This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The texts I preached on were Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8. We were also celebrating “Harvest Home.”
Walter was a wrestler. Well, kind of. In a way. I mean, really, he was a farmer, and he was one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever known. He grew acres and acres of beans every year. He worked hard to do to get his crops ready for sale every year. Walter was a very active member of the church I was serving, but all of knew we wouldn’t see much of him at church during harvest time.
And Walter was also one of the most faithful people I knew. I think it was because he knew that the most important work of farming was out of his control. He could never make the seeds germinate, or provide the rain or the sunshine. And he could never control the timing either. The beans grew when they grew, and he had to be ready to harvest them the moment they were ready.
Walter knew that the work of farming required hard work on his part, and on God’s. And that’s why I said that Walter was a wrestler. He wrestled with the ground each year, turning it and plowing it and sowing and harvesting and doing all the other farm things I don’t understand. And he wrestled with God, praying faithfully and trusting that the crops would grow. And through his wrestling, a harvest was brought in every year. A great harvest that fed hundreds of people, and fed Walter’s family as well.
We met two wrestlers in scripture today.
One of them literally wrestled. Jacob wrestled with a stranger all night long. But even that might be a metaphor. Have you ever been up all night wrestling with something from your past? Worried? Anxious?
That’s what happened with Jacob. Jacob was worried. Anxious. Frightened, even. You see, Jacob had a twin brother Esau, and throughout their lives, Jacob treated Esau very poorly. There was the time when Esau arrived at Jacob’s house famished. Esau asked him for some of the stew that Jacob had been cooking. Jacob’s response? “Sure, brother. I’ll give you some food in exchange for your birthright.” And years later, when their father Isaac was dying, Isaac was ready to give his final blessing to his older son Esau. But Jacob tricked Isaac into thinking that he was Esau, and Isaac gave him the blessing instead. After that happened, Esau ran off to another country, swearing to get revenge on Jacob one day.
Well, one day Jacob is traveling, with his family and his animals and servants. And he discovers that Esau is in the same area, and in fact is heading towards Jacob. Jacob gets scared, and he prays to God for deliverance from Esau. Then he sends his whole family and company across the Jabbok stream, and stays there alone for the night.
Jacob was wrestling with his past, his regret, his anxiety. The story tells us that in fact a man came and wrestled with him all night. And finally, as day was breaking, the man said to Jacob, “Let me go.” Jacob responded, “Only if you bless me.” And the man blessed him, giving him a new name, Israel, which means, “the one who strives with God.” Was the strange man actually God? Was the man a metaphor for his inner turmoil? Was it a dream? Hard to say, but it’s clear that Jacob in some way wrestled with God that night.
And that wrestling changed things. The next day, Jacob, or rather Israel, did meet with Esau. The meeting did not go as Jacob expected. But I won’t spoil it for you – you can read it yourself in Genesis chapter 33.
The other wrestler in today’s readings is the widow in the parable Jesus told. She wrestled with a judge. And she wrestled not out of fear, like Jacob did, but out of need.
She needed justice, justice against some unnamed opponent who owed her something. Quite possibly someone who owed her what she needed to survive, since widows often had almost nothing in those days.
So she went to a judge, begging him for justice. The judge didn’t care at all, because as he himself says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” However, the widow was persistent. She kept at him, and you could imagine them having a similar outcome to the wrestling match Jacob had. It was as though she wrestled him all night, and finally at daybreak he said to her, “Let me go.” And she said, “Only if you give me justice.” And he did.
And Jesus says, “If the widow wrestled with the judge and got justice, how much more will God give to those who wrestle with God?”
And Luke tells us that parable is about your “need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
And perhaps all this wrestling we’ve talked about today is all about prayer. About what it is to pray always. What it is to not lose heart.
Perhaps that’s what prayer is, or can be. Perhaps prayer can be described as wrestling with God. Not fighting with God, necessarily, but struggling, striving, intimately connecting and trying to understand. Trying to speak and trying to listen, and trying to be who we were made to be.
God promises that when we approach God, God approaches us as well. And that’s where the wrestling happens. Prayer isn’t simply a letter or an email we send off to God and wait for a reply, but an intimate relationship of striving, of struggling, of pushing and pulling that leads finally to blessing and justice. Or at least it can be.
When we approach God, God approaches us, and through our prayer, through our wrestling, God changes us. Inspires us. Guides us. Transforms us, enabling us to be the answer to the prayers of the world. Enabling us to feed people like Walter. Enabling us to be a light to the world like Israel. Enabling us to provide justice like the widow.
Think of it this way. When you were baptized, the church prayed this for you: “Stir up in them the gift of your Holy Spirit.” Stir up. That phrase isn’t accidental. The Holy Spirit is stirring up in you, and has been your whole life. And when you reach out to God in prayer, that Spirit stirs anew and wrestles. Strives. Pushes. Pulls. Inspires. Guides. Transforms.
And I know that sometimes people say, “but I don’t know how to pray.” It’s not complicated. Just say, “God, I’m here.” Tell God what’s on your heart, and listen. And I bet that before long, you’ll find yourself wrestling. Reach out. Wrestle. You just might be amazed what comes next. What harvest you might bring home.
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