Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “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.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
‘But the steep and rugged pathway, may we tread rejoicingly’. We sing it easily, but it’s a tough prayer to pray. I want to talk about tonight about whether this is a realistic attitude in the times when God seems silent and our personal worlds are falling apart. I wonder, if we’re honest, what are our experiences of real life and prayer?
It may be that for some here you have not had to tread a difficult path where God seemed silent. But some of you may be in the midst of a desperate struggle that no one else knows about, and you might be wondering why God hasn’t helped. And some of you may have watched others suffering, whilst praying for them and wondering why God didn’t intervene. And some of you may be wondering where God is in the midst of our prayers that seemingly go unanswered.
Let me start by saying that this is a huge subject. Books and books have been written, and I cannot do justice to the subject in one sermon. I think, however, that I can perhaps shed some light on it, but to do so I will have to suggest some controversial ideas, and you may not agree with me, and that’s ok. It’s very important that I say that my beliefs on this are still being wrestled with.
But I have found that the answer I grew up with to be a cop-out. That is that we can’t understand God but have to trust that he knows best. I don’t think that really works in the midst of tragedy on a personal scale where there seems to be no apparent intervention from God. So let’s begin with the Gospel passage before looking at the Old Testament reading
The parable of the unjust judge is a kind of ‘anti-parable’. Usually when Jesus tells us a story we assume that one of the characters is meant to be like God or the kingdom of heaven, and another like us, but every so often Jesus sends us what the Americans would call a ‘curve-ball’, a story that doesn’t do what we expect it to and catches us out, and this parable is one of those.
In fact to emphasize that point, Jesus refers to the judge as one who neither feared God nor had respect for people. He’s making it clear that the judge is not meant to be God. The whole point to the story is that God is not like the unjust judge, and that if even the unjust judge will listen to the woman, how much more does God listen to us?
But let’s be honest, it doesn’t always feel that way does it. If I were to talk to each of you individually, you could all tell stories of something that you asked God for, but which never materialised. Several of us have experienced this very recently.
Jo was a dear friend from my curacy in Bedford. She was one of the people who taught me early on that, as a priest, if you want to draw near to people you have to be vulnerable with who you are in yourself; you have to be willing and prepared to wear your heart on your own sleeve if you want people to share what troubles their hearts.
About two years into my curacy it became clear that Jo was quite seriously ill as she began to become prone to fainting fits and anaemia. The diagnosis was what we all feared as it became clear she had cancer of the bladder. So we began to pray for Jo, and for all her family.
I think that deep down I had probably known for a while that the treatment was buying time, not a cure, but we prayed for healing nevertheless. I moved here to become vicar but we stayed in touch with Jo and the family, all of whom had become important to us and regularly visited here, and so it came as a shock when Jo told us she had started coughing badly and had been diagnosed with lung cancer - not as a secondary but a separate cancer.
And still we prayed. Then her husband died after many years of heart problems last year, and our prayers became more fervent, but sadly Jo lost her battle in September this year. We had prayed repeatedly, but still she died. She died as she had lived: a woman full of faith and trusting in God. But she still died. Many of you will have been through similar instances. Some of you may have had answers to prayer and some may have witnessed miracles. They do happen. But not every time. Why?
So what is intercessory prayer? Is it just badgering God like a little child badgering away at a parent to wear them down and finally get what they want? Do we give up when we’re not getting what we want, or is prayer rather different from that? Well I think we can start off fairly simply. In most types of intercessory prayer, when we’re asking for something from God and it doesn’t happen we could liken it to children asking for presents from their parents.
Imagine, for example if your child wants a playstation all for themselves and has made it clear that they have no intention of ever letting anyone else play with it. That would be a selfish request and you might say no on those grounds.
And what would you say if your five year old asked for an electric chain saw? Of course you wouldn’t give it to them because at their age it would be way too dangerous for them. Or how about if your ten year old asked for a car and you could afford to buy them one? So why wouldn’t you give it to them? It’s simply because at that stage in their development, they’re not mature enough yet to handle it.
Or even, what if your child asks for a push along scooter. That sounds reasonable, but what if you had actually intended to buy them a bicycle? Then perhaps you wouldn’t give them what they were asking for because you had in mind to give them something so much better.
Something similar often happens when we pray to God for something. God may have a very good reason for not giving it to us, so that prayer seems to go unanswered. The question is, what do we do about unanswered prayer for something that seems very worthy, like a friend who is very sick? Surely that’s a worthy request?
That’s where the story from the Old Testament can shed some light for us. The lead up to this story is that Jacob is expecting to encounter his older brother Esau. Many years earlier Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright and had fled for his life. Now, with Esau coming for him, an older and more mature Jacob is concerned for his family and so sends them away to safety.
Then comes a curious incident. While Jacob is waiting during the night, an apparently dangerous stranger approaches Jacob and they begin to wrestle. There is a curiously ancient myth tied into this story as the stranger makes it clear he must be gone before daybreak, but behind that it becomes clear that in some way this man is tied to God because Jacob is renamed Israel, and that name has a literal meaning.
El was a common name for God, and wherever you see it there is an attachment, such as the archangel Michael which means, ‘Who is like God?’, or the angel Gabriel meaning, ‘Man of God’. In the case of Israel the name literally translates as, ‘The one who strives with God.’ And the naming of the place where it happened, Peniel means, ‘The face of God’.
