Persisting in Prayer, Wrestling with God
The first reading we heard this morning is a fascinating story about when the man Jacob becomes Israel. This story is about a struggle with God, a wrestling match in fact. This is a sophisticated theological story from the people of ancient Israel. They understood their existence as God’s chosen people to have begun with their ancestor Jacob wrestling with God. The nation of Israel is really founded here, when Jacob wrestles with God, and God changes his name to Israel which literally means “one who wrestles with God.”
In this chapter, Jacob is on his way to meet Esau, the brother he cheated years ago in order to steal their father’s blessing. Esau hated Jacob after that and wanted to kill him. So Jacob ran away from home and the two haven’t seen each other since. Now in Genesis chapter 32, Jacob is about to see Esau and he’s concerned enough to send his family on ahead of him. But the night before their meeting, Jacob has an unexpected visitor. It’s either an angel of God, or God Himself. And they wrestle all night until dawn. It’s a long struggle. But Jacob has apparently won the fight or at least it’s a stalemate. He feels he has earned a blessing from this stranger. With this blessing from the stranger also comes a name change to “Israel.” Because he has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. But also with this blessing comes the receiving of a new wound: Jacob’s hip is put out of socket. He’ll walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
After wrestling with God and winning God’s blessing, Jacob is still wounded and transformed. Even though he receives God’s blessing, for the rest of his life, the way Jacob walks will be different because of this one encounter. It’s clear that one who wrestles with God will walk differently through life. Wrestling with God changes us. It transforms us. Sometimes in ways we might not expect or have planned. Sometimes in ways we don’t like or appreciate. But a real divine encounter, an experience of wrestling with God, will change the way we walk through life.
Jacob was changed by his encounter with God and he received a hard-fought blessing. Similarly, the woman in the Gospel reading received a hard-fought answer to her cry for justice. Jesus told this parable about a woman who needed justice. She was a poor widow in the first century. Which, in that patriarchal society, meant she had very little recourse to bring about justice. She didn’t have a husband to help her, she didn’t have a lot of money, maybe she didn’t have any family, and she didn’t even have a judge who cared about justice. But she did have her own persistence and determination and the conviction that she was right. And so she wore down the unjust judge until she received what she asked for.
The parable is an interesting story. At first it seems straight forward. Jesus says God is not like the unjust judge. God, presumably, is the just judge. But even the unjust judge answers the call for justice eventually because he’s so worn out by the woman’s complaining. The message seems to be: Won’t God, who actually cares about us, answer our calls for justice? Considering how an unjust judge answers the call even though he doesn’t even care about people, God will mostly certainly answer our calls!
The story reminds me of all the success stories of those working for justice. I think of Gandhi and MLK and their persistent calls for justice, which eventually reached the ears of those in power. I think of the work of GHIAA to remove slum lords in Hartford and bring about real change from faith-based organizing. I think of the careful, intentional research done with psychedelic therapy to show that there is in fact medical benefit to these drugs that can be truly transformative. And I think of calls for justice still ongoing from those determined to initiate change. This parable, and the Old Testament story of Jacob’s wrestling with God, encourage us to keep striving for justice, to persist in prayer, to never give up. Because like MLK said, “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Or John Lennon who said, “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”
There’s a country song from the 1990s by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers.” It’s about Garth running into his old high school crush, and remembering how he prayed and prayed and prayed for God to bring them together. Then he reflects on his life now and his wife and family and sings “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” It might sound a bit corny, but it makes a profound point. The singer encourages us, even if we’re in the midst of our own unanswered prayers, to trust that God does hear us and that if our prayers aren’t answered, God has something even better planned.
So we have all kinds of encouragement to keep pushing forward and persisting in prayer and fighting for justice. From Jesus, Jacob, and the widow. From MLK, John Lennon, and Garth Brooks. But I just can’t help but think that all that encouragement may sound like platitudes to people currently persisting in prayer, to people currently wrestling with God over some major issue. I think of all those prayers for justice that didn’t come to fruition. All those prayers for healing that didn’t get answered. All those petitions to God that seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
What about a prayer that God bring an end to war or violence or sex trafficking? What about a prayer that God save us from depression, anxiety, or addiction? What about a prayer that God save our loved ones from cancer, heart disease, or dementia? I don’t know about you but if I made a list of my prayers, I’d say that for every answer to a prayer there’s just as many that go completely unanswered. Why do our prayers for an end to great evils seem to be ignored? Why do our prayers to end suffering in others appear to be discounted? Why are there so many tragic deaths like the police officers killed Bristol this week? Why do so many prayers go unanswered? And what if there’s unanswered prayers that never end up making sense? What if there’s unanswered prayers with no silver lining? What then God?
To that I must admit I do not have a satisfying answer. But I will tell you that many faithful people, many people even in the Bible, have experienced a lot of unanswered prayers. The biblical narrative has a lot of miracles yes, but if you look at Jacob and the story of the people of Israel, there’s a lot of unanswered prayers. Prayers that went unanswered for 400 years while the people were enslaved in Egypt. Prayers that went unanswered when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Prayers that went unanswered when Rome oppressed the people. Prayers that went unanswered when the early church suffered persecution. Even a prayer that Jesus himself had that went unanswered. When he prayed the night before he died: “Father, remove this cup from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done.”
Jesus himself knows what it’s like to have a prayer go unanswered. And God’s refusal to answer that prayer led Jesus to the cross. God’s apparent denial of that prayer led to God’s beloved Son suffering and dying. Jesus knows what it’s like to not have your prayers answered. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel wounded and abandoned by God. Jesus knows what it’s like to be thrown into the terrible consequences of sin and evil and hatred and misery. Jesus knows what it’s like to cry out to God and not hear an answer. Jesus knows what it’s like to have unanswered prayers.
But. Even in the midst of our unanswered prayers. Even in the midst of crying out to the apparently unjust judge. Even in the midst of our own personal wrestling match with God. Jesus teaches to keep up the struggle, to keep wrestling, keep pushing, keep persisting in our cries for help. Because even though Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane wasn’t answered, we know all happened: after the cross came the empty tomb. Jesus died and rose again! And we know that rising again is always God’s response to death and sin and suffering. Rising again is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. Christ’s rising teaches us that resurrection is the pattern of all things. We have this promise. The promise that Jesus gives in this parable. The promise that God hears our cries for justice and will not wait long before transforming this world. The promise that God will not wait long before bringing healing. The promise that God will not wait long before wiping every tear away from our eyes. The promise that one day all our persist prayers will be answered and God will be our all in all. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 10/16/2022