The Virtue of Persistence
Re-reading, this past week, the story of the wrestling match between Jacob and God, in our first lesson this morning from the Book of Genesis, reminded me of a moment in my life around 48 years ago. I was 12 years old. I was the new kid from California at Hannah Middle School in East Lansing, Michigan. Having been at the school for less than a month, I now stood on a wrestling mat across from the biggest kid I had even seen. His name was Curtis Colander and we stood in front of what felt like the entire school.
Wrestling is a very popular sport in the Midwest! [Note: as this point I asked High School freshman, Helen Karamitsos to come forward and stand beside me to show the difference in size between me and Curtis lol! Helen was me at 12 and I was Curtis.] Yes, after 48 years, I remembered Curtis’s name this week that’s how much of an impression he made on me. Being a preacher’s kid, I felt that day like David standing across from Goliath except that I had no sling shot.
This was a wrestling tournament held after school so my Dad and my little brother, Pete, were there. I looked up at the bleachers and spotted my Dad who had this knowing grin on his face that suggested to me the sentiment: “Son, you do realize you are about to get killed.”
My new best friend, Todd Spencer said moments before the match: “Bob, Curtis has never lost a match.” In fact, Curtis had pinned every opponent he has wrestled for the last two years. That would be 5th grade thru 7th grade.
Now as most of you know you can win a wrestling match by pinning someone which is holding their shoulders on the mat or you can win by racking up points for a new pin and take downs and things like that. I felt kids looking at me, the new kid from California, like I must be crazy to want to wrestle mighty Curtis, aka Goliath. My friend Todd suggested that I fake like I was injured soon after the match begins so Curtis doesn’t embarrass or, worse yet, injure me.
Suddenly the referee blew his whistle--the time had arrived to wrestle—there was no turning back. Curtis and I walked to the center of the mat and we shook hands. Curtis had a broad confident smile on his face that to be honest kind of ticked me off, seemingly looking forward to this beat down that he was about to apply to the new kid. As we shook hands I pulled Curtis close and whispered something in his ear that only he could hear because of the noisy gym. Suddenly his broad smile was replaced with a frown. Everyone noticed, including my dad who I’m sure had already offered a silent prayer for my survival.
We wrestled for 3 rounds. I never had a chance. And at the end of the match Curtis’ hand was raised in victory. But it wasn’t he who was smiling broadly now, I was. In fact, despite winning, 14 to 0, Curtis looked angry and frustrated.
I walked over to my dad, who had come out of the stands to console me. He was confused cause I seemed happy. Let’s just say I was normally not a good loser. My friend, Todd, asked me: “What the heck did you say to Curtis before you wrestled? I’ve never seen him so fired up to beat someone.” With Dad, my brother and Todd listening, I smiled and said: “I told Curtis--you may beat me but nooo way are you going to pin me.” Curtis won the wrestling match but for the first time in two years he did not pin his foe.
Friends, sports often provide us with inspiring metaphors for the triumphs and sorrows of life. Indeed, one of the classic stories in the Old Testament is a story about an all-night wrestling match between a man named Jacob and God. And you could say that neither God, or one of God’s angels, could pin Jacob that night.
This is a story that was passed down orally for generations as young people gathered around campfires to hear stories told by their elders about the heroes of ancient days, about their Jewish history and about the meaning of life. Unlike a middle school wrestling match which last just a few minutes—this match, as I said, lasted all night long “till the break of day.” Who was this Jacob who wrestled with God and would not allow himself to be pinned or defeated!
Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. Jacob’s Hebrew name means “holds the heel”…for Jacob had been born while holding his twin brother Esau’s heel…you could say that Jacob and his elder brother wrestled in their mother’s womb. Jacob, who entered the world on his brother’s coattails—lived his life deceiving and manipulating others so that he could fulfill his desires and ambitions. And he became a very wealthy man as the scripture passage this morning pointed out.
Many of you will remember Jacob as the son of Isaac, who with the help of his mother Rebecca tricked his dying and blind 130 year old father into giving him the blessing which belonged by tradition to his elder brother Esau. Jacob who had exceptionally smooth skin, took the skin of a goat or lamb, which his mother wrapped around his arms and neck, so that his father would think it was his hairy brother Esau standing before him ready to receive his blessing. That was not the first time that Jacob had dealt selfishly with his brother. He had convinced a starving Esau to sell him his birthright, his inheritance, for a bowl of Lentil soup. Esau had been so desperate for food that he agreed.
Friends, the passage I read today finds Jacob on his way home to Canaan to try to reconcile with his brother, Esau, who has hated him all his life. On the night before his arrival, fearing that Esau may come at him with great violence—rumor had it that Esau was sending an army of 400 men to meet him--Jacob has sent everyone in his traveling party away for their safety and is now alone by the river named Jabbok. Many scholars agree that the Hebrew word, Jabbok means: to wrestle. And so here is Jacob all by himself in the middle of the night by the Jabbok or “Wrestle” River about to have his life transformed by a wrestling match.
Listen to how theologian Don Clendenon describes Jacob’s life—He writes:
“Jacob was a man on the run. Deep-seated family hostilities characterized Jacob’s entire life. Because his parents had played favorites, he and his fraternal twin, Esau, grew up hating each other.
“When Esau [became fed up] and threatened to murder [his brother], Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s home in Haran, the very place [from which his] famous grandfather, Abraham, had departed…
“Eventually grown sick of his father-in-law’s own manipulations, Jacob fled [his Uncle] Laban, only to [go home to] his long lost and embittered brother Esau.
“Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, alone in the wilderness, shorn of all his worldly possessions, at long last powerless to control his fate, Jacob collapsed into a deep sleep on the banks of the river Jabbok.”
