October 16, 2022
When I first got up here, one of the things that y’all told me about Ellsworth was how proud y’all are of your wrestling team. And it’s no wonder—y’all have been state champions at least a half dozen times in the last twenty years. There are many in this congregation who either were once in wrestling, are in wrestling now, or have kids or grandkids in wrestling. So I imagine this scene we read about in Genesis drew your attention, because of what it says about Jacob and his night of anxiety with God.
Now, I am—surprise surprise—not a wrestler. However, even I know that there is something over the top about the description of how Jacob wrestled with the man by the Jabbok river “all night.” Wrestling matches last, what, a few minutes? And that is, from everything I’ve ever heard, straight-up exhausting. Like, you’re ready for a break, even a short one. So can you imagine the persistence, the sheer bullheadedness, that would be required to wrestle with someone for an entire night? From sundown to sunup?
Still, that’s what the scriptures say about what Jacob did that night. He wrestled. And he kept going. He would not let go until he got a blessing. He went toe to toe with this mysterious man in the wilderness. He got his hip knocked out and he kept going. The moon slipped to the far side of the sky and he kept going. Finally, the sky started to lighten in the east, and the mystery man begged to be let go, but Jacob refused unless he received a blessing. And for his trouble, Jacob was given a blessing. He was given a new name—Israel, “the one who struggles with God”—and a new perspective, limping as the sun rose and he joined his family on the other side of the river.
We also hear about a different kind of wrestler in our gospel reading today. Another relentless person who would not give up, despite the obstacles. Another persistent fighter who knew what she wanted and didn’t take no for an answer. The widow of the parable is pretty remarkable because, most of the time, widows in the ancient world were seen as helpless. They were people to be pitied. But this widow keeps at it, continuing to go into the judge’s chambers to demand justice. And what strikes me is the physicality of the language. Where our translation says “so that she won’t wear me out,” the Greek really says something like, “so she won’t give me a black eye.”
Now, I don’t know if this widow was threatening to punch the judge or not, or if that was just a saying back then, but you can’t deny the urgency that kind of physical language gives to how hard she’s pushing. You can’t look the other way from how she is pulling out all the stops so that she gets what she is demanding.
The story of Jacob is the same way. It feels urgent because it feels so physical. Jacob isn’t just having a back-and-forth with God like Abraham pleading to save Sodom from destruction, or Moses arguing how he’s not fit to lead God’s people. Jacob, instead, is physically fighting with God. Grabbing God by the wrists. Putting God in a headlock and demanding he say “uncle.” And in the end, just like the widow, Jacob got his blessing. He got what he asked for. They got what they asked for because they were persistent and they knew what they were promised. They didn’t take no for an answer.
I think the idea of grabbing God in a headlock and demanding God say “uncle” might be a bit off-putting to some of us who were raised to sing “Trust and Obey.” And if what we’re demanding from God is things like winning the lottery, or a carefree life, or the Packers to win their next game, such boldness isn’t really appropriate. But it also seems that our scriptures today are reminding us that there’s nothing that says we shouldn’t—and in fact, often says we should—be so bold with our demands of God’s promises. Because God has made promises! And God isn’t some touchy, shrinking deity that needs us to ask nicely. Nor is God some weakling who can’t deliver on the promises God made. So what if we took a cue from the widow and from Jacob, and took God at God’s word to deliver on those promises?
What if we held God to the promises made to Walker this morning? In baptism we are promised new life that frees us from the power of sin. In that water is God’s promise of eternal life, God’s promise of welcome into community, God’s promise of forgiveness and reconciliation, God’s promise of justice for the needy and healing for the broken. What if we were so bold as to demand that God fulfill those promises for Walker, just as much as we’d demand God fulfill those promises for all the baptized? If the widow can threaten the judge with a black eye and get what she’s demanding (because justice is what she was promised), then I think Jesus is telling us that we can be just that bold with God when it comes to God’s promises too.
But also, when we demand God fulfill those promises, we should be prepared for unexpected results. Jacob demanded that the mystery-man-who-turned-out-to-be-God give him a blessing—the same thing that was promised years ago when he left that land. And part of the blessing, it turns out, was that limp. Because when you are physically changed, it changes the way you see the world. Sometimes when God makes good on those promises, it looks like a life-altering change that will revolutionize the way you see the entire world around you. But this, too, is part of God’s promise to make everything new in and with and through us.
There’s a lot of faith in demanding what God has promised. Because you don’t demand things from others when you don’t believe they’ll deliver. You don’t expect big things from someone who you don’t believe will go big. You don’t wrestle with a mystery man all night demanding a blessing if you don’t believe there will be a blessing to get from him. You don’t threaten a judge with a black eye if you don’t believe the judge can give you justice.
So have faith. Have faith enough to demand. Have faith enough to be persistent. Have faith enough to hold God accountable for God’s promises. Tell God to hear your prayer, because you know God will listen and answer. Expect big things from God, and don’t let go until you get it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.