Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 121, Luke 18.1-7
Jacob’s night of wrestling at the ford of Jabbok, was not a one-off. It was typical of his whole life. He was often afraid of what would happen to him as a consequence of his actions, but then he usually found that it turned out all right, though at a cost. Similarly, the hard hearted judge is not unique. There are many people who care neither for God or popularity, but who when faced with persistent resistance will give way.
In fact wrestling, or conflict, is a common experience for all of us. Conflict is normal, sometimes fun, sometimes serious or scary and sometimes violent. We wrestle with ourselves, with others, with God. The psalm illustrates all three.
Was Jacob wrestling with himself or with God?
Well, I think, certainly with himself. Faced with his fear of meeting his brother again, the one he had cheated all those years ago, and who was coming for him with a gang four hundred, he is desperately thinking “What can I do?” What options do I have?
But don’t we wrestle in similar ways when faced with a challenge! Do I avoid conflict? Do I make a stand? Where will I find the courage to act? Who do I want to be?
St Paul reflected that he found it hard to the good he wanted to do, and easy to do things he shouldn’t do.
Sometimes we feel torn apart, like being two people. Sometimes we despise ourselves, and some inflict violence on themselves. On the other hand conflicting possibilities can excite us to imagine different futures. We can play with alternative scenarios, create new worlds and enjoy the freedom to become different. We wrestle with ourselves about our faith, our priorities and our actions.
Jacob was, I think, also wrestling with God. He had already prayed, but still wasn’t certain of the response he would get. How can you persuade God? What leverage could you have? O, that is a dangerous game, as many a story in the scriptures teaches. But Jacob had a go anyway.
Don’t you sometimes want to beg or battle with God? Whether it will do any good or not, sometimes we just have to try. And sometimes like the widow, we find that it works! Wrestling with God is OK, and can lead to deeper faith.
Wrestling with a human opponent is a common experience, I don’t mean the choreographed staging of wrestling in the ring, but the everyday struggle with family, neighbours, colleagues, and the companies who mistreat us as customers. I wrestle with trying to understand why they do it. How can they think that? I have seen children competing for the same toy, and adults fighting for the same item in the sales. Sometimes, of course, our competition is in a game – we struggle with each other as we try to win. We play sports, and for the most part enjoy pitting our wits or skills or strength against someone else. But there are people who get under your skin, and some who are frightening. Some of our conflicts turn violent. And we wrestle with finding ways to transform our conflict into co-operation. Wrestling with other people is normal, the key is doing it without violence, and trying to find ways in which everyone wins.
This pattern of wrestling, of conflict, is repeated in groups in society, in politics, in the adversarial system of our courts, in demonstrations on the streets and in rioting. Though there are playful conflicts too, walking football seems to be one of the latest to appeal to older folk! And the pattern is there between nations too. And in Church and between churches. Many churches are wrestling with their mission, their survival, their impact on the community. And all of us as human beings are wrestling with climate change, trying to preserve life, avoid ecological disaster. That is the one I am committed to wrestling with.
But today is marked by some as Human Trafficking Day or Anti-slavery Day, or Freedom Sunday, which is a global day of worship, prayer and action on human trafficking. Perhaps this is another issue we should be wrestling with. Today many faith communities will join together to raise awareness of the crime of human trafficking and show the world compassion for men, women and children who are trafficked and exploited around the world. It happens on a huge scale, women and children and men too. Sometimes as economic slaves, sometimes for sexual exploitation. Children and women in refugee camps are particularly at risk from traffickers. Our government passed The Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and this led to the appointment of an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland. But have we got to grips with it? How can we get a hold on understanding why people will treat other human beings as objects to be traded and exploited? Have we any idea what it is like to be a victim? How can we find out what is happening? Who are the vulnerable and who are the traffickers? What can be done to stop the process and release the victims? Are we willing to be involved?
Perhaps you are already committed to fighting a different cause, in which case we should be offering you support. But those trying to stop trafficking also need our support too.
So what do we learn from Jacob, the Widow and the psalmist? Conflict is normal. Wrestling is an everyday experience. Sometimes it is fun, and we can play games with one another. But often it is scary and even violent.
We need to find ways of understanding ourselves,
learn what motivates others,
imagine different possibilities and
find ways forward which do not rely on violence,
And we should persist even in wrestling with God.
Jesus wrestled too. In the wilderness and in the garden, in loneliness and in public, he searched for the way. And in the end, it is about trust in God.
God who is willing to wrestle with you and to bless you.
Somewhere Christ is wrestling,
wrestling in the street
with the powers of darkness
and each fear we meet.
Listen, Friend Jesus,
I am wrestling too!
Let your light give guidance:
show the way with you.
Wrestling with Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?
Perhaps I would be better off looking to my own resources. Not relying on somebody else to get me out of trouble.
My help comes from GOD, who made heaven and earth.
Yes, but it’s a long time ago that the universe was made. Where is my God now?
GOD will not let your foot be moved;
But on the other hand I had better take account of the size of my opponent, and learn how to defend myself.
GOD who keeps you will not slumber. GOD who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Yes, God may well look after Israel, but what about me?
GOD is your keeper; GOD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
Actually, I am more worried about bullets, bombs, and biological weapons.
GOD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
But is this just wishful thinking?
GOD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
I find it hard to believe. I really wrestle with that kind of simple faith.