This morning I’d like to begin my sermon by reliving a memory I swore I would never share with anyone: My experience of wrestling in Jr. High School gym class. I was in the 8th grade at the time and weighed about 120 pounds soaking wet. I was a math and science geek and had, approximately, two athletic bones in my body! I HATED gym class. It was the bane of my existence. It was the only thing that stood between me and a 4.0 grade point average.
At the school I attended, gym class was broken up into units such as basketball, volleyball, gymnastics. wresting, etc. Students got a grade for each of these units. The unit I hated the most was wrestling. My gym teacher’s name was Mr. Curran. The reason why I still remember his name is because of all the pain and suffering he inflicted on my wounded teenage soul!
For some reason that remains a mystery to me, Mr. Curran decided to pair me up with a boy named Thomas who was in the same weight category as I was but who was also on the wrestling team. GIVE ME A BREAK! What was he thinking? Needless to say, I didn’t stand a chance! I was twisted and tied up like a pretzel before Mr. Curran blew his whistle to signal the beginning of the match! To add insult to injury, I had to face Thomas in wrestling over and over again until our unit of wrestling was completed which, at the time, seemed like an eternity.
I did, however, get a little better at wrestling as we went along. I learned a few moves that saved me from being annihilated in the first minute of the match. Yet, in spite of this, Thomas won every time. It was an exercise in torture and humiliation. I swear to you I don’t think I’ve shared this story with anyone until this morning. To this day I still have a physical reminder of those wrestling matches. If you look closely at my bottom front teeth you will notice that I have tiny ridges on them. These ridges were the result of Thomas flipping me over my head during a match while my jaw slammed shut forcefully. Where was child protective services when you needed them? We were not even given mouth guards for wrestling back when I was in Jr. High! It was ridiculous! I should have spoken up.Unfortunately, the outspoken activist I am today is a lot different from the scared, wounded teenager I was back then. So I suffered in silence and said nothing.
Perhaps you can relate to my story. Hopefully, you had a more merciful gym teacher than I did. But all of us, at one point or another in our lives feel like we’re in a wrestling match where we are simply overpowered and outmaneuvered. The experience leaves us feeling a little scared, and a little bit wounded. We wrestle with our jobs, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and deadlines. We wrestle with our health, trying to keep our bodies from falling apart. We wrestle with relationships, doing our best to keep the ties that bind from breaking.
We wrestle with our vocation, trying to figure out what we’re going to be when we grow up. We wrestle with how our kids are going to turn out, and wonder if we’ve given them all the tools they need to be successful in this world. We wrestle with faith, trying to understand how God works in our lives and in our world. We wrestle with injustice, seeing things around us that just aren’t fair and wonder if we will have the courage to stand up for what’s right.
We wrestle with people who seek to control and demean us, by calling us names and sometimes resorting to physical violence. We wrestle with many things in life. And in the midst of our wrestling we are sometimes left with the feeling that we are simply overpowered and outmaneuvered. We don’t stand a chance of being declare the winner.
This brings us to our readings for today. Both our first lesson and gospel lesson address the subject of wrestling with God. Each provides us with some insight as to what God promises will happen to us when we find ourselves wrestling with the challenges of life. Our first lesson, from the book of Genesis, is the story of Jacob wrestling with a being we assume is an angel. Long story short, Jacob arrived at the ford of the Jabbock river, after having stolen his brother Easu’s birthright and blessing. He then went to live with his uncle Laban and managed to prosper financially at Laban’s expense. Needless to say, Jacob is not exactly the kind of guy you want as your best friend!
Just before we encounter Jacob in our first lesson, his past has finally caught up with him, The day of reckoning has arrived. Jacob is ready to face the music and atone for all the devious things he has done. First, he settles things with his uncle Laban. Then he prepares to meet his brother Easu face to face.
While he is waiting for this confrontation, Jacob receives word that his brother Esau is coming his way with 400 men at his side! Fearing the worst, Jacob divides his family into two camps. Then he sends a gift of livestock to his brother, hoping this will soften him up a bit.
