Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
1st Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Wrestling with God: What comes to mind is some of these cute videos you can watch online on lion cubs wrestling with their great big lion daddies. Wrestling for lions and humans is an important part of development. It builds trust. It builds physical skill. It teaches about winning and losing. It teaches about letting go. Those tiny lion cubs seem to have no idea how small they are. They are just curious and feisty and in play they practice important skills that will help them hunt and attack prey someday. And those great big lions have so much patience. All it would take would be one swipe of the paw or one crunch of those powerful jaws and it would all be over. Yet they seem to know that this is part of cub development, and they show patience. They give just enough challenge to keep the little cubs learning and coming back for more.
Jacob was quite the wrestler. He had wrestled with his twin brother in his mother’s womb. Remember he was clenching the foot of his brother, Esau, when he was born. He wrestled with his parents for the role of the favorite child. After he took his brother’s birthright, he wrestled with guilt and he wrestled with being estranged from the brother he had been so close to. And now he is about to meet with his brother for the first time in over 20 years, for the first time since he cheated him. Some say he is a bit of a wimp—he sends the women and children first, ahead of himself across the river to where his brother will be meeting him. Maybe he just needed some time to think.
That night, the scripture says, he wrestles. He wrestles with himself. He is thinking of all the things his brother might say to him about him cheating him and ruining his life and so forth. And his brother would be justified saying all that. His brother would have the right to strike him or worse. You can imagine him going through every possible scenario, preparing himself for each rebuke from his brother.
While he is wrestling in hi s mind, a man comes and wrestles with him there by the river. Is it a man? Is it God? Is it an angel? Who is this nameless wrestler? By the end of the story, Jacob is convinced it is God. He says, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” It reminds me of the lion cub and the big father lion. Certainly, God could have prevailed and pummeled Jacob instantly. But that’s not who God our Father is. Wrestling teaches us. It is practice. Wrestling teaches perseverance, it teaches about playing fair (which is a lesson Jacob needs to learn), it teaches about strength, it teaches about tenderness, it teaches about forgiveness, and it teaches about blessing.
Do we ever wrestle with God? Are we afraid to approach God, waste God’s time, or pick a fight? Yet God is so approachable and accessible. Why not? That’s what dads are for. What kind of things do you wrestle with God about? Who usually wins? How do you know when you’ve seen God face to face?
The second reading today mentions wrestling with God in scripture. Reading from the Bible can become a good habit to get into. But don’t just read it. Ask the burning questions that come to mind. Use scripture to wrestle with God. It is God’s word, after all. Order a devotional book that can help you read it, or find some questions online that help you delve deeper into the text, to understand what the Bible is really saying. You don’t need a master’s degree at a religious institution to read the Bible and get something from it and to be challenged by it. But it also takes practice.
Like the cubs wrestling with the big lion, you have to start somewhere, and the learning grows with practice. Think of those little cubs. At first they are so weak and small. They might notice the flick of the tail and pounce. As they progress, they start batting at the big lion. Soon they are climbing up and knawing on dad’s ear. Eventually they are tumbling around in the dirt with him. It takes practice and patience. As we read the Bible, we might start by sitting back and watching. But with practice and bravery, we begin to approach and delve deeper. We let those questions surface. What is this Bible passage saying about God? What is it saying about me and my life? Is that really the kind of God I believe in? What exactly do I believe about God and why? How is that going to affect my life?
God can take it. God can take all our questions. God can take our critical thinking. God can take our challenges. God knows patience and tenderness. God wrestles with us and stays in the game and even blesses us through this wrestling.
In the Gospel reading for today, prayer is considered a kind of wrestling with God and with ourselves. Prayer takes practice. You might try a little prayer and it feels awkward. It is all about baby steps. Keep coming back to God and trying again. Try written prayers. Try sitting in silence. Try praying as you work. Try writing poetry as a prayer. Try gardening as prayer. Try golfing as prayer. Soon, you’ll be just like this loud widow, wearing God out.
God is like the lion, powerful, protective, observant, and a great teacher. When we go to wrestle with God, we are really working through our own stuff. Usually, we are trying to figure something out—what we should do, what is wrong and right, how to make amends for our wrongs, how to relate to other people and things like that.
Since we survive and grow by wrestling with God, through prayer or through reading the Bible, we soon learn what we need to know to take on the powers in our world. The cubs don’t wrestle with dad forever. They grow up and hunt their own food and raise their own families. Their wrestling progresses until it is a well-refined skill that they use everyday.
This widow doesn’t just sit home and practice wrestling. She is going public with it. She’s going to make sure everyone knows how she has been wronged. She learns the place to go to get justice. It isn’t just that she pleads and complains. It is that she goes to the powers that be, tells her truth and her story, and demands justice. She wrestles with those powers and she doesn’t give up until she gets what is right. Our faith encourages us to wrestle with God, wrestle in prayer, wrestle with scripture, wrestle within ourselves, and then to take action and wrestle with the unjust laws and unjust powers in our world. And not just to nip at the tail, but to continue wrestling, to climb that injustice and take it by the ear, to knock it to the ground so that the prayers of those who are wronged by injustice—the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the neglected, get the justice they have been praying for.
God pleaded with us and wrestled with us over the years. God came to us in scriptures, through angels, through the very world we live in. And then God sent us a wrestling partner just like us. Jesus wrestled with the religious authorities, with the Roman Oppressors, with people who were self-righteous. And Jesus wrestled with us to show us how to play fair, how to be tender and compassionate, and when to stand up for what is right. Jesus, like the father lion, could have crushed his opponents, but instead he let them, let us win and it put him in the grave. He showed that he was willing to die for justice, to win our hearts, and to show us that winning isn’t everything. And he rose to new life to show us that even when we lose, God has ultimate authority and power, that there is a bigger story that we are part of.
Do you know what happens next after Jacob crosses to meet the brother he wronged so many years ago? He confesses to his brother the wrong that he committed. Much to his surprise he finds a brother full of love and tenderness for him, who embraces him wholeheartedly and welcomes him and his family as if there had never been a rift. That is what God does for us. We come limping across the river after a lifetime of hurts and of wrongs and we find Jesus our brother with open arms and an open heart ready to embrace us.