Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Wrestling a Blessing"

Message preached October 17, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8

Order of Worship

            Charles Dickens, author of such classics as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield, was born in 1812 to middle-class English parents. Unfortunately, problems with debt broke his family apart, and at a young age Dickens wrestled with poverty at a time when it was seen as a sign of weakness and moral depravity. Forced to quit school, he worked in a shoe polish factory. It was there that he was ushered into the misery and tedium of working-class life by a senior boy named Bob Fagin, a fellow he came to resent.

            Years later, his family back together and his life on-track, Dickens wrote the first installment of what later became the novel, Oliver Twist. It was common practice then for works like this to be published chapter by chapter in magazines, that eraís equivalent of a television series. The musical version of this tale, which we are presenting this weekend and next in our church dinner theater, is a more lighthearted rendition of what is really a fairly dark story.

            In the novel, Oliverís mother dies on the same bed in which he is born, an illegitimate child with no means of establishing his identity. "Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them," Dickens wrote. "The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertize to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected..."

            His name, given simply on the basis of it being the letter Tís turn, says much about the wrestling for justice this boy will undertake in his young life. His will be a tale full of Twistís and turns. Along the way, he will encounter a character named Fagin who, in the book, is not a nice man. The heart of the musical rendition of this story, for those of you who have or will come to see it, is when this orphan cries out in song,

"Where is Love? Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree that I've been dreaming of?"

            He is yearning for the mother he has never known, yet still he searches - from the workhouse, to servitude in a mortuary, to the life of a street urchin, to (well, I wonít say more for those who havenít seen the musical). This cry of his heart ends,

"Every night I kneel and pray, let tomorrow be the day,
when I see the face of someone who I can mean something to. Where, where is Love?"
(From the Broadway show "Oliver!" Words and Music by Lionel Bart)

            In worship this morning, we stand at the intersection of two Bible stories. We may have learned them long ago in Sunday School installments. On the other hand, they may be brand new to us. In one (Genesis 32:22-31) we follow the journey of someone who has spent his life wrestling for his place in it. Born seconds after his twin brother, Jacob was grabbing for Esauís leg even in the womb. Later manipulations twisted from his fatherís dying hand the first-born birthright intended for Esau. Running from his brotherís wrath, far from home he wrestles for a wife and ends up getting two from their father (an exchange which turned out not to be a bargain).

            Time has come to seek out mother and even brother, and the night before his potentially fearful meeting with his sibling, Jacob sleeps alone beside the Jabbok river. "Did it really happen or was it all a dream?" he may have wondered the next morning, except for that pain in his side. Did he really wrestle with that man all night for a blessing? Just like he wrestled for that blessing from his father many years before? Who was that man in the dark? Was it really God?

            The thought of wrestling with God for a blessing may sound sacrilegious, but there is something to be said for persistence, even with the One who gives us life and breath, who saves and delivers us, who provides our daily bread. Life, after all, is not always fair. In our second Bible story this morning (Luke 18:1-8), a parable of Jesus, a widow steadily annoys a judge, day in and day out, seeking justice. Life has not been fair to her. Even though this magistrate "feared neither God nor man," as Jesus put it, he eventually gave in to that widowís persistent nagging, and granted her the justice she needed. She wrestled it out of him, you see. While our Lord wasnít implying that God is an uncaring judge, he did indicate that sometimes crying out - day and night - to God is the path of faith.

            This reminds me of a story I heard last weekend at a pastorís meeting. Fred Craddock is a retired teacher of preachers, who himself grew up in poverty in west Tennessee. Heís rather short fellow who is filled with stories that connect with the Bible he knows by heart. Hereís one. Listen.

         "Iíve met a desperate person since weíve moved to the mountain. It is a woman. I had gone to the hospital in Fannin County to visit someone else. I didnít know her, didnít know I would encounter her, but when I went down the corridor, I saw her. Her head was against the door, and both fists were up beside her face, and she was banging on the door: "Let me in, let me in, let me in!" I couldnít imagine someone locking her out of the room. I got there, and it was the chapel door.

