19th Sunday after Pentecost – 10/16/2022
All three of our Scripture readings today draw our attention to faith and its importance in our relationship with God, including the role it ought to play in our lives. In our epistle reading, we hear the apostle Paul exhort the young pastor Timothy to persevere in the faith he was given in Jesus Christ, especially in light of the challenges and obstacles he faced in his ministry of the Gospel.
In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus uses the parable of the widow to argue her case before the judge, encouraging His listeners to be firm in their faith. As the woman was not going to allow the judges' seeming unwillingness to listen to her case to deter her, we followers of Jesus are exhorted to be persistent in our requests to God, who, unlike the unrighteous judge, promises to hear and answer us according to His grace. The text reminds us that persistence is not only a virtue. It is God's prescription for the faith that He rewards.
But in my opinion, at the pinnacle of all three texts is the picture of faith as presented to us in the Old Testament reading from Genesis chapter 32. Here we are shown the very nature of faith itself - what faith is and how it should function in our lives. This text opens our minds and hearts to see that faith is not just having a certain knowledge about God and His Word, but that the faith that reaps both temporal and eternal rewards is the faith that even prevails over God!
This pericope also, in my opinion, is one of the most incredibly interesting, as well as mysterious, accounts in all of the Bible. Center stage is a wrestling match between Jacob and what the text describes as "a certain man," who mysteriously shows up one night and immediately engages Jacob in a physical grappling match. Perhaps this text intrigues me so much because I was a former wrestler myself, and a good grappling match will always get my attention.
As any wrestler knows, there is more to wrestling than simply defeating an opponent with overpowering strength. Winning also involves finesse, cunning, strategy, agility, flexibility, and both mental and physical stamina. All these features are, by the way, illustrated quite well in Jacob's bout with this man of mystery!
The first aspect of this wrestling match worthy of our note is that it occurred when Jacob was all alone. He was alone because he had sent his family and vast possessions on ahead of him in two separate groups. He had done this in anticipation of meeting up with his brother Esau, whom the reports had indicated was coming toward him with 400 men. Esau, as you might recall, was Jacob's twin brother, the same brother whom Jacob had deceived into selling him his birthright. Several decades earlier, when Jacob had left his family in search of a wife, he and Esau had not left on very good terms. Jacob was naturally assuming then that time had not healed their wounded relationship but that Esau was still angry with him and was coming with this force of 400 men to destroy him. By dividing his family and holdings into two separate groups, Jacob was hoping that at least one of the groups would escape the hand of Esau and his warriors. Jacob had also sent some of his servants ahead of his family, bearing bountiful gifts for Esau to try to placate him. Jacob then spent the night along the Jabbock River all alone. And it was alone that he had to contend with this mysterious opponent.
Unlike football or basketball players, who have a team of teammates to lean on for support, wrestlers must always fight alone. You might keep team points, but each wrestler has nothing else to rely on in his match than his training, skills, strength, and ingenuity. No one else can step in your place when you get tired. No one else can pick up the ball for you when you falter. You must do battle alone.
What an apt picture of faith. It is true that, by our baptism into Christ, we are made members one of another in the body of Christ. We are a family traveling in the wilderness of this world together. As such, we can and do support each other the best that we can; helping each other with the manifold physical and worldly tasks that weigh us down; holding each other up to the throne of God's grace in prayer, and encouraging one another with words of comfort and hope from God's Word. But none of us can believe each other. We each must appear before the judgment seat of Christ alone. We are each saved only by our faith, not anyone else's. And when confronted with one trial after another, we might draw strength and encouragement from the example of faith exhibited by others before us, but in the final analysis, we can only fight the good fight of faith in and through our faith. We must struggle in faith alone.
Jacob's wrestling match, however, was no 6-minute bout. The text tells us that this man who showed up wrestled with Jacob until the break of day! Imagine the stamina needed for that contest! It was a grueling marathon!
But when the man "saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint." " What are we to make of this act? This was hardly a signal for a truce! If he could put Jacob's hip out of joint with just a touch, it is a cinch that this was not a cry of "uncle! I give up!" Rather, with this action, the man revealed in a most painful way to Jacob that he could have crushed Jacob at any time. The only reason he had not done so was that he had been gracious to Jacob and allowed him to continue to hold on to him and wrestle with him.
It is analogous to a father wrestling around with his young children. He has the power to break and crush their young immature bones, but he doesn't. He allows them to continue to struggle with him, perhaps even defeat him, all so the fun can continue... all so that they can continue to grow and learn in the art of wrestling.
But what sort of man would do this to Jacob? After putting Jacob's hip out of place, he pleaded with Jacob to let him go! Was he just sporting with Jacob? Was this man an enemy of Jacob? If he was, he would have dispatched Jacob early in their conflict! If he were merely a personal friend of Jacob's, why would he have entered into the fracas in the first place? This wrestler was contending with Jacob for no other reason than to teach him. But what did he want Jacob to learn, and who was he that he should presume to teach this Patriarch of the faith, this one to whom the LORD God had promised the eternal inheritance?
The answer to this mysterious man's identity is supplied in Jacob's reaction to him. Jacob would not let the man go until he blessed him. Then later on, after the man left him, Jacob named the place of their meeting "Peniel," which translates as "the face of God." For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered. " Jacob saw that this man was no mere man! Jacob prized his blessing because he knew him to be God in human form. (Today, we would refer to this man as the pre-incarnate God; that is, the Son of God before He became man in the person of Jesus.)For further verification that this man was God, we also have the name that he gave to Jacob. He named him Israel, which means Striver (or fighter) with God.
