Sunday, October 17, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 29
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

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

On August 5th, 700,000 tons of rock fell on a mine where thirty-three men were mining copper. It took seventeen days for rescuers to dig a hole twenty-five hundred feet into the ground to discover the fate of the missing men. All were still alive, sustained by rationing the two days' worth of food they had with them in the mine. The rescuers sent food, phones and other necessities as they were able to the men, who appeared amazingly upbeat in the first pictures that were sent out to the world. For two months, that hole was a lifeline to the men, a connection to the outside world and the one place they could look for their salvation.

Last night the first man was rescued. At this writing, they are still slowly but carefully bringing the men out of the mine, on at a time, in a capsule designed by NASA for this very purpose, designed in the past two months to save these men from what might have been a much different ending. I don't know what circumstances made this rescue possible, but there is now hope whenever there is a mine collapse because they know this method works and they have the equipment to do it. Every reunion has been tearful, joyful celebrations for the men and their families, who sixty-nine days ago never expected to see one another again.

Can you imagine having to look at a twenty-eight inch hole, twenty-five hundred feet long for your salvation? It doesn't seem possible that anyone could get out of that situation. The men hadn't seen the sun in over two months. They hadn't smelled fresh air. They hadn't kissed their wives or hugged their children. They had food and water, each other and the hope for rescue, but the courage of those men had to be overwhelming to believe that they could be rescued through such a small place.

Where do you look for salvation? You most certainly have not been trapped so far underground, but we've all faced situations that required rescuing. When your car failed on that rainy night, who did you call for help? When your best friend was killed in that car accident, who did you turn to? When your mother discovered she was sick, where did you find hope? When you failed that test, or lost that job, or hurt your spouse, where did you look for help?

The psalmist sings, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?" Imagine what it must have been like in the days of the psalmist. The people of Israel gathered together at the Temple during the feasts and festivals, to do their duty and offer their sacrifices. During the days of the festival, they were gathered together from the far reaches of civilization, worshipping with family and friends among God's people. The experience was surely uplifting and it must have been difficult to leave at the end of the festival, especially since they then had to go back into the world to travel dangerous highways to their homes far from their God.

This psalm was 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. “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.

Having God along for the ride does not make the journey easy. 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 those woman 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.

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 breaketh." But Jacob would not let him go until he received a blessing. Jacob must have known the wrestler was someone greater, because a lesser could not bless someone greater. 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 struggled and prevailed. His name was changed to Israel, and he became the father of the entire nation. He was the first, but would not be the last because the nation would constantly strive against God and man. Jacob, Israel, was not always faithful or righteous. On this very occasion, 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. Despite his failure, he received the blessing of God.

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 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. Do we go forth without fear, knowing that God is with us? Or do we wrestle between faith and uncertainty?

We probably relate better to the widow in today's Gospel lesson. We experience unfairness, perhaps even injustice, as we go through out lives. The unfairness and injustice may not be to the extreme of the widow, but that doesn't diminish our experiences. Did you ever face a bully? Or did you have a teacher who graded more harshly than you deserved? Did you ever lose a job for all the wrong reasons? Have you lost a friendship over a misunderstanding? Have you experienced the consequences of a sin that you did not do? Have you ever cried out to God with the question, "WHY ME?"

The gospel lesson begins with the word "then," so it is helpful to consider what brought Jesus to this story. In the second half of the previous chapter, Jesus was confronted with a question from the Pharisees. "When will the Kingdom of God come?" Jesus told them that they would not be able to see the kingdom of God when it arrives, because it is within them. The kingdom of God is not going to be a nation or a people, which can be seen by the world, but it dwells within the hearts of believers. Then He warned the disciples to beware of those who will claim to see the Kingdom coming. He encouraged them with the reality that when the time has come, it will be obvious. Meanwhile, there is no need to worry, for God dwells within them. He is in control. He will be faithful.

So, he follows this warning with the story of the widow. She was dealt an unknown injustice. Perhaps her husband died and someone stole everything from her. Perhaps someone owed a debt to her and refused to repay because she had no husband. Perhaps her husband was killed by someone, but never charged because the murderer was a strong and powerful person in the community. It appears that the judge was willing to be bribed, that he was willing to give "justice" according to his pocketbook.

We probably do identify with the widow because we've seen the same thing in our world. The person with the power or the money or the position is the one who wins, whether it is in government, business or even in our personal lives. At least that's how it seems sometimes. It is no wonder we are afraid to go forward in trust and faith. Like Jacob, we don't want to face any circumstances without knowing who is in control. So, we hide that which we value and hope that God will save the rest. If He doesn't, we're still safe. But in doing this, we wrestle with God, only half-heartedly believing the promises. Half-hearted faith is no faith at all.

While we do identify with the widow, are we as persistent? Are we as willing as she to pester God endlessly? Are we willing to humble ourselves to the point of ridiculous in the faith that God will grant our plea? Are we willing, like those trapped miners, to believe that someone, somewhere is able to make everything better, to save them from a life of living like a mole? These men, trapped underground for sixty-nine days are coming out with smiles on their faces, as they should. But have you seen the pictures from underground? They smiled there, too, knowing that salvation was just outside that twenty-five hundred foot, twenty-eight inch hole. Have you experienced anything more ridiculous than that?

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. As we struggle against men, we also struggle against God, because it is tough to believe that He is coming when we are trapped in a hole. 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.

Paul’s letter to Timothy was written to encourage a young preacher to be bold with his faith and the preaching of God’s Word. In this passage, Paul talks about 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.” Paul knew that Timothy had a firm foundation of God's Word. He had learned it from the time he was a baby from his mother and grandmother. And he had learned it from Paul.

Paul also writes, “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 urges Timothy to preach boldly and properly despite the struggles he will face in this world. It won't be easy. People are easily swayed by false doctrine, and there have always been those who have preached their own interpretation of the Gospel. But Timothy is encouraged to stand firmly on the foundation that was laid, to do the work he was called to do, even if it seemed impossible. The most ridiculous circumstances are the ones in which God is hardest at work. Whether it is a brother facing an angry brother, or a widow facing a corrupt judge, God is ultimately in control. Trust and faith, rather than uncertainty, will help us through.

Paul concludes this passage with these words, “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. When we don't know where to turn, when we don't know how to escape, we need only look up, for God is with us and He is faithful. He is our helper, our Savior, our LORD. He will keep our coming out and going in now and forevermore.

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