         I said, "Let me help you." I tried to open the door, but the knob wouldnít turn. It was locked. I stopped a worker, and I said, "The chapel is locked."

         She said, "We have to keep it locked. There were some kids in here some time ago, and they trashed the chapel. We had to get all new furniture and paint the room. We canít afford to keep doing that, so we keep it locked."

         "Well, find someone with a key."

         She came back a little bit later with another woman, who opened the door for us, and this woman and I went in. I would say she was about forty. She had the look of desperation. I could tell that she hadnít come to the hospital with any planning; she came urgently, she came running. The dress she had on was not typical public wear. She had no shoes, just scuffs. Her hair had not been combed, no makeup. She had the look of desperation. She had the voice of desperation. I canít tell you if she was screaming or crying or moaning or what it was, but it was desperation. Strange sound. I heard some of her words. "I know he s going to die, I know he s going to die, I know he s going to die."

         "My husband."
         "Whatís the matter?"
         "Heís had a heart attack."
         I said, "Can I get you some water?"
         She said, "No."
         I told her who I was, and I said, "Can I pray with you?"
         And she said, "Please."

         I started to pray for her and for her husband, and she interrupted me. She didnít just interrupt me; she took over. She started praying herself and stopped my prayer. I think maybe I was too quiet or too slow or saying the wrong thing or something. Anyway, my prayer wasnít getting there, and she knew it. So she said, "Lord, this is not the time to take my husband. You know that better than I do, heís not ready. Never prays, never goes to church or anything. Heís not ready, not a good time to take him. Donít take him now. And what about me? If I have to raise these kids, what am I going to do? I donít have any skills, canít find any work. Quit school to marry him. If Iíd have known you were going to take him, Iíd have stayed in school." She was really talking to God. "And what about the kids? They donít mind me now with him around. If heís gone, theyíll be wild as bucks. What about the kids? This is not the time to take my husband." Whew.

         I stayed as long as I felt useful I went back the next morning, and she had on a nice dress; she had on shoes; she had combed her hair. She looked fine. She was in the hallway outside intensive care. Before I could ask, she said, "He s better." She smiled and said, "Iím sorry about that crazy woman yesterday."

         I said, "Well, you werenít crazy."
         She said, "I guess the Lord heard one of us."
         I said, "He heard you."

         She was desperate. She had God by the lapels, both hands, and was screaming in Godís face: "I don t think youíre listening!" Thatís desperation."

(Craddock Stories, Fred Craddock, Chalice Press, 2001, pp. 110-111. Heard 10/8/04)

            Today has been bright and shiny, as we have witnessed the baptismal steps of two women, and celebrated the previously made commitment of others in our fellowship. Itís good to rejoice and be glad on days like today, to send forth with our blessings these folks, whether their steps of faith are brand new or well-worn. I donít mean to darken this glorious occasion. I just want to remind you that when life turns out unfair, as it often does, you have a wrestling God.

            Itís not a sign of weak faith or bad character to "bug" God with your troubles. Sometimes prayer becomes nagging, and thatís okay. If Jacob could wrestle a blessing from God, so can we. Thatís not to say the Lord is under our control, like a candy machine we can clink our money in and receive what we want. Far from it. Days come when we wonder whether there is justice in this world, for ourselves or others. I think Charles Dickens wondered that, perhaps a reason why he wrestled with the conscience of a nation through his books over a 150 years ago.

            Such wrestling still needs to happen. Perhaps by you. Make sure, however, that you begin the tussle in prayer. Let me remind you that when Jacob contended with God beside the Jabbok, God changed his name to Israel, which means, "one who wrestles with God." Few, if any of us, come from Jewish background, but our faith says we have been adopted in as children of Israel (Romans 8:14-17). We are not orphans... "Where is love?" We have found it in Jesus, or it has found us. This love is stubborn, persistent, enduring - because, well, because thatís the nature of our wrestling God.

"Christian, do you hear the Lord?"  #494

online resources for the Genesis and Luke texts.

For commentaries consulted, see Genesis and Luke.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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