Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 121 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 Luke 18:1-8
I first heard the story of Jacob and the angel, or God, or the mysterious stranger for the first time in Kansas, when we got U2’s The Joshua Tree in the mail and my dad put it on the CD player for the first time. That album starts with a sound that might be twilight or might be sunrise and builds and layers around wails and grunts and guitar until you realize that you’re waking up, that it is sunrise—until you get to the song Bullet the Blue Sky. It’s a seriously scary song, especially if you’re a boy listening to it for the first time, scary because the music sounds hopeless and cruel and includes words about bullets and lyrics about government corruption and fleeing into the arms of America. It also includes this line, “Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome.” Bullet the Blue Sky is a song about the violence in Central America, violence that was in part facilitated and encouraged by the US government, that forced people to flee their homes and search for shelter today. The song ends with a man meant to be Ronald Reagan paying bribes while fighter jets rip holes in the sky, rain driving through the gaping wound, driving the women and children into the arms of America. If anyone has wrestled with God, I suppose it is the people huddling and fleeing from the war jets, the bombs, and men armed with impunity. Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome. When we see what happens in the world, I wonder if we don’t sometimes want to go out by the river at night and wait for God, just so we can get our hands on him, look him in the eye, and hear what he has to say.
So perhaps there is something in this parable about the unjust judge, in which we might be inclined to think of God that way. Jonathan Edwards, whom some have described as America’s greatest theologian, is remembered of course for his sermon that all Americans have to read in high school, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s a testament to his prowess as a preacher that we all bear the scars of that sermon in our minds and hearts—who can forget the image of the sinner, suspended over the fires of hell by a thread? A good Calvinist, and really, a good Lutheran sermon might say that God’s justice always feels wrong to a sinner, since we are so adept at justifying ourselves and healing our own consciences. But Edwards might say that we feel like the judge is unjust, only because God’s justice is perfect, and we are not. And perhaps that’s true—I have met people who simply have had too much of life, and believe that if God was good, they would not have had to struggle with the things their lives have given them. I wonder if the disciples thought that way about God sometimes.
And although Jesus compares the Father to the unjust judge, he doesn’t not equate them. One is the unjust judge, who grants justice because he is weary of being bothered, like a corporate board might resign itself to a new union contract. The other is the God of justice, who grants justice to his chosen ones, and grants it quickly. The point of the parable seems to be that God is just, and good, and kind, and caring, and quick to act. But still Jesus ends the parable with a question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One is tempted to tell Jesus that he said that God’s chosen ones cry out day and night to God—isn’t the cry itself an act of faith?
And God’s chosen ones do cry out. We cry out. We cry out for health and healing; we cry out our pain at the death of our loved ones. We cry out for our broken relationships, our mistakes, our confusions, our frustrations. We cry out for our temptations even as we give in to them, we cry out for our fears. All of us, in one way or another, cry out to God for help. Times come in our life when we really do feel suspended by a thread above—call it the fires of hell, call it the abyss, call it despair, call it whatever you want. We make the same sound the spider makes when it feels the flames. We cry out for help, we cry out in anger, we cry out in shame and helplessness.
I wonder what happened to Jacob when he first felt that presence in his camp, what he felt when they first came to grips. I wonder if he cried out when the stranger struck his hip. But perhaps the oddest moment in this whole story comes when the stranger tries to leave as the day breaks, but Jacob won’t let him go. Why wouldn’t he let him go, this mysterious being? Instead, Jacob simply asks for a blessing— “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” I will not let you go, unless you bless me—and the stranger blesses him and gives him a new name, the name of Israel, a name that lives even until this day. Israel means the one who wrestles with God, or alternatively, God wrestles—Hebrew is an ambiguous language, much like this story is ambiguous. Who is this wrestler? Is it God? Is it, as some of the more German scholars claim, a river demon? Is it an angel? Who knows—the story happens in the dead of night, and in the daylight what happened is not clear, except that struggle happened, and so did the blessing.
The parable, really, is not about the comparison between God and the judge. Luke says Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart. It shouldn’t be surprising that the writer of the Gospel and editor of the parable knows what it’s about—that’s exactly it. We need to pray. Without prayer we will lose heart, lose faith, lose trust in God. God is eager to hear us, and eager to answer. Indeed, God does answer our prayer continually.
But I think another word for prayer is wrestle—wrestling with God. If Jesus prays so hard to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane that the Gospel writer says drops of blood seep from his brow, then we can wrestle with God. If Jesus, in that garden, can plead with God to take the cup from him, then we can wrestle with God. Take your prayers to God. Cry out! God will hear you. Wrestle with God—you will be blessed if you do.
Finally, I think there is something else here. God searched Jacob out. God sends Jesus. God picks this fight. God is the one that came to Jacob, that found him at the stream, that wrestled with him till he asked for a blessing. If we don’t come for God, God will come for us. Maybe we need to read the parable again—maybe it is we who are the unjust judge, satisfied and happy with our lot, caring neither for God nor the poor, and God is the widow, who with persistence breaks down our walls.
Vincent Donovan, a Catholic missionary to Masai in Kenya, suffered moments of horrible despair and discouragement. But one day he was sitting with a Masai elder, talking about God, and faith. And the elder said, “We did not search you out, Padri,” he said to me. “We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house in the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.” This changed Donovan forever. And later, many years later, he told the story to another Masai, also struggling with despair and faith: “You left your father and family and home went in search of God up that terrible mountain. You tracked and followed him to his lair, like a lion tracks a wildebeest. But all this time he has been tracking you. You did not for me…I was sent to you. You thought you were searching for [God]. All this time he has been searching for you. God is more beautiful and loving than even you imagined. He hungered for you…. Try as we might, we cannot reach up by brute force and drag God down from the heavens. He is already here. He has found you. In truth…we are not the lion looking for God. God is the lion looking for us. Believe me, the lion is God.”
So never be afraid to wrestle with God, to pray, to strive. If you don’t, God will find you and strive with you, and in the end, God will open your heart with grace.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack