The God of Israel” rather than to “The God of his ancestors”, which is what he has always done before. He begins to know God personally, and, indeed, it is his name that is given to the land and that continues to this day.
So let’s turn now to our Gospel reading, the story of the unjust judge. I do find this story even more difficult than the Jacob story; it almost – almost – sounds as though God required us to nag on and on at him, until eventually he would give us what we wanted rather crossly!
But God isn’t like that! At least, not in my experience. I suppose the problem is that we read this story out of our Bibles. Jesus would have told it. And I think it would have sounded very different.
I rather expect that Jesus told it as a funny story. It actually has the potential to be very funny, if you stop and think about it – the image of the old lady persistently badgering the judge all the time, if Jesus told it in the right sort of way he could have his audience rolling about. And I think Jesus probably did tell it in the right sort of way. I can’t, but think if someone like Jasper Carrott, say, or Billy Connolly, were to retell that story….. There are other stories that he probably had them laughing at, too, similar ones – the one that springs to mind is a story that makes the same point as this one does, the one about the bloke who had unexpected visitors one night and who hadn’t enough bread for them, and who went on and on banging on his neighbour’s door until finally the neighbour got bored of it and got up and gave him a couple of loaves, just to shut him up.
Actually, I can envisage those stories as sketches on one of those television comedy programmes, can’t you – every so often the old lady would come wandering on and say: “I want JUSTICE”, or the scene would cut to the man – let’s call him Levi – banging on the door of his neighbour’s house and going “Samuel, Samuel, I need to borrow some bread!” And every time they repeated it, it would get funnier and funnier….. You’d probably end up, by the end of the series, with fans of the show using it as a catchphrase, like people used some of the Fast Show scenes as a catchphrase. “Suits you, sir”, and all that.
So once he had them all laughing at the old lady and the judge, or old Levi and his neighbour, and their antics, he comes to the point of the story. Eventually the judge gets bored of the old lady’s nagging at him, and eventually the neighbour gets bored of being kept awake by the persistent knocking. And so they deal with it. The old lady gets her case settled, and the unexpected visitors get a meal. And Jesus then proceeds to make his point: we, too, must persevere if we are going to get anywhere with prayer, and with God. Not because God is unjust, or unwilling, rather the reverse, but because God is a very great deal more likely to see to it that we get justice, or what it is we happen to need, than ordinary human beings are. And if we persevere long enough with ordinary people, they’ll give us what we need just to shut us up, so it’s well worth persevering with God.
Of course, God being God the situation is a little different. Justice is certainly something close to God’s heart, but God’s idea of what is just and right and our ideas might well be two different things. We are apt to think that if it suits us, it must be right, but that isn’t necessarily the case. We are human enough to forget about the other person, and we can’t always see things from someone else’s point of view.
And what we want isn’t necessarily what we ought to have. Again, we can’t see round corners the way God can. We can’t see all the “What ifs”, and the “Yes, buts” that might happen if God were to grant our prayer. We are apt to see the continuation of life and the maintenance of health as the most important things – nobody likes to be ill, of course – but sometimes true healing comes after this life.
So when we pray, it isn’t really a matter of banging on and on at God: it’s much more about banging on and on at ourselves, until gradually we learn to listen to God, to become aware of what God wants for us, and gradually to want that for ourselves. Now, what God wants for us may well be the same as what we want, but not necessarily.
Jacob wanted God’s blessing. Well, he also wanted Esau not to be angry with him any more, but after a night wrestling with God, he just wanted to be blessed. To know that he was loved and accepted, and to be able to receive those good things that God had for him, including a new name.
You see how what he thought he most wanted and needed gradually changed as he spent the night wrestling with God. The physical wrestling, fighting, turned out to be prayer.
You remember how Jesus had to fight in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was desperate not to have to go through with the crucifixion – well, wouldn’t you be? – and he tries with all that is in him to change God’s mind, to make God say “Okay, you don’t have to do it, let’s try another way.” But, sadly, there was no other way. And gradually, over the course of the night, Jesus came to realise this, and to accept it, and to be able to face it. But it wasn’t easy for him – they say he sweated great drops of blood, and he was certainly pretty ratty with his friends when they fell asleep on him!
Jesus had to spend all those hours in prayer to be able to face what lay ahead. And at that, he didn’t get what he wanted, instead, his night of prayer changed him so that he was able to face what God wanted for him, instead.
Jacob, incidentally, did get what he wanted; his brother greeted him as a long-lost brother, not as someone who had cheated and tricked him. Although Jacob still doesn’t trust Esau, and won’t go back home with him as Esau wishes. That, however, is by the way.
The point is, we need to persevere in prayer. Our prayer may not necessarily be in words – sometimes it will be, of course, but sometimes it will be an action – lighting a candle, perhaps, or even painting a picture if you are that sort of person – or perhaps just an attitude of waiting on God that you take with you throughout your day. But the important thing is to go on. Not to try to badger God into doing what you want, but to allow him to change you into someone who can face what God wants, which may not necessarily be the same thing.
We as a Church are facing this very thing at the moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen about a new minister, or when, or who, or anything! What they call an Interregnum, which is an extremely silly word for it, as I hope it is God who reigns in this church, not a minister – yes, what they call an Interregnum is never an easy time. We, as a Church, and as individuals, need to pray that God can fulfil whatever His plan for us is, whatever the Powers that Be of our two denominations have to say about it, and that whatever that plan is, we may be ready, willing and able to accept it. It may not be easy, but, like Jacob at Peniel, like the widow pestering the unjust judge, like Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, we must persevere. Amen.