Yet for me the thing which comes over is not that Jacob struggled with God, but that his hip was put out of joint so that he would always limp. Wrestling with God changed him. It marked him.
And that I think is the key to this whole mystery. I believe that God invites us to wrestle with him when we don’t understand why our prayers are not answered, but we must be aware of this one fact, that if we do so it will change us and we will never be the same again, and like Jacob, we may earn a new identity, and we may end up walking with a metaphorical limp.
The congregation here will remember that three years ago my eldest sister, Helen, died after a long struggle with a brain tumour. We prayed hard for seven years for her, but still she died.
After her funeral I went away for a couple of weeks and wrestled hard with God. Actually I’d been wrestling hard for seven years, and wrote quite a lot about my own theories, some of which I’ll come to in a moment. The reality though, is that the experience changed me in ways I can’t begin to describe to you.
It would be fair to say that, from a spiritual perspective, I walk with a limp now, yet feel closer to God than I have ever felt. God invited me to wrestle with him, and he held me close after I had taken up the challenge.
But there’s one more very important point that came out of this wrestling that says a great deal about why he pray. Just because good things were brought out of the tragedy of losing my sister, doesn’t mean for one tiny moment that I think God inflicted Helen’s illness on her, anymore than I think he did to Jo. So why weren’t our prayers answered?
I think that it’s to do with freewill and choice. In this short space of time I can’t fully explain all of my reason behind this, but I think that prayer and suffering are linked to the way in which God created the universe.
There are many, perhaps the majority, who believe that God created a universe in which he is in complete control and in which he knows what is going to happen. But if that were the case, why would we bother to ask for something from God? Why even pray? Some of you may have wondered about this for yourselves. I think it’s too easy to just sit back and say, ‘It’s going to be ok. I trust God because he has it all under control.’ But does he?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely convinced that God could have created a universe in which absolutely everything was under his complete control. He could have done that. But I don’t think he did. I think we know on a deeply instinctive spiritual level that God does hear our prayers, and that sometimes he either alters his plans or, if we wrestle with him, he will reveal more of his plans to us so that we can see why things are the way they are.
But, and here’s the controversy, I do not believe God has created a universe in which he knows exactly what is going to happen next. There is a difference between planning a future and knowing it absolutely. I think God plans, but also loves and listens.
I believe creativity and freedom are woven into every strand of the universe. Just as God calls us to maturity, so also in the universe itself we see a growth and development along similar freedom and collaborative lines. The third Testament of God, that of the created world, reveals to us the way in which complexity has grown slowly from simplicity. Sentient life-forms like us can trace our heritage back and back.
But for there to be complex life, God must have spun into his web of creation the space to mutate. The positive side is growth, but not all mutations are good for life. As I have wrestled with losing friends and family to cancer, so I have wrestled with the idea that God created the universe like this, so that everything within it would have space for growth and change.
And that means there must be mutation. Without it there would not be us, but because of it there is also disease and death. So why did God do it this way? Why not create a controlled and safe universe where every prayer is answered exactly as we desire?
Imagine standing right next to a bonfire. Guy Fawkes night isn’t far off so it’s not hard to imagine is it. You cannot stand next to a bonfire without feeling its heat. You have no choice in the matter. If someone said to you, ‘Is the bonfire real?’ you would think they were nuts!
God wants us to choose to love him, to seek him out, and when we do so he reveals himself to us. But if God had created a universe in which he was readily, physically present and answered every prayer, we would never have had any choice, in the face of his love and majesty, over whether we wanted to love him back; His love would simply overwhelm us.
For us to have freewill, it simply had to be this way. God had to create freewill and freedom for all of his creation, and then remain veiled himself, so that we would see hints of his presence, and listen to him calling us, but that the choice to seek him would remain ours, and so that God would grow a family who chose to love him rather than one who had no freedom to do anything else.
And it may well cause us great hardship. And I still haven’t stopped wrestling with this, but the truth of it is, if I am right, and this is all about freedom and freewill, then the future is open. God has plans but he chooses to work them out with us in collaboration, and here’s the bottom line: that’s why we pray.
Somewhere inside we know that he listens, and this is the reason why. The future is not all set in stone. There is freedom in the shape of what is to come, and God listens to us as a parent listens to their child. Because he loves us, he listens to us and can be influenced by our desires. Sometimes he says no, and we can’t see why. I don’t know why I have lost two friends and a sister to cancer and another friend to suicide. It makes no sense. And still I wrestle.
But I take heart from this - that me wrestling with God, that us wrestling with God, is a sign of his compassion and love for us and of the freedom he gives us. He is bigger, more loving and more gracious than we can ever know. Amen.
(Mail me if this stirs up issues you want to talk about)
If you want to read more on this, the following two papers are where I've summed up these ideas in more depth with more background:-
Cudby PEF, 'Openness Theology - A new evangelical approach to the Epicurean paradox', Modern Believing, Vol 46:2 (2005), 13-21.
Cudby PEF, ‘Openness Theology Part Two - Dealing with the Shortcomings’, accepted for publication by Modern Believing.
Thanks also to Roots magazine for inspiration on this one.