Wrestling with God

Proper 24
Genesis 32
Luke 18

Honestly, how many of you prayed for the Rockies in the last few weeks? I suppose it is a natural thing to do. I think the Broncos need it more. But is prayer really about praying for our sports teams?

Prayer is simple but not simplistic. We are privileged to have 2000 years worth of literature on it. We are privileged to be Prayer Book Christians whose worship is informed by the rich treasures of the Book of Common Prayer. But when it comes down to it, prayer is only valuable when we do it! There are two basic points I want to make about prayer. First, it must be rooted in Scripture and the way of the saints and second, it must be persistent and honest.

First, our prayer must be rooted in Scripture and tradition. I cannot tell you the necessity of holy Scripture at this point in the church’s and our world’s history. Biblical illiteracy is at an all time low. I’m proud that at Epiphany we are doing something about that.

As Paul says to Timothy, all Scripture is inspired by God, it is ‘profitable for–teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

Scripture is where our prayer life begins and ends.

St. Simeon the New Theologian says, “[the Word of God] is like a blazing fire, because it stirs up zeal in our souls, and makes us disregard all the sorrows of life, consider every trail we encounter a joy, and desire and embrace death, so fearful to others, as life and the means of attaining life.”

The reason why Scripture is so important in our prayer and relationship with God is because it gives us a picture of who God is. It also gives us language for God that we would not normally use. Read the psalms and the wondrous portrayal of God. Read the gospels and find the most accurate portrayal of God–in his Son Jesus Christ.

I mentioned that Tradition is another important way that we encounter God in prayer. Tradition is more than written prayer and trivial history and customs. Tradition is the living, breathing, expression of the Scriptures through the people of God, the saints. The Prayer Book was not written by some committee in New York City. The Prayer Book is a liturgical plagiarizing of Scripture and the prayers of the saints, both known and unknown.

Why do we need to pray this way? Why not just give God the prayers of our own heart? Because to learn to pray we need to learn a vocabulary we don’t normally use. Who normally says, ‘Glory to God in the Highest…?’ Or from the psalms, ‘As the deer longs for the water so my soul longs after thee…?’ Or from St. Augustine, ‘Our souls are restless until they find rest in Thee?’
What is our prayer life usually like? It’s asking for one thing or another. Rarely do we ever go deeper. But prayer is opening ourselves up to the Lord of the Universe. Prayer is allowing God to connect with us. When we gain an understanding of how the ancients prayed and even sometimes use their words, it enriches and matures our own prayer life. One of our best prayers comes from the Good Friday liturgy (and we also use it at ordinations):

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We just do not naturally speak this way–so we need liturgical prayer to inform and enrich our prayer lives.

But the one danger we have as Episcopalians is to leave our prayer at church. Even though the Prayer Book is rich, it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t pray the other six days of the week. Will Willomon says this, “Instant oatmeal. The three-minute boiled egg. One hour dry cleaning. Twenty minute pizza delivery. An oil change in less than 30 minutes. Excellent health in just 20 minutes a day, only 3 days a week. A sense of well-being after only a weekend in a seminar to gain enlightenment. A relationship with Christ in only an hour a week. Why not?”

Prayer is not a one hour a week thing that we half-heartedly participate in. It is the language of our heart. It is the language of our greatest desires. The second aspect of prayer is that we must do it honestly and persistently.

Part of our rich heritage is prayer like the Hebrews, Jewish prayer. While their prayer was and is liturgical, it also has a life of its own. It is honest and persistent

Jesus says prayer is like a widow looking for justice from an unjust judge. The judge cares nothing for God or for her, but since she will not leave him alone, he will grant her request. Jesus’ point is that we are to be persistent.

In Luke 18, Jesus just got finished speaking of the end of the age and the Kingdom of Heaven.  The widow’s prayer really represents the prayer for God to answer the question why bad things happen to good people. It is the prayer that asks God to make things right in the world. Just like the Lord’s prayer, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God wants us to ask him to make things right. And unlike the unjust judge in the story, he wants to make things right.

We need an honesty, a transparency and a persistence in our prayer to the Lord. We need to say things like ‘I don’t think that was fair. We’re out of money this month. Where are you? Don’t you care?’ These are not disrespectful prayers, they are simply the honesty of our hearts. He knows what we’re thinking and feeling anyway, why not vocalize it?

When we talk about Jewish prayer and here’s where our story of Jacob comes in. Here is the perfect picture of persistence and honesty in prayer—Jacob wrestling with God.

You remember from Sunday School the story of Jacob and Esau. They were twins, but Esau was born first. Esau was born red and wild and Jacob was born fair skinned. When the two were born Jacob came out holding on to Esau’s heel. In fact, the name Jacob means, ‘one who holds the heel, or one who supplants.’

Esau became a hunter, a hairy man’s man. Jacob was a man of the tents, a homebody, a mama’s boy. If it were a Native American story, Esau would be the man of the wild and Jacob a man of the water, or a ‘man of the candle’ as they would put it. Esau was the hunter and Jacob was the priest. Esau was dad’s favorite and Jacob was mom’s favorite. Esau, the firstborn, was to receive his father Isaac’s inheritance, called a birthright and his father’s blessing.

One afternoon, Esau came back from hunting while Jacob was preparing a pot of stew. Esau’s hunt was unsuccessful and he was famished. Their exchange went something like this. ‘Hey little bro, give me something to eat, I’m starving.’ ‘Yea, how hungry are you?’ ‘So hungry I could eat a camel.’ ‘Well, I tell you what. You sell me your birthright for a pot of my stew and we’ll be square.’ Not thinking, Esau said, ‘What good is my inheritance if I starve to death. You’ve got a deal.’ And he thought nothing of it from then.

But when Isaac was old and blind, it was time for him to grant his blessing to his oldest son…
Needless to say, Esau was angry and Jacob left town. Jacob’s experience with the angel happens the night before he and Esau will reconcile after years apart.

Jacob’s experience with the angel is telling in terms of what prayer is. His life was never the same. His very name was changed to Israel, or ‘one who wrestles with God’ indicating that he represents the whole of his people. He is more than one man, he represents Israel–constantly striving, wrangling and wrestling with the LORD.

I hope that we learn to be like Jacob. I hope that we constantly strive, wrangle and wrestle with God, not because we are trying to manipulate him, but because this is what his followers do. Doesn’t it take a kind of unheard of amount of guts to wrestle with the Lord like Jacob does? It appears that he wins, until his hip is put out of joint.

Whether this was an angel or some kind of epiphany of the Lord doesn’t make any difference. Jacob wrestles with the Lord, insists on a blessing (which he receives) and commemorates his battle by naming the place, ‘the face of God.’ For he saw the face of God and lived. Jacob’s prayer was a literal fighting with God.

What would it look like if we prayed this way? You want to fix the roof? Worried about Stewardship? You want our barn filled? I have a constant prayer for Epiphany that simply goes, ‘Lord fill this place with those who are hungry for you.’ I feel that this prayer is being answered.

I hope that we can go beyond just punching a clock on Sundays and not think about God during the week. A couple of us gather on Thursday mornings at 8AM to pray for our church, if you feel led, join us. I have heard a desire to have more healing prayer be a part of our worship, either before worship or in the back at the end of our services. If you feel led to be a part of this, let us know.

Your vestry is meeting this weekend for a vestry retreat, who will be praying for us? We need your prayers.

Wrestle with God. Israel represents the people of God in all times and all places. Let’s take our cue from Jacob. Let’s wrestle with the almighty and see what he has for us.