Sunday, October 17, 2004

Twentieth Sunday in Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:10-8

Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in From this time forth and for evermore.

The early church struggled with many things. They struggled with the Jews who did not believe Jesus was the expected Messiah. They struggled with the Roman authorities who feared the impact of Christianity on the empire. They struggled with one another about what was holy, right and true. They struggled, often unto martyrdom.

St. Ignatius was one of those early Christians. The second bishop of Antioch was martyred on early in the second century. Apparently he was thrown to the wild beasts. It is said that he prayed that they would be prompt with him. “I shall entice them to eat me speedily.” He was not afraid to die. For him, death meant beginning his new life. In one of his final letters we read, “I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth… Do not stand in the way of my birth to the real life.” We celebrate his life on October 17.

Our first lesson for this day is the story of Jacob wrestling God on the shore of the Jabbok. Jacob knew about wrestling. 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 those woman and their children. Finally, Jacob was preparing to face his brother Esau once again and he was unsure what the outcome of the meeting would be. 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.

While there, a man wrestled with Jacob until the early hour of the morning. The man said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” But Jacob would not let him go until he blessed him. To ask such a thing, Jacob must have known with whom he was wrestling. The man asked, “What is thy name?” Jacob answered and the man said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and he was a microcosm of the way the nation of Israel would be in history. Jacob was not always faithful. He was not always righteous. He was not always a perfect example of holy living. He lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated nature to his benefit and stole away in the middle of the night with his property. He played favorites and served himself.

Yet, in the faith chapter of Hebrews (11) Jacob is listed. “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.” Perhaps on the bank of the Jabbok, Jacob finally realized that he had not spent his life wrestling with the things of this world, but with God.

Earlier in the chapter, when Jacob heard that Esau was coming with four hundred men, 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.” Now, Jacob did cry out to God, but before he did so he divided his people so that if Esau attacked, he could only destroy half of Jacob’s possessions. And he sent a gift to his brother, a goodwill bribe. He looked to God for deliverance but also took things into his own hands.

So, there on the bank of the Jabbok, God and Jacob wrestled through the night. Now, there are those who suggest that this wrestling was not a physical battle, but rather a battle of the spiritual wills. Yet, the passage tells us that Jacob named the place Peniel because it was there he saw the Lord face to face. God directly confronted Jacob’s uncertainty and showed him that no matter how successful Jacob appears to be in flesh, it is God who has ultimate control of the situation. The Lord had sent Jacob back to his people, the Lord would ensure Jacob’s success and safety.

After the blessing, Jacob asked, “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.” This was an impossible request. In the culture of the day, having someone’s name meant having some control over that person, it gives definition to the person’s being. God is unnamed because it impossible to define God in human terms. He has no name, except that which we have given Him from our understanding of His character from the scriptures.

After this wrestling with God, Jacob was left with a new name and a limp to remind him that the Lord God Almighty is in control of his life. He went to meet Esau with his family leading the way – trusting that God would take care of his needs. Ignatius was able to enter into the lion’s den in the hope of God’s promises. He was not concerned with death because he knew that death meant new life.

The psalmist for this week cries, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?” This song is apparently part of the closing liturgy of worship in the Temple. Pilgrims would come from great distances to worship and offer sacrifice in Jerusalem. The roads were harsh and dangerous. No one knew if they would make it home alive, particularly through the hills that surrounded the city. Robbers and murderers hid in the rocky crevices of those hills waiting for travelers. The conditions of the hills and deserts were unwelcoming to the pilgrim. Who would save the pilgrims from the hardships of the road? He answered his own question, “My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.”

The priest answered with a benediction. “My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel Will neither slumber nor sleep. Jehovah is thy keeper: Jehovah is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, Nor the moon by night. Jehovah will keep thee from all evil; He will keep thy soul.” In these words the pilgrim is assured that God will go with him on the road and will guard every aspect of his life, including his soul.

The final line of this benediction is the most important and perhaps one we should us in our own liturgy as we end our own worship. “Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and for evermore.” With these words we are reminded that God goes with us as we leave our church services and He gets us through the difficulties of life in the world.

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. Even in our churches we struggle against one another over the issues of the day.

It was no different in the days of the early church. Paul and Peter had disagreements about new believers. The Jewish believers had differences with the Greek believers. The Gnostics and the Marcionists offered questionable interpretations of the scriptures. The apologists had to defend the faith and the Church had to decide what was holy, right and true and what was heretical. The Church had to establish the proper canon, the creeds and the apostolic faith. It was a turbulent time for the believers as they suffered persecution from the world and were divided among themselves.

Paul’s letter to Timothy was written to encourage this young preacher to be bold with his faith and the preaching of God’s Word. Today’s passage addresses the issue of doctrine. “But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. And that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Now certainly, Paul was among those who taught Timothy about faith in Jesus Christ, along with his mother and grandmother.

But Paul also talked about the scriptures. “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.” Timothy also learned sound doctrine from the scriptures and from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul goes on to urge Timothy to preach boldly and properly despite the struggles he will face in this world. Paul tells him that people will be swayed by false doctrine, and we certainly know this to be true.

Paul concludes this passage with these words – not only for Timothy but for all of us in ministry – “But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy 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.

Jesus tells us an odd story in today’s Gospel lesson. It is about a widow who pesters a judge for justice. He ignores her for some time, but eventually we hear him say to himself, “Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming.” 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. The Greek here means more than just ‘pestering’. It literally means “strike under the eye” or “give a black eye to,” so his acquiescence has more to do with his reputation than with her stubbornness. He is concerned that eventually someone will see his injustice and he will lose his position.

In this parable, Jesus then compares God to the judge. “And the Lord said, Hear what the unrighteous judge saith. And shall not God avenge his elect, that cry to him day and night, and yet he is longsuffering over them? I say unto you, that he will avenge them speedily.” Yet, is Jesus really describing God as being like that unjust judge? No, if the judge is the worst of human decency, then the example of God’s mercy and grace is something far above. God is in control and is handling the world in which we live. We need only live in trust, knowing He is the one to which we can look to God for our help.

St. Ignatius did not fear death because he knew that God will not send us into the lion’s den without standing with us through the struggle. Jacob stopped fearing his reunion with Esau because he knew God’s promises were true and that God would not send him home alone. Paul encouraged Timothy to preach boldly and to stand firmly on the word of God, and he encourages us to do so also.

We are going to struggle. We are going to struggle against the world and against ourselves. We are even going to struggle against our brothers and sisters in Christ as we deal with the issues of our day and how to preach God’s grace into a world that does not wish to hear. Most people want to hear only what will tickle their itching ears, they will support only those who feed them what they want to eat. We will struggle, but when we do we stand in good company with Jacob, Timothy, St. Ignatius and all those who realized that God will be with them each step of the way.

When we cry out “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?” we can confess with certainty, “My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.” Thanks be to God.

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