Wow! How would you like to wrestle with the Almighty? Given his omnipotence and our weakness, we might be inclined to say that it wouldn't be much of a match. But it certainly was quite a match that Jacob had with God! Weak, sinful Jacob didn't just wrestle with God; according to the testimony of God Himself, Jacob prevailed against God. He held on until God blessed him. Jacob, the deceiver, had triumphed over his brother Esau, his brother-in-law Laban, and many other men. But now, through tenacious faith, he had even prevailed against God. He was truly Israel, the one who strives with God.
This brings us to the lessons God was teaching his servant Jacob in this mysterious way. When this man, the Lord Himself, asked Jacob what his name was, it wasn't that he didn't know. It was so that Jacob might remember what his name meant and how he had always tried to have his inheritance, that is, by his conniving efforts.
You see, already from the womb, Jacob had contended with men for what he wanted. He was born holding on to his older twin brother Esau's heel. Hence, he was named Jacob, "to grab the heel," or "the one who supplants." With his mother, Rebecca's, assistance, Jacob had also connived his way into receiving his father's blessing and the inheritance that was rightfully due to Esau as the firstborn. Jacob had also obtained great wealth through his cunning in outsmarting his brother-in-law, Laban. He had learned that in his struggles with men, he could have what he wanted through his ingenuity and hard work.
But what Jacob still needed to learn was, first of all, that his real struggle was not actually against men but with God, and that he must first overcome God before he can overcome his brother. Secondly, God taught Jacob that God's blessing, both materially and spiritually, was a pure gift of grace, not something Jacob could obtain for himself by his strength, ingenuity, or worthiness.
I wonder how many of us also need to learn these valuable lessons of faith. We tend to go through life constantly running our heads into walls because we live and act as though our struggle is with worldly challenges... and people. We think we are fighting diseases, doing battle with evil people, and contending with the sometimes unmerciful forces of nature.
But when are we going to learn, like Jacob, that our real wrestling partner is God? All those struggles we must contend with in this world are there because God has allowed them to be there. Of course, if we want to point an accusatory finger at someone, we need to point it toward ourselves. After all, it is because of our sin that death, disease, and all manner of ailment and earthly grief have invaded our world. And even though in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us from all guilt and sin, God has not removed all of sin's painful consequences. He still permits them to afflict us.
Neither is there anyone who has the power to stop God; that includes the devil, who relishes in our suffering. Instead, the truth is that instead of dispatching all of our earthly pains and challenges by His Almighty power, God, with just one touch, dislocates our lives with pain, grief, heartache, and trouble. He does so to demonstrate to us just how much we need him and how gracious he is not to give us what we deserve. So, if we want to rant and rave about someone, we should take it up with God. Until we can come to grips with the fact that our struggle is with God, we will never know peace in our lives!
The corollary to this lesson is that we also learn that God does not serve as our adversary because He relishes it, but precisely because He loves us. "He chastens those whom he loves" (Hebrews 12). Out of His grace, he desires us not to depend on our strength and resources but to hold tenaciously to Him as our Savior. For, like Jacob, if everything we desired came our way, we would soon believe that we had earned or deserved these good things through our actions. Our wretched, sinful condition and God's grace and mercy are soon out of the picture. Likewise, the very victory that Jesus has already won for us over all things will all but be forgotten. However, by allowing difficulties to come to us, God graciously seeks to bring us back to the truth that He alone is not only our Contender but also our only Rescuer, our only Savior!
This faith, which persistently struggles with God, that God has decreed in His grace to reward with blessings, both physical blessings in this life and eternal blessings of forgiveness and eternal life. So we hear the holy apostle state concerning our justification before God that God is just and, in His sense of justice, has decreed that He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:25,26).
In his discussion of Jacob's wrestling with God, Martin Luther commented that this is true faith; that which holds on to the grace and promises of God even if God Himself looks like his enemy. As we can see in the case of Job, For 40 chapters, Job wrestles with the LORD God. It is the LORD who allows the devil to torture him with the loss of all his children, flocks, herds, and even his health, all the while acknowledging that Job is a righteous man. It is the LORD who allows 3 of Job's friends, poor theologians all, to torment Job with half-truths and outright falsehoods. And, yes, it is the LORD who, with His Word, sets Job straight with His truth and uses the whole affair to further strengthen Job in faith and encourage and equip us all to likewise wrestle and prevail with the LORD.
One might think that it would be a lot simpler to trust in God if he made everything easy, uncomplicated, and pain-free for us. But the reality is just the opposite. Because of the sinful predisposition of our inherited nature, we despise the hand that feeds us. We don't want to be dependent upon anyone, especially some God we can not see. So, instead of clinging to God when He gives to us lovingly and graciously, we immediately seek to take credit for obtaining what He gives us. We wrongly imagine that he is only giving us what we have either earned or deserved. Accordingly, we make God nothing more than our servant, someone whose job it is simply to reward us with his praise... his work... his numerous gifts. Unfortunately, the one who thinks, lives, and believes this way is not of God but is only a child of Hell.
The child of Heaven, on the other hand, is the one who knows, lives, and believes that God is the one who struggles with him and tenaciously clings to the fact that God mercifully allows such faith to prevail over Him because of His love for sinful man and the redemptive work of His only begotten Son. We ask that God grant us such faith that we will be successful in our quest for eternal life with the LORD, our God, and Savior! Amen.