What is important to you? What's worth fighting for? What would make you be determined and persistent, not give up, not be put off until you got it sorted? Is there something that you are so passionate about that you would stick with it and be prepared to struggle for as long as it takes? What would make you like a terrier who has got a shoe in his teeth and won’t let go?
Our readings today remind us that living a Christian life, holding true to God, can be, and often is, a struggle that calls for persistence and fortitude. We have to hang on in there because all sorts will be thrown at us and we have to be resilient. There will always be the temptation to give up, to seek an easier way. But we are reminded that we should stand our ground and that following in the way of Jesus is worth fighting for.
From the Old Testament we heard about Jacob’s struggle with God. The back story on Jacob, (which I recommend as a good read in Genesis) is that Jacob, brought up by his father Isaac as a God fearing son, had gone astray from the straight and narrow – led on somewhat by his mother Rebecca. He had stolen his brother Esau’s birth right by tricking his father and pretending to be Esau. He had then left home and by various wheeling and dealing and generally being conniving had acquired a goodly amount of livestock and two wives. However Jacob has now heard that Esau is coming after him and Jacob is beginning to show some concern for his wayward behaviour.
He had been praying to God seeking guidance. Now in our reading Jacob spends a night wrestling with God. Seen by many as a decision making struggle – am I going to carry on with my errant ways or am I ready to change and go with God’s ways?
It’s a struggle that each of us will have faced at some point - and probably not just the once. God reveals himself to us and we have a decision to make. For Jacob his mental tussle is pictured for us as a physical wrestling match which actually seems to end in a draw. But as God leaves he breaks Jacob’s hip and leaves him with a permanent limp – perhaps just to show who really is the boss!
It is clear that the struggling is a pivotal moment for Jacob. He wants God’s blessing but making the change in his life behaviour is a big ask. Finally he makes his decision – God wins! Jacob goes on to meet and make peace with Esau. He does receive God’s blessings in life including a new name “Israel” so he becomes father to a nation. (Israel means ‘he struggles with God’.)
Our reading from Luke is a lesson in persistence, in not giving up, in not losing heart. A parable from Jesus about a widow and a judge. If you have read the church magazine for this month you will already have had some insight on this one.
In this story we are told of a judge who essentially cares only about himself and doesn’t really want to be concerned about other people’s troubles – especially people he sees as being of no consequence. But he is continually pestered by a widow who is demanding justice. She goes on and on and on; she’s not giving him any peace. For some time the judge turns a deaf ear but eventually he gives in to her persistent pleas. Not because he wants to hear her case but because he is fed up with her unending pestering.
So yes, this is a parable about perseverance in prayer, about never giving up. But also, when looked at in the context of Jesus’ time (2000 years ago), there is more to it. In those days a woman had worthy standing in society only when either she was a virgin, and therefore in the shop window, as it were, looking for a husband; or when she actually had a husband. A widow was not in either situation and therefore was very vulnerable and not a person with any clout in society. Religious law as laid down in Exodus 22 stated that widows should be look after and treated sympathetically.
We are told that the judge in this story had no fear of God so he wasn’t bothered about religious law and certainly had no sympathy for the widow. Yet eventually, because she is persistent and won’t let up, he does give in and give her the attention she seeks. The lesson here from Jesus is not just about persistence in prayer but also that in God’s kingdom the disregarded, the down and outs, those at the bottom of life’s heap, will be heard by God. They should also be paid attention to by those at the top of life’s heap in this world. Everyone deserves to be heard.
I have recently read a book called Poverty Safari written by Darren McGarvey which is a book about poverty in the UK today written by one who was brought up in that situation. In the book the point was made over and over that too often there is a failure by those in authority at the top and middle of our society to actually listen to those at the bottom. Those at the top and middle, discuss and take decisions to, as they see it, help those in poverty. “We know what they need” - but they don’t actually ask those in the poverty situation what help is really needed.
As a result frustration builds at the bottom – that is those actually in need. “You aren’t listening to us!!” That frustration spills over into action from time to time and we see demonstrations, even riots. Those of us not in poverty, those of us who are not just scrapping by, those of us who are not a part of the lower strata of society. We may tut-tut and express horror at such behaviour but all of us do have to be prepared to try and put ourselves in others’ shoes sometimes if we are to understand what is happening and why.
Jesus spent a lot of time with all levels of society. But as we see in this particular parable, he always strongly stood up for the downtrodden, the marginalised and the disregarded people of this world. Listen to them he says – they deserve to be heard and receive justice as much as anyone else.
So back to where we started. God had a hold on Jacob. Despite his behaviour at times, Jacob realised God had that hold and was not for letting go easily. Eventually Jacob is accepting of God in his life and commits to walking his way.
I can relate to that in my own journey. I had on/off encounters with God, with Jesus, earlier in my life. But it was only in 1983 that I realised that Jesus had a hold that was not going to let go. I’ve been with him ever since though at times there have been struggles. Once you realise God/Jesus has stepped into your life it can be a struggle. One part of you wants to build and strengthen that relationship; another part wants to continue as you did before, taking the path of worldly conformity. No doubt many of you here this morning can tell a similar story.
Jacob asked God to bless him – we should not be afraid to ask the same. We want to receive the good things which come from living a life knowing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. But we must be prepared to accept that it might well involve a cost to ourselves.
And that cost might well take us out of our comfort zone. We will be called upon to stand up for and perhaps fight for what we believe in. It makes me think of those we see on the news – protesters in Hong Kong stand up for democracy; closer to home, protesters against fracking; and the many demonstrating about climate change. All of them have a cause they feel strongly about and they are prepared to make sure they are heard.
If we believe in God’s Kingdom; if we are true in our discipleship of Jesus then we are called to be persistent; in prayer and action. Jesus tells us we must not lose heart when our belief is challenged, when we are faced with the pressures of the world. We may well have to challenge those in authority; to speak up for those who are not being listened to; to seek justice and to make Jesus’ voice heard in today’s world. A reminder too that the Church of England’s fourth mark of mission is to seek to transform unjust structures. It’s official policy!
Then we come to the final verse of the reading from Luke which might well be seen as the crucial question. Jesus asks “when the Son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?” When Jesus returns what will he find here on Walmersley Road? What's important to us? Will he find us strong in our faith or will our faith be weak? Will we be found as people who on the surface are a religious, church going people but who actually have been worn down and discouraged and are just going through the motions?
Let us be determined that we will be found as active disciples of Jesus, persistent in prayer, still full of hope and expectation, seeking God’s blessings and prepared to stand up for his kingdom. May we be recognised as truly faithful people. Amen.