Sunday, October 16, 2016

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-30
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them.

Bruce and I went on a wonderful vacation last summer: a visit to several national and state parks in Arizona and Utah. We did not hike miles of wilderness, but we did take a lot of smaller hikes to scenic views along the routes in the parks. Most of the hikes were a mile or so in length, often with an easy grade and well paved. They all led to amazing vistas. They were, of course, the more crowded paths because they were accessible to everyone. I’m not in great shape, so the more difficult hikes were beyond my ability. I was proud of myself, though. In ten days (four of which were spent in the car) I hiked at least fifteen miles. Bruce did a few more than me because he went further than I was willing to go.

We came to one scenic place that had two separate paths. One led to the top of a very tall peak and the other led to the next stop. The sight from that spot was amazing, but I’m sure it was even more so on the top of that peak. I looked up and knew there was no way I would make it. We were at the end of a long day and the path was very steep. My back and knees were starting to complain. Bruce wanted to try, so I sat on a bench with a book and read while he went to the top. When he came back he looked at the other path that led to the next scenic area. It was a fairly easy path, but taking it meant a long round trip hike. It was late in the day and we had a long drive ahead of us to our hotel. So, Bruce hiked that path while I moved the car to the next parking lot. There were another one or two places Bruce went without me, but I kept up with him better than I expected, and I did so carrying tons of camera equipment.

I have to admit that I did a few of those paths with a little trepidation. I can understand the plea of the psalmist: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?” This song of encouragement was sung by those who were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on a hill that was surely difficult climb after long journeys from their homes. “Who will help me climb these final steps?” they might have asked, struggling with exhaustion at the end of a long journey. I wonder if any stood at the foot of that hill and felt as I did, “You go, I’ll wait here.”

Bruce encouraged me as we hiked those many paths, but we are reminded that the greatest encouragement comes with the realization that our help comes from the Lord. The pilgrims were climbing that hill to Jerusalem to worship the God who does great things for His people. He is our keeper; He guards our lives and protects us from harm. He is our strength. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.”

Having God along for the ride does not make the journey easy. You still have to climb those hills to get to the destination, but the comfort comes at knowing that there will be peace and grace at the end.

We struggle. We struggle with the people in our lives. We struggle with the financial difficulties we face. We struggle with illness and we struggle with death. We struggle with the government and the legal systems of our nations. We even struggle against one another in our churches over the issues of the day. As we struggle against men, we also struggle against God. But God reminds us, sometimes in ways that are not so pleasant, that He is right there in the midst of it all, in control. We limp away in faith, trusting that God will answer our cry.

Jacob was in the wilderness preparing to meet his brother after a long estrangement. He knew what it was like to struggle. He had struggled with his brother Esau over the blessing of Isaac and the inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with his women and their children. Jacob was struggling with the future: what would happen when he met his brother again? He sent his wives, children and all they owned to the other side of the stream and he went back to spend the night alone.

Jacob struggled and prevailed. He became the father of an entire nation. He was the first to strive against God. Israel constantly struggled against God and man. Jacob was not always faithful or righteous. In this story, Jacob was obeying God’s word by returning to meet with Esau, but even then he did not completely trust God. Jacob heard that Esau was approaching with four hundred men. He divided his possessions, and sent some ahead, sending the rest into the safety of hiding. Then he cried out to God, “You sent me back here to meet Esau and now he is preparing to attack me. I do not deserve your kindness but you have promised to make me prosper. Save me from the hand of my brother.” Did he trust God? Did he believe that God would remain with him? He wrestled with his faith and his uncertainty.

God was with Jacob, and this story shows the struggle Jacob faced when being confronted by his God: a man wrestled with Jacob until the early hour of the morning. “The man said, Let me go, for the day breaks.” But Jacob would not let him go until he received a blessing. The man asked, “What is your name?” Jacob answered and the man said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Jacob limped away from the encounter in faith, trusting that God would be with him. Despite his failure, he received the blessing of God.

God is with us in our daily lives. This is an important message for us all to remember. We would rather leave God in the Temple or in our church building. We would rather control our own lives, direct our own paths. When we do so, however, we find that the path is much more difficult.

Jacob is an interesting, though not very likable, biblical character. The promises for Jacob were clear from the beginning, but he did not trust God. The voices that guided him did not trust that God is faithful. He lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated things to his benefit and ran away when the going got tough. He played favorites and served himself.

Jacob is not totally to blame. Though he took the birthright from Esau, Esau gave it away for a bowl of soup. Rebecca helped him take control of the blessing from his father. It seemed to her that it was necessary to do so that God’s promises could be fulfilled. He worked seven long years for the right to marry Rachel and Laban tricked him into taking Leah. Laban tried to take advantage of Jacob, cheating him out his rightful pay. He took matters into his own hands. Rachel helped him escape from Laban. In every situation, the actions are justified by the idea that they helped bring about God’s purpose for Jacob. However, every time we take matters into our own hands, we show our lack of trust in God. We think that God needs our help to be faithful.

During the years that he was gone, Jacob had built a dynasty for himself. He had wives, servants, children and great wealth. He heard the voice of God who told him to go home. He was afraid, but he obeyed. He sent a message to Esau announcing his return and Esau answered by coming to meet him with an army of hundreds. Still afraid and doubting God’s promises, Jacob divided his people and possessions into two groups, hoping that if Esau destroys one group the other group will survive.

Then he prayed. He prayed a prayer in which he recognized his unworthiness, confessed his doubt and reminded God of His promises. On the night before he faced his brother, he had to wrestle with his own doubts. To be reconciled to his brother, Jacob first needed to overcome all that had kept him from living as God had intended. He was a sinful man who had to face his greatest sin: his lack of trust in God. Everything he did against men, he did against God, because it was his way of ensuring that God’s promises would be fulfilled. Before he faced his past and began his future, he had to face his God.

We climb mountains. We go on pilgrimages. The greatest journey we travel, however, is our live of faith. It is hard. We don’t always know where we are going or what is waiting for us. We don’t know what troubles we’ll faith. We have to remember that this journey is not necessarily something unusual or spectacular like a national park vacation or a long awaited reunion. Our daily work and our everyday activities are part of our journey of faith. Through it all we can go in peace knowing that God is with us wherever we go. He does not sleep. He helps us through our struggles and keeps us in our coming and going. We don’t need to choose to take this journey in a manner that proves our worthiness to be in His presence. He loves His people and has chosen to be a part of our lives. This is why we sing songs of praise; He deserves our worship.

Timothy was struggling. Paul’s letter was written to encourage the young pastor to be bold with his faith and the preaching of God’s Word. He had all he needed to do God’s work in the world. “But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them. From infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul was among those who taught Timothy about faith in Jesus Christ, along with his mother and grandmother. I can imagine time around the fire as the family sang psalms and repeated the stories of God’s work for the nation of Israel. I can imagine the prayers they said together as they prepared to sleep at night. I can imagine them going to the synagogue to worship God together with the community of believers. Timothy was brought up in the faith. His journey wasn’t a very hard one at first. But as a young pastor in the early days of the Church, Timothy would face all sorts of obstacles. The elders would question his age. The Jews would question his faith. The world would question his life. Paul knew Timothy would need encouragement as he looked up into the hills. Who would be his help?

Paul told him to look to the scriptures. “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Paul urged Timothy to preach boldly despite the struggles he would face in this world; he could trust that God was with him as he went to do the work he was called to do. We are encouraged to have the same kind of trust as we go on our own journeys of faith.

Paul writes, not only for Timothy but for all of us, “But you be sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your ministry.” Despite the struggles we will face, the people and issues we will wrestle, let us always remember the source of our strength and the foundation of our faith is God.

Jacob was not very likable; he lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated his world to his benefit and ran away when the going got tough. He played favorites and served himself. His story may be unique, but are we all that different? Aren’t we sinners who have to face our greatest sin: our own lack of trust in God? We don’t want to face Him any more than the widow wanted to face the judge in this week’s Gospel story. We know that like Jacob, we’ll end up limping away from the encounter a little worse for wear. But we face Him in faith because we trust that He will do what is right.

Jesus tells us about a widow who pesters a judge for justice. For whatever reason -- perhaps he would have to rule over a powerful or wealthy person or simply because he has no regard for women -- the judge refuses to hear her case. When he does give in, his action has nothing to do with mercy or justice, but it is for his own purpose. He’d rather not be worn out by her constant pestering, “Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming,” he said. The judge’s acquiescence has more to do with his reputation than with the widow’s stubbornness. He was a man of power and authority and he recognized that the weak widow could do damage to his reputation and his future if someone noticed the lack of justice in his court.

Jesus then compares God to the judge. “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. Won’t God avenge his chosen ones, who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? I tell you that he will avenge them quickly.” Is Jesus really saying that God is like that unjust judge? No. The judge is the worst of human decency; God’s mercy and grace is something far above. God is in control and is handling the world in which we live. He is the God who does great things for His people. He is our keeper. He guards our lives and protects us from harm. He is our strength. If that sinful judge can do what is right, how much better is the justice we’ll get through God’s grace? We need only live in trust, knowing He is the one to which we can look for our help.

We haven’t all had a faith journey like Timothy. Some of us have been part of the Church since our earliest days. Others come to faith late in life. We all have something in common, however. We have the same source of encouragement: we have the scriptures that tell us God’s story and promises. The Holy Spirit assures of that He is trustworthy even when we are not faithful. Like Timothy, we have learned about Jesus from those who came before us: from Jacob to Paul to our mothers and grandmothers who taught us the stories of Jesus. Remain in those things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing that it comes from God and He is faithful.

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