As our first lesson begins, Jacob decides to send his wives, kids and livestock across the river and out of harm’s way. Then he waits alone at the ford of the Jabbock river for his brother’s arrival. During the night, he wrestles with someone he believes to be a man, but eventually discovers that he is an angel. They wrestle all night and when the angel saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. [A very shady wrestling move, if you ask me!]
But Jacob refused to be defeated and would not let go of the angel until the angel granted him a blessing. The angel admitted defeat and blessed Jacob, changing his name from Jacob to Israel which means “one who strives or wrestles with God.” As the sun rises, Jacob is left with a blessing, as well as a limp, that would remain with him for the rest of his days.
There are several things we learn from this Old Testament story. First of all, when we find ourselves wrestling with difficult life circumstances, perseverance is an important trait for us to possess. Jacob simply wouldn’t give up. He was stubborn and tenacious, refusing to let his problems get the best of him. Let’s face it, life is tough and sometimes the cards are totally stacked against us. However, Jacob reminds us that perseverance pays off. If we hang in there long enough, something good is bound to come out of our wrestling.
Secondly, In the midst of life’s battles, if we hang in there long enough, we will find a blessing. Jacob refused to give in until he received a blessing from the angel. Likewise, in the midst of our wrestlings, we should have the expectant attitude that God will somehow bring about good in the midst of the bad, joy in the midst of sorrow, hope in the midst of despair, new life in the midst of death. Our wrestling is NEVER in vain. We must have faith that God will help us find blessing even in the midst of our suffering.
For example, in the midst of natural disasters we can learn to better appreciate the gifts of our family and friends, as well as the basic necessities of life such as electricity and shelter. A woman’s successful battle with breast cancer inspires her to become an advocate for cancer research and a source of inspiration for others. A college student who survives an abusive childhood graduates with a degree in counseling and has a passion for helping children and teens who are facing the same thing. Our wrestling is NEVER in vain. And if we hang in there long enough, our first lesson reminds us that God will bring about blessing in the midst of our wrestling.
Thirdly, even though we may receive a blessing we may also walk away from the experience with a limp. [Can I get an “Amen” on that one?] Our wrestlings in life definitely leave their mark, just as sure as my wrestling with Thomas left a mark on my bottom teeth, and Jacob’s wrestling with the angel left him next in line for hip replacement surgery! Our wrestlings in life will definitely leave their mark. But we must be determined that these marks will not paralyze us but will make us stronger an wiser.
In the case of Jacob, he eventually reconciled with his brother Esau. He left behind his cheating ways and became the spiritual father of the nation of Israel. Likewise, I’m not the same person that I was in Jr. High. [Thanks be to God!] But I’ve used those life experiences to help me become a better person and a better pastor. Our wrestlings in life will definitely leave their mark but we must be determined that these marks will not paralyze us. They will make us stronger and wiser, bringing yet another blessing out of the challenges of our lives.
Finally, we turn for a moment to our gospel lesson where we have the story of a persistent widow who is wrestling with a judge, seeking justice for the wrongs committed against her. Like Jacob, the woman refuses to yield, saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” At first, her complaints fall on deaf ears. But eventually the judge hears her plea and says “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
Jesus concludes his story, saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says, and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” In other words, if this corrupt judge will grant this widow justice HOW MUCH MORE will God hear our pleas and work on our behalf to bring about justice in our lives and in our world?
This final word of wisdom is something we all need to hear in the midst of life’s wrestlings: No matter what struggle we are going through, we need to remember that God cares passionately about us. God hears our prayers, understands our struggles, and promises to work in the midst of our wrestlings to bring about justice, hope and healing. We may not always see God’s justice immediately, but we must have faith that God is more than just a fan cheering us on from the sidelines. God is ready, willing and able to jump onto the wrestling mat with us and help us in the midst of the struggle.
This may well be the most encouraging news we hear today. As we leave this place I hope we will remember to be persistent in our wrestling, hang in there long enough to find a blessing, and trust that God will be with us no matter how overpowered our outmaneuvered we may feel. Amen.
Copyright © 2016 by David Eck.