“With Laban behind him and Esau before him, Jacob was too spent to struggle any longer. [Yet] only then did his real struggle begin.”
Friends, as we heard in our passage a mysterious angelic stranger appears to Jacob and they wrestle all night until the break of day. At which point the stranger crippled Jacob with a blow to his hip which caused Jacob to limp for the rest of his life.
One of the important points to notice in this story is that Jacob would not relent—he fought on—he persevered. Ignoring the pain, Jacob continued to wrestle even after his thigh was put out of joint, demanding that the stranger bless him.
And it is clear that Jacob discovered he had been wrestling all night long with God—for after he receives the blessing he sought—he says: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
es, the wrestling match finally over, Jacob had a new name. This moment was a turning point in his life. The one who lived a life of deceit now would be forever known as “Israel” which means: “One who has struggled with God.”
Jacob, renamed Israel, lived a long life—and his last seventeen years were spent in tranquility in Egypt, knowing that all 12 of his sons were righteous people.
What challenge or good news is there for all of us who hear this dramatic Old Testament passage today? Well, like Jacob we too have experienced times of darkness--times of self-doubt, sadness, fear or regret—times when we wondered if God really knew of our pain--really cared.
And like Jacob, we are called to wrestle boldly and courageously with life’s challenges, disappointments and heartbreaks—to hold on until we encounter and receive the blessing that we know only God can give—the blessing of a new identity—a new start—a new hope—a blessing which can help us face, endure, and overcome any disappointment or sorrow. A blessing that can even help us accept our mortality—and embrace each day as a gift—that blessing is yours today.
No one lives a life of genuine faith without experiencing times of loneliness, suffering, sorrow and despair. Thus, we all must wrestle as Jacob did. And, as with Jacob, life will wound us at times—and yet, even that must not turn us away from the God who seeks always to bless us.
Now the passage from the gospel of Luke this morning introduces us to a widow who refused to let go of her demand for justice from an unjust judge.Jesus says in his parable that the woman wore the judge out. Like Jacob, this widow was a person of persistence and perseverance.
And we heard in Jesus’ story that, like a man who has wrestled all night with an opponent who will not give up, the judge finally relents and says, essentially, “give her whatever she wants. I can’t take it anymore.”
Why does Jesus tell this parable in relation to prayer?
Jesus knows that we, his followers, will face times which try our faith and courage and he wants us never to give up or to give in and to trust that God is faithful. For unlike the unjust judge in his parable who had to be confronted day after day in order to grant justice—God’s justice, says Jesus, is swift. In Jesus’ words “If you cry out to God—God will vindicate you speedily.”
We must not allow hard times to make us doubt God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.We must continue to offer up our prayers to God trusting that even as we offer our prayer God is already at work in our lives. We must trust that in life, and in death, we belong to God--and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
How can the virtue of persistence reveal itself in our own journey of faith. Well, in the simplest sense, it means that whenever we fall, we allow the grace of God to help us get back up, to dust us off, and to continue the journey of faith with hope in our souls and love in our hearts.
With that in mind, I close with the true story of a person who did just that. One whom we would do well to emulate in our lives. Here is a person whose faith, courage and perseverance helped him to survive-- even triumph.
In a brief story published in The Christian Century Magazine this month, Don Simpson of Colorado Springs, speaking autobiographically writes:“For years, I wished every spring that I’d planted daffodils the previous autumn so I could reproduce William Wordsworth’s vision:
‘A host, of golden daffodils;
/ beside the lake, beneath the trees,
/fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’
“I happened to be walking through a garden store one Saturday morning in October when I saw a cardboard bin full of daffodil bulbs—50 bulbs to a bag.
“I was ecstatic! I bought two bags and couldn’t wait to get home to plant them.
“I spent the rest of the day trying to dig four-inch holes for the bulbs. Our dirt is very hard, clay-like, and dry.
“I rely on a cane to keep me upright because of a stroke, and I found that working with a cane in one hand and a spade in the other was very difficult.
“At dusk that day, I attempted to soften the soil by pouring water on a certain plot.
“Then I turned to set the hose aside; and my cane, slipped in the mud. I spun around and fell backward into a big mud-puddle.
“For a moment I lay there [on my back] stunned, my limbs and my head splayed out.
“I began to move to see if anything was broken. I seemed to be intact, but my stiff and arthritic limbs felt useless as I lay there…
“I knew I needed to turn over and get my feet under me. The mud was slick and I struggled to get traction.
“After several tries, I was able to dig one elbow into solid dirt beneath the mud so that I could turn over. My shoulders flipped quickly and my face bobbed once in the mud. I snorted and blew wet dirt and was able to hold my head up.
“From there I worked to get to my knees. Successful with that maneuver, I rested there, suddenly surprised to find myself in a prayer position.
“Kneeling in that thick mud, surrounded by gathering darkness, I prayed [a verse from Psalm 130:]
‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.’
“I suddenly felt a living connection with the psalmist, whose desperate cry was the perfect expression of my own muddy lips.
“[And I knew in my heart that] God was not lurking or laughing in the distant shadows at the edge of the yard. [God’s] warm love welled up in my chest.
“Astonished, I rested there for several minutes, grateful—so profoundly grateful—for the presence of God in my life.”
Don Simpson concludes:
“At length I noticed a chill in the autumn air, so I begged God to help me get up fully.
“[On my knees] I felt around in the mud for my cane.
“With great effort, leaning on my cane with both hands, I was able to get my feet under me, then straighten up.
“Later a dear friend of the family came and planted the bulbs for me. And I was delighted that almost all of them grew in the spring.
“I was at last able to walk among ‘a crowd, /a host, of golden daffodils.’”
Friends, Ralph Bunche once said: “To make our way, we must have firm resolve, persistence, tenacity…”
And, my friends, we must have faith.