Proper 24

October 17, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Reading 2: 
Psalm 119:97-104 or Psalm 121
Reading 3: 
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Reading 4: 
Luke 18:1-8
Alt Reading 1: 
Genesis 32:22-31
By Rick Marshall

Three of the texts for this Sunday (Jeremiah, Genesis, Luke) are highly suggestive of struggle and persistence. Beginning with the Jeremiah text, God seems to be set on creating something new with the people, a new covenant. After all the divine disappointment and anger and frustration of the earlier chapters of Jeremiah, God still intends for the well being of the people. The new covenant is a vision of something more lasting. Even though the divine voice announces “I will remember their sin no more” vs 34, there seems to be a weariness about the divine attitude of struggle and persistence in dealing with this stiff-necked people. It’s been a torturous relationship, obviously hard on the people, but deeply felt in the divine life. It’s the same promise that has been made many times before: I will not remember, I will forgive, I will take you back. It’s suggestive of Hosea’s words “What shall I do with you? How can I give up on you?” Jeremiah is a religious opera singing the pain and vapor hope of peace, love and well being. Yet hope hinges on the divine persistence toward grace.

This struggle is most evident in the famous wrestling scene from Genesis 32. With the full knowledge of who Jacob is, what he has done, what is at stake for him in his meeting with his brother the next day, the story focuses on this troubled character. His life is hanging in the balance. Will he wake up in the morning to life or death? Esau has every right to deal harshly with Jacob. Will he exercise that right? Jacob is alone at night, sleeping by the river. What a powerful symbol, sleeping alone beside the river, the waters of which seem alive with hope for life and threat of death. It’s reminiscent of the story of young Samuel sleeping next to the altar. There are dangerous places to be at night, but none riskier than sleeping where God might appear. The story is stark and reticent about giving away too much. “And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Is the stranger a man, a god and angel, the God of Israel? We don’t know for sure, but do we ever know who we’re wrestling with in the darkness of the night? Jacob fights for life and will not give in to the night, to the wrestling partner, to hopelessness. He gains the upper hand and demands a blessing. How audacious! It is the struggle of his life; he persists; he gains. He should leave well enough alone, but not this character. And the blessing (we don’t know what Jacob expected) came in the form of a new name, a new future, a new life. But Jacob doesn’t get away unscathed. “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh” vs 31. This story is highly suggestive of personal struggle in coming to terms with the divine call in life, a call which might feel like threat and exacts a price.

This struggle with God, this wrestling with the divine intention in our lives, is sharply drawn in the Luke text. The intention of the parable is announced at the beginning. “Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” 18:1. There is something gritty about this woman. Being a widow, she is economically, socially and religiously vulnerable. Many in her circumstances might give up, lie down and die. But she persists, going back again and again with her case, wearing the hardened judge down. From a worldly point of view, she has no power, no leverage, no voice. But her persistence wears on him like dripping water wears on stone. It says something about her courage, her desire for life and hope. She will not give up. She will engage anyone who stands before her.

Preaching the texts
Many people have the impression that being a disciple of Jesus Christ, or following God
’s call in life, is supposed to make things easy. As if letting go and letting God is a path of tranquility. Though this is a pleasant thought, and might happen as we release our cares and burdens, it seems to be far from the way the Bible portrays the divine involvement in life. At some level, most people know that life is difficult and that all their usual coping tactics aren’t enough in the long run to “manage” the complexities and difficulties of one’s life. It might be hopeful for many to be reassured that often a blessing comes as a result of the conflict; we struggle with the divine impulse that comes to us moment by moment. The struggle itself often produces surprising new possibilities. And it’s often a blessing we couldn’t anticipate or predict or control. The human/divine struggle is just that, a struggle, like any good marriage or any parent/child relationship that’s worth anything. Responding to God’s daily call in our lives often involves engagement, risk, struggle, conflict, even dread.

If I were to preach these texts, I would begin by simply telling the story of Jacob, laying out a brief background and how he got to the point in the text, with a focus on the wrestling scene. It would be easy to draw parallels between the dynamics of the story and our own lives. Existential themes of aloneness, struggle, overcoming, darkness, effort in the face of the divine, etc. would easily lend themselves to observations about life. The writings of Soren Kierkegaard come to mind. The simple existential dread that comes with the finite standing in the presence of the infinite. Many examples are at hand from the lives of those in the congregation or in the preacher’s personal life. It’s not that we look for difficulties in life, but that they just come to us. The Jacob story gives perspective on the nature of the conflict especially between what we want and what God wants for us. There is a divine aim that is given to us, continually calling us, pulling us sometimes willingly, other times reluctantly, into an unknown future. The Bible reassures us that we can trust this aim, this divine calling in our lives.

The Jeremiah text could be used to talk about how difficult it is for God, too. And the story of the persistent widow is certainly relevant to the theme of struggle. I have great difficulty sleeping at night. I toss and turn and wrestle with...with what, I’m not sure. With life and worries and the darkness itself and a strange glimmer of another presence in my life. Who’s there? I’m often glad to see the sunlight begin to seep into my bedroom, filling it--and me--with new life, a new day. The Jacob story runs deep, as deep as our dreams and fears and hopes. If we sit with this text and let it sink into our minds, sinking deeper, we discover a large realm of shared human experience that goes deeper than my remembrance, deeper than the waking world where we seem to have some measure of control. There is a deep place, after the struggle, after wrestling with this other presence, there might be a time of letting go and letting God. But that is an earned place. The time might come when we say with Jacob, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” v 31. Then, and only then, the sun rises.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.