Sunday, October 17, 2010

When God Wrestles with You

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr
October 17, 2010
Luke 18:1-8

Usually when Jesus tells a parable He just tells it. There might be some explanation afterward but usually He just goes into a story and then you can think about what it means. Here we alerted at the outset of the purpose of this parable. Jesus tells us the story to make us aware that as we live out our lives as Christians, God will be wrestling with us.

I know, that’s not what the words say. But what is Jesus communicating to us when Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable so that we Christians would be persistent in our prayers and not lose heart? Well, He’s communicating that being a Christian is not going to be easy. There are many difficulties, as we know. Satan is constantly battling us, the world is continually trying to sway us to its side, and our own sinful flesh is persistent in its own selfish desires. But there’s more. Jesus tells us as much in giving us this parable. God is not going to be always seeming to be on our side. He will at times, and perhaps oftentimes, seeming to be going against us.

Why did Luke say what he did about Jesus’ parable? “[Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Why would Jesus need to direct us to be persistent in prayer? If it were a simple matter of us praying for what we need and God in His love and grace simply gave those things to us, there’d be no need for this parable. But we need to be persistent, is what He says. We need to not lose heart. That’s because God is not our buddy. Sometimes He comes from out of nowhere and wrestles with us. Jacob was just trying to protect his family and out of nowhere God shows up and wrestles with him.

God is not a vending machine where you punch in the number of what you want and it’s delivered to you. God comes to you often at times seeming to be against you. Wrestling with you. Challenging you, not giving you what you want, or even what you think you need. What kind of a God do we have where Jesus so matter-of-factly can compare Him to a pagan judge? Does Jesus really want us to view God that way, that He’s just like that judge in the parable who neither believes in God nor has any respect for others? Evidently, yes, since that’s exactly what He did in the parable. And what He said afterward, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.”

Recently, two sociologists from Baylor researched people’s conceptions of God. They found that Americans have four different views about what God is like. There is The Authoritative God, that God is involved in history and meting out harsh punishment to those who reject Him. Some believe in the Benevolent God, where He is engaged in our world and loves us when we love and care for others. A third conception of God is the Critical God, in which those who suffer in this world often believe in a god who keeps an eye on this world but reserves justice in the next. Finally, there is the Distant God. Here, God started the universe but then left humanity alone.

There is some truth to all of these. God certainly is authoritative, as well as benevolent, and even critical and distant. People have to come to terms with God whether they believe in Him or not and so often our view of Him is pigeon-holed according to our limited understanding. While these four views of God accurately reflect how many people view God, they do anything but accurately reflect who God really is. These four views tell us what people think of God but not much of what God tells us about Himself.

I wonder what those sociologists would do with the Old Testament reading today where God wrestles with Jacob? How would they come to terms with the Gospel reading today which compares God to a pagan and forces His beloved children to wait for His perfect justice? But actually, I really don’t wonder at all about what they think of it. What I really wonder is what you and I do. We really believe in God. Not some Authoritative Supreme Being who calls down rules and regulations and zaps you if you don’t toe the line. Not some Lovey-Dovey Grandfatherly type who loves to see people being kind whether they believe in Him or not. Not some God who sits around checking on the progress in the world but gives only good things in the life to come. And not some God who got the ball rolling only to leave us to our own devices.

There are plenty of religions and non-religions that believe in some form of those kinds of gods. There are plenty Christians who fall into the trap of pigeon-holing God in such a way. Maybe that’s why He wrestles with us. He knows we too easily put Him in a box. He is far greater than we could ever imagine Him. He’s not afraid to give Jacob a challenge that is directly from Him, not just the difficulties in everyday life. Jesus has a twinkle in His eye when He gets to talk about God in terms of a judge that none of us would want to stand before.

And Jesus is nothing if not persistent. He will keep coming at us with the truth about God, even if it causes us to step back and wonder if that’s the kind of God we want. We may want to retreat to the security of the Authoritative God or the comfort of the Benevolent God or the vindication of the Critical God or the easy way out of the Distant God. God Himself will keep coming at you as He is, wrestling with you, challenging your notions of Him, calling you on your sin, going head on with you and your self-righteousness. He will not cater to your needs. He won’t make you feel good just because that’s what you’d like from Him. He will call upon you to call upon Him. He will call you to a life of prayer. That’s a life of prayer. Persistent prayer. Prayer that is not based on whether you think God has answered your prayer, but on simply praying to the God who is your God and Father, your Lord and Savior. He calls upon you to pray for what you need, not what you want. You are invited, of course, to pray to Him for what you want, as He has given you the green light for doing so, praying according to His will.

