Hanging On for a Blessing
We have two vivid stories today that have much to teach us about our faith, our doubts, our tenacity and our actions.
First, the continuing saga of Jacob the trickster. He’s been living in exile after running away from home because he had tricked his older twin, Esau, out of his inheritance. Jacob has made good – in part by tricking his father-in-law out of a large number of his flocks. And now he’s returning home with all his wealth, his wives and his children – but he’s still afraid of the wrath of his brother.
So he’s sent some gifts ahead to appease Esau, and now he’s alone and it’s night. And a man appears and wrestles with him all night, putting his hip out of joint and injuring him. Jacob hangs on, though, and asks for a blessing. And at that point it isn’t clear if this is a man or an angel or God himself.
The being says to him, “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” He gives Jacob a blessing (and a name change), and Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face.” He’s clear that this has been an encounter with God.
Wily, slippery, tricky Jacob has wrestled with God himself, and come out of it with an injured hip and a blessing.
The second story is the parable Jesus tells about the persistent woman, a widow, who keeps pleading with a judge for justice until she gets it. We don’t know what the issue was about: maybe it was to do with her dead husband’s property. Widows were dependent on their husband’s extended family for survival, or they could be left destitute. In the story she’s been denied justice but she refuses to give up. She keeps on coming back to the judge - I picture her banging on the door of his own house, shouting for him to come out and hear her case. And finally he relents out of sheer irritation at her bothering him, and he gives her the justice she’s looking for.
She reminds me of the women in Latin America during the terrible civil wars of the 1970s and 80s whose sons and daughters were “disappeared” by the repressive government forces. They staged silent demonstrations in the city squares, holding up pictures of their missing loved ones, and demanding justice for the victims. They were called “the mothers of the disappeared.” Or the women who have marched and demonstrated for justice for Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Refusing to go home and be quiet. Refusing to give up.
I think these stories are profound lessons for us about what it means to wrestle through our obstacles, wrestle through our past history, wrestle against the unjust powers of this world, and even wrestle with God.
Some of you have heard me speak about my mother’s death before. She was still working as a family physician in England, just a couple of years older than I am now, when she was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. I prayed like I never have before for the surgery and chemo to be successful and for her to live. I begged God for her life. I read a book called “Love, Medicine and Miracles” (by Dr. Bernie Siegel) and because she had faith, was surrounded by people with faith, and was deeply loved by not just her family and friends but also her patients, I was convinced that there would be a miracle and she would be healed. But she wasn’t, and she died just ten weeks after diagnosis.
I was shattered, and her death plummeted me into a long period of wrestling with God, wrestling with questions, wrestling with doubt in God’s existence or goodness. I would have stopped going to church had it not been my profession.
I’m sure some of you can think of similar experiences when what you thought you knew about God all fell apart, and you were faced with the dark agony of questions. I’ve certainly known many people who’ve felt abandoned by God, their prayers unheard, who lost their faith and left the church.
Jesus faced that agony the night before he died, when he struggled and wrestled with the fear of death. And on the cross the next day he cried out to God, “Why have you abandoned me?”
Wrestling with God, wrestling with God’s apparent absence or powerlessness, is an incredibly painful spiritual experience. But, but…. it can also be an experience that ends in a blessing, as it did for Jacob.
Let me say one thing that’s very important: Jesus is clear that God is NOT like the judge in the parable. God doesn’t have to be badgered and pestered and worn down with our prayers before responding. In fact Jesus says the opposite: if even a miserable man like that judge will eventually respond to the call for justice, how much more will God quickly respond to those who cry out? “But,” says Jesus, “will faith be found on earth?”
Will faith be found? Will we hang in there with the tenacity of the widow in the face of unjust structures and powers and situations, or will we give up and stop caring about the issues of our day that cry out for justice? Will we keep on wrestling, as Jacob did, even when everything seems to have fallen apart – even our faith in God?
What are you wrestling with? What questions or situations put you in that place of struggle and doubt? All through the month of November we’re going to have a question box here in church, and we’re going to invite you to write down your burning questions about God, faith, life, the world and its problems. And then what we want to do in Advent is address those questions together in our Advent groups and in our services leading up to Christmas. Because it’s when we wrestle, when we have the tenacity and temerity to keep looking for justice, or healing, or resurrection, that we can actually receive a blessing. When we wrestle, we may find ourselves meeting God in a new, deeper way.
Jacob emerged from that night of wrestling with a damaged hip as well as a blessing. It was like David on our pilgrimage: he struggled through physical pain and emotional anxiety, and found a deep blessing – but he was walking with a limp by the end.
My mother’s untimely death made my faith fall apart, and though I slowly pieced together a renewed faith in my heart, it still has that scar of grief and loss as part of it. But I know the hard blessing of grief, and how it cracked my heart open to compassion for others and finding God in the midst of it.
Doubt and struggling aren't the opposite of faith: they're sisters. As we wrestle with God we can learn to find God's grace where we least expect it. We need to be tenacious. And we will be blessed.