Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.
We aren’t very good at waiting for God to make things right, even when He has promised to do so. We see opportunities to get things done, so we do them, forgetting that God has a plan. Then we find that we are caught up in a situation that is not what God intends and we struggle. The best example of this is Abraham and Sarah, who did not wait for God to fulfill His promise of children, and we are still struggling with the animosity between Isaac and Ishmael today in the Middle East and around the world.
I see this happen on a much smaller scale in the small court cases that are shown on the television court shows. Renters will often withhold rent because they are unhappy with the conditions in their apartments. While there are times when this is a valid way of dealing with the situation, most times it just causes bigger problems in the end. Instead of giving the landlords the opportunity to make things right, the renters take matters into their own hands and end up paying even more when they are taken to court. They could have tried to work things out, but instead create animosity and more trouble for everyone.
The story of Jacob is another one of those stories. He was born under a promise, but human impatience and uncertainty got in the way of God’s fulfillment of that promise. Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebecca, a twin whose brother was named Esau. They wrestled with each other even in the womb. Esau was born first; Jacob followed closely, grasping the heel of his brother’s foot. The boys were completely different. Jacob was a handsome and quiet young man, the opposite of his rugged brother who hunted the wild game their father loved. Esau was favored by Isaac, Jacob by Rebecca. God had promised Rebecca that Jacob would inherit the promises, and they took matters into their own hands to ensure that the promise would be fulfilled.
One day Esau was so hungry when he returned from a hunt, he willingly sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. When Isaac became old and he knew it was time to grant his blessing on his firstborn, he called Esau to his side. He desired one last taste of the wild game he loved. While Esau was hunting, Rebecca and Jacob ensured Jacob would receive the blessing. Jacob dressed in fur so that he would smell and feel like his rugged brother, then served Isaac a meal. Isaac gave Jacob the blessing thinking it was Esau. Esau came home and served his father the game he had prepared. When he asked for the blessing, they realized the blessing had already been given to Jacob. Out of fear for what Esau might do, Rebecca begged Jacob ran away.
Jacob fled from his family and the threats, separated from all he knew and loved. Even though he had been given the blessing of his father, he must have felt very alone. He had nothing of his own and was running for his life. He even left behind the God of his fathers. Yet, he was not alone; the Lord God Almighty was with him every step of the way. Jacob was the heir to a promise, the same promise God gave to Abraham and Isaac, and God is always faithful.
Jacob is an interesting, though not very likeable, biblical character. He struggled with his brother Esau over the blessing of Isaac and his inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with his wives, their maids and the children they gave him. Jacob wrestled with his fears, his doubts and his place in the story of God’s people. 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 steal the blessing. 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. In every situation, the actions seemed 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 for Him 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. One day he heard the voice of God; He told Jacob 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 destroyed one group the other group would survive. When Jacob stopped to rest, he felt the presence of God and realized that God would be with him wherever he went.
He prayed. He prayed a prayer in which he recognized his unworthiness, confessed his uncertainty 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 which was 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.
Jacob was about to meet with his brother Esau with whom he had been fighting for his entire life. God’s promises were wrapped up in that relationship and instead of trusting God to be faithful, Jacob had taken control. It was necessary for Jacob to wrestle with God, to understand that God is in control of his life and his destiny. He had to give himself to God, to be humbled in His presence, to recognize his own mortality before he met with his brother. He had to trust God.
Being patient and trusting in God does not always mean passive waiting. It means coming face to face on a regular basis with the God who is preparing us for what He has promised for our lives. Sometimes we have to wrestle with Him, to struggle with our unworthiness, our uncertainty, and our understanding of God’s promises.
That’s what the widow in today’s Gospel lesson shows us. I have often considered her similar in character to a pesky five year old. Those of us with children remember that age. Do you recall the floor plan of the Toys ‘R Us stores? They always put the diapers and formula in the back of the store, ensuring that mothers dragging young children through the aisles would be assailed by displays of the hottest new toys. Grocery stores do the same thing. They put the milk in the back and strategically place the things that interest children so that they will pester their mom until she gives up and gives in. The cash registers are filled with candy and toys so that Mom has to endure being trapped in that space while the child cries out for something.
Children can be very persistent. They can ask, plead, haggle, deal, cry and beg. It takes the most unfaltering mother to keep saying “No” over and over again. Sometimes our response is just like that of the judge. We decide to give in because we know that the child will simply wear us out if we don’t. Sometimes we do so out of frustration or embarrassment. Sometimes we do so because we want to bribe the child. Sometimes we give in because we realize that they deserve a special treat. There have been times when I have weighed and measured the choices. Would it be better at this moment to teach the lesson that we cannot have everything we want or is this an opportunity for grace?
The judge had no fear of God or concern for men. He had ruled against the woman time and time again. Her opponent was probably a more powerful person, probably a man. The woman could do nothing for the judge’s career or for his personal fortune. It would not pay him to rule in her favor. Perhaps he had received, or expected to receive, a nice bribe from the widow’s adversary. We do not know the story behind the appeals. She was a widow, perhaps a woman who had lost everything when her husband died. She was probably left with no means of support and as a widow, a woman, she had no authority. She may have had no one to stand up for her. She was alone and she really had no choice. She had to fight.
Her fight was to appeal to the judge’s sense of justice. Though he was a man who had no fear of God and no regard for humans, he did have a sense of his position. Her constant appeals were not only annoying, but they would have called her plight to the attention of the community. We read verse five in the sense of a mother giving in to her pesky five-year old, “yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming.” The translation does fully convey the intent of these words.
The Greek word used here means “to strike in the eye” or “to give a black eye to someone.” In other words, this judge who was a man of power and authority recognized that the weak widow could do damage to his reputation and his future. He saw that even though the widow had no wealth to pay him or power to secure him a better position, she could destroy his reputation in the community and make his job more difficult. He gave in to her cries and ruled in her favor. Sometimes human justice comes through the unrighteous motives of men.
In this story, however, we learn that God is different. It seems as though Jesus is using the unjust judge as a representation for God, but we are bothered by the idea that he is not concerned with man. Jesus does not say that God is like that judge, He shows an exaggeration of a typical human response to a situation and compares that to the reality of God’s ways. God does not have to be threatened with a loss of his power and authority to respond to human need. God is just and when he hears the cries of His people, He responds with mercy and grace.
We should not read this story as teaching simply persistence in prayer, as it is so often interpreted. For some people, the lesson here is to keep praying for the same things over and over again and eventually God will give in and give us what we want. This is a story about justice. Is getting a candy bar at the checkout a matter of justice? Is a judge who rules in favor of a widow in need a matter of justice? We learn from the pesky widow to be persistent in matters of justice, to cry out to God for things to be made right in the world and with the world.
Jacob finally realized, as he wrestled with God, the need to trust in Him. He had taken matters into his own hands too often, trusting in his own ability to make God’s promises be fulfilled, and he sinned against man and God in the process. He finally realized, as he prayed to the God who had made so many promises, that God was with him all along. God hears and He will always rule in favor of justice. We simply live in faith, knowing that God knows what is happening and that He is working for justice.
We take all sorts of journeys in our life. Some are short, like trips to the grocery store. Some of more important like the journey through our school years or a trip to the altar. Our journeys can be physical like a trip to Grandmother’s house or they can be emotional as we make decisions that will transform our lives. We also take spiritual journeys.
People have been making pilgrimages since the beginning of time. We are drawn to the sacred. We do not always understand what makes a place sacred, but spiritual people have always gone to those places that make us feel as though we are near the divine. The tops of mountains and bodies of water often serve as these places. Mysterious formations either man-made or natural call out to us. We travel on journeys to those places in response to our needs or to our beliefs. The journeys are not easy. The temporal dangers are obvious: weather, criminals and health issues cause difficulty along the path. Some pilgrims choose to make the journey even more difficult by adding spiritual practices. Some people fast; others take the journey on their knees. For them, the journey serves as a way of humbling themselves and becoming worthy to stand in the presence of the divine. For some, the pilgrimage is a duty, a part of their religion.
The Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. They went to the temple to make sacrifices, to worship and honor God at the special feasts and festivals during the year. It was a difficult journey. 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. They took these journeys with the assurance of God’s presence. They were not making a pilgrimage to a sacred place to meet God, they knew that they only way they could arrive at that sacred place was if God walked with them.
The psalm for today was apparently used at the end of worship during those feasts and festivals that brought pilgrims into the Temple. The community of faith sought the blessing of God as they were beginning their trip back to their homes. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” The song finishes with a benediction, an invocation of God’s blessings over the community of faith as they went their separate ways. “Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” God does not sleep. He takes care of His people.
We don’t always recognize the journey as we travel. Our daily work and our everyday activities are part of a greater journey. We aren’t necessarily headed to a special place; we aren’t seeking a sacred place. However, through it all we can go with 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. He is faithful to His promises and will always ensure that justice is done. We don’t have to prove our worthiness or take matters into our own hands. He loves us and has chosen to be a part of our lives. This is why we sing songs of praise, because He deserves our worship.
The song of praise looks toward the journey home, as the faithful people of God leave the house of the Lord to face the dangers of the world enriched, inspired and prepared. We don’t know what we will face during our journeys. The Jewish pilgrims faced murderers and thieves in the mountains outside the city. They faced the heat of the desert and the loneliness of the road. They faced the reality of returning to the world after having experienced the divine.
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. “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 about everything that God did 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. 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 faced all sorts of obstacles. The elders questioned his age. The Jews questioned his faith. The world questioned his life. Paul knew Timothy needed 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 each person who belongs to 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 struggled with his family, his future and his fears. He struggled with God. In the end he discovered that he was not in control and that he made his journey through life and faith more difficult when he took matters into his own hands. Paul wrote to Timothy about continuing in faith in Jesus Christ, by standing firm on the instruction he had received and believed. The widow in Jesus’ parable reminds us to be persistent in prayer but also in moving forward in faith.
Our scriptures this week are about the relationship with have with God. In each of the lessons we see some aspect of our communication with the God of our salvation. We wrestle with God. We seek God’s blessing as we face the dangers that threaten our physical, emotional and spiritual lives. We stand firm in the scriptures, reading God’s Word regularly to keep it fresh on our minds and in our hearts. We come before God over and over again seeking His mercy and grace. All these ways of communicating are journeys in of themselves as we learn to dwell in the presence of God.
Our destination is always God. All that we do in faith is leading us to Him. We try to control the journey, so we work hard to make things happen, like Jacob, and we lose touch with the God who has set us on our path. Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Will He find faith in our lives, as we journey toward God with God at our side, trusting in His mercy and grace every step of the way?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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