Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
Wrestle with God, if you must, hold fast throughout the night, and when morning comes don’t be surprised that you come up wounded from the battle. One does not prevail against God and remain unscathed. Yet cling to the promise, nevertheless.
When I went into ministry, one of my biggest concerns was prayer.
I had idealized notions of what prayer was all about, and very overwhelming sense that other people’s piety afforded them a prayer life that I simply didn’t have.
My sense was that my father, for example, was richly blessed with an ability to pray that escaped me.
He would pray as though God was just around the corner in the next room. Raise your voice a little, which he did, and God will hear you.
I had heard others talk about their lives of prayer and devotion, and it often seemed like they had an admirable ability to be in conversation with God as though God was their best friend. The words just flowed.
This struggle remained with me throughout my years in ministry.
Of all the questions I’ve been asked during interviews by call committees, the one that gave me the most trouble was “Tell us about your personal life of prayer.”
If I had to tell you about it in an interview it was no longer my personal life of prayer.
That was one objection.
But the other was a sense of inadequacy.
I wish I could pray like my father.
But I can’t.
It’s not that I don’t pray. I do. You know that.
I’ve prayed with people from birth to the grave.
Sometimes my prayers are eloquent.
Sometimes they are labored and cumbersome.
Still, at other times I’ve felt inspired to pray.
At one such time I composed this prayer, which remains my favorite:
Hold me tight, most precious Lord,
That I might follow you.
Grant me grace to live each day,
May I be born anew.
Lift me up whenever I fall,
And never let me fade
From the grace filled light
Of your own sight
That turns the night to day.
Yet prayer remains a struggle.
One of the issues I’ve had to deal with is the philosophical one.
I’ve questioned as a philosopher, the effectiveness of prayer.
My struggles philosophically with prayer are similar to the “problem of evil” that philosophers debate.
If God is all loving, and God is all powerful, then why is there evil?
Evil continues, so either God is not all loving, or God simply isn’t able to stop it.
That’s the problem of evil for philosophers.
My philosophical problem with prayer was similar.
When we pray for something good, like a cure from a deadly disease, and the person we are praying for dies anyway, then we ask why.
Perhaps we didn’t pray ‘right’. It’s our fault for not praying as we ought. But what a burden that is for us to bear. I’ve prayed with moms and dads whose children were dying, and they did die. Do I really want to believe that the reason they died was because of my inadequacy in prayer??? That if I had just been better at it, they would have lived??? That’s it’s my fault???
Maybe God just doesn’t hear our prayers.
You know, God has a lot on his mind, what with being the Lord of the Universe and all. Perhaps he just doesn’t have time to worry about my surgery next week.
Well, if God doesn’t have time to listen, why pray?
Or perhaps, God does care and listen to our prayers, but he just can’t do anything about it.
Babies will die.
Tragedies will happen in spite of our prayers, because God can’t or won’t intervene.
That’s a philosophical problem with prayer. And it eats away at our faith.
But then there are other times when prayer seems to work like magic.
It’s just a clear as day.
And when it’s all over everyone involved just really senses that the hand of God was all over it.
As a bishop of mine once said:
“Dave, this is a God thing.”
Sometimes, you just know that.
As I’ve struggled with prayer over the years there are two passages from the Bible that have become most dear to me.
The first is from Romans 8:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Over the years, I’ve prayed eloquent prayers, and not so eloquent prayers. Sometimes I’ve know just what to say and how to say it. At other times I searched for the right words.
But more times than not, I’ve learned to sigh.
“Sighs to deep for words” has become for me a model for prayer.
And as I sigh, I also cling to the promise that the Spirit is helping me in my weakness and that those deeply felt sighs are actually the Spirit’s own intercessions.
The second passage is today’s Old Testament lesson.
4Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
There may be a lot of things I haven’t done well with respect to prayer.
But, I can tell you this much, I have spent many a sleepless night wrestling with God.
This story about Jacob is amazing.
He wrestled all night. All night.
And it was not just another man with whom he struggled, but God.
And having prevailed against God throughout the night he received God’s blessing at the break of day.
With a catch.
A dislocated hip.
He prevailed in his struggles with God, but was left with a limp when it was all over. It took its toll.
Jacob had feared for his life as he anticipated meeting up with his brother Esau the next day.
You remember the story.
He had cheated Esau out of his birthright, and had been on the run ever since.
Now was the day of reckoning.
Jacob had tricked his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, and now he had the audacity to wrestle with God until God blessed him as well.
Jacob often is looked upon as a despicable character, a cheat.
Yet there is another dimension to him.
A faithful dimension.
As evidenced by his wrestling through the night and prevailing, Jacob had a persistent, resilient, and unwavering faith.
He wrestled through the night and prevailed, and for that, God blessed him.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells us as his disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart.”
And he tells the parable about the woman who persisted in her appeals to the judge for justice, and finally was granted her wish because of that persistence.
A stubborn, persistent, demanding even, faith.
Do not lose heart.
Do not give up.
Wrestle through the night but never let go.
Never let go of God.
Wrestle with God, struggle with God, but hold fast to God and the promise of his blessing.
That’s the epitome of faith.
To struggle through the night, and to prevail until morning when the promise is fulfilled.
The struggle may not be easy.
We may come up limping as a result.
But in the end God will be faithful to his promise.