Sermon Proper 24 C The Rev. Gregory Sammons
Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8
Prayer: Wrestling with Angels
One of the gifts I most treasure about our Christian tradition is the Book of Common Prayer. This small read book represents a 500 year collection of the loftiest prayers in the English language, with elegant, well-turned phrases.
As the Collect for Purity goes: Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid. How can we top that? But this Prayer book elegance can easily lull us into thinking of prayer as a polite exercise, like a tea party with God in which we dress ourselves up and show God only our best side.
Today’s Scripture gives us a much different picture. In Gen. 32, we have ringside seats at a wrestling match by a river. In one corner, Jacob, the fugitive: he’s betrayed his brother, deceived his dad and fled the unholy mess he’s made of his family. At dawn, across the river, there will be a reckoning and he is filled with dread!
In the other corner is the masked Stranger. He seems to emerge from the dark waters of the Jabbok River and puts Jacob in a hammer lock. They wrestle, groan and sweat all night. At daybreak, the match seems to end in a draw—or does it?
Clearly, Jacob thinks he’s won. He demands a blessing from the Stranger and he gets it. Yet he limps off meekly on a dislocated hip. (And maybe that’s the blessing.) It’s a wound with a spiritual meaning.
Jacob can’t run away from himself anymore. He can’t strut around, manipulating others to get what he wants. All Jacob can do is be human, face his failings, and throw himself into God’s arms.
For this, he receives a new name from God: not Jacob, which means in Hebrew “the trickster”, but Israel, “the one who wrestles with God —and prevails.” That last bit is God’s little joke. Jacob only “wins by losing.”
This profound text illuminates the nature of prayer. It’s far from a polite chat. It’s meeting God on the ground of our personal truth: our failings, fears and yearnings. It is pleading with God to touch our ignorance and darkness with grace and light. This kind of prayer changes us. We are humbled. We “limp away,” mindful that we don’t control things, our lives are held by the great mystery of the Triune God.
We have known prayer like this: maybe when we’ve taken a wrong turn in life, and we feel lost and utterly alone; maybe at the bedside of a loved one who’s barely clinging to life. At times like this, we storm heaven for a good outcome, of course.
But, as we pray, we are led beneath the thick fog of our anxiety and fear to a place where we sense our deeper need.
Namely, to have the grace to accept whatever the outcome and the courage to live in it. Often it is only when our hearts are broken open, that we feel what Jacob felt that night: the arms of God wrapping around us in the darkness, and lifting us upward to God’s light.
Prayer isn’t about persuading God to do what we want. It is surrendering ourselves so God can do what God wants. It is, as a friend put it, “a full contact sport.” So it is not for the faint of heart.
That’s why Jesus tells this comical parable (Luke 18) about a poor widow, going to a local judge to plead her case. As a widow in the ancient world, she has no one to stand up for her, no money for a bribe. She’s just a rag doll to be tossed aside by this greedy, cold-hearted judge.
But she does have this one thing going for her— her “never say die” determination! When the judge leaves his house to go to work, there she is on the sidewalk, blocking his way. She puts sticky notes on his mailbox, she knocks on his door at midnight.
At first, he shrugs her off, but soon he caves in: not because he cares for justice, as the parable says, but because he wants to get her off his back. The Greek behind this phrase is vivid: I will give her justice so she’ll stop slapping me, giving me a black eye!
What do we make of this? It may sound as if Jesus is saying prayer is a battering ram to wear down a cold distant God. But that can’t be it! That would contradicts everything else Jesus tells us in Luke about his Abba Father: the God who clothes the lilies of the field, and sees the sparrows fall from the nest, who draws near to the brokenhearted and searches for the lost sheep.
This parable isn’t focused on the character of the judge, but the character of the widow. She knows what she needs and who can give it to her. She can’t control whether he will give it, but she will do her part. She throws off her shame, jettisons her good manners, abandons all caution.
She shouts our her need until she finds her voice, her true self. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor observed once: Most of us pray, like we brush our teeth, in the morning and in the evening. It’s our spiritual hygiene. We may do it automatically or maybe mindlessly.
But what if praying is more like it’s described by the prophet Isaiah (ch. 64). It becoming lump of clay on the potter’s wheel, God’s fingers wrapping around us, prodding us, shaping us into a vessel that can hold more of God’s light?
If you are like me, you may have had the experience of praying for months about something that is weighing upon our hearts and nothing seems to happen in the circumstance.
Well, maybe something IS happening inside us. Maybe God is turning over our hard-packed soil, opening up furrows for the Spirit to flow in and to make something new grow. We may not get what we want on our personal timetable.
But we always receive the gift we most need, namely, a sense that God is here with us in the waiting, that Jesus, our Priest and Intercessor kneels beside us, holding and shaping us so that we’ll be ready for whatever God’s next step is for us in our life.
Therefore, says Jesus pray always and never lose heart. Or, as a friend puts it, May we all wrestle with God—-and lose! Amen