But mostly we need to see what our real need is. As much as I might not want for God to wrestle with me and bring me through struggles, I am more haunted by Jesus’ words of conclusion to His parable: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” We know that the Christian Church will remain forever. God is clear about that in His Word. So why the speculation of Jesus when He returns in glory on the Last Day of whether or not He will find faith on the earth? This is the wrestling of God with us. It is never easy. You are a Christian, but that doesn’t mean you float easily through life taking God’s grace for granted, what has been described of as cheap grace. You are saved by grace, it’s a gift, it’s free, there’s no strings attached, it’s by nothing you do—but it’s not cheap. It comes at a cost. It’s not cheap grace, it’s the grace of God in which He not only saves you but He engages with you. He even wrestles with you.

Jacob wasn’t the only who wrestled with God. The woman in Jesus’ parable is a picture of each one of us Christians, or at least who we are to be as Christians. One example is Ignatius. Today in the Church Year we observe the Commemoration of Ignatius who was the bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century. His life ended in martyrdom, something that may seem distant and irrelevant to us Christians today, or at least we Christians who are American. Nobody’s banging down our door and dragging us off to the electric chair. But 1900 years ago, near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan, Ignatius was arrested, taken in chains to Rome, and eventually thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.

On the way to Rome, he wrote letters to the Christians at cities such as Ephesus, Rome, and Smyrna. His letters were those of a pastor to his people warning them of false teachings that would lead them astray. In these letters he constantly drew people back to the true doctrine of Christ and His salvation in His suffering, death, and resurrection. How’s that for a God? Not distant or authoritative or critical, but humble and serving. How was Ignatius able to write in this way as he was led off to certain, and agonizing, death? Because he was persistent. His prayer to His Heavenly Father was not that of escape from murder at the hands of those who persecuted Christians. His prayer was that of the woman in Jesus’ parable. He prayed for God’s justice. In His time. In His way. We may not face imminent martyrdom as Ignatius did and countless Christians down through the ages have. But haven’t we all cried out to God as that woman did in the parable? That is the way of life as a disciple of Christ. The reason we need to be persistent is because God keeps wrestling with us.

But if you say, Yes, but why does Jesus say that the whole reason for giving us this parable is so that we may be confident that, in His own words, “will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.” Adults usually learn to be more patient than when they were kids. When they want ice cream, they want it now. As we grow older and gain in wisdom and perspective, we’re better able to see that not everything we need comes to us immediately. So why does Jesus say that God will not delay when we lift our prayers to Him? How is it true that He says God will give us justice speedily?

It’s true because the more we’re in the Word of God, the more we pray, the more our prayers will be conformed to His will and not ours. When we’re praying in conformity with what He knows we need rather than what we would like to see be the case then we will see that God’s answer is always the best answer and His timing is always the perfect timing. We often get so caught up in the here and now, in the day to day, that we lose sight of our eternal existence. Do you live in such a way that Jesus will return at any moment? I specifically worded it as ‘will’ return at any moment, not ‘may’ return at any moment. The truth is, most of us think that way. Yes, He may, but then we go on about our day to day stuff giving it no more thought. That’s because we don’t think He will return at any moment, just that He may.

What Jesus is getting at here is that He will. Will He find faith on the earth? Will He find those who are wrestling with God and driven further and further into His Word in order to receive a blessing? Will He find those are persistently, faithfully praying to Him for justice, what they truly need, instead of just those things that they’d like? The world and your sinful flesh will persuade you to take your pick from the list of four different gods the sociologists can tell you all about. God Himself will simply show you who He is by directing your gaze upon the cross where justice is meted out on His only-begotten Son.

Salvation is accomplished. And if you see your end like Ignatius did, not in the arena where his flesh was torn to bits, but in the eternal glory of heaven, you will see exactly what that woman was praying about and what we have the invitation and privilege to pray about every day of our lives. Amen.


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